Before the Parade Passed By

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

Years later, I scored seats in the grandstand at the Rose Parade.

It was an accident.  I didn’t mean to set my best friend’s head on fire.

OK, let me just back up a little so I can explain how it happened.  The Tournament of Roses Parade is a New Year’s Day tradition, and there’s nothing quite like it.  Lots of parades have marching bands and equestrian units, but this one has elaborate floats, all decorated with flowers and plants and rose petals. For many of us who grew up in Southern California, it’s like a pilgrimage to go to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade in person at least once in our lifetime.

To secure a spot on the parade route from which to get a good view, we’d celebrate in the street on New Year’s Eve, and then spend the wee hours of New Year’s Day sitting or sleeping on the curb, huddled against the cold until the parade started at 8 a.m.

On this particular New Year’s Eve, my friend Bob Owen and I were among the thousands of people saying goodbye to whatever year it was.  We were either in high school or recent graduates, I forget which.  The point is, we were young — young enough that we enthusiastically said “Sure!” when the old guy next to us on Colorado Boulevard asked, “Would you boys like a flare to play with?”

Yeah, a flare.  Those fire sticks that you see on the highway when there’s been an accident.  It turned out that this man worked for some law-enforcement agency and every year he was issued a new vehicle that had flares in it.  When it came time to swap out his old car, he kept the flares, so over the course of his career he had accumulated quite an inventory of these devices.  And he gave one of them to us.

My excuse for poor judgment is that I was young and stupid.  In retrospect, I have no idea why that guy thought it made sense to give a fire stick to kids in a crowd.

Anyway, Bob and I activated the flare and took turns trying to find ways to entertain the throngs who, by now, were mutating from celebratory to sullen.  For instance, he’d wave the flare as if it was a flashlight and he was directing traffic, hollering “Let’s go, bring those floats down here!”

Then Bob passed the torch to me.  I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I think I may have been striking a Statue-of-Liberty pose.  Bob was closer than I thought, or one of us turned suddenly or something — and the flare wound up inches from the back of his head.

I didn’t realize it at first; as he ran away slapping at his scalp, I thought he was doing a comedy bit.  What had actually happened was that patches of hair had been burned off clear to the skin, which was blistered.

We probably should have gotten medical attention for him, but we didn’t.  Bob suffered through the rest of the night; we watched the parade and then we drove home.  Eventually the burns healed, his hair grew back and most importantly, Bob’s still speaking to me.  But I still shudder at the thought of how much worse it could have been.

So if you’ll accept a word of advice from a kid who has somehow become an old man:  If someone offers you a flare to celebrate with, just say no.  We want you around for this new year, and the next one, and the one after that, and…

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16 responses to “Before the Parade Passed By

  1. Seeing the Rose Parade in person was one of the first things I did on moving to Los Angeles, and I didn’t mind the cold or catching only a few zzzz’s in the early morning hours. I did so a couple other times but have no stories with flare or flares. At this point watching it on television while curled up in a throw on the couch is my preferred location.

    • Watching on TV has a couple of big advantages: Parking is easier, and a bathroom is nearby (with no long line). Still, I think you’d agree that seeing the parade in person is a memorable experience. Thanks for your comment, Herb.

  2. Too soon old, too late smart. And just to set the record straight, I have never played with a flare since.

  3. Love this story. I remember a bunch of us going down and spending the night just like these boys but without the flare. Thanks for bringing back some good memories.

    • It’s a popular thing to do — the attendance along the parade route is usually estimated in the hundreds of thousands. As you know, it gets pretty chilly by 4 a.m. or so, but in most years skies are clear when the sun rises and it makes for a beautiful day.

  4. I think we have all set a friend on fire.

  5. My experience with the Rose Parade: I had just moved here from Montana and had scored a great “break in the business job” as a page at KTTV. My page supervisor asked for volunteers to work the parade. It was a cool assignment, but you had to give up New Year’s Eve because you had to be at work in Pasadena at 11:30pm and work through the night until the parade was over. Everyone warned me that it would be really cold, but come on, I was from Montana. My small concession to their warnings was a sweater vest under my wonderfully tasteful burgundy polyester page uniform blazer. Well, I’ve been cold before, but as the temperature in Pasadena hovered around 28 degrees that night, I thought I had never been that cold in my life. I spent every second I could warming myself at the exhaust of the production truck. I’m surprised I didn’t pass out from carbon monoxide poisoning. My first and only experience of in person attendance at the Rose Parade.

    • You’re not kidding about that California cold, Jeff — and imagine what it must be like for the baton twirlers in their skimpy outfits as they wait for the parade to form up. From what I’ve heard, the only people who are sweating in those predawn hours are the float drivers, who are in a tiny compartment next to a couple of V8 engines. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. You certainly do have a flare for the dramatic, Tom. Count me among ’em who has chosen to spend a night in the gutter, and for two of the very best: Pasadena/Roses and NYC/Macy’s. As someone who’s always considered himself game for just about anything, happy I did. Now, equally happy to be a member of the “One and Done” Club.

    • Well, Reed, I’m not sure you were in the appropriately festive frame of mind if you refer to it as spending “a night in the gutter”. Those are two of the country’s best parades, as you noted, and if you care to reconsider your “One-and-Done” Club membership, New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade will be here before you know it. You don’t even have to get up early — it goes pretty much all day.

  7. Thus was born the celebration known as Burning Man.

  8. To be sure, my frigid, wee hours as freezing, jostled guttersnipe were sandwiched between the festive euphoria of midnight and parade time. Perhaps if I’d been able to warm myself by the smoldering embers of my friend’s hair…

    Love St. Paddy’s! And Columbus Day (More a celebration of Italian-American culture than a paean to ol’ Chris). As well as Puerto Rican and Dominican Days. As you know, NYC loves a good parade, and we seem to look for any excuse to throw one!

  9. Years ago I watched an impressive Halloween parade in New York (SoHo, maybe?). The best place to experience Halloween in NYC, though, is on the subway, where the cars are full of superheroes, ghosts, witches, and cartoon characters.

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