Fourth of Sierra Madre

[Written when we lived in Sierra Madre years ago.]

I roll out of the rack in Sierra Madre, awakened by noisy green parrots squabbling in the palm trees. I have to hurry if I’m going to save curbside seats for Diana and me at the Fourth of July parade.

Outside, the streets are already teeming with the local characters. A man with a cockatoo on his shoulder saunters past. An old man shades himself with a black rain umbrella — a good idea on a smoking-hot day in the San Gabriel Valley. A two-fisted Starbucks drinker balances a pair of iced coffees. A mom pushes her 8-month-old baby in a stroller while he plays with a tiny American flag on a stick. Kids veer downhill on inline skates. Nothing in Sierra Madre is flat.  Scattered people wear squashy Uncle Sam stovepipe hats inspired by Dr. Suess. Sierra Madre would be an unremarkable little midwestern town, if it weren’t located in Southern California.

Marty Cantor wistfully remembers when he lived in Sierra Madre Canyon. He helped save the wash from being paved over by the Army Corps of Engineers, and was appointed to the Downtown Youth Plan committee. The idea of a city where Marty Cantor helped run the government is awesome. (Even more so is the idea of a nation where Mike Glyer helps run the government. But I digress….)

The house across the street is decked in paper bunting, aluminum spangles, and red helium balloons. Another of the balloons comes loose every few minutes and escapes into tree branches perilously close to the power lines. But nothing interrupts the chatter of the wild green parrots.

Diana and I live two blocks east of the town “square”, the triangle-shaped park seen in the Kevin McCarthy version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Walking to the Post Office has convinced me that Sierra Madre Boulevard is actually uphill in both directions. By the end of the parade, I think all the marchers believe it, too.

A distant sound of Sousa, and hooting police sirens clearing pedestrians from the street, informs us the parade is coming. The red Lab across the street answers every siren with a pitiful howl of its own, until its owner claps her hands over its ears.

First in line is the VFW Color Guard, uniformed veterans carrying national, state and city flags. Everything from then on is a little bit — or a lot — strange.

Striding to the rhythm of a snaredrum comes the Sierra Madre City College “Marching Turkey” band, playing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The problem is: Sierra Madre has no city college. Thirty-five students strong, with a full brass and drum section, it is a pretty good band for a school that doesn’t even exist. As they march by I see all of them are wearing yellow t-shirts with the Sierra Madre city seal on the front. I want one!

The college has its own float, too, a giant brass bed occupied by a clown throwing paper money at the crowd. Mummers running alongside hand out registration forms for renting the Lincoln Bedroom ($5 million), the forms noted in small type, “Printed courtesy of Sierra Madre City College Post, paid for with laundered taxpayer money.”

The parade’s finest touch is its choice of the 1997 Parade Grand Marshal: “Mama Pete” Peterson, wizened owner of a local nursery school opened in 1945. She rides ahead of lesser riff-raff, such as a Los Angeles County supervisor, Sierra Madre’s mayor and three council members, the local congressman and two state legislators. Compensating for all the politicians milking their parade appearances is that they ride cool classic cars — Thunderbirds, Model T’s, and a loonnng Buick land yacht of the 60s.

Having lived in Sierra Madre for only two years, I can’t say whether the parade has always consisted of a long series of in-jokes. It may have, Sierra Madre is a pretty funky place. Or maybe the parade shows the influence of neighboring Pasadena’s Doo-Dah Parade, the Thanksgiving weekend satire of the Rose Parade, notable for entries like the Toro! Toro! Toro! Precision Lawnmower Drill Team, and the businessmen performing as the Synchronized Briefcase Drill Team (though neither marches in Sierra Madre today.)

It’s an informal parade and no one is holding back the crowd. So every few minutes, a fellow in front of us gets up from his beach chair with his camera and pulls marchers out of the parade to pose for pictures, or just to make social plans with them. One good friend leaves the parade altogether and sits on the curb to watch it with him.

Sierra Madre really finds it hard to play anything straight, and even honors good citizenship in a cockeyed way. They perch the Citizen of the Year on the trunk of a convertible, feet resting on the back seat. Alongside her is a stuffed Uncle Sam. Sam is flopped over, like he started celebrating on July 3rd and passed out on the trunk lid.

