The Molalla Buckaroo 4th of July Parade

I’m not a small town girl. I’ve never lived in a small town, and even when I’m so old and demented I don’t leave the bedroom, I never plan on living in a small town. For now, I prefer to wander around this big City of Angels, as alone and anonymous as possible. If I randomly see someone I know on the street, it’s always uncomfortable, as these chance meetings typically involve people I previously felt thankful that I would never see again. “Small town,” they say, but I’m thinking it’s not big enough.

When I find myself in a small town, I’m usually not sure why I’m there. Any epiphanies won’t come to me until long after I’ve left the town limits. Such was the case at this year’s 4th of July Parade and Buckaroo Rodeo in Molalla, Oregon. When my parents first told me we would be hitting up this scene during my visit home to Portland on the long patriotic weekend, my first reaction was not “Oh golly, it’ll be fun!” but that it would be good reactionary, slice of life writing material. Approaching Molalla in much the same way Hunter S. Thompson showed up drunk and disoriented to the 1970 Kentucky Derby, my goal was to infiltrate the proud veneer of this pious small town, scrawling curious notes to be transformed into a fiercely political expose of the blurring of Church, State, and Patriotism on this our great country’s birthday party.

Upon realizing how city-centric and culturally condescending I had become, I almost slapped myself in the face. How dare I pass judgment on the lady selling cans of pop outside her business on the street running perpendicular to the Main Street parade route? So her store was called For Heaven’s Sake Christian Supply. So her T-shirt blurted righteous justification to “Stay the Course” in Iraq. So the quote on the back of the shirt was a holier-than-thou quote from Hebrews, and just reading it made me sinfully aware of every one of my critical sentiments regarding America’s international conflict. Realizing I would be begging forgiveness until my chance at heaven is interrupted by death from natural causes, I settled on the penance of stopping for thirty seconds of For Heaven’s Sake Christian Supply window-shopping. After just five seconds, I couldn’t take the pressure of Jesus’ hand on my shoulder, so I shrugged it off and followed my herd down the street to find a primo parade spot. As I looked back over my shoulder, I held up a passé peace sign to Almighty and hoped to God that He felt it.

Much to my surprise, in a tiny town like Molalla, Jesus does not leave you back at For Heaven’s Sake Christian Supply. No, Big Brother J is everywhere. Who would have thought he’d be waiting for me like a jilted ex-boyfriend, of all places, on the baseball cap rack at the local gas station convenience mart? Embroidered in bold, authoritative lettering on one cap (where WWJD should have been) were the letters C.I.A. In case there was any mistake as to what C.I.A. stands for in Molalla, it’s sure as hell not the Central Intelligence Agency. No, the meaning of C.I.A. in this town climbs higher than central intelligence, all the way up the hierarchy of active faith, causing me to think about spying agencies in a whole new light. Embroidered beneath the C.I.A. on the cap, there it was, the answer to all our intel problems, the superheroes that would make it all right: Christians In Action. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Molalla branch of the C.I.A. was watching my every move, preparing for the perfect moment to turn me into one of them.

Blissfully unaware of the spying mission, there I relaxed, lined up on the Main Street parade route, attracting a decent sunburn. Outward signs of patriotism were minimal, but I could feel the Molallans anxiously waiting for something to satisfy their red, white, and blue fix until the fireworks display later that evening. Every once in awhile I took a break from people-watching to glance down the street, ready for the small town spirit to displace my urban apathy. I stayed uncharacteristically silent until, that is, the parade started, and then I couldn’t sit still or shut up. I waved at Miss Molalla Buckaroo, clapped along with the high school band, and cheered my mom on as she battled little kids for candy. An old timer sitting next to me noticed my intermittent scribbling on a folded credit card bill envelope and started asking questions.

“What are you writing about, there, lady?” he asked.

“Just taking some notes,” I replied, jotting down an observation. I looked up, making eye contact. Definitely a lifer townie.

“Are you a writer?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I’ve just never been to this parade before, and I want to remember it. I remember things better if I write them down.”

“I’ve been to a lot of these parades. I come every year,” he remarked.

“When was the first one?” I asked.

“Oh, maybe 1953, ‘54…”

I could feel the mist settling in the old man’s memory. I fell silent and started watching the parade again in case he wanted to get nostalgic. Then I thought about what I really wanted to ask him. As truck after flatbed truck floated past, I wondered: has the Baptist Church always played such a big part in the Mollala 4th of July parade?

Parades themselves are fascinating phenomena to me, moving stages with clapping, adoring bystanders. Molalla may seem like a small Christian colony, but in its big city shadow is Portland, a liberal standby solely responsible for Oregon’s blue state sway. In addition to being my hometown, Portland is also the home of the Rose Festival, a traditional June celebration featuring three large-scale parades. The most elaborate, the Grand Floral Parade, is a flowing mass of marching bands and florally brilliant floats. Watching the Grand Floral Parade was boring as a kid, but with old age I’ve learned to appreciate the intricacies of each flower with every fleeting work of art that passed. What Mollala’s parade lacks in artistry, it makes up with spirit. But it’s not the kind of spirit you get from crowding into the stands with the whole town for Friday night football games and downing discount whisky at the tavern all afternoon. For all intents and purposes, Mollala’s 4th of July parade followed the righteous path of For Heaven’s Sake Christian Supply. It was riddled with C.I.A. agents, trained to convert us all.

Could Grand View Baptist Church’s “float” enlighten me? As an old-fashioned pastor, time traveled in from 1859, waved a Bible from the top of a pickup, I read the sign draped over the truck bed: “Church: A Country Tradition that Made America Great.” Before I had a chance to let this slogan sink into my secular consciousness, I was blindsided by the incoming Clowns for Christ, riding by on disproportioned bicycles, tossing little kids (and my mom) candy in exchange for good behavior. One particularly covert Clown sent me a message from a cardboard sign strapped on his ride: “The Bible is True. Do you know God loves you? Read the Bible.” The Clowns started a party that didn’t stop until we left the parade early to avoid traffic on the way to the afternoon Rodeo a couple miles down the road. Church after church, most of them from way out of town, Christian rock music blaring, scripture aplenty, the level of patriotism directly proportionate to your religious zeal. Like the overweight women carrying the banner advertising the town’s new Curves health club, all I needed was a leap of faith to believe that I could be saved. Even though I never did take that leap, I left Mollala knowing that the C.I.A. cap is more than just a laughable nuance. Even though I think Jesus is a class act and mean no disrespect to anyone who believes in him, the Christians in Action represent a very real threat to my freedom to practice no religion whatsoever. If they try to infuse morality standards into U.S. domestic and foreign policy, I’m staying defiant and immoral till the end.

There’s a Baptist church right down the street from my apartment in Los Angeles with a marquee that reads, “Jesus died so that we may live.” As any devout argument for the merging of Christian church and state will tell you, we owe our lives to Jesus, and everything we do, from the selection of our leaders to the education of our children, must be done in his everlasting spirit. Visit Molalla, Oregon for a sobering reminder that this reality is not as far away as it seems. Changes in policy will come gradually, as more conservative agents are elected state and federal officials, appointed to the Supreme Court, and enlisted to help avert the AIDS crisis in Africa. But for now, they’re parading down Main Street. Big Brother J may have died for our sins 2000 years ago, but through the morally righteous, judgmental eyes of the C.I.A., he’s still watching you.


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