by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
November 30, 2006
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I went to New York last week to see the Thanksgiving Day parade balloons and found my father.
My father, Harry Kagan, died almost 20 years ago at the age of 74.
He was a shy man who didn't tell many stories about himself, but one story
he proudly told, every Thanksgiving, was how he marched in the Macy's
Back in the 1920s many of Macy's employees were the children of immigrants. They wanted to celebrate their new country, so in 1924 they created the first parade. It featured floats, costumes, music and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. It didn't have balloons.
My father was a first-generation American. Both his parents were born in Russia, where they were persecuted for their faith. After separate but equally harrowing escapes they found their way to America. They met and married in New York.
Prejudice against immigrants was rampant when my grandparents arrived. (My, how things have changed!) Back then it was against the Irish, the Chinese and the Jews. From what I can tell, even though the animosity was slanted in religious terms, it was primarily cultural. It was country-rural vs. city-sophisticate. It was about moving from a life of pumping water and raising chickens to living with sinks and taps and retail jobs. It was about the language of the old country vs. English. Even among Jews there was discrimination. Those who had come a generation earlier, like my mother's parents, looked down on those who came later and didn't know the city's ways.
Learning English was one of the first barriers everyone had to overcome. My grandfather used to joke that he when he first came here, he thought Americans were the cleanest people on earth because they had so many signs in their windows saying "toilet." It took him a while to learn that the signs were advertising rooms to rent.
My grandmother could speak, read and write Yiddish and Russian, but she spoke English with an Yiddish accent and never learned to read it.
Their children, however, my father and his sister, Sylvia, were proud Americans who worked hard to be assimilated into the new culture. My father's first job, as a teenager just entering the labor force, was at Macy's. He met his best friend, Sidney Goldstein, there.
In 1927, the first balloon came into the parade. It was Felix the Cat, and Sidney and my dad were part of the group that held his lines.
Sidney and my dad shared a remarkable friendship. Sidney was the best man at my dad's wedding. He gave the eulogy at my dad's funeral.
My dad eventually left Macy's to start an Army & Navy store in Brooklyn. Sidney finished school and became an accountant for the city. The two men married, moved to the suburbs, raised their children and made other friends, but they remained in close contact throughout the years. They retired around the same time and bought houses near each other in a Florida retirement condominium.
There they joined the bicycle club together and went riding every morning. About 10 years after my dad died of cancer, Sidney fell off his bicycle and struck his head. He died shortly after. His widow, Reba, planted a tree in his honor at the local park.
My mother and Reba are still good friends.
In New York, they inflate the balloons on the day before the parade. Then they are then put to rest on their bellies and covered with weighted net. All night long they lie there, head-to-toe, butts in the air, encircling the Museum of Natural History.
Watching them being inflated is an Upper West Side tradition, and I've always wanted to go.
So this year I traveled to New York. There was a light rain falling on Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., but it didn't stop the thousands of people who were milling around the balloons, many pushing baby strollers, almost all of them taking pictures. The area was brightly lit and there was a strong police presence.
When you see all the balloons lined up like that, you can see that they are all commercials. They're selling cartoons, toys, songs, television shows, calendars, books, records, or even bobble-heads. It isn't any surprise. After all, the parade is a floating advertisement for New York's biggest department store. Felix the Cat was a beloved comic strip character then, so why should anyone bemoan his loss, or that his place is now taken by a huge orange Garfield?
There were 29 balloons this year. Mr. Potato Head was lying there, and the Energizer Bunny. Ronald McDonald had his nose up Uncle Sam's rear end, which I thought was appropriate.
Seeing them so close, so huge and colorful, was exciting in an otherwordly way. That's what I expected - a visual rush.
But I didn't expect to suddenly see my father, young and scared, timid and eager, poor and hardworking, with his whole life in front of him, holding a line and calling to Sidney, "Don't let the wind get us."
The day after the parade, I sought out the only living connection I have with my father and the world he came from.
My father's sister, Sylvia, is 91 and living in a nursing home in Far Rockaway. It's been a long time since I've been able to see her. To my relief she is spry and alert, loving and well-cared for. She was very happy to see me.
After our joyous greetings were exchanged, the flowers put into water, and we settled down to talk, the first thing she said was, "Did you know your father helped carry the first balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade?"