During St. Patrick's Days gone by, I've traveled to the parade on foot, as a passenger, or in my car. This year's police escort topped them all.
Tuesday morning's flashing lights and stopped traffic was all about the powder blue VW bug I was driving, one of a dozen convertibles convoying out of Backus Cadillac Pontiac at 7:45 a.m. down Victory Drive. Our team had a mission-to drive in the 2009 parade, each car chauffeuring one of the parade's past grand marshals.
Being the parade driver for Harry Deal, 1999's Grand Marshal, made this year's celebration a first-time experience for me, despite attending a lifetime of parades.
The fun starts as our vehicles snake through midtown, lining up at the Gwinnett Street staging area at 8:00 a.m. Nearby, a bagpipe band warms up in the sunshine, providing a Celtic soundtrack as former grand marshals materialize-Burke, Mahoney, Rossiter, Brunson. Green blazers and embroidered sashes rule, with much back slapping and "hail fellow well met" greetings.
By 9 a.m. Harry Deal arrives, a spectacled, Derby-hatted fellow in a white suit, with an Old Fort Irish accent only spoken by Savannahians of a certain generation. Known as Coach Deal to 49 years worth of Benedictine graduates, "my" grand marshal has an entourage of ten family members, including the five Diebold great-grandchildren who've traveled from Ohio with their mom and dad to be in the parade.
Around us, busy white-coated adjutants, the parade "worker bees," check insurance paperwork and pages-long lists of parade units. A trio of newbies tapes American, Irish, and St. Patrick's Day flags to three corners of our VW.
Coach Deal settles onto the back of the car flanked by great-grandsons Tommy and Kevin. Ella, age 3, rides shotgun. Ella's twin, Annie, opts to ride in a wagon towed by her grandmother. Nine-year-old Claire walks the entire route. At 10:30 we nose onto Abercorn behind the Bishop Moore Catholic High School marching band.
"We got us a good band!" says Coach Deal, over the strong drumline beat and repeated renditions of "Wearin' o' the Green" and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."
Coach Deal knows his marching bands. He's best known as a committed parade adjutant, as a career firefighter until 1980, and as a volunteer football coach and substitute teacher at BC for decades. Later I learn that for six years in the 1960's Deal directed St. James School's now-defunct Drum and Bugle Corps. He marched his troops through the streets of Mayfair subdivision, practicing maneuvers for their St. Patrick's Day parade appearance.
"No gaps and no stopping" is the mantra for Tuesday's parade drivers. As a first-timer I have additional goals--no sudden braking, no jerky acceleration, stay in the center, watch for darting children, and avoid rolling over the feet of walking family members.
From the back of the car, I hear Coach Deal --"Happy St. Patrick's Day!"-- shaking his trademark box of Lucky Charms cereal as he waves.
On Lafayette Square, Coach Deal hands a bottle of champagne to son James, instructing him to present it to a friend seated along the curb. "She's the one wearing green," says the coach without a hint of irony.
In front of the cathedral, we approach WTOC's overhead camera. Without prompting, 3-year-old Ella, who's spent the last ten minutes trying to untangle a mass of green beads, grasps the top of the windshield with one hand and pulls herself up to wave directly into the camera.
At times I hear my name shouted along the route. I wave but keep alert for darting children and wayward feet.
On East Broad Street, a fresh faced man in pressed green pants approaches, drink in hand.
"Happy St. Patrick's Day, Coach Deal, I just want to thank you for teaching me," he says with a handshake, identifying himself as a 1999 BC graduate.
At every lull, the car is swarmed by the walking Deals, checking on the coach and the boys in the back, swapping Ella with Annie at the parade's halfway point.
"We're rolling," I call. They fall back, feet out of harm's way. By the time we reach Bull Street, I am ready to ask the Deals to adopt me.
And then, it was over. The parade is a three hour affair for the spectators, but driving the route takes less than two. After paying respects to 2009 Grand Marshal Father Patrick O'Brien at his viewing stand, we turn the last corner.
Adjutants descend, peeling off the magnetic signs plastered to the car.
A minute later, I point the empty VW south on Whitaker Street, car top down, radio playing, ready for the next parade.
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