Web Exclusives: Inky Dinky Do
a PAW web exclusive column by Hugh O'Bleary

May 15, 2002:
Marching feats
You love a parade? I love a P-rade!

By Hugh O'Bleary

There are scores of families in New York City who every November bundle the kids up and take them out to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. "Look at the 50-foot Snoopy!" Or, come March, dress them in green and line Fifth Avenue for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. "Look at the bagpipers! Look at the dancers! Don’t look at the man throwing up in the gutter!" In Philadelphia, it’s the Mummers’ Parade on New Year’s Day. "Look at the funny men with the banjos!" On the other side of the country, in Pasadena, the Rose Parade is the attraction. "Look at the floats!" In New Orleans, it’s the Mardi Gras Parade. "Don’t you dare look at anything!"

All grand traditions, certainly. But they are, every one, mere ditties when compared to the symphony of steppin’ out; mere foothills next to the Everest of celebratory processionals. I speak, of course, of the P-rade. "Look at the old guys in orange sportcoats!" Ah, but it is much more than that.

For those families lucky enough to live in Princeton, the P-rade is an annual rite, an afternoon of emotion, inspiration and, let’s face it, a lot of laughs. (Most of them fashion-related.)

When they were very young, my kids were most taken with what are really only the extras — the marching bands, the antique cars, the calliope, the guy in the tiger suit. But very quickly they caught on to the essence of the event. They loved to cheer for the Oldest Grad, to pick out families P-rading together and to count the locomotives exchanged between the marching classes and the assembled seniors lining the way. (We always stake out a spot across from the graduating class, for maximum energy.)

They also could never get enough of critiquing each class’s threads and themes. (The Japanese lanterns of ’54 remain a favorite.) I was always happy to have them exposed to the genuine emotion of the day: families and friends assembled in a celebration of achievement and community. I figured I was exposing them to one long, shambling, multigenerational, orange-and-black-clad role model. (Never mind the public drinking.)

From a purely sociological standpoint, of course, the P-rade remains, well, unique. Imagine a human behaviorist from another culture making his or her way through the wilds of central New Jersey to emerge onto campus on the morning of the event. What would he or she make of this bizarre ritual?

An extremely old man — unmistakably the village elder — leads the members of his tribe, all dressed in variations of a highly symbolic uniform. Clearly, they worship the tiger. Groups of the celebrants carry pictorial representations that are identifiable (in some instances, at least) as themselves when younger, seemingly inviting comparison. This is a practice seen in no other society on earth. Other members of the tribe carry placards emblazoned with cryptic messages that elicit hoots and cheers from the watchers. One tribe member — perhaps an outcast of sorts — passes on his hands. There is much repeating of talismanic words, a kind of a guttural chant that sounds almost like "Sis-sis-sis-boom-boom-boom." A plea to some fearsome god, no doubt.

It must also be observed that this society has a very strange approach to the mixing of the sexes: women are confined to the groups marching only in the last third of the procession. Finally, it would be worth analyzing or even sampling — strictly in the interests of scientific inquiry, mind you — some of the various liquids carried and imbibed throughout by so many participants in the procession.

Just think, the whole thing, with a number of colorful photographs, would make a fascinating piece for National Geographic. Or, just maybe, a cover story in Parade.

See you along the route!

You can reach Hugh O'Bleary at "Hugh O'Bleary" paw@princeton.edu