Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Penn State Homecoming Parade: 2015 Edition

"As soon as the photographer leaves, let's do bong hits and discuss Chaucer."
My alma mater didn’t have a Homecoming parade. Actually, we didn’t even have Homecoming, UVa had “Homecomings” as if we needed the plural to express how much fun it was. As far as I could tell, the weekend’s events centered on the appearance on Grounds (i.e. the campus, in non-Virginia speak) of aging Wahoos in various degrees of dissipation wearing brightly colored trousers and blue blazers. The weekend’s football game meant watching the orange and blue lose to schools that 95% of other colleges in America would have considered to be a patsy.

Like students of my day, UVa students of today see football games as an excuse to express themselves sartorially.
There was no parade. That would have been entirely too state-U, something we strove to avoid, even though, the whole point of Mr. Jefferson founding the university was that it was a state U. Most importantly, a parade would have from taken time from drinking and dancing and getting a head start on a life of brightly colored trousers and blue blazers—hold the dissipation, please!

As a Happy Valley local, I’m quite familiar with the Penn State Homecoming Parade. When I was a kid, my parents would occasionally drive us through the fraternity neighborhood to check out the floats in their pre-parade this-is-as-good-as-they’re-ever-going-to-look state. They were almost enough to make you want to join a fraternity. 

When I was in high school, I marched in the parade with the high school band. It was lots of fun, much better than marching in the parade at the Grange Fair.

As a twenty-something, I went to the Homecoming Parade as an audience member and enjoyed the floats, bands, and yes, the occasional appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales. Today there would be a greater chance of the Penn State Homecoming Committee accepting an entry from Glock firearms than something promoting drinking, even with an iconic team of matched Clydesdales, a Dalmatian dog, and a gleaming red wagon filled with barrels of beer so uncool that no student would be caught dead buying it.

My most vivid parade memory from that era has nothing to do with the parade itself. I was at the parade with a friend and had just heard that a local TV personality, Altoona’s “Big" John Riley had suffered a stroke and according to the rumor mill, had as much brain activity as a clump of moss. I shared the news with my friend.

Rick:  Did you hear that Big John Riley had a stroke and has like… zero brainwaves?

Friend: (In a questioning tone) This means he’s off the show, right?

Judging by some of the stuff on local TV, I suppose it’s a reasonable question. But it still makes me laugh.

And then I’ve been a parade judge, which was lots of fun, and came with a seat on the Reviewing Stand. La di dah, right?

In 2009, I was asked to be the parade’s Honorary Grand Marshall in 2009. What’s the Honorary Grand Marshall you ask? “The Honorary Grand Marshal is someone that has gone above and beyond for the community and embodies the spirit of Penn State.” It was (and remains) quite an honor for an unreconstructed Wahoo.  I even bought a Penn State necktie for the occasion and kept the brightly colored trousers on the down-low.

As everyone who’s ever talked to me for more than 30 seconds knows, there was inclement weather that year. Snow and rain mostly. Yes, I’m thankful that there were no plagues of locusts or earthquakes. But still…it rained on my parade. That meant the convertible was top up. AND my friends (mostly) stayed home. Yup, I’m a victim.

So with that backstory in mind, I listened last week as my coworker Carol told me innocently enough that her sister-in-law, who worked for a local radio station, was looking for drivers for the Homecoming Parade and had asked her. Carol typically demurs when something happens that might call attention to her—like driving a car in a parade. Sure enough she initially turned her sister-in-law down.

When she told me this, I said,"You gotta do it. It’ll be a blast. I’ll go along as your navigator. You can drive and I’ll navigate; what’s not to like?!"

As if you’d need a navigator to follow a fire truck, a distant high school band, and the Penn State Croatian Alumni Bowling League down the middle of the street. Some folks might need a navigator, however Carol just needed a push.

I can speak with such confidence about the difficulty in getting lost driving a car in a parade, since I’m a veteran on that score. I drove a car in the State College Christmas Parade once. I don’t remember what the point of the parade was, since I don’t think we were formally escorting Santa into town, and we certainly weren’t leading Mary and Joseph to the manger. But for whatever reason, there was a Christmas parade.

I drove my mother’s convertible, a yellow 1986 Chrysler LeBaron. My passengers were the police chief and his wife, who happened to work in the same building I did. We had fun, but the putting the State College police chief and his wife in the back of a convertible in December does not exactly bring out the adoring crowds.  But even in that pre-GPS era, there was no way you could get lost.

So back to the Penn State Homecoming Parade: on the morning of the parade Carol told me that due to a shortage of drivers I might have to drive in the parade instead of navigate. I was pleased that Carol’s sister-in-law had put aside that accident I had in a rental van when I helped her husband, the retail florist, with a Washington society wedding. I have witnesses, it wasn’t my fault: the Mayflower Hotel’s parking garage jumped right out of front of me. Trust me, a big scrape on the side of a van isn’t the ideal souvenir of Our Nation’s Capital.

