A Rose Parade Miracle
If you grow up in Southern California, as I did, New Year’s Day means the Tournament of Roses, or the Rose Parade.
Not the Rose Bowl Parade, as most people incorrectly call it. Or even the Rose Bowl itself, which the late broadcaster Keith Jackson labeled “the granddaddy of them all” but which came along twelve years after the first parade and so, in fact, was its awkward child.
It was the Rose Parade, and for me it shimmered on the horizon, beautiful but unattainable, kind of like Frieda Winnick in my fourth-grade class. Every New Year’s Day my dad would bake a stollen, stuffing it with walnuts, raisins, and candied fruit, and we would enjoy breakfast on TV trays while watching the Rose Parade.
I heard tales of people who actually went to the parade, but those stories involved fighting crowds and traffic, sleeping on the curb, waking at the start of the parade, and nodding off somewhere between the third horse and the fifteenth piccolo player.
Then, when I was twelve, we decided to go. My grandparents arrived for a holiday visit, and my mom and dad bought seats for all of us in one of the stands lining the route. We woke up in the darkness, packed our gear, and fought the battle of Colorado Boulevard. Reaching our seats a good two hours before the start, we experienced the joys of cold hot chocolate and not enough port-o-potties. (The parade, once it started, was beautiful.)
After leaving home, I actually marched in the parade twice. The first time was in college, with the University of Southern California’s Trojan Band. You think sitting through the parade was tough? Try negotiating the five-and-a-half-mile route while dodging projectiles from Traveler the horse, mascot of the Trojans. The second time was with the Toppers Band, a group that wore tuxedos and represented the musicians’ union, of which I was not a member. (Don’t ask.)
Then came the Starbirds, through whom I discovered that the Rose Parade didn’t have to be distant or exhausting or messy at all. It seemed that the parents of my new friend Mike Starbird lived in Pasadena, overlooking the Rose Bowl, and Mike went to the parade every year. His method was simple: sleep at his parents' house, wake up as the parade started, saunter to a spot partway down the route, and then watch.
That first year, I tried Mike’s technique. It worked! So I made the Rose Parade an annual event.
In year eight, my then-girlfriend Yvonne came along. Two years later, Yvonne and I were married. Twelve years after that, we moved to Nashville, and eight years later our new daughter Maggie joined us. Through it all, we visited the Starbirds each year and used their simple formula for viewing the parade.
One year, Yvonne and I stumbled onto New Year’s gold. We got up when the parade started, as always, and set out searching for Mike’s magic spot. (Mike himself was asleep, having willed us the Rose Parade.) On the way, we found a nice tree to stand under and decided to stay. Three rows of people stood in front of us, but we figured that was the best we could hope for.
Then came a miracle. As the parade approached, the three rows sat down, and we found ourselves with a beautiful, clear view. We spoke with the people and found out they were an extended family that claimed the same spot each year, set up benches, and brought plenty of food. They invited us to join them, and for many years that’s what we did. Each year, they would greet us, hug our daughter, pose for pictures, and then, best of all, sit down.
We went on like that for twenty-five straight years—thirty-three for me—until Y2K, the year 2000, when we stayed home out of concern that computers would crash and our plane might fall from the sky. We tried going back a few times after that, but life had intruded and our family had developed new holiday traditions.
Today, I watch the Rose Parade on TV, sipping coffee and recalling those years in Pasadena. I remember stollen and horses and chilly New Year’s mornings with Yvonne and Maggie. And sometimes I think about that family that welcomed us into their circle, whose names we never did learn.
Happy New Year, whoever you are!