14: The Greatest Parade

14: The Greatest Parade

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Greatest Parade

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.

~Helen Keller

I’ve always loved parades. As far back as I can remember, parades have meant fun and excitement, music, and goodies thrown from colorful floats. But on Friday, September 2, 2005, I joined a parade I hated to acknowledge, even as my heart swelled to see it.

The floats in this parade bore reflectors and hazard lights, rather than neon illumination. The only colorful headgear took the form of uniform caps and safety helmets. The costumes bore logos of utility companies and military units rather than sequins and glitter.

No bands marched with gleaming instruments to accompany this parade. The only music came from dashboard sound systems. The thump of tires on asphalt provided the beat, accented by an occasional automobile horn sounding.

These riders didn’t laugh and call as they rode. They looked grim. Nobody stood along the way yelling “T’row me something, mistah!” Everyone who saw the parade pass threw kisses or salutes to them instead of asking for trinkets.

No king’s float led the way. The line stretched as far as I could see in front of me and as far back as my rearview mirror could reflect behind me. The utility trucks, cherry-pickers, ambulances, civil defense vehicles, relief organization vans, fire trucks, military trucks, landscape service trucks and more formed a procession which I accompanied from northern Illinois to Jackson, Mississippi. These were some of the amazing people who answered the call for help issued from the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I saw them and I cried.

Through tears of grief and gratitude, I spotted license plates from all over the U.S. and Canada. These were not the first folks to respond. Some of them had waited to gather supplies, personnel or equipment before embarking on the trip. Some had to be mobilized or wait for schedules to be arranged so that essential services at home wouldn’t be disrupted. But they all left families and homes behind them and joined the parade of responders that had begun earlier in the week, a line measured not in miles but in days.

As we continued south, storm damage began to appear around us: twisted road signs, broken trees, and debris lined the road. At gas stops, I recognized the dismay in my fellow travelers’ eyes as they contemplated what they might find at our destination.

I was in this parade because my mother was one of the many evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. I was collecting her from her evacuation site in West Monroe, Louisiana and taking her home to Illinois with me.

I left the southbound parade at Jackson to head west into Louisiana. Once I reached her, we headed back to Jackson to catch I-55 north to I-57 for the trip back to Illinois. As we headed north, my mother’s tears joined mine. Across the dividing green of the median, we could see the parade heading south, still constant in its flow. Her amazement at the number of people coming to help left her unable to say anything more than “Oh, thank God.”

But now we could also see the hand-lettered signs along the northbound exits, pointing evacuees to places of refuge and hot meals in towns from Jackson on north. With each sign, I said a prayer of gratitude, thanking God for the generous hearts of those people. They opened their homes and their larders to strangers fleeing a nightmare, and I loved them for it.

The convoy of people and equipment continued down the road toward the most heavily stricken areas of Mississippi and Louisiana and my prayers went with them. These folks and the residents of all those little towns along the interstate demonstrated the best of American spirit: the willingness to reach out to those in need. Every one of them was a hero in my eyes.

~Mary Beth Magee

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