I was glad that I had some PSU fan gear that I could wear so I could look official. When I was told that no matter what, I had to bring my driver’s license with me, I suggested that I could wear my sash from my 2009 stint as Honorary Grand Marshall. (Of course I still have it.)  Carol’s sister-in-law said only if I had shoes to match. Seriously…she had to ask?

Carol and I made sure we were at the Audi/Mercedes-Benz dealer on time. There was insurance paperwork to do before hopping into borrowed cars. Who knew? I’d borrowed other vehicles from car dealers and don’t remember that. 

It turned out that we were going to be driving the Homecoming Court, bona fide royalty. If we ran over an orb or sceptre or assorted crown jewels we needed to be covered. Four of us were going to be driving Audis and the other two were going to drive Mercedes-Benzes. Even though I was picked last in gym class, I was chosen to drive a Mercedes.

My ride was a steel gray Mercedes E 350. Its sex appeal was commensurate with its sticker price, which as far as I could tell was the same as that of a three bedroom house in one of Hibbing, Minnesota’s better neighborhoods.

I figured out how to start the car, but after that, it was pretty much beyond me. I was pretty sure that one of the buttons operated an ejector seat while another one laid down an oil slick. I practiced saying “Bond……James Bond....” but with a German accent.

There was a shortage of license plates at the dealership (I didn’t know that was possible) so we caravanned to the staging area in formation so that the cars with no plates would be in the middle of the line, like a funeral procession, only happier. 

After enduring Homecoming weekend traffic, we finally arrived at the staging area, filled with cars, floats, ambulances, marching groups, and a battalion of somewhat official looking young women carrying clipboards.

One of the clipboard toting maidens walked over to my car (by this point I’d figured out how to roll down the window) and asked me who I was there to drive. I said that I didn’t know her name, but if she were wearing a pink Chanel suit and a pillbox hat, I was driving really fast. She looked at me as if I were speaking Urdu. Presumably she wasn’t in the new All Things Kennedy major.

At that point there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and let’s just say that if, well, Dwight Eisenhower had the organizational ability of the young women with the clipboards, well, we’d all be speaking German right now. I know that Homecoming only comes around once a year, but still, creating a list of cars and organizing them in a parking lot hardly requires a graduate degree in Supply Chain, whatever that is.

Once we were checked in and parked in our assigned spots, I got a lift back to the dealership to pick up another car—one of our drivers was meeting us at the staging lot rather than at the dealership. As a result, I missed an hour worth of networking and photo ops. So, if this post is devoid of photographic and otherwise content, well, I’m blaming it on the fact that I couldn’t be in two places at once.

When we finally returned in about an hour, the women with the clipboards miraculously hadn’t gotten any more organized. Imagine that.

It turned out that my two passengers from the Homecoming court were Kevin Montminy and Abby Renko. I knew Abby slightly from working on an event last winter, and Kevin is a local kid who I only knew by name. Each of them has a list of accomplishments a mile long. I asked Abby and Kevin what they wanted to be when they grew up. Abby is headed to medical school and Kevin has a job lined up at KPMG. Interestingly enough, neither wanted to be Ferris wheel operator driving a car in the Homecoming parade. In other words, I have some job security. They couldn’t have been nicer or more fun to hang out with.

When they saw that I’d be chauffeuring them in the parade in the slate gray Mercedes Benz E350 they were totally over the moon. Probably 99 and 44/100% of that was about the car, though I can’t say that I didn’t factor into the over-the-moon-edness somewhere. (Even I'm prone to the characteristically Bryant flash of self-esteem!)

So a bit about my ride, which for a least a nanosecond they thought actually belonged to me:

With a drag coefficient as low as 0.29, the E-Class Cabriolets slip through the wind virtually unnoticed. Yet their chiseled, muscular design commands attention, from their sweeping headlamps all the way to their sleek tail. A color-keyed twin-domed cover conceals the lowered soft top with seamless style.

Yowza! I’ve read less breathless porn!

A chiseled muscular design that commands attention. Gosh, they could be talking about me!

I’m not sure about the “drag coefficient” thing though. Most drag queens I know aren’t big on math. 

The car also had “radar sensors” that did everything except filing your tax return and something called—and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up—COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS. Apparently plain ordinary COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST no longer cuts the mustard. I expected a digital readout on the dashboard to quote my father and tell me, “You’re as safe as in the arms of Jesus” but apparently that only comes when you purchase the COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS with the optional PERSONAL SAVIOR option.

It took some doing to figure out how to put the top down. The button I thought lowered the top actually operated the on-board KAFFEEMEISTER espresso system, with optional supercharged convection oven, perfect for heating up an apfelstrudel. Those Germans, they think of everything!

