She dreamed of marching in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Was that so crazy?
We all have our bucket lists. True, many of us share the same dreams: visit faraway places, meet a famous person, accomplish an amazing feat. And some dreams are, shall we say, quirky.
For me, the dream was to march in the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And not just march. Specifically, I was a balloonatic. Stay with me here.
My secret came out one summer night when my husband, Bill, and I were sitting with some friends on their patio, watching fireflies and chatting. Maybe it was one of those pinpricks of light that sparked my confession when the subject turned to lifelong dreams.
“What I’ve always wanted to do,” I said, “is be one of those people who helps hold down the balloons as they travel the parade route. That would be the coolest thing!”
I thought my husband would fall out of his chair. I knew what he was thinking: What’s she talking about? What about football? And who’s going to cook dinner?
Well, I thought, maybe cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner all by himself is on his bucket list. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Our host’s eyes widened at my revelation. “You know something,” she said, “I know a balloon handler. She’s a childhood friend who works for Macy’s.” Wow! Who would’ve guessed?
As we were leaving, she said, “I’ll e-mail my friend and get you some info.” “Come on, Balloonatic,” Bill laughed, pulling me toward the car.
In truth, Bill knew I had a thing for the parade. It dated back to 1991 when I was single and new to New York City. That Thanksgiving my sister was in town and I dragged her across Central Park to see the giant balloons in action for the first time.
I always loved watching the parade on TV when I was a kid, but seeing it in all its magical, three-dimensional glory was unforgettable. That’s when my obsession took root.
I met and married Bill and moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey where we were raising four kids. When Billy reached four I took him and his older sister, Ryan, into Manhattan on Thanksgiving morning to see the parade for real.
Bill, who commutes into the city every day for work and is not crazy about crowds, was happy to stay home, watch football and get the turkey started. But Bill never knew how badly I wanted to be a part of the action.
Our friend’s friend, Janine Duboro, agreed to be my parade sponsor (nonemployees need a sponsor), though she warned me I might end up as a banner-holder at first. Early that October a thick packet arrived from Macy’s.
The qualifications were simple. Over 18? Yep. Weigh at least 125 pounds so you don’t fly away? Check. Desire to have fun? Definitely.
But here was the best thing: I’d been assigned to a new balloon, and no ordinary balloon either. I was on Ronald McDonald, one of the 15 behemoths in the parade and one of the most recognizable, iconic figures in the world.
“Bill,” I said, “this is like being in the Super Bowl.” And that’s when things started to get a little hairy.
There was an orientation and training sessions to attend. With four kids I was already squeezed for time. Then I began thinking about Thanksgiving. Being a balloonatic—that’s actually what we call ourselves, by the way—would eat up a big chunk of the day, starting at six in the morning.
Bill’s parents usually came in from Pennsylvania and we ate early so they wouldn’t have to drive home in the dark. And what about the kids? Who would take them? What if I was being selfish doing this?
What if, what if. The what ifs were keeping me awake at night. But what if it was God who had put this dream in my heart? That made a lot of sense to me spiritually so I just handed over my worries to him and said, “You’ll help me with all the details, right?”
The kids were great. They knew how much this meant to me even if they didn’t quite understand why. They were almost as excited as I was. They hitched rides to their practices and games and rescheduled things.
Bill said not to worry about dinner. We’d all pitch in and eat a little later. His parents and the rest of the guests would be just fine with it.
My first training session was held in the parking lot of Giants Stadium, appropriately enough. Guess how many balloonatics it takes to keep giant Ronald from flying off into the stratosphere? Seventy! I was stunned.
Winds can make these zeppelins unpredictable, so each team is assigned a flight-management crew, consisting of a pilot (many of them are actually licensed pilots), two assistant pilots, a captain (in charge of keeping the balloonatics enthusiastic and properly positioned) and two assistant captains.
Plus, the big balloons are tethered to two utility vehicles, each controlled by a driver and two lookouts. And because of the noise three million people can make along the parade route we had to learn hand and whistle signals.
One more thing. We had a cheer: I love burgers! I love fries! Here comes Ronald Supersize!
Thanksgiving morning. Nervous? You bet. But soon enough we were moving down Central Park West. I held on to my handling line with something called a bone, a simple spool-like device. Balloons are lowered and raised by wrapping the line around the bone.
I held on to my bone for dear life. I didn’t want to make a rookie mistake.
I took a glance up at this massive helium balloon, all 528 pounds of him—76 feet long, 28 feet wide and 48 feet tall. We turned onto Central Park South. People were packed four deep on the sidewalks, cheering and laughing and clapping. Little kids squealed and leapt at the sight of the famous redheaded burger clown.
Have you ever felt that at the very moment that you are fulfilling a dream that you are actually in a dream? Like when you walk down the aisle to get married or hold your baby in your arms for the first time?
There is a kind of unreality to it. This can’t really be happening to me, you think. It feels a little like a miracle.
That’s how I felt, tugging on my handling line and seeing all those people. No, doing this wasn’t what was on most people’s bucket lists, but for me it was the dream of a lifetime.
As we entered Columbus Circle there was Bill with the kids, waving and cheering. The man who hated crowds had brought the brood to see me march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I didn’t dare let go of my bone, of course, not even to risk a little wave. But in the picture Bill snapped, you can see both a huge smile on my face and a tear running down my cheek.
Some dreams do last. Some dreams you hang onto (literally, right?). I march almost every year in the parade, doing something I love.
I’ll be a clown this year, in fact, instead of a clown handler. And all those what ifs that dogged me at the beginning have become a single, simple question: What if we all lived for our dreams and trusted the details to Someone else? That would really be something to hang on to.
Ann shares some Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade trivia!
This story first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Guideposts.
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