The Night Parade

By Bub 

'Act normal, and you may be able to escape without being lynched,' I thought to myself. I leaned up against an orange and white traffic horse that marked the parade route. It was dusk, and no sign yet of a parade. The idea of a night parade seemed dangerous, and in that sense, intriguing. But the idea of a parade, in general, seemed as dull as you'd imagine. The children laid their blanket across an oil stain in the street just past the crosswalk. The smell of a midsummer night in western Illinois is pleasant - fresh air, corn, cow manure, with faint hints of sweat, bug spray, cheap beer. We had forgotten lawn chairs, my grandma had to ease herself down onto the curb.

"Notre Dame's got a team for every sport" a slightly drunk, tire-and-lube supervisor at Farm & Fleet behind me said to his friend, who worked the hardware counter. "Yep," he continued, "they got a team for every sport, and not a one's any good!" The Punchline. "Huh!" commended the friend. Presumably that was a knock against Catholics - the first I'd heard in a decade that didn't have to do with child rape...

Flashes of red and blue breached the horizon of the hill straight ahead. No sirens went off and the lights in the dark distant, in relative silence, made the parade seem more ominous than it should - like we were trying to catch a glimpse of mangled bodies from a safe distance; or like a slow motion scene at the end of a getaway when the police arrive at the motel, or at the abandoned church, and all hope is lost. Municipal vehicles approached, lights flashing, one after another. The children were confused until some of them started to throw candy. A few tardy patriotic revelers weaved their vehicles shamelessly through the orange cones and fire trucks to get to parking spaces. This created an absurd spectacle that was like parents at a school play entering through the stage in the middle of the first act. They negotiated the parade with jerking starts and sharp turns. No one seemed to notice. The children were mesmerized by candy and the Hope of candy, and the adults were hypnotized by the flashing lights and the escape from normalcy.

After every last city vehicle had been proudly displayed the event descended into something more akin to a traditional parade - floats, cars with proud people waving, elderly men costumed and sullen. There were tropical island themed floats jarringly interspersed with patriotic displays and karate demonstrations. One float featured an American flag and a cross fashioned out of two tree branches, in front of a white sheet that seemed to admonish rather than state; "Two enduring symbols of freedom." I was disappointed when there was no sponsor attached to the back - "Amen" was all it said. I was hoping for 'brought to you by Ogilvie's Pharmacy - the Christian Nationalist Drug Store'. Or maybe a cartoon of a soldier wearing an over-sized cross around his neck, shooting our way to freedom.

Then there was an even more perplexing float. On it was a standing ply-wood cut-out simulating the iconic photograph of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Only, it wasn't soldiers raising the flag, it was fire-fighters. It was a comical conflation of post 9-11 militarism and civil society, where we are At War, and each one of us are interchangeable in the conflict against the Muslims. They Hate Our Freedoms. I am sure if asked, the designer of the float would protest 'it's about them being heroes'. But fire-fighters were never regarded as Heroes before they became victims of terrorism. Now, Joe Wifebeat can volunteer 5 hours a week playing cards with buddies at the fire station, and feel like he is part of The Fight.

This is what it means to search for meaning in oppressively conservative rural America - part delusion, part hopelessness, part fear. In a place where even the local Democratic Party's float was just a sandwich board with a speaker blaring Lee Greenwood's 'God Bless the USA', there is no room for equivocation; these people are scared straight. Fear causes the 'rally around the flag' effect, sometimes literally, and what these people DO have is each other. When times are hard, instead of examining the ideological flaws of economic conservatism, they become even more brazen in opposition to The Other, nearly psychotic. The plastics factory worker that just got kicked off of unemployment benefits, is too busy questioning whether the son of an African is allowed by The Constitution to keep prayer out of school and send welfare checks to Mexico; than to worry about what led him to where he is today and what to do about it. Instead of jeering at the excess of the 12 foot elephant statue that the local Republican party towed through the streets, it drew the most oohs and aahs of the night.

I have to say though, I too was impressed; it was a giant elephant. Any organization that can produce a giant elephant on demand has to be on to something. Symbols are comforting, much more comforting than horrible reality. It's pleasant to watch the approximation of bombs and explosions by way of a 4th of July fireworks display. Much less so to watch the grisly destruction those things cause in real life. The fireworks that night were accompanied by patriotic tunes. One made this declaration about America:

It's a big 'ol land with countless dreams
Happiness ain't out of reach
Hard work pays off the way it should
Yeah, I've seen enough to know that we've got it good
Where the stars and stripes and the eagle fly

The unemployed plastics worker nodded along blissfully. The song went on:

There's a lady that stands in a harbor
For what we believe
And there's a bell that still echoes
The price that it cost to be free

I pledge allegiance to this flag
And if that bothers you, well that's too bad
But if you got pride and you're proud you do
Hey, we could use some more like me and you
Where the stars and stripes and the eagle fly

The lady standing in the harbor is now a symbol of a symbol. Sure, this is what it says at her base:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me

But now we project our vision onto lady liberty, of her locking up America's gates and throwing away the key. After that she supervises the construction of giant barricades made from assault rifles and burning crosses, keeping Blue America (and black and brown and yellow America) out of Red America.

They went on to play 'Born In The USA' which is a much more poignant and reality based reflection on America's failings and our love of it despite its imperfections. And that is how I feel about rural western Illinois. I may complain and chastise, but it's only because I am inextricably linked to this place and these people. It is my home; these people are my friends and family. And I love them all. So, while one side of me silently chides the people around me at the fireworks display for celebrating militant violence and xenophobic rage; the other side nods along to the beat, smiles at the exuberant squeals from my four year old daughter, and marvels at the magnificent explosions in the sky.


  1. bub, this is beautiful. i relate to it so much. i actually teared up at the end. really! nice work.

  2. I haven't read anything so patriotic since I listened to the Cowboy Prayer at the beginning of the 4th of July Black River Festival in which God was asked to protect us cowboys from the Al Qaidas.

  3. LOL @ "Any organization that can produce a giant elephant on demand has to be on to something." I feel the same way about those unions that always get the giant inflatable rats at their picket lines. I loved this Bub! It almost made me forget that it is 95 degrees and i have no AC.

  4. This reminds me of one of David Foster Wallace's essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Though it was about central IL instead of western IL, I think the difference is negligible. In other words, brilliant.

  5. Wifebeat is actually my mom's maiden name.

    I loved this. It was great. I was sad earlier when it posted and I had to leave for family dinner.

  6. The fact that someone compared you to DFW should be enough to validate your attempts at writing. This was a nice piece, it made me feel less alone, which according to DFW, is the purpose of art.