By DAN OKO
The leaves are slowly coloring, getting ready to shed their trees and wander the streets, aggregating in great piles, calling to mind the parties we will be attending through the fall and into the winter months.
But before we get to that point, as everybody knows there are a few hurdles to overcome, most pleasant, some not so, with Homecoming being the first and foremost reason to get down since the autumnal equinox got scratched off our collective calendars.
As with years past, the event will begin in a deciduous fashion with members of the community descending from their homes across the country, brightly festooned in maroon and silver, copper and gold. They will line the streets from North Higgins to the university, banners waving, faces painted, awaiting the true kickoff event of the weekend: the homecoming parade, leading up to the Grizzlies' Saturday's rumble with the Sacramento State Hornets.
Forget this summer's late "bumper crop" of wasps, boys and girls, someone's going to get stung -- and I don't think UM's pigskin players are it. But before the game, there's both the parade and the guaranteed biggest tailgate party of the season (I know this is sacrilege, but another championship run remains to be seen).
Talking with Paddy MacDonald, who has been coordinating the parade for 14 years, it becomes quickly apparent that the coolness in the air brings about a certain level of anxiety. MacDonald's the one who approves the floats -- defined as "vehicles bearing a display, usually an elaborate tableau," which she says can range from classic cars to painted goats -- and makes sure that everything goes without a hitch.
Last year, MacDonald says, she found the collusion of Griz fever and election season hype a touch overwhelming. "Last year was huge," she says. "This year, we limited it. And for the first time, we had to start charging a fee to be in the parade."
Despite the $10 fee, MacDonald expresses confidence that this year will match up with years past. There will be plenty of horses and dancers, she says, and the continued presence of unadulterated cars which she allows to partake despite their lack of true "display."
Having attended last year's events, under the guise of being an intrepid reporter, I can safely reveal that the parade was indeed a rare public event which made my heart swell with civic pride, and even turned me into a bit of a Griz fan after a long hate-hate relationship with collegiate athletics.
The only parade I attended during my own college years was the blue and gold hordes who walked past my door (and choked up $5 to park in our yard) on their way to see the mighty University of Michigan Wolverines. But last year, nipping at the heels of Sen. Max Baucus, I found myself distracted by the twirling batons, racing shriners and supermarket cart squad making their way to campus.
A friend, watching the troops go by, noted my smile -- and I responded with the words MacDonald must live for: "Everybody loves a parade."
Of course, the parade is essentially a team warm-up for old timers and newcomers alike, those who have been converted to Griz fandom both by dint of their diplomas and their proximity to the mighty. As the cops dissipate and the streets open to regular traffic, the masses for the most part head down to UM's riverside parking lots, where tapped kegs and roasting meat awaits.
If the smell of burning leaves and a fresh dusting of snow on the Bitterroots doesn't bring home a solid sense of school spirit, the tailgate scene should certainly kindle something close. Although every home game provides an excuse to party, the serendipity of running into old, gone-for-awhile buddies and ex-lovers you'd never seen anywhere but on campus anyway, makes even the most hardened veterans of this Saturday ritual giddy with anticipation.
The local restaurants and bars that turn out for the massive debacle help shape a culture which could be mistaken for no other. There may be a profit to be made, but there's no doubt that the shop owners are down for the game, filled with school spirit whether they attended UM or not.
With the sounds of marching bands competing with car stereos, the smell of roasting meat rivaling the fresh air blowing off the Clark Fork, the common cause, the primal need to root for the Griz once again emerges -- and will again this Saturday -- and following the fine food and drink, and the spectacle of the parade, there's no reason at all not to give yourself over to the team.
After all, it's now fall and like the leaves, you have no choice but to fall from your perch and join the swirl in the street.
The UM marching band shows off their new uniforms during
the 1996 homecoming parade. Photo by Todd Goodrich.