THE CALL COMES every year like clockwork, some time during the last week of July.
"Just reminding you -- the Arcadia parade's next week." says the caller, with more excitement in his voice than you would expect, given the scale of the event being announced.
He is an old friend, married to a high school classmate, with whom I've shared proms and weddings, news of new babies and new homes. We don't see each other much any more, although we live separated by five little miles; even the once-routine holiday get-together has become a casualty of busy schedules and commitments to other people.
There's just one event that still can be counted upon to bring us together: the Arcadia Volunteer Fire Co. parade, always the first Wednesday in August.
Arcadia's a tiny place, a still-rural railroad village right off the Hanover Pike, five miles north of Reisterstown, one mile south of the line separating Baltimore and Carroll counties.
We all grew up around there. As in a lot of small communities, the fireman's carnival and parade is the biggest thing that ever happens in Arcadia. The whole town turns out, congregating on front porches or in lawn chairs set up for prime parade viewing. The year she died at age 99, my great-aunt was too feeble to walk downstairs to the porch on parade night. They carried her to a window so she could watch. "Oh it was wonderful," she said afterward. As if she had seen something she hadn't seen 98 times before.
My friends bought his parents' house, right smack along the parade route.
This year, as every year, we laughed as the procession rolled by in all its predictably hokey glory -- the listless fire queens sitting atop the engines; Louis Goldstein waving from a car, ancient and cheery; a clown tossing Smarties and gumballs; boys pounding the daylights out of snare drums; majorettes in rather ghastly garb, some vivacious, others badly in need of a posture lesson.
Was it worth it, for this, to struggle to leave work two hours early?
Well, of course it was.
The appeal of the big-time parade -- the Thanksgiving extravaganzas, the celebrations for sports heroes, even the now-massive Dundalk and Towson Fourth of July parades -- needs little explanation. It's entertainment, mostly. We go for the fancy floats, the famous faces, the top-notch marching bands.
The small-time parade is different. Down the pike from Arcadia, in Glyndon where I live now, the music for the annual Fourth of July parade is supplied by a neighbor driving a lawn tractor rigged with a record player and megaphone. This year his tire went flat. So it's not the quality of the show that draws us.
It's something visceral and important: the quest for belonging.
"Mashed potatoes," a friend said the other day. "Parades are like mashed potatoes. It's comfort food. As you get older you look back to childhood and certain things are very comforting. Parades are one of them."
But I am not talking about mere nostalgia. Parades do not comfort simply by evoking memories, or even by giving the opportunity to see old friends again. They comfort by showing that we are not alone, that we belong to something bigger than our own back yards. The parade -- people and institutions moving together -- is a microcosm of that something.
It satisfies an innate desire for community that, I am convinced, Americans in all kinds of neighborhoods -- new and old -- still possess, despite our self-absorption and relentless efforts to live behind chinkless privacy walls. They may be hokey, but they are not silly. They nourish civic well-being.
A parade draws everybody together. It makes you feel you are part of a wider family. You realize you have a lot in common with people who live right next door, even people you never knew.
"Look!" I said to the child sitting on her father's shoulders as the engines rolled past the other week. "There go our firefighters."
I did not know their names, which did not matter. We belong with them in a place we both call home.
Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 8/17/97