When you look back on the sepia-toned memories of your life as a teenager, you definitely begin to think of the hallmark moments. You know, your first love, your first broken heart, losing your virginity, getting into college, going to prom, graduating, and winning the homecoming float competition.
I know that a pile of wood, chicken wire, and tissue paper should not be in the same league as my first sexual encounter, and maybe I truly am a nerd for thinking so. But I still vividly recall the day junior year that I sat on a flatbed trailer and manned a generator as my class paraded down Main Street to its eventual victory. We had spent the better part of the previous week making sure that we had enough tissue paper and chicken wire to cover what would become a four-layer cake and a giant American flag. And that the carousel motor we’d hooked up to the bottom layer would properly spin and not look like something out of Home Improvement. And that the skit our class was perform at halftime was as perfect as possible.
Homecoming at Sayville High School usually took place at the beginning or middle of October. The football team had a few games under its belt by then, and the leaves were just starting to turn a perfect golden color that only seems to appear in small towns like mine. Anyway, it was around this time that the student government would gather in a closed-door meeting to take care of three things: the planning of a homecoming dance that always wound up being something out of Sixteen Candles; the election of homecoming royalty, which came with its own “share the wealth” rules; and the theme. My friend Rich always paid the most attention to the last item, because usually within a day or two of that meeting, he would be asked to design our class’s float. I’d say it was because Rich was our class’s resident handyman, and while that was true, the decision was also a result of typical class project mentality. In other words, there’s that one kid who not only takes the job seriously, but also can pull it off as best as possible and won’t flake at all. In his own way, our class could count on Rich to be Bob Vila.
I know that Rich was psyched for junior year because of our crappy showing as sophomores, right down to the part where we misspelled “sophomores” during our improvised cheer (although it’s still not as bad as misspelling “Jamaica” on your float, which my sister’s class did their freshman year). The theme sophomore year had been “decades;” we had been stuck with the 1920s and decided to build a speakeasy. A good idea in theory, but it had a 12-foot high wall that was up to code, so I guess none of us were really surprised that we came in third. Needless to say, we had something to prove. I mean, building the float and standing on it as our class marched down Main Street should be something to be proud of. None of us had been in a parade since the Memorial Days of our Little League careers, so we felt that it was time for us to really step up to the plate. Our theme junior year was “Great Moments in History,” and our float was specifically asked to be “The Birth of America.”
So, Rich grabbed my friend Tom and I, and designed a birthday cake float that would commemorate the birth of our great nation. It was rah-rah, it was uber-patriotic, it was perfect for a place that my wife would, upon her first visit, call “A Jack and Diane sort of town.” The challenge was that the previous year, the class of 1996 had won by building a World War II plane. It had a spinning propeller, which was cranked by someone sitting in the cockpit. Rich knew how to one-up that presentation — his dad owned a company that supplied bubble gum machines and sidewalk rides to stores like Sayville Card & Gift. And he happened to have a working carousel base.
About a week after drawing up the float’s blueprints, while he watched the freshman and sophomore classes’ pre-game skits, Rich gave the yearbook photographer a quote: “It spins, it wins!” Yes, it was bold prediction, seeing that we weren’t supposed to go on until halftime, but by that time we had picked up enough confidence from our parade. Of course, things hadn’t started that way. As I recall, the spinning cake idea was met with some skepticism from those in charge, mainly because it was a very “well … you’ll see it when it’s done” type of thing. That and we had to ward off way too many people who thought someone popping out of the cake would be a good idea. Which is typical. I mean, we’ve all been through enough group experiences to know that there’s always a good idea and two or three people who claim that “everybody thinks that sucks” and tries to change it. Thankfully, Rich stuck to his guns — a strategy that doesn’t always work, but I was glad that he was hardheaded enough to get things moving. Besides, the window for construction was only three nights or so. Who else was going to do it?
Frankly, he did everyone a favor. He kept costs down — the carousel was free, and all we had to buy were a few sheets of plywood, some 2x4s, chicken wire, and tissue paper. He made the process efficient – the entire float was assembled in pieces, mostly in our class president’s garage, until the morning of the parade when it was placed on the trailer. And he kept me out of the way. Even though I was in Rich’s “inner circle,” I’d earned a reputation and a nickname the previous year.
For lack of a better word, I was useless. Tom started calling me that while building the sophomore float because I, in one of my more oblivious moments, shut a sliding glass door without realizing that he was behind me carrying a stack of pizzas. I didn’t help my cause when I thought my bike was stolen later that night and also walked into said sliding glass door. Twice. With nothing for me to do construction-wise except for stapling chicken wire, I spent most of the week in the basement, which my class had turned into a makeshift sweatshop. You may think I’m joking about the labor involved in tying tissue paper flowers together with green wire, but that’s because you’ve never known the true meaning of carpal tunnel syndrome.
It was all going to be worth it on Saturday, though. At least that’s what we told ourselves as we put the finishing touches on the float and then drove it down to the firehouse on an unseasonably warm October morning. For us, the moment we arrived at the firehouse was the one we had been waiting for. Rich, Tom, and I still stung from watching the now-sophomore class walk away with the title, and in all of our conversations leading up to homecoming, we emphasized how important it was that our float was better than theirs. Not only that, but we thought we had such a great idea, we wanted to blow everyone else out of the water.
So, we did our best to make a big show out of pulling the cord on the generator. I think we even allowed a few people to tell us how idiotic the cake looked when it wasn’t spinning, before finally starting it up. I know a few jaws dropped, and I know that there were a few accusations of cheating. In fact, one sophomore mom yelled at me when, as they finished their skit by walking off the field singing “We Are the Champions,” I said that their bovine-looking Trojan horse float was very ugly. She also said our float was ugly, but I took that with a grain of salt (she was also pretty red-faced and seemed horribly offended). I mean, what punk-assed 16-year-old really gives a crap about venom or vitriol spewed from the mouth of a PTA overlord anyway?
At that moment, we were in the middle of what I guess you could call a really long victory march, because like Rich said, the motorized float meant that we had the thing wrapped up from the moment we pulled away and turned toward Main Street. In fact, we considered the rest gravy and just hoped that the skit went off without a problem. And when you have the male lead doing a dead-on James Brown impersonation to “Living in America,” there’s no reason to worry at all. In fact, the whole afternoon felt like one big end-of-The Breakfast Club love fest, with our class really coming off as a cohesive unit while we chanted about the juniors rocking houses and rocking them all the way down. I mean, I feel like Daniel Stern in The Wonder Years at this very moment, because there is the inevitable happy ending. Between the third and fourth quarters of the game, we were announced as the winners, and those of us who were left went ballistic.
When we dismantled the float in the parking lot about ten minutes later, I made sure to grab a white flower, figuring that we probably weren’t going to be this successful again. Senior year proved that assumption correct — our Egyptian-themed float was plagued with miscommunication, bickering, senioritis, and rain. The tissue paper flower was tucked inside one of the many small notebooks that served as my personal journal and while I was cleaning out a large bin of items from high school and college, I found it. It had been wrinkled and pressed down and while it wound up being thrown away, I have to say that all of the memories that resurfaced were very fond. Yes, it was a homecoming float that had no further impact on our lives, but at least for one moment we kind of all felt triumphant, no matter how insignificant our small-town corny it seemed.