The passing of Rhode Island radio legend Larry Kruger, along with the recent celebration of Rhode Island’s two over-hyped yet venerable parades — Chepachet’s Ancients and Horribles and Bristol’s Annual 4th of July Celebration — revived an old, repressed memory within me much like one might recall a greasy Chelo’s cheeseburger the morning after eating one.
First a little background for those who are not fluent in the finer points of Rhode Island culture. Larry Kruger is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame, and is best known as Salty Brine’s sidekick on Providence’s famed WPRO morning show. (Larry would be the guy who read all the other “no school’ announcements before Salty would chortle his hackneyed “No School Foster-Glocester” tag line.) Before the Internet era, this was the only way to find out of school was in session following a big snowstorm — critical information to anyone under age 12.
Back in 1987 while I was on summer break from URI, I and two friends volunteered to drive golf carts for the VFW in the Bristol 4th of July Parade on behalf of several disabled WWII veterans unable to march. It was my second visit to the Bristol parade. A few years earlier, I worked as a frustrated balloon vendor, selling helium-filled fun to drunks at 4:30 in the morning. (I would learn later, that both Chepachet’s and Bristol’s parades are steeped in an age-old tradition of alcohol binging, except in Bristol, the imbibed town fathers don’t drink enough to put on lingerie and join in the parade themselves.)
I reached the Bristol parade route on time, claimed my golf cart, and took my position in the staging area. A sharply uniformed veteran approached with a cane, assisted by two friends who eased the man, painfully, into my cart. I regret that I don’t remember his name, but he told me he served in the Pacific theater during the war, and had received his Purple Heart at Guadalcanal. He was a stern, thin and proud man, and we chatted for about a half hour as we waited for our turn to join the esteemed parade procession.
As the parade began I was moved by the broad show of patriotism and support these veterans received. The parade route was jam-packed with happy, sweaty, sun block-lathered spectators, and at the site of our small group, without prompting, everyone would jump to their feet and cheer. My veteran waved stiffly, without even a hint of emotion. It was both emotional and inspiring to watch this play out every tenth of a mile.
And then the crowd started chanting, “Salty… Salty… Salty.”
Coming up behind me, on foot at full gallop, was Salty and Larry. The WPRO morning show team were late, victims of the notorious Metacom Avenue traffic, and had missed their corporate float which was somewhere up near the front of the long procession.
“We need your cart,” Larry said with a sense of panic in his smooth, easily recognizable voice. “You have to get us to our float.”
“I can’t do that.” I responded. “The cart belongs to the VFW. There isn’t room in the cart for all of us. And I can’t leave this veteran behind.”
Before I was aware of what was happening, Larry had pulled the confused yet cooperative veteran out of his seat and helped Salty into it. Larry then hopped into the back of the cart and ordered me forward with the wave of one arm like Custer ordering his horse to charge at Little Bighorn.
“Hurry! We’re in big trouble.”
Without any real options, or considering the consequences, I floored it. The little electric motor hissed. I turned to glance back at my veteran and saw he looked a bit confused and was now limping through the street, chin up, still stoically waving to the adoring crowd. Unfortunately, I realized later, his cane was lying across the floor of my cart.
Eager to return back to my honored and proper place in the convoy, I floored my vehicle into the belly of parade itself, reminiscent of the final scene in Animal House. Salty grabbed my arm and Larry grabbed the back of my shirt. I darted in, about, around and through all manner of parade participant, dodging high school tuba players, skidding past angry fez-adorned Shriners in those adorable little cars of theirs, and almost squashing a little girl holding one of those loathed helium filled balloons I used to sell. When in full pageantry, I discovered the parade route is very narrow. A cheer would rise every few moments as the crowd recognized my uncomfortable, flailing passengers. I believe they assumed we were just part of the show.
“Hey, look! There goes Salty!” People shouted as we zipped past. Salty waved and forced smiles from behind his terror. No one recognized Larry.
