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April 11, 2006

Monday's Parades

Roy Meachum

Elsewhere you can read how all those Latino demonstrations turned out yesterday. This column was written long before law enforcement officials and organizers quibbled about how many people actually showed up.

Once upon a time counting noses at public turn-outs was considered big cities' events. Smaller places did little more than report how the spectators reacted, usually in a positive sense. In America's hinterland, blocking off the main drag was once the purview of civic and patriotic groups.

The circus remained exempt from the ban against commercial enterprises. But then the brass band, the clowns and the wild animals (safely caged) justified themselves.

By the time I came along, Canal Street no longer boasted of the trapeze ladies, the strong man and the splendidly attired ringmaster. New Orleans had joined its larger northern neighbors in bringing the Biggest Show on Earth into town on trains.

Newspapers and radio stations let us know when all the acts unloaded. Kids were invited along to carry water and hay for the elephants; the pay off was free tickets.

The pre-show activities belonged to the roustabouts, who hoisted the big top up to the heavens, as well as minding all the critters. They hired a few locals but the real muscle for the heavy work came from elephants in those days; tractors arrived later.

I remember once seeing the troupe's men and women; they looked less than enthusiastic and painfully washed out. The clowns in particular cried out for their gaudy makeup and outrageous costumes. Even the so-called freaks in the sideshow scarcely drew a glance.

Visiting my great-grandparents in Monroe one summer, I happened to stumble on the circus parade that starred Clyde Beatty, the famous animal trainer, known from the movies. He sat atop a wagon seat, drawing adulations from lesser mortals.

My father bought me cotton candy that year, and roasted peanuts; the hulls wound up embedded in the empty lot taken over by Mr. Beatty and his assistants.

Tucked in one corner the row of buses and trucks served to remind us we would awaken one morning and the whole shebang had vanished.

Certainly New Orleans must have boasted more than Armistice Day parades with the men in their World War I uniforms, complete with puttees. I never know - nor thought to ask - where all the helmets came from. That's all I can recall except for Mardi Gras, but that's all together something else.

In time, there was a hoop-to-do about the Sugar Bowl game; I remember going along to the old Tulane Stadium for the contest between Texas Christian University's Horned Frogs and California's St. Mary's Gaels. Most of the crowd came from locals.

While New York and maybe Chicago and Philadelphia might have drawn protest demonstrations against the country delving again into Europe's troubles, they existed only on newsreels.

When I came to Washington the first public spectacle I witnessed, the annual Armed Forces Day, fit snugly into the patriotic role. Cherry Blossom festivals and school safety parades represented the civic events.

The peaceful assembly on the Mall that gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream," in 1963, was easily the biggest turnout I had ever witnessed, bigger than Inauguration Day.

The tone on the streets turned problematical later. In their great frustration African-Americans provided a key element in keeping the national pot boiling. But the anti-war protests provided the real heat.

Not until Vietnam had I seen anything like the mobs that staged opposition to the government; I was a Washington reporter when I trekked along, wary about the tear gas and where the violence might spark from.

As the opposition mounted, headed for the May Day debacle, Catholics slipped in between; they were unhappy with the way Vatican II turned out, especially Rome's attempt to "fire" Charlie Curran.

The priest-theologian's "cause" shut down Catholic University for a week. The curia backed down; it took almost 20 years and ramrodding by the present pope to send the Reverend Curran packing. He's now on faculty at Dallas' Southern Methodist University.

In the event, it's difficult to tell when the current furor over immigration rights will settle down. And what comes next.

As you know, Latinos have become the country's most powerful minority; having passed African Americans some time ago. In Los Angeles they top every other demographic group - including whites!

This is a subject we have dealt with before on For some further thoughts, check out next Sunday's Frederick News-Post.

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