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Anne Maxwell is a native of Australia who has taken up residence in the Northwest.
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by Anne Maxwell, Author
"An Aussie in America"
The Seafair Torchlight Parade is a regular highlight of the Seafair summer festival; a month of more than 40 events and activities around Puget Sound. The parade has occurred in various incarnations since 1950. Nowadays it takes about three hours to travel the 2.5-mile route along 4th Avenue in downtown Seattle after starting at the Seattle Center.
If you find yourself debating whether to watch the parade from along the street or to watch it on television, the answer is definitely to be there with the crowds! Jack and I had a great time. We got to wave to princesses, have our blood stirred by marching bands and admire the skill and energy of the more than 100 participating floats, drill teams and other groups.
From the perspective of a couple without small kids in tow, we found the parade-viewing logistics to be straightforward. A crowd of more than 300,000 was already in the area by the time we arrived. Apparently, 4th Avenue was completely lined with people by 4.00 p.m. although the parade proper didn't began until 7:30 p.m. Some folks, arriving as early as 10:00 a.m., had brought sofas with portable TVs and were prepared to enjoy the parade in great style. Please don't interpret this to mean you need to be early to get a good view of the parade. Rather, you might like to take a pre-parade look at the antics of those early-curbside-birds.
We arrived downtown about 7.00 p.m. and discovered there was plenty of paid parking close by (a $5.00 deal at the City Center car park was our choice). After parking, we headed south along 4th to find a viewing position. There was plenty to be had, although the crowd was about three-deep by this time. So long as you were prepared to stand, it was easy enough to find somewhere behind people who were seated, or, behind small children. If you do arrive late with small children, they will see everything from your shoulders, or maybe you will find someone generous enough to let them move in front. We ended up near the corner of Union and 4th and found that being near an intersection provided a more open space with less obstruction from such street furniture as bus shelters and poles.
This was my first "live" parade in the US. I have seen many parades in Hollywood movies where they are often used to provide colorful crowd scenes. This parade was not nearly so polished as the Hollywood-inspired version of my imagination. And I am glad that was so. The parade seemed quite a casual affair, which in turn gave it a more endearing community feel. This impression might be due to our being about midway along the route. The parade was quite spread out by the time it reached us, so we were not bombarded by one spectacle after another. Also, often in the distance we could hear the brass bands playing and the drill teams getting extra applause from the crowd, but then most seemed to choose our section of the route to take a break with straight marching and drumming. I've made a note to myself, that if I am ever a parade organizer I will try to get the participants to stagger their rest times!
There were over 100 entries in the parade, some from as far away as Utah. The noisiest were the "Pirates", a Seafair institution in themselves. Their cannon made us jump when it was a block away. They very naughtily set it off with resounding echoes, under one of the pedestrian overpasses which was filled with parade onlookers. The biggest objects were the Macy-style helium balloons, bobbing along the street. It was amusing to watch them negotiate the traffic lights and that same pedestrian overpass.
There were a noticeable number of military officers all riding on the back of convertibles, informatively labeled with rank and regiment. This reflects the strong presence of the military, especially the navy, in the Puget Sound area. (In fact the Defense Department is one of the largest employers in the Puget Sound region. Major facilities include Fort Lewis Army Base, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Bangor Naval Submarine Base, McChord Air Force Base, and Naval Station Everett.)
Highlights for us, and definite crowd-pleasers, were the Asian and "oldies" contingents. The old timers bands showed the most "oomph" and enthusiasm of the bands. The "Red Hot Mammas" a comedy drill team from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, that included all ages and high-kicking abilities, were a hit. Speaking of "oldies", the parade actually began with former Seafair queens. The oldest (queen of 1952, I think) was riding on a car out in front, in gown and sash, looking like she was having the time of her life. This nostalgia surprised me, as my media-driven impression of America is of a country that worships youth and the future. As I thought about why I was happy to cheer her along, I realized I was not being presented with a matriarch, for that would require the dignity of a carriage and more conservative clothing. Rather I was being encouraged to celebrate the youthful spirit that can reside in a body of any age.
For color and skill the Thai, Taiwanese and Chinese displays put us in most awe. The dancers with fans, the boys spinning lengths of cord attached to their hats, the girls flicking brightly colored cloth through the air, and the undulating Chinese dragons were entrancing. I loved the 100 or so girls who looked like oriental porcelain dolls in costumes of rich purple and gold with their hair lacquered high above their heads. They moved in tiny steps, keeping their upper bodies poised, so they appeared to be gliding rather than walking along. An enormous drum, about 7 feet in diameter, loomed up on a float, and seemed to emanate with an ancient power. A drummer on either side played it with choreographed movements.
Of course there is always the other spectacle that comes with such events, the spectators themselves. The predominance of families meant it was a pleasant crowd. The kids with mum and dad and the grandparents staking out their positions, teenagers all dolled up and strolling around posing for each other. I got a laugh out of the little kids having sword fights with the plastic toy swords sold by vendors before the parade, and the youths behind us shouting out to the waving princesses for their phone numbers. At one point a crowd of about 50 young people began to gather in Union Street behind us. I only noticed them because a woman next to me was warning her husband to get ready to move if anything happened. For a few surreal minutes I was able to look forwards upon a scene of community fun, and behind me to scene of uncertain tensions. Then a specialized sector of the police force, with "gang unit" emblazoned on their shirts, arrived and the scene behind us dissolved. An acute rendition of this land of contrasts.
Best selection of books on the Northwest.
An Aussie In America: Laughter And Lessons Across The Cultural Divide by Anne Maxwell. March 2006, Paperback, 240 pages. Order now...
Moon Seattle (Moon Handbooks) by Allison Williams. Written by a Seattleite, this guide offers everything you need to know about the Emerald City. Discover unique landmarks, points of interest, quirky curiosities and hidden secrets through photos, maps and provocative descriptions to make the most of your trip to Seattle. Order now...
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Top 10 Seattle (Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide) by Eric Amrine and Frank Jenkind. This pocket-sized guidebook covers the best of Seattle including the best coffee houses, restaurants and cafes, shopping districts, parks and gardens along with recreational activities. Insiders tips are included so you can easily plan your trip. Order now...
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Not For Tourists Guide to Seattle by Not For Tourists. This map based guidebook contains over 100 neighborhood maps plus a foldout highway map. Find everything you need to know about Seattle such as entertainment and information on restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, curiosity shops, shows and more. Order now...
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