Independence Day in Racine, Wisconsin is a big deal. In the middle part of the last century, it was an even bigger deal – carnival at the lakefront’s Pershing Park, fireworks over the harbor breakwaters after dusk, and the parade. Oh, the parade! Not until the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus Parade came to Milwaukee was there a larger, longer and more magnificent parade than the Goodwill Parade in Racine in the entire state of Wisconsin.
Racine was the Drum Corps Capital of the World, so not only did the parade feature the local, award-winning corps such as the Kilties and the Boy Scout Chrome Domes, but it attracted corps from all over the country, with twenty units proudly marching the four-mile route. And then there were the floats. All the major manufacturers competed to produce the best decorated float – Massey Fergusen, Hamilton Beach, J. I. Case, Walker Manufacturing, Twin Disc, S. C. Johnson – just to name a few. Not to be outdone were the equestrian units, the clowns, the steam calliope, the VFW, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts marching along and the Mayor, Miss Racine, Miss Union Grove, Miss Wisconsin all riding in the latest convertibles. The two floats that always brought the crowd to its feet were the Boys of ’76 and raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Costumed men in bronzed clothing and skin performed as living statues, holding their poses for almost the entire route.
Fire trucks and squad cars, sirens blaring announced the parade’s beginning. Street sweepers cleaning up after the horses brought up the rear. Parade units gathered at the intersection of Main and High Streets, north of the bridge. Crossing the bridge over the Root River, they proceeded through downtown, then south past the elegant Main Street homes until turning west at Fourteenth Street where they dispersed between Villa Street and Grand Avenue. The Goodwill Parade was a glorious, cacophonous, colorful, celebration attended by tens of thousands.
We lived in a humble, century-old bungalow on Villa Street, one-half block from 14th Street. In the days before porta-potties, our home’s single bathroom was a strategic location. Although the parade began at 9:00 AM, the lead units would not reach our end of town until after 10:00. By 8:00, family and friends from Racine, Kenosha, and Milwaukee began arriving. Dad pulled his car as far up into the driveway as he could so that two more cars could fit behind it. Another two cars could squeeze onto the front and side lawns. Latecomers had to hope the other neighbors had not taken up all the spaces on the street. Mom had five pounds of potato salad chilling in the fridge and a huge pot of hot dogs boiling on the stove along with several pitchers of Kool-Aid and boxes of potato chips for the hordes that would descend after the last street sweeper passed the corner. My older siblings and cousins lined the curb and sidewalk abutting Beck’s Warehouse with blankets to claim our parade-watching spots. The aunts took turns minding the kitchen so that Mom would have the opportunity to catch at least some of the parade.
As far as I was concerned, the Fourth of July was the biggest and best holiday of the year, even overshadowing Christmas…until July 4, 1960. I was six years old…and I had chickenpox. A sick child was not about to deter the dozens of people who would avail themselves of my parents’ hospitality (and the all-important bathroom) on our nation’s birthday. So, I was relegated to quarantine in the hot confines of the attic. Oh, I could step out onto the roof where I could hear the commotion happening around the neighborhood, but I could not see a blessed thing. And, since it was believed that reading while having chicken pox could cause permanent eye damage, I was forbidden my books. Facing four hours of solitary confinement, I rebelled. Hearing the approaching sirens of the lead units, I knew I had to act fast. The house was empty of all save Mom, and she was in the kitchen tending the hot dogs. I slipped down the attic ladder and out the front door. Knowing I could not join the family at our usual spot, I headed north…all the way up to 12th Street for good measure, and then the four blocks east to Main Street. The sidewalks were packed six or more deep, but a small, six-year-old girl could slip between the standing adults. I found a few clear inches of curb and parked myself there. With children everywhere, no one took notice of me. Sitting in the hot sun, I looked with longing on the ice cream and soda vendors who pulled their coaster wagons along the route. I had no money with me, so they and their temptations passed me by. All too soon, though hours had passed, the steam calliope was playing its songs. The parade was coming to an end and I knew I could not stay any longer. I had to get back before my parents knew I was gone. Racing up the streets and through back yards, I cautiously approached our house. I could hear laughter coming from the front porch. Mom and the aunts were there, so I slipped in through the back door, to the middle bedroom and up the ladder into my sanctuary. I had done it. Even though I would not be permitted the carnival and fireworks this summer of 1960, I had seen the parade with no one the wiser.
Although I did understand that about a week later, there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the city.