Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's Short, But It's Jam-Packed.

Wanna see strange, unique and unusual? Arkansawyers know to head to Hot Springs for those sorts of things. America’s oldest federally protected land, a National Park created for a downtown and the shortest street in the world are all part of the fabric of the city.

That shortest street thing… well, it’s an interesting thing, that. It’s called Bridge Street. Used to actually be a bridge, no joke. How do you figure that? Well, the bridge went over the Hot Springs River that ran down betwixt East and West Mountain. As the city built up, that river became a bit of an inconvenience. Eventually it was all but paved over -- business built over the top of it and what have you. The bridge was paved over as a street back in 1870 and that was that.

How long is it? Ninety-eight feet -- and that’s measured each year on March the 17th. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, there are a couple of places on Earth that have claimed the rights to the shortest street since then -- Ebenezer Place in Wick, Caithness, Scotland is just six feet nine inches long -- which, to me, doesn’t make any sense since most cars aren’t that narrow, let along that short. Sounds suspect to me. But there’s no place on Earth that claims to have the shortest PARADE.

Specifically, the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Or more succinctly… this year, at least, the First Ever Eighth Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Sound nuts? Well, it is, but it’s a good kind of nuts.

Each year on St. Patrick’s Day, floats and parade acts and motorcyclists and celebrities line up about a mile back for the chance to parade along that one single span of Bridge Street. On Bridge Street it’s easily twenty people thick lined up from the edge of the route across the sidewalk. There’s a grandstand at the end of the street, and each year there’s a celebrity who’s the official grand marshall. This year it’s John Corbett -- I remember him as Chris in the Morning on Northern Exposure. Cool guy! When I went a couple of years ago it was John Ratzenberger -- you may remember him as Cliff on Cheers. It’s always someone cool.

Thing is, you don’t have to crowd in right ON Bridge Street. You can watch them lining up for the parade in the several blocks along Central Avenue beforehand… and you’ll usually see just about everything you’ll see on Bridge Street. Well, everything except perhaps the Famous Chicken.

I was allowed special privilege to get into the street and shoot the parade a couple of years ago. And let me tell you what… it was something else. I left the hubster on the east end of Bridge Street and waded out through the crowd into the street itself.

It was about a half hour before the official start of the parade and it was already packed, the streets filled with parade-goers in all sorts of varying shades of green. There were people of all ages there, lots of kids and plenty of folks just looking for a good time.

Away from the street on the balconies in the distance more people were gathered, having a cold one and perhaps a plate of nachos before the start of the big parade. As far as the eye could see, there was green, there were smiles and there were happy people. It was kinda fun.

Before the parade begins, the route is measured by a couple of carefully chosen experts who make sure the line is straight and there’s no budging. The route is 98 feet long, just like the street.

But every year it’s measured, just in case something has happened to Bridge Street in the interim. Well, you never know.

A trumpeter from Oaklawn came out and played the opening round, signaling the start of the parade. The color guard was presented, and the entire street shushed as the flag passed.

Moments later a fire truck cleared the route, and the first section of the parade started. Different important folks in green wigs and sweaters and the like came through in convertibles and such. The Girl Scouts came marching by, as did a group of folks from Diamond Bank -- small business of the year. Most of the groups that came by threw beads, candy or plastic coins into the crowds lining the streets. Custodians along the way made sure no one came past the barriers, wary for small children who might rush out in front of oncoming cars or floats. A few of them picked up beads and charms and such that hadn’t made it far enough to reach the crowd. I found myself doing the same in-between shots.

And then the big announcement as the Grand Marshall arrived in his convertible. Just past the start of the parade route, John Ratzenberger stepped out of the car and started making his way along the side of the road, shaking every hand that reached out toward him. He seemed determined to touch every proffered hand. He had a huge grin on his face and hollered his appreciation back to the crowd. The crowd went wild.

And then came the burgeoning parade, packed with silliness and pageantry and all the cool stuff you like to see in a parade.
There were the proud Poke Salad Annies in their bonnie attire; a proud parade of pooches supporting the local Humane Society;
green bedazzled trucks; the Famous Chicken (I thought he was called the San Diego Chicken, what do I know? There was a strange fellow launching ping pong balls into the crowd with a paddle from the back of a truck.

