It was 1995 and we were watching the news one Christmas evening. The local segment talked about the upcoming Rose Parade float decoration. A piece about the City of Long Beach float mentioned where it was being decorated and that if volunteers wanted to participate that’s where they should go.
“You kids want to go decorate floats?” my mom asks. We’re on winter break, with nothing to do to discharge all this restless energy, and watching the Rose Parade on TV was always a big deal in our house. Some years we were lucky enough to see the floats in person post-parade. After a brief moment of being blown away that we could be part of the pre-parade activity, we agreed – so in the wee hours of the morning on December 26th I put on grubby blue jeans and layered an oversize sweatshirt on top of an old t-shirt, expecting to get a little messy.
When we first arrived, the guards weren’t sure what to do with us. We weren’t part of a group that was expected, and nobody there knew the local news had sent out the recruitment request. So there were a lot of messages run back and forth, while we stood out in the cold, until finally a float – not Long Beach but another group – was found that was willing to put us to work for a bit. So we glued seeds until the area was covered, and found ourselves drifting. Since we weren’t with the religious group, the Pedal Pushers, and we weren’t known by the decorating directors, a woman and two teens weren’t really welcomed or expected to do much.
But every time a float agreed to let us help, we put our all into it. I was getting my jeans covered in glue. I climbed into odd spots to ensure complete coverage, while not damaging the existing work. Mom always had an eye for flower arranging. My brother Andrew’s hands were black with poppy seeds. We were all willing to do the most tedious of tasks, like prepping the mums with a dot of glue on the back of each for a tray that would be carried over to the people actually working on the floats. As evening approached, the head decorator from Long Beach found out about us, and let us help his crew prep flowers. So I carefully cut carnations into individual petals, taking to heart the feedback of whether I was cutting them too long or too short for the task.
Eventually the head of Long Beach’s float, a man with a grumpy face and a sharp way of speaking came over to talk to us. I was genuinely hoping I wasn’t in trouble as he looked me over. “How old is she?” he asked my mom. We let him know I was thirteen, and his mouth never showed it, but his eyes grinned. “Are you afraid of heights?” Nope, no problem with heights. The eyes brightened again, and I got a new assignment.
Turns out in order to go up on the scaffolding, you had to be at least 12. I was small for my age, which was a huge asset in this case. In order to fit the float in the warehouse, it had to be in it’s folded down configuration, which it does to pass under the bridge at the end of the parade. This meant that the pelican at the front and top of the float was folded in half, and his front side, which had been covered in coconut before being folded down, now needed those fresh carnation petals glued on to his scarf. The scaffolding ran under his wings, but the adults on the crew were too big to fit through the opening and sit there doing the work. Which meant I was sent up the rickety set up, squeezed under the wing, and sat in a relatively peaceful little oasis, gluing radiantly red fluttery flower bits to look like a wind-swept scarf! It smelled AWFUL. The glue they used was overwhelming, the coconut is my least favorite scent as it can make me nauseous, and the little bits of everything were getting stuck in my hair if I moved wrong. But it was great, I carefully layered the pieces, and understood why we’d cut the length of those carnation petals so carefully before, and just knocked it out. I was so well placed, I actually had a runner getting me the petals and glue when I needed refills, so I didn’t have to leave until the dinner break.
And thus I developed a great reputation. Meanwhile Mom’s eye for placement didn’t go unnoticed either, so the float director (and driver, we found out) made sure we would be back the next day. And the next. We were occasionally loaned out to other floats, but he always called us back when he could use us. All the way through New Years Eve, being a few of the rare volunteers asked to help with the last minute touches on the floats after they were moved out to the street for judging. Seeing all the floats at their towering heights, all dolled up with their finest and freshest flowers, was amazing. I was a part of that.
By the way, that glue never comes off. I swear, I probably still have particles of it stuck to my skin. Even after you wash your hands in the diluted turpentine smelling concoction they have out back to wash the brushes in. Never.