Later, members of the Sierra Madre Environmental Action Council pass in review, each member thematically draped in recyclable trash and an explanatory placard — such as the woman wearing bandoliers of plastic bottles and a sign, “recycle in orange bin.”

Finally, our greatest civic pride arrives, Sierra Madre’s Rose Parade float. On New Year’s Day it’s covered with flower petals and greenery. On July 4th, they just drive the bare chassis through town, while members of the Sierra Madre Rose Parade Float Association jog alongside, selling roses to everyone for a dollar.

There’s plenty to appeal to the kids (although it seems like most of the city’s kids are in the parade.) A Nash Rambler tows a bathtub on wheels to advertise “The Old Canyon Pool.” The YMCA is celebrated by a fleet of kids riding bikes, and younger ones being pulled along in Radio Flyer wagons. In another wagon, a kid pulls his entire collection of plastic dinosaurs, each patriotically holding a tiny flag in its claws. Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus ride an outboard motorboat, placarded “163 Shopping Days til Christmas,” asking everyone if they’ve been good.

A lot of groups improvise floats from pickup trucks hitched to low-boy trailers. The choir of the Congregational Church rides such a rig, and leads the crowd in a patriotic sing-along of “God Bless America.”

Nowhere in the parade is anyone from the Sierra Madre United Methodist Church, where I once saw a sign announcing next Sunday’s message, “Dead Men Walking”, and underneath, “Youth Meeting at 7 p.m.”

But there is a World War II jeep carrying members of St. Rita’s “The Barely Graduated Class of 1958.”

Plenty of holiday music brightens the parade. On the back of a van, a calliope plays “The Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around the Flagpole.” The San Gabriel Valley Youth Band, in mufti, marches and plays “Louie Louie,” probably under the inspiration of Mr. Holland’s Opus.

There’s even an oldies band, “Tribal Horses,” including all their drums, traps and amplifiers, on the back of a truck playing 50s instrumental surf rock. The lead guitarist lays on his back on the truckbed, writhing in an ecstatic fit and picking hell out of his Fender guitar. The band’s two groupies walk ahead of the truck carrying a banner with the band’s name. They drop it in the street for an impromptu boogie session, until one of the dancers is grabbed away by her four-year-old to deal with an untied shoelace.

The parade pays tribute to many examples of patriarchically-defined feminity. A local florist marches numerous little girls dressed in white lace and veils. The Chumash Indian Maidens of the YWCA appear in their buckskin regalia. Students of Nancy’s School of Baton step along, the more confident actually throwing and catching their batons. Despite the axiom that beauty knows no pain, Diana recognizes, “They just look hot and bored.” Conveyed in greater comfort, the Adrian teen models wave from a VW convertible. There is also a patriotically spangled belly dancer. Diana admires her tennis shoe decorations. (Uh, yeah, great shoes, Di!)

While many beautiful, classic cars appear in the parade, more memorable are the offbeat and bizarre vehicles. Abacus, a local office supplies shop, has completely covered a Rambler in fluorescent-colored Post-It Notes. Inside, its staff, costumed as derelicts, flashes “Applause” signs out the windows.

Stalling right in front of us is an old, orange BMW, no wider than an airline seat, with the passenger door where the hood ought to be. The driver pushes it open with a broomstick, not in a Chuck Yeager imitation either. Then, he walks around back and inspects its lawnmower-sized engine.

Seven Sierra Madre Delorean Owners, driving with their stainless steel doors open, approach looking like a flight of disco seagulls.

Funniest of all is the 1955 Highway Patrol car, its loudspeaker belting out soundbites from Broderick Crawford’s old tv show. Dan Matthews’ gravelly voice roars, “Ten-four. Out!”

Quite soon, I realize the parade has played with my mind to a point where I suspect everything of being a hoax.

For example, the Sierra Madre Surf Club. Its entry is led by a father and son taking turns falling off their skateboards. Following them is a bicyclist with a surfboard on the back wheel carried in a motorcycle mount. But it’s not a hoax. It’s a real club and they really surf, even if the rest of the members hoofing along look at least as old and gray as the Beach Boys.

