It Rained on Our Parade
It had not rained in Iowa City for eleven days. We had been experiencing a cooler than usual June, with day after day of amazingly great temperatures and low humidity. I should have known it wouldn’t last.
Iowa weather usually acts like a spoiled child and demands constant attention. The minute you look away, it will catch you in snow without a coat or a thunderstorm without an umbrella. Or the temperature will rise 30 degrees in a few hours and put you in a dripping sweat because you’re not wearing shorts. These are facts of life in Iowa. I forgot. I lowered my guard. I did not schedule a rain date.
For months, I had been focusing on creating a Fourth of July, New Orleans-style, second-line, jazz funeral march. This was to be a symbolic funeral for the Iowa River, held by volunteers from our Facebook group, Save The Iowa River (STIR). The planning went on: a casket, pallbearers, news coverage, musicians, music, marchers, signs, bottles filled with water from the Iowa River, parade permit, first aid kit, parking, tables, tent. When the word rain came to mind, I just told myself that there would be lots of umbrellas at the march anyway, in keeping with the motif; so, if it did rain, everything would work out just fine.
As the funeral day grew closer, I checked Weather.com a few times. I remember seeing sunny skies all week long, and a 50 percent chance of rain on Saturday. Only 50 percent! Okay, so I’m the eternal optimist. My glass is always half full. Even if it did rain that day, what were the odds that the 50 percent would include the hours from noon to 1:30?
Besides educating the public about the pollution in the Iowa River, we had another purpose for holding the parade. A friend of mine, Kevin J. Railsback, is an award-winning videographer. He wanted to use the footage of our funeral march in his full-length movie about the Iowa River.
Two of our dedicated interns, Jazmyn Whitman and Eleanor M., helped us put up posters around Iowa City. Then the four of us set up shop in City Park the week before the Fourth, pulling buckets of water out of the Iowa River, filling 900 recyclable bottles with very nasty water, and capping them. We hauled the five tubs of bottles to our home, washed the outsides to sanitize them, dried them and applied labels to each bottle. All this took a total of about forty hours, counting everyone’s input — much more than I had imagined.
Just to give you some insight on how to plan a New Orleans-style, second-line, jazz funeral march for a dying river, first — and most important — is the casket. You have to call every funeral home in the county. You have to beg.
If you are very lucky, like I was, you will find a funeral home director who is also an environmentalist. Dan Ciha, of Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services is the kind of guy who wants to build a completely green cemetery. No formaldehyde, no expensive caskets, just wrap your beloved in their favorite blanket and bury them in the good earth. I love this guy.
He must have a soft spot for the Iowa River, too, because he didn’t just deliver us a casket the day before the parade, he delivered us a beautiful wooden casket, handmade by the Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque. This one was a work of art, sculpted from native pine trees that they had harvested. At the abbey, they milled, dried, hand planed, and assembled the wood, then painted the casket with a light coat of varnish, praying all the while. It was stunning.
But there’s one thing about borrowing a wood casket: If Ciha ever wanted to sell it to a client after the parade, we could not get it wet. Saturday morning, we went back out to the Ciha funeral home and picked up a plastic casket cover.
The next very important element you need are pallbearers. I had called about a dozen strong, healthy, muscular, male friends, who I thought might have an environmental interest in the Iowa River — and who might get out of bed on a Saturday morning on the Fourth of July. That final criteria could have eliminated all of them. I figured I needed at least twelve pallbearers to carry the casket six blocks. That way, we could trade off, as the men got tired.
If everything went wrong, and say, it rained really hard that day, and not a single pallbearer showed up, I fully expected I would have to carry the casket myself. I had a two-wheeler ready just in case I had to roll it up the hill like a Fed Ex delivery man.
Probably the next most important prop for this funeral was the music. I had started contacting musicians two months earlier. I called, emailed, and wrote letters to about 50 different musicians. Each one was a fine artist, I am sure. Some I knew, some I did not. The first ones I contacted played every instrument that you would typically see in a New Orleans-style funeral march: trombone, trumpet, tuba, and saxophone.
The Iowa City Jazz Festival planners had told me I could hold our parade from noon to 1:30, because they wanted us to be finished playing when their concert started at 2:00. Almost every musician I talked to had already been booked at other gigs for the Fourth of July in other cities, or they were planning to march in that morning’s parade in nearby Coralville. Many of them thought they would be too tired to do both events, and many were afraid they could not travel the distance in time for a noon start for my parade. I got many well wishes, but very few commitments.
I found a band of five New Orleans-style jazz musicians from Davenport, who would play for $2,000, and a local group, who would play for $500. I had no budget to work with, but I verbally committed to booking the local band for the lower price anyway. Three days before the event, they canceled for a better offer. I began to worry.
If no musicians showed up, I figured I could use a boom box and just blast jazz music as we marched. I visited a friend at West Music to see if maybe there were other musicians in town. We seriously considered the following alternatives: banjo, ukulele, guitar, harp, violin, cello, marimba, steel drums, accordion, and harmonica.
