Columbus Day always started with a bang in my home town. One very loud “kaboom” rang out each year at 10:00 to signal the community to troop their lawn chairs down to the city center for our yearly salute to the discoverer. Marching bands and clowns, floats and Vets – all streaming down South Main Street past the shops and the city park. The popcorn and hot dog vendors were busy shortly after 11:00 conquering the hunger pangs of the early arrivals. No one wanted to miss out on front row seats. Columbus Day marked a significant event for our little town of Columbus, ME*, not only to honor our namesake, but to mark the beginning of Winter. We are a realistic group of country folk who acknowledge the power that Mother Nature has over our town after the beginning of October. But one year a few Octobers back, the weather and the Columbus Day parade took us on an unexpected and somewhat sad adventure.
The exact date eludes me but I’m guessing I was about 9 years old. I know I was still young enough to look forward to floats and balloons, yet old enough to be roughhousing along the parade route to nearly have missed the tragedy. The grand finale of our parade brought on sighs and smiles the likes of which you’d get when Santa arrives in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. In his full regalia, Columbus “sailed over the ocean blue” as the biggest, most colorful balloon that a child could imagine existed! In fact, in some years, it would remain a dream for us, much to our hearts’ dismay. You see, if the Northeast winds swirled around us at a speed greater than 24 mph, then Columbus’ quest for the new lands would be postponed for another year. Our elders, smart as they were, always kept the announcement of Columbus’ travel plans until the very last minute. The playgrounds would rule over the parade ground if our hero wasn’t going to show up. If the announcement was made, moms and dads would groan with dismay with their little ones; although, now that I’m a mom myself, I know that they were part of the ruse, as well.
But as we know from history, Columbus was a determined fellow. During the parade of 1962, he proved it once again as he made the decision to venture toward new territory with little regard to the weather conditions. I remember holding onto our hats and hugging our L.L. Bean sweaters close to our bodies to keep the wind at bay. The temperatures had dropped overnight and the winds greeted us early that morning as we warmed our hands on mugs of hot chocolate. Jerry, my older brother, grimly remarked, “I’ll bet there’s snow today.” Big Jim, our dad, slowly shook his head and chuckled. Even for Maine it was a bit early for that. Little Maureen, with all of her six years of parade experience, posed the question that was on all of our minds. “What about Columbus, daddy? Will Columbus be at the parade if it snows?” Big Jim took this question a bit more seriously, scratching his beard as he answered, “Well, Maurry, I truly cannot tell. Columbus is a brave sailor and he always waits until the very end of the parade to plan his route. I reckon we’ll just have to wait and see.” Just then a sound much like a whining baby swept in through the window alerting us to the whirling winds outside. But this reminder of a possible weather cancellation for Columbus didn’t dash our hopes as we hauled our chairs, blankets, and thermos bottles full of hot cocoa with marshmallows to the station wagon.
Our concern over Columbus was short-lived as the clowns brought out giggles and laughter with their crazy antics and hats flying off with the wind. Uncle Stew caught one and wore it until the rosey-faced clown on the pink tricycle came to retrieve it. The drum majorettes had donned black pants under their “flippy skirts” and mom remarked that they should have worn coats as well. My trails took me toward the end of the parade, as Casey, Sandy, and I made a valiant attempt to stay warm by keeping on the move.
Inevitably the moment of decision came, as it always did, directly after the American Legion marched by with the American Flag. This year it whipped back and forth, with Sandy’s granddad holding tightly to the pole. Jerry was so sure that our Discoverer wouldn’t make his trip that year that he was on his feet and gathering his trash as the flag was only just past him. That was my signal to fall in behind him and get back to the station wagon. But, the hush that came over the crowd turned me around for just one more look at the parade and there he was rounding the corner. Columbus has made the trip! Suddenly feeling much warmer and willing to remain parade watchers, we hailed his arrival with cheers and clapping. The noise was thrilling, giving me a delightful feeling in my chest. For a moment, that is. Just as soon as it arrived at the grandstand, the Santa Maria railed back on a surf of wind, spun to its left in a struggle to right itself, and broke loose of its moorings. In what seemed like a no more than a second, it came crashing to shore just a few feet from Mr. Mooney, our oldest Legionnaire. The cheers gave way to gasps as we watched a scene that could only be described as a historical nightmare. The sails hugged the ground as they were dragged side-to-side by their team of handlers. The ships bow crumpled into a fan, pushing forward into the crowd, dragging Columbus along Main Street toward his final discovery. Soon the gasps became sobs and parents hurriedly gathered up their children in protective hugs, themselves speechless as they witnessed the final ending to their childhood Columbus Day parade memories.
Early December continued to unveil stray parts and snatches of polyurethane, most of them finding their way on the wind to the rear of Mrs. Maxwell’s coin laundry. It was never clearly determined who had cleaned up the remains of our dear Columbus. And the remains of many happy childhood memories.
*With all due respect, this humble story is purely fictional and in no way associated with the real Columbus, ME.