When the International Society of Greeters rolls by, they wave at us from the back of a pickup truck. They look like another lodge, like Kiwanis or Lions, except more obscure. Then the “junior greeters” come by, shaking hands with everyone they can reach, and to the ones they can’t, waving and yelling, “This one’s for you!” I’m not quite sure I’ve been had, when the back of their truck swings into view, revealing a big sign that asks, “Who Are These Guys?”

Another popular group is The Super Soakers. It’s probably the only day of the year that people cheer the chance to be sprayed by kids carrying these overgrown water toys. Everyone sitting arounds us vies for a cool splash. Though down the street it looks like massive retaliation when a neighbor responds by dousing the Soakers with his garden hose.

Little subthemes develop throughout the parade, created by unexpected contrasts. The Kozy Korner Parking Lot Krew ran true to form: a gaggle of men and women with the kind of surprised squint of people who don’t see a lot of daylight. Their baton major, in plaid shorts, led half a dozen drummers, including a bass drum labeled “Bagpipe Boogie Band”, though no pipers were in sight. The next couple of reference to alcohol broke the stereotype. The man driving the Post Alarm Safety Education Team truck kept announcing on a loudspeaker, “Have another beer, you’ll feel much better.” Then, an ominous-looking motorcycle club rode past, wearing black shirts with “Inner Circle” on the front. However, the fine print resolved into: “So. Cal. Sober MC”

Public safety services anchor the end of the parade, the most lightweight of these being Red Cross first-aid instructors who drive a sedan and carry their practice dummy strapped to a spinal board sticking out of the trunk.

The Pasadena Power Squadron comes in a giant pickup truck carrying a red rubber raft, containing a woman wearing an Olive Oyl bathing suit, menaced by cardboard sharks.

The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team, flaunts their 1/2 ton military truck and orange paramedic van. Behind them is Smokey the Bear on a green U.S. Forest Service truck. That’s convenient for whoever’s wearing the bear costume, who, in this heat, may be first in line for treatment by paramedics after the parade.

The long-awaited Sierra Madre Weed Abatement Band actually turns out to be the fire department band. I suppose in California’s dry foothills, a fireman’s motto begins, “An ounce of prevention….” They were paced by the fire chief in a red sedan, an ambulance, and several fire trucks. A town of 10,000 wouldn’t ordinarily have a battalion of firemen and all this equipment, but Sierra Madre is also a staging point for L.A. County firefighters, keeping them close to the golden California foothills — golden thickets of dry brush that erupt into a holocaust every few years.

A yellow pumper truck ends the parade, with a fireman in black fatigues playing its water cannon up and down rows of hot and grateful parade watchers. The man who’d pulled out his garden hose to duel with the Super-Soakers shows the same militia spirit battling the oppressive hydraulic forces of the state. And the guy on porch across the street taunts the last sunstroked marchers, “Tapwater, 50 cents!”

6 thoughts on “Fourth of Sierra Madre

  1. Years late, but …

    Still nostalgic for the Canyon, but I have to point out that I was on the Downtown Sub-Committee of the General Plan Study. I have never heard of any Downtown Youth Plan. But then, Sierra Madre being Sierra Madre, who knows?

    Reading what you wrote in this piece really makes me want to move back to that wonderful town. Unfortunately, this is not possible.

  2. Almost twenty years since your article, yet timely as ever. Once upon a time, in 1984, the SMCC Marching Turkey Band was hatched at the urging of local miscreants, many of whom today are dead or pillars of the community. Countless local and visiting musicians have filled the ranks, revisiting the fun one can actually have when not being screamed at for being on the right foot. Just to tell you, the Weed Abatement Band was actually the SMCC Band, we just changed our shirts to red! So, your feelings of a conspiracy of hoaxes is now validated… But the crowd got two marching bands for the price of one!

  3. Wrong foot, i should have said! It’s from being traumatized one year at the parade after the band’s being attacked by a local gendarme… But THAT is another story!

  4. Frisbie lived up the canyon for a while: I heard stories about it, particularly about when it rained and he had to go to the top of the next street and drive down to the house.

  5. Yeah. Frisbie lived in the house with the southwest corner of his property abutting the northeast corner of the property on which was the house where I lived. (This was backyard to backyard.) But I only found out about that years later as I had no knowledge of fandom at that time.

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