Behind him were three kids dressed up as the Irish Pickles, clad in green Crocs and green suits with green bags and baskets.

The ruckus coming up behind them was the proud Lyon College Pipe Band, an impressive site to behold. Nearly a dozen men and a woman were stepping lightly with pipes and drums to a delightful tune.

There was a group of folks from the MidAmerica Science Museum, a tissue paper rainbow float and motorcyclists galore. By this point I was walking back along where the parade was setting up… just to get ahead of the crowd. My thought was that I’d shoot everyone who was in the parade and then go back and shoot them at the viewing pavilion when they were getting their performances on. But what I discovered was even in this prep area for the parade itself, the folks in the parade were performing for the folks watching the parade -- and the folks watching were showing their appreciation.

But I did run back down the street a few times back to the parade route, to catch what was going on and to see how the Grand Master was enjoying himself. John Ratzenberger seemed pretty content up on the grandstand, surveying the action below.

Thing is, I can honestly say I ran an entire parade length several times over. I paced and jogged back and forth, running from one perch on Central Avenue to another on Malvern Avenue about a minute later… unheard of, even for me! Wow, I had gained athletic prowess! I was a superwoman!

All kidding aside, I’m glad I made the effort -- because I managed to catch the World’s Shortest Wedding at the World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, an impromptu marriage right in the middle of the parade! It was extraordinarily quick, as right should be, and the newly minted husband and wife hustled down the road with the rest of the wedding party..

There were bikes bedazzled with boas and bull-mooses, big Harleys and little Schwinns both. There were classic cars decked out in greenery, some with pretty girls sitting in the back. There was the “World’s Shortest Car” driven by “Dinky O’Smartie,” one of those tiny Smart Cars that at the time were still relatively new around these parts.

There was this one float… well, it just defies adequate description, but I’ll do my best. In the lead and apparently pulling the mess was a gentleman on what appeared to be either a modified garden tractor or superfied Runaround Scooters that had a toilet as a seat. He had a sign over his head that stated “Graduate of Leprechaun College.” He towed behind him a bathtub with a couple of young kids in it; a woman seated on a toilet; a portable camp toilet, a child’s potty and potted plant with an Irish flag in it. I have no idea what that ensemble was supposed to represent.

There was a delightful rainbow float made of balloons that included a gentleman with a scraggly green Mohawk. There were happy cheerleaders, gymnasts and majorettes who were quite happy to show off their talents.

There was the local chapter of the International Order of the Irish Elvi, be-speckled in sequins and sunglasses, proudly sharing their Elvi heritage. This group was large, a dozen or more ranging from gray-haired Elvi to child Elvi, mostly riding motorcycles.

They tossed Ding Dongs and Twinkies and Ho Hos to the happy crowds from a large cooler they dragged along with them. They also handed out special editions of the local newspaper and tossed beads. They were utterly awesome.

There was more -- a small float of a tractor from Jack’s Pancake House; a trailer full of women playing ukelekes and tambourines, all bedecked in green wigs and clothing; bikers decked out in Viking gear; toddlers in strollers with tiny green hats; little green painted dogs; a crowd in a Leprechaun’s castle with a Leprechaun queen; a large group of people on green bikes and carrying cut-outs of green bikes; a float I am assuming was sponsored by Chick-Fil-A promoting the idea of eating more chicken and a spring festival with an eating contest; women in pink and green boas; another pipe and drum corp (wait, I thought I already saw Lyon College, what?) and a huge group of people from the American Cancer Society.

The sunlight was being spent quickly, and I found I’d walked several blocks back into the prep area. There were still plenty of floats and groups walking and such to go -- an entire cadre of different folks on different decorated bikes (including one made up to look like a sailboat); another rainbow and pot o’gold float; a group from Hot Springs’ Ambassador Club; a giant cow wearing a green Mohawk; an ancient hillbilly rigged car; a group of men from a fraternal order seated on a trailer and a straggling bit at the end. All of them were waiting patiently for their turn on Bridge Street.

It took me a few minutes to walk back to the parade route and I lost my good light. But the crowd was still raisin’ cane and having a great time.

This year’s parade should be a good one. You should check it out. There’s a schedule on the website… I’d suggest getting there very, very early.

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