Once the top was down, it was it was time to get my charges all situated on the back deck of the car, ready to wave and smile and acknowledge the adoring multitudes. Let me just say that a short blue dress and a “color-keyed twin-domed cover that conceals the lowered soft top with seamless style” don’t really mix. Unless, of course, you are a lot better at being modest than I am, or trying to lock up the lecher vote in the Homecoming election. In Abby’s case it was the former not the latter, and in the end all turned out fine.

Just before we started to move, as a way of warning them that, well, stuff happens, I said, “Uh…have you seen Animal House?” Referring of course, to the climactic parade scene where the Delts cause mayhem in Faber College’s homecoming parade with a rogue float in the shape of a giant birthday cake with the words “Eat Me” on its side. They assured me that we had and we shared a knowing chuckle.

As soon as it was time to go, we found ourselves in parade gridlock. We sat in the parking lot for over 45 minutes. I’d only put $10 of gas in my chiseled muscled Stuttgart-made royalty transportation and display system and I wondered how long I could sit there waiting for the damned parade to start without running out of gas.

There were units in the parade from every facet of student and alumni life. Sooner or later I expect to see the Penn State Appendectomy Club; the deely-bopper wearing the Penn State Walmartians, Penn Staters employed by—you guessed it----Walmart; and the Nittany Numchuckers, a martial arts group. They'll be marching next to the local EMT unit in case there is an accidental numchucking. Some local retirement communities have units in the parade, but I'm still waiting to see the Penn State Walkers of Shame, a group of unsteady elderly but sex-positive alums who, back in the day, wrote all those letters to Penthouse magazine.

On the alumni side, there are chapters from all over the country—the Marylanders were dressed like a box of Old Bay Seasoning; Vermonters dressed like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cones, and so on. The alumni units reminded me of the Parade of States in the Miss America Pageant where the contestants dressed up in elaborate costumes representing their state. Miss Pennsylvania would be dressed as a sequined Liberty Bell; and Miss Oklahoma, a cowgirl; and Miss Alabama, a cross burning on someone’s front yard. They don't make beauty pageants like they used to!

I would have taken more photos, but I was without a charging cord and couldn’t find how to make the charge by osmosis system work. My phone was hovering at about 11% charge and kept sending me messages that said stuff like….”You're almost out of power. Please switch to paperweight mode. I don’t care if you are driving a car in the Homecoming Parade. As if you didn't know that, it's really uncool to take photos of the crowd while you're driving in a parade.”

How does your phone know this stuff?

When we finally started to move, Kevin and Abby soon showed yet again why they were selected for the Homecoming Court. They knew virtually everyone on the parade route, and in places the crowd had to be six deep. Secondly, they did an excellent job tossing candy to the kids lining the parade route, begging for candy like hungry baby robins begging for worms. AND they had nice things to say to the little girls in cheerleader outfits, the dancing kids, the grouchy kids, the old folks in lawn chairs, and everyone in between. I can’t imagine the most accomplished pol—say Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton—working a parade better than those two.

Our cars were right behind a team of twirlers, so for the length of the parade we heard dance music punctuated by a recording of someone introducing the group. “Ladies and gentleman, the junior novice beginner just starting out so can’t twirl worth a darned mini petite twirler-ettes out of State College, PA”  Argh, “out of State College, PA?”  Why couldn’t they just say “from”? And who says "P-A" instead of Pennsylvania? Each and every time I heard that recording, it bothered me. Call me old fashioned, but I’ll pick grammar over twirling every time.

We made slow but steady progress from Penn State’s East Halls to East College Avenue and through the downtown business district. I saw some of my friends in the crowd—I think they were all shocked that someone would let me drive a car with a drag coefficient of 0.29 let alone with sweeping headlamps and a sleek tail.

At the end of the parade, at Penn State's Rec Hall, Abby and Kevin hopped out, to join the rest of the Homecoming Court at their next scheduled event.  There were hugs and photos and we all declared that it was the most fun we’d ever had.

I hope to drive in the parade next year, but if I do, I’ll be wearing bright colored trousers and a blue blazer.  Penn State is great, but when it comes to fashion, I prefer to heed the immortal words of the Beach Boys: You gotta be true to your school.


  1. Not to divert the conversation away from the PSU Homecoming Parade -- and your amazing drivershipness -- but wanted to share my own (fictitious -- I was always in the marching band, in the back) "How I Met My (Once Sorta Famous) Husband Story" is this: I was the Dairy Princess in the Hollidaysburg Area We're Having a Parade for No Reason, and waving my best Queen Elizabeth Charming Yet Limp Wave to the Populace, when my future husband, current Prince of Pennsylvania, espied me from the Reviewing Stand. And the rest is History. This is a much better story than "we met in college." Great story, as usual. Next time, we want the pants.

  2. I rather imagined you as the Slinky Queen, handing out Benzels Pretzels, Mallow Cups, and gift certificates to Bland Park to the less spring-ly.