Levity overcoming gravity

One of my last columns was a response to people who complained about this year’s Winter Carnival having so many fewer activities. Briefly stated, my reply was Tough Nougs.

But a detailed three-part reply is as follows:

1. They should be grateful for what we had, because it happened only because a bunch of other people did all the work for them.

2. Ultimately, Carnival isn’t about the number of events but the amount of spirit.

3. If those two reasons aren’t enough, then Tough Nougs.

A lot of people emailed me feedback on that column — all of it positive. And one those people was Johnny Whiz.

Essentially, Johnny said the ONLY thing that matters about Carnival is its spirit, which Saranac Lakers have in spades. And when it comes to Carnival Spirit, Johnny knows whereof he speaks.

His real name is Jon Wisniewski, and he was one of my students in the mid-’80s. The class was an amalgam, if not a total mishmash. It was one part history, one part philosophy, one part art, one part science and a bunch of parts of whatever I wanted to throw in the cook pot.

Because we had one unit on ancient art and crafts, I thought a hands-on project was a perfect complement to the book larnin’. What I came up with was this: They could pick a skill — any skill, since I believe all skills involve craft and art — as long as they never did it before. Next, after they cleared it with me, they had the rest of the semester’s four months to work on that skill. They had to keep a journal of their practices, and at semester’s end they had to demonstrate their skill to the rest of the class.

Their choices ran the gamut. Among them were soapstone carving, fly tying, origami, knitting, guitar playing and too many others to remember. While the results were mixed, as you’d expect, most kids acquitted themselves admirably. The sole exception was the class zug. He chose knife throwing, which, true to form, he didn’t practice. So by semester’s end, while he could’ve hit broad side of a barn, it wouldn’t have been with the knife’s pointed end. Thank Gawd.

Johnny had picked juggling, and when his demonstration rolled around, he shone. He juggled balls in the air and, for an encore, bounced them off the floor and blackboard without a drop or a miss.

The semester ended, and although Johnny wasn’t in my next semester’s classes, he played a prominent role in that time.

A banner moment

A few weeks into second semester, Winter Carnival reared its lovely head, and the Coronation found me and Kookie in the town hall, taking it all in. About halfway through the ceremony I noticed Kookie wasn’t looking at the onstage theatrics. Instead, she was scanning the balcony.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” I said.

“The banners,” she said, giving an upward nod.

I looked. On the railings were banners from many previous Carnivals.

“What about them?” I asked.

“I’d like to make one,” she said, “for the parade.”

“The Parade”! The very words scored a direct hit amidships of my soul.

I was slammed by an epiphany.

Just like Saul on the road to Damascus or Archimedes shouting “eureka” in his bathtub, I had an earth-shaking vision.

The Parade: How could I have spent all those years watching it, but never thinking about BEING in it?

No matter. That was then, this was now. And now was the time.

My mind returned earthward.

“The banner,” I said to the Kook, “what’ll it say?”

“I dunno,” she said. “Something that’d show our freedom of spirit, I guess.”

“That’s it!” I all but shouted. “We’ll be The Free Spirits. You do the banner, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

“The rest?” she said. “I thought the banner itself would be enough.”

“Who ever heard of a parade unit with just a banner?” I said. “It’d be like going to the prom in your skivs.”

She started to say something, but the band launched into “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” or some such, and I couldn’t hear a word she said. I gave her my standard all-purpose response — a big smile and a thumbs-up.

Frankly, I didn’t have time for any chitchat. Parade was a week away, and I had some serious organizing to do.

Maybe “recruiting” was more appropriate than “organizing,” because the next day I started roping, strong-arming, cajoling, even begging everyone I knew into being in our parade unit (even though it existed in name only — not even in banner).

Amazingly, a bunch of people agreed, though they were as confused as me about what, exactly, we’d be doing, or even what we were supposed to be.

“What’ll we wear?” asked one.

“Whatever ya want,” I said. “Just do your thing.”

“Um … I’ve got a cow costume.”

“Brilliant,” said I.

“What’s the theme?” said someone else.

“Theme, shmeme,” I said. “Get Zen about it. Be your own theme.”

If that Zen comment made no sense to you, don’t feel bad: It made no sense to me, either. Which to we Unenlightened is what Zen’s all about anyway.

So I got the bodies; then I got Mike Cochran to draw up our funny money. After that, I copped at least 1,000 cavities’ worth of dollar store candy. Then Kookie finished the banner. This left only one loose end: What would we have at the head of our unit to catch the crowd’s attention — something no other unit had?

The answer was obvious — a juggler or two. And I was blessed to know a pair of them.

One was my pal Greg McCabe, then a visitor to town, now a longtime resident, and a wonderful guy all around. And Greg’s not just a fine guy — he’s also a fine juggler.

My other juggler was, of course, Johnny Whiz.

Even though he was a neophyte juggler and he’d be defying the odds — and gravity — in front of thousands of people, he agreed to join us, mostly because he’s a thoroughly decent lad.


Parade day weather was perfect — sunny and windless, with the temp holding in the low teens. We stood in Hyde’s parking lot, a motley crew if ever there was one. Two cowboys, a pirate, a hobo, a princess, two guys in shorts and football helmets, a bunch of indescribables, and of course an upright but not uptight Guernsey.

Before we knew it, it was our turn in the procession.

We had our banner; we had our mob; we had an ancient Toyota truck with Kookie and The Noodge of the North in the bed, banging on congos; and at the head of the unit we had a pair of jugglers in jesters’ regalia.

Greg was juggling four beanbags; Johnny had three one-liter soda bottles filled with water. They started juggling at Hyde’s, finished at the reviewing stand, and kept their props airborne the entire time — nonstop!

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever juggled. Or if you have, whether you’ve juggled for the better part of an hour, while walking through a parade route, in 15-degree weather. But even if you haven’t, you’d realize it’s a feat of great athleticism. And it showed: At the parade’s end, Greg and Johnny were soaked with sweat. They were also grinning ear-to-ear, having done what few others could, and having had a blast in the process.

And I might add, I was as proud of their performance as they were.

After the parade, Kookie and I were in the Foote Rest, thawing out.

“Ya know,” I said, “that was a great idea you had, us going in the parade.”

“Great idea, maybe,” she said. “But it was yours, not mine.”

“How do you figure that?” I said. “You said you wanted to have a banner in the parade.”

“No, I didn’t,” she said. “I said I wanted to make a banner FOR the parade. I figured we’d just stand in the crowd and wave the banner.”

“Stand in the crowd?” I said. “Who ever heard of having a banner and only WATCHING a parade?”

“Lots of people,” she said.

Then she added the kicker, “But obviously not you.”


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