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One man's battle plan for Arlington Heights parade lawn invasion

With his Arlington Heights' home on the Fourth of July parade route, John Slania shares his battle plan

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  • A woman lays down a blanket alongside hundreds of other blankets, plastic tarps, and chairs placed along Dunton Avenue to reserve places to watch the Fourth of July parade in Arlington Heights.

       A woman lays down a blanket alongside hundreds of other blankets, plastic tarps, and chairs placed along Dunton Avenue to reserve places to watch the Fourth of July parade in Arlington Heights.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer July 2007

  • Signs posted along Dunton Avenue in Arlington Heights warn Fourth of July paradegoers not to reserve spaces along the parkway prior to 7 p.m. July 3rd.

       Signs posted along Dunton Avenue in Arlington Heights warn Fourth of July paradegoers not to reserve spaces along the parkway prior to 7 p.m. July 3rd.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer July 2009

  • A mass of humanity floods the streets during the Fourth of July parade in Arlington Heights.

       A mass of humanity floods the streets during the Fourth of July parade in Arlington Heights.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer July 2012

  • Children line Dunton Avenue in Arlington Heights for the annual Fourth of July parade.

      Children line Dunton Avenue in Arlington Heights for the annual Fourth of July parade.
    Photo by Susan Stefaniak

 
By John T. Slania, Special to the Daily Herald

I was awakened at dawn on July 4 by the sounds of an idling car engine and the clanging of metal lawn chairs. I looked out my bedroom window to see a middle-aged man in Bermuda shorts arranging the chairs, a blanket and a cooler on my front lawn.

This is what it's like living in a house where the parade passes by.

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I live on Dunton Avenue, the de facto main street of Arlington Heights. It's the thoroughfare to the public library, the train station and the downtown business district.

It's also the route of our town's annual Fourth of July parade.

Since that rude awakening 16 years ago, the first summer in our house, I have worked through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief -- the most prominent being anger -- evolving to a begrudging acceptance of living in a house along the parade route.

For as much as this existence can be annoying, with the key issue being strangers camping on your yard, I've come to appreciate how the parade brings people together in a world increasingly separated by technology.

Along with invited guests, I now welcome these strangers to join the celebration, treating them -- when they're bold enough to ask -- to food, drink, and even use of the bathroom.

With apologies to Dr. Kubler-Ross, a line from rocker Elvis Costello best sums up my evolution: "I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused."

The experience can be dissected into three categories: pre-parade, parade time and post-parade.

Pre-parade

The buildup begins nearly a week before Independence Day. I begin looking at my tired lawn and douse it with fertilizer and grass seed to cover the bald patches. My wife adds new flowers to her already overflowing garden, and arranges new potted plants on the front porch. My daughter lines the front path with tiny American flags.

A neighborhood beautification project unfolds all along the street, with homeowners trimming lawns, pruning bushes, painting fences and hoisting flags and bunting.

The pre-parade intensity picks up in the final days. The nearly two-hour-long parade, with more than 100 entries, attracts thousands of spectators. To control the crowds, village workers recently began erecting temporary signs warning people not to reserve space along the parkway until 7 p.m. July 3.

People ignore the signs. In the spirit of the adage, "possession is nine-tenths of the law," homeowners along the street start staking their claims by midafternoon, using clothes line or yellow crime scene tape to rope off their lawns.

Furtive motorists start cruising the avenue at 5 p.m. to get a jump on the competition. By 6:30 p.m., the street is lined with cars, and the police are called in to direct traffic and mediate disputes.

Once the intensity of this deadline passes, I've come to enjoy the evening before the parade, as my neighbors gather informally to tap the keg and catch up as we all make last-minute plans for the onslaught of the morning to follow. I liken it to what Civil War soldiers experienced at their evening campfires before the next day's battle.

Parade time

No more surprise attacks at dawn. By sunrise, my wife is already preparing the omelettes, French toast casserole, fresh fruit plate and other dishes for the 30 or so guests expected for the outdoor brunch. I'm driving to the Jewel for ice and Dunkin' Donuts for cardboard containers of coffee. You must leave early before the police block off the street to traffic.

By 8 a.m., a full two hours before the parade starts, spectators begin arriving to be seated in the spots they've claimed the evening before. The less prepared begin filling the few empty spaces that remain.

The invited guests start to arrive by 9 a.m., and up and down the block, neighbors entertain under tents, serving pastries, hot dishes, Bloody Marys, mimosas, and for the heartier morning revelers, beer.

By 10 a.m., when the parade kicks off, I wonder why I even bothered trying to beautify my lawn. All available real estate is covered with blankets, a situation that will bake the underlying grass brown by parade's end. Passers-by tramp over the remaining open lawn as they navigate their way to the parade parties. Bicyclists use the yard as a bike path.

Once the parade starts, all regrets are forgotten. I rip down the crime scene tape covering my lawn chair and settle into a front-row seat. I'm caught up in the spirit of the parade, enjoying the floats, the Cub Scouts, Indian Princesses, and the Jesse White Tumblers. My son stomps by as a member of the John Hersey High School Marching Band.

The sorry spectacle of pandering politicians gripping hands is tempered by the many war veterans who pass by on foot or on floats. The crowd rises to its feet, and for a moment, I remember what the parade is really all about.

With the traditional procession of vintage Corvettes comes the close of the parade. Most of the crowd disperses, but the festivities will not yet end.

Post-parade

As the parade-watchers trundle off with their chaise lounges and coolers in tow, we salute them with a toast. And we enact a little revenge by closing off a portion of our street for a neighborhood block party. Village barricades in place, we haul basketball hoops, Baggo bean bag toss sets, and buckets of water balloons into the street for the kids. Now our guests are hungry again, so we treat them with grilled burgers, brats and more libations.

It is a more relaxed time, except for the occasional motorist who ignores the block party blockade and almost mows down the children. And a few of the guests, having been drinking since morning, begin to get queasy long about midafternoon. But as evening approaches, the guests have left, and it's time for us to catch our breath and get ready to watch the evening fireworks.

It's a long day -- a long week, really -- if you live along the Fourth of July parade route. But I've learned over time that if you approach it with the right frame of mind, you can appreciate the parade as one of the last events where members of a community gather face-to-face to celebrate and socialize.

In an era where people are more inclined to communicate by text messages and tweets, the Fourth of July parade is a cherished exercise in human interaction.

So now when a man in Bermuda shorts shows up at my house at dawn on Independence Day, I help him find room on my lawn.

• John T. Slania is the associate dean in the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago.

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