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On parade (and behind the scenes)

NORTH CANAAN — Really, it’s a competition so fierce, it could be an Olympic sport. Tremendous effort goes into training and preparation. It brings together competitors from far and wide. Winners are often separated by tiny fractions of a point. But this event is first and foremost a mainstay of small town traditions. It is the firemen’s parade. The rolling display of fire engines, rescue vehicles and ambulance, sirens and flashing lights is a thrill that transcends entertainment trends. It is a chance for dedicated volunteers to show off the equipment for which they raise funds, buy, outfit, maintain and train to use. It is also a chance for the greater community to show its appreciation for the hard work of those who protect their safety.The parade in North Canaan is held at the same time as the high point of the 11-day Railroad Days festival — known to most local folks simply as “fireworks night.” The term applies to a day full of fun activities and events that lead up to one of the best pyrotechnics shows around. For the past few years, that evening has also been the night of the firemen’s parade sponsored by the Canaan Fire Company (CFC).This year, the parade will also be part of CFC’s 100th anniversary celebration. It is expected to draw fire companies from three states.If you’ve ever watched one of these parades from the proximity of the grandstand, you may have noticed a small group of people holding clipboards and getting up close and personal with the marchers and fire engines.It’s like an odd form of choreography as they match steps so they can inspect the men and women marching in the parade from head to toe. They crawl along the ground to check the underside of the firetrucks. Points, or more accurately fractions of points, are lost for everything from being out of step to a loose thread on a uniform or a spot of rust on a piece of equipment.There is a tremendous intensity within the judging zone. It is usually not felt by the spectators.A new era of easeThe July 16 parade will be about as low-key as parade participation gets for Canaan Fire Company members. Their firehouse overflows with trophies, but they’ve eased back from their prior level of extreme competitiveness. It’s a pace that’s difficult to maintain. Most fire companies take it in cycles.These days, it’s more about showing support for other fire departments, team building and offering another way for people to be contributing CFC members. Besides, in a tough economy, the company needs to put every penny it raises toward ever-increasing operating expenses.In the early 1990s, CFC member Maribeth Weaver was the driving force behind an up-cycle. She organized and trained the volunteers and kept the momentum going. She even trained as a parade judge — not just to be able to volunteer for the statewide judging corps but also because it was a valuable way to get competition pointers. Judges will also come out to visit fire companies and offer pointers.In 1996, the parade contingent won Best Unit Without Music. “It was a huge thing for us,” Weaver said. “We really started to be competitive.”The work and expense that goes into it can be so great that most departments set a goal of winning either in marching or equipment — although the equipment always goes to every parade.Work smart, not hardAmong the tricks the volunteer firefighters have learned along the way is how to maximize results with minimal effort. For instance, trophies are given for longest distance traveled. Last year, Michael Foley drove the 1971 Ford No. 9 fire engine to the Connecticut State Firefighter’s Convention in New London. “It was a long ride for that truck, and a lot of gas,” Foley said, rethinking the minimal effort part. “We probably won’t do that again. But it was great to see Norfolk [Volunteer Fire Department] win Best Overall. They are the ones to beat right now.”Foley said that among the preparations Norfolk volunteers will have to do to stay at the top of their game is to take a truck out of service and completely disassemble it to thoroughly clean and polish every bit. Not one loose threadWeaver laughs at memories of all the North Canaan volunteers went through in the quest for perfection.“First of all, we now keep the uniforms in the firehouse.”They learned very quickly that there will always be someone who jammed the uniform in the closet and/or tossed it on the back seat of their car. Either way, it would arrive at the parade hopelessly unpresentable. Eventually, they got an equipment van, hung the carefully tagged uniforms inside, and stocked it with steam irons, lint rollers and shoe polish. Each volunteer also had a plastic box for shoes, hat and other accessories.As soon as possible after returning home, everything had to be removed from the trailer. Uniforms were quickly run to the dry cleaners; hats, shoes, and other gear were properly sorted; uniforms then had to be picked up from the cleaners and the trailer repacked.But there’s more.“If you really want to be competitive, you have to have a band,” Weaver said, shrugging to indicate that that’s never going to happen here.But the North Canaan volunteers know they can always put up a good fight, even at the state level, in the 15-and-under category, competing against the smaller fire departments. They will go to about a half dozen parades this summer. Three qualifies them to go to the state convention in Clinton.You march and learnThey held fundraisers and switched from uniform shirts to coats. It wasn’t the best idea. They didn’t win nearly as much as they did in shirts. But shirts can be tricky. Too baggy, too tight, both are point busters. “The placement of things on a shirt or coat has to be exact,” Weaver said. “The best thing to do is keep it simple. Everything you put on a uniform means a possible deduction, like a loose thread on a patch.”Upon arriving at the parade lineup site, the firefighters change wherever they can do it — discretely or not. A number of people oversee the process.“I had someone with a toothbrush in charge of shoes,” Weaver said. “We even cleaned the bottoms, because the judges check. It’s something that can get lost in the shuffle, so it’s a good place to stay ahead on points.”“Once you had your shoes on, she made you stand on the grass,” Foley said of the shoe-and-toothbrush captain.Out on the parade route, someone who can call a precise street cadence is essential, as is a support crew. Before the marchers get to the judging area, they are checked for needed adjustments, such as lint or an untucked shirt or loose hair, and spacing between marchers.“The uniform judges are right on top of you,” Weaver said. “They march backward and literally get right in your face.”Foley added, “If they trip, it’s OK to step on them, as long as you stay in step.”The same goes with the truck judges. “Some of the drivers will get nervous when the judge is under the truck. They want to hit the brakes, but you just keep going.”Among the things they’ve learned is that black coats are not always the exact same shade of black, and on a sunny day, you can tell those that have been cleaned more often than the others.Point percentages can be earned for the number of people in a truck.“So if you have someone who can’t or doesn’t want to march, you talk them into being a passenger,” Weaver said.For general effect, they learned a banner is good, helping to create an impressive snapshot as they march into the judging area.For that matter, New York state parades offer a greater challenge. Judges are scoring in their individual categories the length of the parade route.“You never know what they will be looking for and when. You just hope they get to you early, because that’s your best chance to look good.”There have been plenty of memorable moments. Of course, they are mostly part of the craziness of pulling it all together.“Last year, I was judging in Kent, and one of our members saluted with the wrong hand. Then she said a bad word.”They lost part of a point for violating the no talking rule. It didn’t matter what was said.Then there was the firefighter who ended up with the wrong uniform. The pants were a little small, and it took two people to button them. “He was probably not breathing the entire parade.”Sometimes enthusiasm wins out over detail. A young member preparing to march in his first parade was given his box and told that after he got into uniform, he could put his street clothes in it. “When we got there, I asked him where his uniform was. He had put it inside his box, all rolled up.”

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