It took some time to reach the big WPRO float, a gaudily decorated flatbed trailer pulled be a large Kenworth cab. Salty and Larry hopped out of my cart and climbed through a waterfall of red, white and blue streamers to board the trailer without any acknowledgment or thank you. At least relieved I had delivered my payload alive and unharmed, I drove back through the parade to re-locate my hobbling veteran, hoping he wasn’t lying in a gutter somewhere. If this man could survive Guadalcanal, he would be OK alone in Bristol.., probably.
I found the old man well and reloaded him into my cart. He didn’t speak to me for the rest of the parade, no doubt miffed at my unwillingness to defend him from the impetuous deejays. We pushed forward to the end, and as before, exuberant cheers and applause rose from the masses and greeted our every turn. When we reached the parade’s finish line, it was clear the poor, old gentleman was tired and had had enough. It had been an exhausting day. Other volunteers helped him out of the cart, and he politely thanked me as he hobbled away, cane back in hand. In the rear of the cart, I noticed he had forgot his bag.
“Sir, wait… you forgot your bag!” I yelled.
“Sorry. That’s not my bag.” He tersely responded back.
Inside, I found a cardigan sweater and two neatly packed lunches. Oh, great. The bag belonged to Salty and Larry.
I looked ahead at the crowd which now, with hundreds of colorful parade participants randomly mingling together, resembled a scene copied from the pages of a Richard Scarry children’s book. I felt a responsibility to rush ahead and find the WPRO float to return their belongings. My hands now reeked of sun-baked tuna. The cart lurched forward and I began the arduous task of swimming in and out of the great sea of people. The going was slow, and no doubt, the big trailer at the front of the parade was moving farther away. I pulled the cart up onto the sidewalk and made up some ground, clipping a few unmanned lawn chairs along the way. Now spectators were flowing in and adding to the chaos, and cars were trying to edge their way onto the main street. I cut off many of them. I darted, weaved and wiggled my way to the center traffic lane where there was a small opportunity to gain ground through the heart of the gridlock. I struggled dangerously forward.
I drove for at least a mile, and I saw ahead in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the rear of the WPRO float at a stop light. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor and tried to catch the truck before the light turned green. I thought I could smell electric wires burning. The cart was not long for this world. If it was a horse, they might shoot it.
When I reached the trailer in triumph, bag held high overhead, it was abandoned, and Salty and Larry were gone. I handed the bag to the truck driver who assured me he would personally hand-deliver the package to them back at the station first thing in the morning. He promised.
I slept late that next day, as lazy college kids often do, and was awakened well after noon by a phone call from one of the friends who had volunteered with me the day before.
“Did you hear them this morning?” He asked, ridicule hanging thick in his voice.
“What are you talking about?”
“Salty and Larry. They devoted their whole morning show to you.”
“They did what?”
“They spent two hours this morning complaining about the crazy college kid in a golf cart who nearly killed them and stole their lunches. It was hysterical. They raked you over the coals. And Larry wants his sweater back.”
The moral of the story is to never trust anyone who drives anything in a parade.
Now the title of this article includes mention of Jerry Mathers. Jerry Mathers, who everyone knows played the title role in television’s classic Leave it to Beaver, was a special parade grand marshal that day. I have no idea what connection he has to Bristol, or Independence Day, but I do know he has unusually large feet. In my haste to reach that trailer and return the bag, I might have run over one or both of them. I am not sure. I didn’t stop to ask, and I think The Beaver flipped me off.
And then a few years later, I had lunch with Frank Bank at a book convention in Chicago. Frank was promoting his biography: Call Me Lumpy. You may remember Frank as the actor who played Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford on Leave it To Beaver. I told him this story and he said no, he thinks Jerry just wears large shoes to make himself feel taller, and he invited me to meet him for dinner some night at Boston’s Durgin-Park.
But I guess that’s a story for another day.