I’ve never been much of a parade person. Not even as a kid was I moved to stand sidelined watching tractors, fire trucks, flat bed trailers made to look like scenes from movies, and local politicians throwing candy at kids while said kids clamored on small town main street for the candy they typically tossed in the garbage when the same ended up in their Halloween treat bags.
Growing up in small town Indiana in the early 80s it seemed the parade was the thing to get everyone of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds together for a “thing”. They were less a celebration of an ideology and more a celebration of community. Some national holidays brought out the floatillas and municipal vehicles; Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Fourth Of July. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, sure, but that seemed less a parade for community and the holiday itself and more just a bloated display of commerce.
But typically parades were a community thing, put together by town councils, Lions Clubs, businesses, and local organizations. One of the most prominent parades around these parts was the Mermaid Festival Parade.
The Mermaid Festival takes place in North Webster, Indiana, a small lake community 15 minutes north of where I live off state road 15. It’s the kind of sleepy little town that pops and sizzles in the summer months with local lakers living the life in their summer homes cruising on Lake Tippecanoe, Webster Lake, Syracuse Lake, and Lake Wawasee. There’s not a whole lot in Webster, but it’s enough to sustain a tourist-y area; grocery store, a CVS, a couple gas stations, crafty shops, upscale clothing boutiques, a community center with a YMCA inside, a library, of course bait and tackle shop. There’s also a very busy liquor store, Subway, Bourbon Street Pizza, Hothead Burritos, and of course a strip club.
Yes, North Webster has been home to a gentlemen’s club as far back as I can remember. Located right off downtown, it’s current incarnation is called Nightshift Gentlemen’s Club, but for years it was called Stimmelators. You knew they were open for business as you drove home at night from miles away because they had a spotlight on top of the building as a “beacon of boobs” for, I don’t know, lonely(horny) sailors in the night? It’s been a place of much controversy for decades. Maybe not as controversial as the XXX-rated drive-in that was open in the late 70s just north of Webster called ‘The Wawa’, but that’s another story entirely.
Point is, every community has their little festivals with parades and North Webster’s Mermaid Festival is a big one around here.
I don’t ever remember going to The Mermaid Festival as a kid. My parents weren’t festival people. My dad once gave me a choice when I asked if we could go the Kosciusko County Fair as a young lad, “Well, do you want to go to the fair or do you want to go to McDonalds?” Well of course I chose McDonalds(I was pretty easy to dissuade when it came to food over anything.)
Warsaw, the town the post office calls my hometown used to have Pioneer Days. They’d close off downtown on a Friday and Saturday, bring in rickety rides, toothless carnies, and cotton candy stands and do the festival thing. All the downtown merchants set up tables outside their businesses and had sidewalk sales. I think there was even some sort of bike race, too(I believe that morphed into Fat Skinny Tire Festival in nearby Winona Lake, IN.) My mom took me to Pioneer Days a few times because there was sales involved. I liked Pioneer Days because it didn’t feel like a festival. It just felt like walking around downtown, but with more activities, elephant ears, and lemon shake-ups.
There’s a chance that I did go to the Mermaid Festival at some point in the 90s, but I can’t remember. The first time I remember actually going to the Mermaid Festival was for the parade in 2019. Our son was marching with the Warsaw Tigers Marching Band and my wife and I drove 20 minutes, parked in a field, and made our way to the main drag in North Webster for a good view. We ended up finding a perch in front of The River, which is a coffee shop in Webster that attached to Pilchers Shoes. Pilchers is a local legend, both as a shoe shop where you can locate a size 18 shoe, and for the fact that it was a sports Hall Of Fame. I won’t go into that story, but I implore you to google Pilchers Shoes and check out the history. It’s a hoot.
The advantage of sitting next to The River Coffee Shop was that we could head in there and into the glorious air conditioning. We grabbed a couple iced coffees and let our body temps return to normal. It was a hot day, to say the least. We did enjoy the parade, though. I mean, that was the whole point of going was to see the kids play their school songs as they marched down State Road 13. There were also plenty of tractors, all-terrain vehicles, and various municipal vehicles clanging their horns attempting to scare someone into incontinence.
All in all, it was a decent afternoon in 2019 at the Mermaid Festival. It was also a tradition for the Warsaw Marching Band to perform at the parade. Had been for many years. So you could say that 2020 and 2021 kind of threw a wrench in that plan.
The Mermaid Festival was cancelled due to Covid the last two years, so when we got the email that the band was performing at Mermaid Festival 2022 I have to admit there was a twinge of excitement. Not only for the fact that we’d get to see all the local townie weirdos and well to-do lakers hanging street side for the Depression-era candy and painted on smiles from floatillas, but that we’d get to see our son march one last time in the Mermaid Festival Parade, as he’s heading into his Senior year of high school.
The parade was this past Saturday, and it was not the sweat fest from 2019. It was overcast skies and we even got a few raindrops. Fortunately we found a decent spot on the street, right across from the North Webster Public Library to perch and enjoy the festivities. There was a pretty great turnout for the parade. I guess folks figured they better get out this year, as who knows what biological horrors await us in the future.
I gotta be honest, it was a pretty lackluster time. The sun of 2019 brought some kind of solar positivity to the proceedings, as the parade under overcast, grey skies gives off an air of oppression. The cop cars, fire trucks, and EMTs with their sirens blaring and chubby, shaved-headed dudes driving said municipal vehicles slinging Tootsie Rolls and Dum-Dums to the local dum-dums seemed so much more menacing than it should have. I swear there were at least 20 Polaris all-terrain vehicle that drove by as if we were in a Mad Max film(though, none of those cats in The Road Warrior were wearing Izods and designer aqua socks.)
Maybe it was the fumes from countless diesel trucks that drove by, but I was feeling as if I was in some kind of Dystopian-like Tarkovsky film. Everyone began to look a little more distorted, angrier, and menacing. The dude across the street downing Miller Lites seemed to be staring at me exclusively; smiling like a drunken townie clown giving me perverse thumbs ups as the Cutie Float slithered by with young girls made up like Jon Benet Ramsey.
I was near panic level when the Warsaw Band made their way by playing their song and doing their military-style funk the only way they know how. That brought me out of the Dali-esque nightmare I’d started to slip into. As soon as the band passed I looked at my wife, “Ready to go?” “Yep”, she said. Though we weren’t in the clear, as my wife brought a little extra dough for an elephant ear and a lemon shake-up. $14 later we had a thin-as-paper Elephant Ear and a waste of plastic full of lemon drink. We sat down near the Midway and ate the ear of the elephant and watched the Osha-violating rides creak and click as the locals put their lives in danger on the 35-year old Scrambler. Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me(When I’m Gone)” blasted through blown out EV PA speakers as some skinny, mulleted local gave the devil horns as he rode on the mechanical swings. Nearby the kiddie train was being maintained by a lady in her late-60s by re-shoving the wood block under the tracks where it had worked its way out.
It was time to go.
Am I a little sad that this is the last Mermaid Festival Parade that we will be somewhat obligated to go to? Yeah, a little. I guess it’s kind of easy to romanticize these kinds of things. I’m sure I was ready to leave back in 2019 as the band passed by us on the street, but time and age and nostalgia has a way of making the mundane into the magical. More than the parade, I guess I’m just going to miss seeing one of my kids doing something; being a part of something. I was a loner as a kid. I wasn’t in band or in any activities, and while I acted like I was too cool for school, deep down I longed to be a part of something bigger than me. The fact that two out of three of my kids were in fact part of something bigger than themselves made me proud. Seeing them involved in Band was pretty amazing. And now, it seems those parade days are gone.
That is, until Pierceton Days in August.