NBC's Katie Couric may not mention it on television this morning, but Millennium Snoopy, the 64-foot-long opening spectacle in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, is being escorted by a troupe from Glen Burnie: friends and co-workers of Earlene Bradford, 47, an effervescent saleswoman in the children's department at Macy's Marley Station.
If the cameras pan down far enough, you might spot her, a brown-haired lady toward the back of the balloon. Extra-wide glasses, smile, a bulge under her black cowl-neck sweater where her camera is hidden? Hanging onto the ropes for dear life? The only thing she says her weight has ever been good for -- she's 5-foot-7 and 220 pounds -- is this parade. It keeps the giant balloon steady.
Who would relinquish a warm seat before the television on Thanksgiving to walk tired and cold in sleet and rain, as ballast for a balloon?
After last year's experience, when monsoon rains soaked through every layer of clothing to the skin, the bus home was strewn with wet socks, and feet stayed wrinkled for three weeks, why would anyone vie for a chance to be a balloon handler again?
Or the year before, when Earlene and friends were struck down like bowling pins by a leg of the Pink Panther, only to be crowned asphalt queens on Page 1 of the New York Times? Or the embarrassment in 1995 of popping a brand-new balloon, Dudley the Dragon, after 11 blocks and having to explain it the rest of the way to disappointed children?
There is the moment all handlers cite, when their balloon is announced and they step out onto Central Park West to the cheering and clapping of 2.5 million people and the smiling faces of children. They get goose bumps talking about it.
And there's Earlene Bradford. Her friends call her Earl, and her sister says she's never met a stranger. Seven years ago, when Macy's sent her store a letter asking for a team of parade volunteers, she told co-workers it sounded like fun. Soon she got to organize it. "I was the most outgoing fool," she says.
Bowing to her ability to draw a crowd in any weather, indeed to fill a bus of volunteers before anyone else in the company, Macy's this year offered Earlene whatever balloon she wanted. And she asked for Snoopy, billed by Macy's as the most unforgettable balloon in this year's parade -- if not ever.
"We're proud of her," says Jean McFadden, producer-director of the Macy's parade. "Yes, it's a group effort by all means. The truth is, it's individuals and their influence that has been the success and tradition of the parade."
After six years as a captain in the Macy's parade, Earlene knows that each parade can bring surprises. But getting there has become predictable:
As she's done every year, Earlene worked yesterday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Then she went home to greet her sister, Lynnette, who drove in from Charlotte, N.C., and change into her warmest clothes.
Around midnight, they joined dozens of other balloon handlers and four clowns at the Double-T Diner across from Marley Station to shore themselves up with eggs, bacon, muffins and plenty of coffee. The waitress, one of Earlene's longtime Macy's customers, had been warned to expect at least 30 this year, up from a handful when Earlene showed up the first parade eve in 1993. The midnight meeting is an ice-breaker, when veterans hug, the story of the Pink Panther is retold, and newcomers wonder whether knowing Earlene will be worth the work.
"That's when you really get excited," says Jae Lee, 28, manager of the Gloria Jean coffee shop where Earlene takes her break. She recruited him last year when she heard him say he'd always dreamed of visiting New York. This year he returned with six of eight employees.
By 1: 30 a.m., they would have boarded the bus Macy's sent to the store parking lot; husbands and wives, sisters, three young cousins, 17 to 19, giddy with excitement. Earlene pops in a movie to set the mood -- "Miracle on 34th Street" -- and after visiting up and down, settles back to catch up with Lynnette. They walked the American Cancer Society Relay for Life the same weekend in different states, they discover; Earlene styles wigs for cancer patients while Lynnette runs a leukemia benefit; and in the running total of blood donations they keep, Earlene is way ahead, about to hit the 8-gallon mark.
They never had much growing up, the children of a Washingtonpoliceman and a homemaker, but they watched their parents always help people. Treat people as they would want to be treated, the girls were taught. With this in mind, Lynnette periodically hits the aisle, offering chocolate-covered coffee beans to anybody else too wound up to sleep.
The sun lights the Manhattan skyline when they arrive at 6 a.m. Until two years ago, the group went to Brooklyn to put on costumes, but now a hotel on 81st Street is the staging point for 4,000 Macy's employees and friends.