It's tempting to write the same column again and again. The Cliffs Notes version goes something like this: La Crosse's Oktoberfest is the coolest.
It's so hard not to write that. If you've lived in any other town in America, you understand. Heck, if you've visited any other town in America, you understand.
Hometown festivals are lame. By definition. You go because your son plays trumpet in the marching band, or your daughter is this year's Miss Corn-husk-shucker, or whatever they call her.
(In my hometown, they crown a Sorghum Queen, although half the population probably couldn't pick sorghum out of a crop lineup.)
Hometown festivals are usually about as fun as wallpapering a ceiling by yourself.
Ever notice how stylish it is to rip on the town you live in? The roads are like minefields. The traffic is terrible. The local newspaper is garbage. There's nowhere to shop.
The grass is always greener, and doggonit if they don't have the fancy new lawn mower, too.
How often have you heard someone say where they live and then immediately offer some sort of excuse for it? "We live over in Dumpsville. Honestly, we were just passin' through a few years ago, but we stopped for gas and Sue tripped on the gas hose and broke her ankle, and we just kinda stayed. We've been meaning to move somewhere nice …."
But we sure aren't talking about La Crosse, where there is this unexplainable hometown pride. You see and feel it almost every day. It's contagious. Oktoberfest is simply where it all overflows, mostly from taps.
There I go again. Didn't want to say it, but it just comes out. A town this size should not be able to throw a party this big, but somehow we overcome the odds each year.
I've been told Oktoberfest is the place to see things you've never seen before. A brief rundown of this year's list so far:
1. A marching band with a bass guitar.
2. Woman wearing a tiara and smoking. (Two of those)
3. A couple making out against a building, which wouldn't be all that weird, except that the guy was wearing an Abe Lincoln top hat and sunglasses, which would just be kinda weird except it was 2 p.m. and they were both old enough to be grandparents.
(Like I always say, if you can find a woman who'll kiss you against a building in the middle of a crowded parade route on a Saturday afternoon, and doesn't even make you take off your top hat, well, you marry her and never look back.)
And now, a quick look at Saturday's Maple Leaf Parade, by the numbers …
- Marching band members: 1,017
- Mothers frantically chasing marching band members with encouragement: 6
- Cheerleaders: 138
- Guys wearing letter jackets who appeared to be jealous boyfriends, following closely behind cheerleaders, making sure no one talked to them: 2
- Twirlers: 27
- Sixth-graders named Andy Kirchner who made fabulous diving catches in the middle of the street at the corner of 2nd and Pearl during a touch football game before the parade arrived: 1
- Flag people: 90
- Guys who high-fived me because I was wearing a Cubs hat, and as you may know, the Cubbies CLINCHED A PLAYOFF SPOT, BABY! YEAAAAH!: 4
- Guys who had their foot run over by their own float: 1 (It was the Sunshine Floral float, but don't worry, he's fine.)
- Scary clowns: Unknown (Hard to count with eyes covered.)
- People nearly injured trying to catch beads they could buy by the truckload at any dollar store: Countless.
- Percentage of pageant winners doing that silly Mr. Miyagi wax-on/wax-off wave that somehow should be stopped: 84
- Percentage doing the chicken dance, something that should be encouraged in future parades: 6
All that and I didn't even mention City Fest, the brand new World's Largest Six Pack, or the woman dressed as a genie.
The highlight of Oktoberfest so far, though, was John Bannon and Rich Paul. They received the biggest ovations in the parade, carrying a banner that read, "Two Guys With A Banner."
They live in Chicago and have made the trip to Oktoberfest for 12 consecutive years, not bad for two guys who've never lived in the Coulee Region. John is a visual artist. Rich is a graphic design artist.
"We're Chicago's good will ambassadors to Oktoberfest," John likes to say.
John, as it turns out, is a cousin of Florence Aliesch, Mike Aliesch's wife. Both Florence and Mike have been involved with Oktoberfest for years.
Well, a couple Oktoberfests ago, John decided it would be funny to make the banner, a smaller version of this year's, and jump in the parade toward the end of the route. The crowd went nuts, mostly because it's a darn funny sign.
So this year, they paid the $50 and entered the parade as their own two-man, one-banner float. They weren't making fun of the parade. They just wanted people to laugh and cheer.
"We were a little worried what kind of reception we'd get," John said afterward.
They were a hit. And I would tell you more, but the interview was cut short by a much needed bathroom break. They didn't realize how long the route was, and parade-goers kept handing them beers.
"For awhile there," John said, rocking back and forth nervously, right before he jumped into a port-a-potty. "I didn't think we were gonna make it."
Matt James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.