Families around America last week tuned in to the 82nd Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. As turkeys roasted in the oven, children wearing pajamas sat on living room floors watching giant balloons sail down the west side of New York's Central Park toward Times Square. Floating replicas of SpongeBob, Buzz Lightyear, Dr. Seuss' Horton the Elephant and Pokemon's Pikachu brought wide-eyed excitement to millions of young ones along the parade route and watching on television. The dozens of balloons were intermixed with clowns, marching bands and floats carrying celebrity entertainers.
It is one of our country's great holiday traditions. This year it was even more special for our city, because the band representing Florida — only 10 states' bands were featured — was "the Greater St. Petersburg Area Awesome Original Second Time Arounders." The band with the long name, at 500 strong, was also one of the largest bands in the Macy's parade history. They call themselves the "Rounders" and feature a talented group of musicians, majorettes and flag corps members.
The Rounders, founded in 1983, are built on the simple concept that people shouldn't stop having fun when they finish school. This band is for everyone.
Former high school and college marching band members are joined by a few students and some folks who have never before played a note but are willing to carry a flag or tote a banner. St. Petersburg's contingent in New York, with folks from their teens to their 80s, played and marched with one voice and spirit.
Ten buses filled with the sleepy St. Petersburg faithful pulled out of a Newark hotel parking lot at 2:15 a.m. Thanksgiving Day. In Manhattan, at about 4 a.m., they assembled in near-freezing weather, put on their hats and unfurled their flags for the full-dress predawn practice in front of the parade officials. After breakfast at Planet Hollywood — who knew you could get breakfast there? — the group was bused to the parade's starting block for a three-hour wait in the cold. The parade began at 9 a.m., and the Rounders launched sometime after 10 a.m. for a 2½ mile march ending with their 11:09 a.m. televised performance.
I had the best spot in the house for the band's show. There are no guitars in a marching band, so I was invited to represent the city by carrying the "Florida" banner with my family in the parade. Approaching Herald Square, we moved our banner to the back as the Rounders marched to the doorstep of Macy's department store and played Let the Sunshine In for the nationally televised audience. Standing to the side and watching members of this rare assembly play and march their hearts out, I was proud to be St. Petersburg's mayor.
We live in a city with many special qualities and traditions. Our community loves the Saturday Morning Market, First Friday, First Night on New Year's Eve, the Florida Orchestra and American Stage in the Park, Ribfest and the countless other cultural, sporting and community events in our downtown and parks throughout the city.
I believe the Rounders are one of St. Petersburg's treasures. At the group's Thanksgiving dinner after the parade, I talked with people of all ages and professions who were misty-eyed as they described the feeling of being enthusiastically welcomed by hundreds of thousands of bundled-up paradegoers while passing through Columbus Circle and under skyscrapers. Many first imagined themselves marching down Broadway when they were studying Algebra 1.
We all should remember their story. Those who believe that they may be past the time for going to college, learning to fly an airplane or starting a new career should reconsider that belief, and ponder the lessons provided by this special group and Thanksgiving Day 2008. People who participated in their last high school band performance five, 20 or 60 years ago never gave up on the dream of marching into Herald Square to perform for the world at America's most magnificent parade. On Thursday that dream came true.
The Awesome Original Second Time Arounders teach us that it is never too late to achieve great things if we focus on where we want to go, not just on where we have been or how many days have passed by. As America enters the next chapter of its remarkable history, this is a good lesson to be reminded of today.
Rick Baker is mayor of St. Petersburg.