At that point, my New Orleans-style jazz parade might have turned into a classical/Latin/folk/rock funeral parade. Maybe I could start a new trend. I took the list of names and phone numbers anyway. Before I left the store, I bought 20 kazoos as a last resort. Things weren’t looking too good.
When I got home, I had an email from a sousaphone player, John Manning. He said he was definitely going to be there. I had a band! I ran back to the music store to buy him some sheet music for “Down By The River Side” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
Friday evening before our parade, as I was walking around the Jazz Fest, checking out traffic patterns and security issues, I stopped and watched a group of very talented high school musicians. One particular saxophone player’s solo stood out. As Nathaniel Dean came off stage, I offered him a card and invited him to play at the march the following day. He very politely took the card. As he disappeared into the crowd, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.
I was worried about the build-up of clouds and a weather report that now showed a 75 percent chance of rain the following day. At midnight, it started raining.
My experience with Iowa rainstorms tells me that, if there’s lightning, thunder, wind, and dramatic clouds, the storm may be violent, but it will pass in a few hours. But, if there’s a solid gray cloud mass, no thunder, no lightning, and a steady drizzle, it’s likely to last a long time. This was a drizzle. I checked the radar on Weather.com at 1:00 AM. The map showed the whole state was completely shrouded with rain, and the cloud formation was barely moving. Things were looking bleak.
At 6:00 AM, I was back at the computer, looking for any breaks in the clouds. A large mass of clouds was heading straight east, down Interstate 80. When I put the map in motion, to predict the future progress of the storm, it indicated that there might be a break in the clouds by noon. That was all I needed. Hope!
At 8:00 AM, the phone started ringing. Half of the pallbearers called to cancel. “My car’s in the shop.” “I have a sick kid.” “I don’t feel well.” “I lost the keys to my truck last night.” You would have thought an epidemic had struck every person, car and set of keys in the county. The other half made the mistake of asking me first, “Are you still doing this thing?”
My answer was a resolute, “Yes!” I was counting on the radar I had seen. I frantically sent out emails to as many friends, relatives, musicians, and pallbearers as I could, telling them to hold true. The rain was going to stop. This funeral was going to happen.
By 11:00 AM, I was not so sure. While my friend Robert Garabedian and I set up the “rain tent” at the starting point, I was still receiving phone calls, mostly cancellations. It was still raining like crazy at 11:30, as my wife, our intrepid interns, and the casket showed up. 11:35. 11:40. I was beginning to look for my two-wheeler.
At 11:45, a few pallbearers, my son, my daughter and her husband arrived. I felt relieved when John Manning came walking in with his sousaphone. At 11:50, a few friends, a few more pallbearers and Nathaniel Dean, the young sax player, arrived. Now, we would have harmony! At 11:55, a television film crew and a newspaper reporter, more marchers, and more pallbearers drizzled in with the rain.
We had the minimum necessary to march: six pallbearers, two musicians, a casket, several people, the film crew, and a news crew. It was still raining.
Jazmyn and Eleanor handed out umbrellas, wooden spoons (our symbol for Save The Iowa RIVER — STIR), kazoos, sample bottles of the Iowa River and a written summary of what ails the Iowa River. At noon, our wet duo was sufficiently tuned up, the pallbearers lifted the casket, and we were off!
As I moved along the parade line, I looked into the faces of friends with matted hair, and water dripping into their eyes, a sousaphone player with an open umbrella bursting from his bell, a sax player wailing the blues with true suffering in his eyes, and six hearty, wet pallbearers, marching in step, rocking the casket to the music. I counted about 40 good, kind souls marching with me, and I didn’t hear a single word of complaint. Not one.
The sousaphone player stopped blowing while climbing the rather steep incline of the Jefferson Street hill. He asked if it we could march the rest of the way in silence. Before I could answer, twenty kazoos came alive with the fervor of a scene from The Music Man. “When The Saints Go Marching In,” complete with piercing lead solos, complex harmonies, a thundering base line, key changes, and long-held high notes, never sounded so good. I was stunned. And it was still raining.
We finished the march at the entrance to the University of Iowa‘s Pentacrest, at the west end of Iowa Avenue. We played more songs. We watched as the wet photographers and the wet videographers moved around us to get the best shots. We all signed a large letter to the governor of Iowa, our wish list of legislative action points, and we handed out bottles of Iowa River water to passersby. We dried off the casket and loaded it into my car.
Slowly, as if everyone did not want to appear to be giving into the rain, these kind souls and stalwart environmental activists departed. I shook their hands. I hugged them. I thanked them. I said goodbye.
And now, as I write what I remember of that day, I realize that I may have personally invited several hundred people to this event. Ten thousand may have read the invitation in the newspapers. Forty showed up to march in the rain. Together, we stirred the waters to get attention for the plight of the Iowa River. And I am eternally grateful.
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