Memories from the Ironton Parade
It all started back in 1868. That’s right Andrew Johnson was president and the carpetbaggers and scalawags were more a part of American society than soldiers and bands when folks in Ironton hosted their first ever Memorial Day parade during America’s reconstruction.
So today amidst a tropical sky and high humidity, our friends in Iron-town were at it again for the 142nd time.
I arrived early so as to be beat the crowd that would soon back up along Routes 52 and 93 into town. In fact even by 8:45 AM, the traffic was already congested for parade goers heading into historic Ironton. You see they come from Jackson and McArthur, Greenup and Ashland and many small towns in between to be part of a tradition!
I quickly found my reserved annual spot (6th division on Lawrence Street and 8th Ave) and checked in with division coordinator James Hamilton. “Should be another big crowd”, Jim informed me, sweat dripping down his brow. “Can you hold the rain off”, he added?
Looking west toward Portsmouth a dazzling field of alto-cumulus castellenous clouds draped the skies. That was a dead ringer to me that a shower or storm would visit town before day’s end. Still I countered “we should be fine for the parade”!
Here in the Ohio Valley, word of a terrific pre-dawn lightning storm soon made its way to my attention. Dave Lucas, Scout Master for the Boy Scouts Troop 106, related the electrical shenanigans to me and added, “we have lightning safety as part of our summer maneuvers before we head out to New Mexico in August. The boys know weather and especially lightning”, Dave proudly asserted! The troop is 22 members and 7 Eagle Scouts strong!
On this sticky morning, Ironton High Million Dollar Band director Jeff Sanders cautioned his marching machine to “drink plenty of water as you walk and don’t let your knees lock or you will go down. No pressure either since the Governor will be right behind you”!
I watched the band go thru its pre-parade warm-up including a playing of the Star Spangled Banner which would lead off at 4th and Center.
While mugging with the seniors of the color guard. I met co-drum majors Audrey Stewart (“I am always nervous in front of a big crowd, but that drives me to be my best”) and Dylan Markins (“I will be in Columbus in the fall studying music at Ohio State”). Since the Buckeye Band is all brass and percussion, Dylan told me he won’t be marching onto the Horseshoe before OSU football games.
Confident that the Fighting Tiger band would get things off to a patriotic start, I worked my way to see Ohio Governor Ted Strickland. The gov looked trim and fit and ready to walk the long parade route in long pants and shirt and tie. I was impressed!
One by one, I weaved my way thru the units that were assembling. The folks from Ruby’s restaurant invited me in for a sneak peak at coming attractions. Right now they only do special parties but this summer they will be opening for general business.
Inside their quaint château, I sensed a bed and breakfast atmosphere awaited patrons. “We will offer a Jazz ensemble to entertain our customers”, Kathy King told me. Kathy’s father had served in Europe in WW II and had been decorated with a purple heart in part for his service at the Battle of the Bulge.
Back out onto Center Street, I hopped on the float that had veterans like a dough-boy named Ken. Ken was an Air Force engineer in the Pacific theatre in WWII. “At any one time, 3000 planes would be up in the air at the same time”, Ken told me. When asked what war was like in China, Burma and India where he was stationed Ken simply said “like hell. We lost 2500 friends and countless planes flying the Himalayas”.
You get a really good sample of American society if you attend a parade like this one. To complement the bands and the troops, there are little groups like Cyndi’s Studio. Here they teach young girls and boys how to dance and twirl. Currently Ohio State champions, Cyndi’s boasts of 6 national champions in recent years!
By this time, the parade was set to begin so I started the half mile walk back to my parking spot. Then in a flash, was it a bird, was it Superman? No it was an Air Force duo of fighter pilot planes that flew overhead to get this 142nd march off to a rousing start. Someone told me it took the planes all of 4 minutes to fly from Portsmouth to Ironton!
I thought how lucky we are to have such powerful and dedicated armed services. Ray Howard of Kitts Hill, a Korean War vet, agreed. Ray went on to answer my weather questions about life in Korea. “You learned to drink hot coffee to stay warm even if you didn’t like the taste and to sleep in the outdoors on crusty snow”, he said. Ray was part of the US Army 12th Field Artillery.
Along the way I stopped to complement Jennifer Murphy of Chesapeake who was busy lathering up with sunscreen her kids Chase (less than 1 year old) and Taylor. Wish all moms and dads would do the same this summer.
Soon I made my way into the parade route and marveled at what I estimated as easily 30 thousand flag waving, patriotic fans who jammed the 2 mile downtown “theatre”. Here everyone is treated like a rock star with loud cheers and waves afforded to all.
The rains did indeed hold off, sigh of relief on my part!
So to our friends in Ironton I end by saying you’ve done it longer and better than everyone. See you next year for the 143 edition of the longest continuous running Memorial Day parade in America!