There have been so many wonderful boat parades over the past 41 years, to recall them all would take a full July Fourth insert in a decade of Suburbanites and then some. So for now, allow me to concentrate on just the early years.
As I’m sure you already know, the genesis of the boat parade was 1976. It was merely intended to be a one time Portage Lakes contribution to the nation’s bicentennial celebration. The reasoning was that we had waterfront "main streets" while other communities had main streets of macadam. So rather than have a street parade, instead have a boat parade. In the end we had both.
With Marilyn Straub serving as the Portage Lakes Community Council’s Bicentennial Chair, she asked me to serve as a town crier in the street parade. I also formed the boat parade and served as the first chairman. Having never tackled anything such as a boat parade before, my committee forged ahead cold turkey, feeling our way and hoping everything turned out as we envisioned it would.
From that first boat parade, there were many entries, perhaps as many as 50 boats entered. But of all those boats in the first parade, there were three entries that have made an indelible mark on my memory. And even though it was 42 years ago, I can still name them. They were We The Peephole, Crossing The Delaware and A Boy and His Dog.
The first three words, We The People, are taken from the opening sentence of the preamble to our Constitution. To the delight of the crowds, We The Peephole was a humorous take on those famous words and how they used those words to decorate their boat.
On a 20- to 24-foot pontoon boat, they built the long sides up high, perhaps eight to ten feet on each side, and then enclosed the both front and back, leaving only the outboard engine exposed. On each side, the first sheet of the Constitution was painted in the form of an opened scroll. On the top, were printed the words Constitution of the United States in Edwardian script. Just below that were the first three words.
But instead of We The People, they wrote, We The Peephole. The "O" in Peephole was huge and the inside was cut out. This left a nautical window on each side for four or five people to stick their heads through and wave to the crowds watching on shore as the boat parade passed. Needless to say, it was a winner.
The second, Crossing The Delaware, was a re-enactment of General George Washington’s Christmas evening crossing of the icy Delaware River just north of Philadelphia during a blinding snowstorm. The stern of an 18- to 20-foot wooden Lyman was covered with just enough plywood and painted to hide the outboard motor.
As the engine propelled the vessel along the parade route to the delight of onlookers, the crew of about seven manned the "oars" with the good general himself standing in the bow, his one hand above his eyes as if he were shading them from the blinding storm, his other pointing across the river to the New Jersey shore.
Tri-angled hats that were popular in those long ago colonial days were worn by Washington and his crew, as well as shirts made from muslin cloth. While the father of our country donned a revolutionary jacket of buff and blue, his crew was not as fortunate. Along with torn bottoms of that day, they simply wore off white muslin shirts.
Huge pieces of white Styrofoam were somehow attached to the sides of the boat representing the ice floes our brave crew had to negotiate on the crossing. The temperature during the parade, however, was near the 90s and what struck the crowd as so hilarious was that each one, including Washington himself, wore shorts to keep cool and flogs. ‘Twas an interpretation of history as only the fun-loving people of the Portage Lakes could conjure.
The last one touched me deeply, as I’m sure it will you. In a 14-foot aluminum skiff, a young boy, determined to enter the parade, mounted his fishing outboard motor on the stern and sat near the rear steering his vessel with his small beagle dog sitting near the bow facing him. Periodically, he’d talk to the dog as if he was all alone and there were no crowds watching. Each time the dog would cock his head to the one side as if were listening intently and knew every word its master was saying.
The only decorations he had on his boat were three red, white and blue streamers on each side of the stern and a big American flag at the bow. So simple, yet so profound. I believe the first two entries won awards, but not the last. In my opinion, his dog and he should have.
I watched the young lad pass me and as he did I was never more proud to be part of a community activity such as this. It was a scene that will stay with me as for long as we continue this annual event and then some.