NEWTOWN, Conn. Ten thousand decisions go into creating a big, boisterous parade. No one knows that better than Robin Buchanan, who for years has juggled the lineup of the Labor Day parade that has jubilantly closed out every Newtown summer for more than five decades.
But never before had this happened: calls and emails from regulars, folks who always marched, concerned about the most basic decision of all.
"Are you going to have a parade," they asked her, "this year?"
Meaning: After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the eulogies for 20 first-graders and six educators, amid the drumbeat of news stories across the country and hushed conversations around town, all adding up - still - to incomprehension.
A parade -- this year?
On an icy evening back in January, barely a month after the shootings, a small group met with sad hugs to confront that question.
It's always been a daunting task for the Labor Day Parade Committee to map out the two-hour extravaganza - to arrange the vintage warplane flyovers or get the stagecoach that's pulled by four matched horses or the ballfield-size American flag, or whatever, to make sure of security and to hash out ways to pay the bills.
But this time, the committee members - two of whom serve out of devotion even though they're divorced from each other - sat hollow-eyed under the fluorescent lights of a bank conference room. Outside, handmade memorials still fluttered on lampposts. The funerals were still raw memories.
How could you focus on a parade? Who would be the grand marshal, a happy honor normally but surely a heavy burden this time around? What would the theme be? Could it be anything but a memorial? But if so, what kind of parade is that?
"How's everybody doing?" someone asked. There were tears as they went around the table, answering. It's a tight group, and this was the first time they'd been together since "the incident."
Yet they knew that planning a parade is a long process. And they sensed that, somehow, this year it could be one piece of the enormous task facing the shattered town and many beyond it, of finding ways to move forward through grief.
So they got going, staying on the mundane issues of assigning duties and making preliminary decisions.
"I think we're all kind of nervous about how we proceed," said Beth Caldwell, the head of the committee, a petite, hard-charging real estate agent by day. Through the months ahead, she would work to maintain a delicate balance "respectful of what has happened and still offering an avenue of celebration." Often, she'd be the one, when discussions turned somber, who injected a laugh or a cold dose of let's-keep-moving reality.
"We can say what we want to happen," she said, assessing the job ahead, "but the parade kind of takes on a life of its own."
Newtown's parade has been a fixture since 4,000 spectators turned out for the first step-off on Sept. 3, 1962. It often falls on a glorious Indian summer day, but even in drizzle, people come out - to see their neighbors march, to catch the veterans' color guard or the cartwheeling gymnastics team, or just to laugh at parade nonsense, like the grand marshal who once showed up in a gorilla suit and roller-skated the whole route.
Parade mornings start early. At first light, you see cars pulling to the curb all along Main Street, and folks unloading folding chairs and blankets that will line more than a mile of lawns. Having staked out front-row spots, they drive away for a quick breakfast.
Meanwhile, you'll see a kilted bagpiper or perhaps a couple of Minutemen in full regalia, or maybe even Abe Lincoln in his stovepipe hat, heading north along the sidewalk to join their units. Obliviously, they'll pass a cheerleader and football player, both also in uniform, hurrying the other way to join theirs.
And blending incongruously with regular traffic, you'll notice polished Model T's or finned 1950s Cadillacs with their tops down, Army jeeps and spindly antique farm tractors spouting puffs of black exhaust. They, too, cruise toward their places in line.
Then, with a siren's whoop and the rattle of snare drums, it starts.
For two hours, the flood of marchers, floats, politicians, clowns, bands and Civil War re-enactors glides past, the latter stopping every once in a while to fire a rifle salute that startles old folks and sets a few babies bawling. There are animals of all kinds, from equestrian units and rescued shelter dogs to alpacas and, sometimes, beribboned cows from a dairy farm on the edge of town.
A couple years ago, volunteers were called to help unfurl and carry "the largest American flag" which stretched across the wide street. Spectators spontaneously joined in, marching along with children dancing in the moving shadow underneath.
Civic groups, businesses and church congregations walk and wave. The schools muster their smiling, shouting herds, including the elementary schools including, some years, Sandy Hook Elementary.
So this was the parade that marched for five decades, lighting up the town, right up through Labor Day 2012, three months before the world first heard of Newtown.
A foot of snow from a weekend nor'easter covered the ground when the parade committee members got down to business at their second organizational meeting in February.
They went over the items agreed on back in January: Though they'd considered several possible grand marshals - from the police chief to the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which lost so many children - they'd decided no one person was enough this year. The whole town would marshal this parade, in effect.
They'd settled on the theme during a discussion about qualities they wanted to highlight. Committee secretary Dan Cruson, the town historian who takes a long view, noted, "we're strong" - meaning the town would get through this. And Caldwell, looking up from taking notes on the suggestions, offered her own: "We are Newtown, marching strong." Adopted.
They talked about fundraising, about the printed book of sponsors and participants, about coping with a crowd that could be bigger than usual. And, as always, they pondered the lineup order.
What about the first responders' place this year? As they talked that over, someone mentioned the little boy who'd wanted to be a fireman - and whose funeral drew hundreds of firefighters from everywhere, lined up in respect.
After a silence, they moved on: to the reviewing stand MCs, the politicians who'd turn out, the portable restrooms.
"What do we do with the re-enactors shooting guns?" asked Buchanan, committee vice president, posing a question that had been raised by a Civil War group.
"I think they should be able to shoot their guns," said Andy Cluff, the treasurer, and Caldwell's ex-husband.
"I really think that's going to be an issue, the guns," Caldwell said.
Others joined in, but there was no decision. They'd take it up later.