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Point of View

Seeing a parade from the inside out

Saturday, February 12, 2005
Bruce E. Fleury

After 20 Carnival seasons and more than 200 parades, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Mardi Gras. But when the opportunity arose to march in Bacchus, I learned there is another side to Carnival.

Mr. Bill and the Estuarians, whose animated selves appear in a series of television public service announcements, were calling for volunteers to march in several parades, promoting their campaign to save Louisiana's wetlands. I was slated for Bacchus, and given the time and place to meet.

It was then I learned lesson No. 1 -- pre-parade panic. However much time you allow, it won't be enough. Meeting two hours early seemed a bit extreme, until I found myself mired in the mother of all traffic jams. I dashed from the car eight blocks from the meeting place, only to arrive at a parking lot conspicuously devoid of costumed characters. Half an hour later, I ran into the two stalwart women who were to carry the Estuarians' banner, also out of breath and equally distraught. We asked the parking lot security guard if he had seen Mr. Bill and a giant eagle. (Where else but New Orleans could you ask that question without getting hooked up to a breathalyzer?) "No," he replied, scratching his chin. "I think I would have remembered that."

Finally the rest of the crew trickled in, and we rushed to the truck to find the Estuarians, hastily donning their costumes. Amid the hurried preparations came the inevitable wardrobe malfunction. Pierre the Pelican's head was loose, a nasty conflict of plastic straps and tiny slots, and for a while she was truly an endangered species. I made a mental note to add duct tape to my list of Mardi Gras essentials.

It all came together at the last minute, and we trotted, bustled or waddled to the parade route. We found ourselves at the very front of the parade, just behind the Marine Corps Band and the Clydesdale horses. A quick last-minute negotiation, and we were graciously allowed to go in front of the Clydesdales (thank you!). This turned out to be the sweet spot, the thin edge of the mighty wedge that was Bacchus.

After great anticipation we began to roll at last, and I quickly learned lesson No. 2. The initial prospect of a seven-mile hike is intimidating, but once you enter the eternal rhythm of unwrap, untangle and toss, the miles melt into a series of memorable vignettes: that perfect throw to a second-story balcony, the odd familiar face in the teeming crowd, the goofy costumes, and all the myriad waving arms, not to mention the attractive young women. The real satisfaction came from placing the occasional stuffed alligator into the surprised hands of little babies, and watching their faces light up. It took me back to earlier days, when I would take my son to Carnival, and stuffed animals were the Holy Grail.

Then came lesson No. 3. As George Bush keeps reminding us, it's hard work! Keeping the Estuarians supplied with throws, tending to the odd costume emergency and lending a hand to pull the wagons was not as simple as it looks. And who would think a parade breakdown would be a good thing?

Welcome to lesson No. 4. The few sputters in the otherwise steady stream of Bacchus were a welcome reprieve for the Estuarians, time for a quick sip of water and a granola bar. The back bumper of the beacon truck proved to be an oasis -- and talk about lagniappe -- it vibrated!

At long last the Convention Center loomed into view. I had learned more about Carnival than I had bargained for. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It put me back in touch with the city I love, and reminded me of old dogs and new tricks. As for Mr. Bill and the Estuarians, be sure to go to www.americaswetland.com to see their video adventures, and learn how you can help save coastal Louisiana from going under the waves. If you don't, your future Mardi Gras parade plans may include a dive mask and a snorkel!

. . . . . . .

Bruce E. Fleury is an instructor in Tulane University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. His e-mail address is bfleury@tulane.edu.



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