NEWTOWN, Conn. -- Ten thousand decisions go into creating a big, boisterous parade. No one knows that better than Robin Buchanan, who for years has juggled the lineup at the Labor Day parade that has jubilantly closed out every Newtown summer for five decades.
But never before had this happened: Calls and emails from regulars, folks who always marched, concerned about the most basic decision of all.
"Are you going to have a parade," they asked her, "this year?"
Meaning: After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the eulogies for 20 first-graders and six educators, amid the drumbeat of news stories and hushed conversations, all adding up -- still -- to incomprehension.
A parade, this year?
On an icy evening back in January, barely a month after the shootings, a small group met with sad hugs to confront that question.
It's always been a daunting task for the Labor Day Parade Committee to map out the two-hour extravaganza -- to arrange the vintage warplane flyovers or the ballfield-size American flag, or whatever, to make sure of security and pay the bills.
But this time, the committee members sat hollow-eyed in a bank conference room. Outside, handmade memorials still fluttered on lampposts.
How could you focus on a parade? Who would be the grand marshal, a happy honor normally but surely a heavy burden this time around? What would the theme be? Could it be anything but a memorial? But if so, what kind of parade is that?
"How's everybody doing?" someone asked. There were tears as they went around the table, answering.
Yet they knew that planning a parade is a long process. And they sensed that, somehow, this year it could be one piece of the enormous task facing the shattered town, of finding ways to move forward through grief.
So they got going, making preliminary decisions.
"I think we're all kind of nervous about how we proceed," said Beth Caldwell, the head of the committee, a real estate agent by day. Through the months ahead, she would work to maintain a delicate balance -- "respectful of what has happened and still offering an avenue of celebration."
"We can say what we want to happen," she said, "but the parade kind of takes on a life of its own."
Newtown's parade first stepped off on Sept. 3, 1962.
Parade mornings start early. At first light, cars pull to the curb all along Main Street, and folks unload chairs and blankets for front-row spots.
Meanwhile, you'll see a kilted bagpiper or perhaps a couple of Minutemen in full regalia, or maybe even Abe Lincoln, heading north along the sidewalk to join their units. Obliviously, they'll pass a cheerleader and football player, also in uniform, hurrying the other way to join theirs.
Blending incongruously with regular traffic you'll notice polished Model T's or finned 1950s Cadillacs and spindly antique farm tractors spouting puffs of black exhaust. They, too, cruise toward their places in line.
Then, with a siren's whoop and the rattle of snare drums, it starts.
For two hours, the flood of marchers, floats, politicians, clowns, bands and Civil War re-enactors glides past, the latter stopping periodically to fire a rifle salute.
A couple years ago, spectator-volunteers helped carry "the largest American flag," with children dancing in the moving shadow underneath.
Civic groups, businesses and church congregations walk and wave. The schools muster their smiling, shouting herds, including the elementary schools, including, some years, Sandy Hook Elementary.
A foot of snow covered the ground when the parade committee members got down to business in February.
They went over the items agreed on back in January: Though they'd considered several possible grand marshals -- from the police chief to the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which lost so many children -- they'd decided no one person was enough this year. The whole town would marshal this parade, in effect.
They'd settled on the theme during a discussion about qualities they wanted to highlight. Committee secretary Dan Cruson, the town historian, noted, "we're strong." And Caldwell offered her suggestion: "We are Newtown, marching strong." Adopted.
They talked about fundraising, about the printed book of sponsors and participants, the lineup order, the portable restrooms.
"What do we do with the re-enactors shooting guns?" asked Buchanan, posing a question that had been raised by a Civil War group.
There was talk, but no decision.
In April, Caldwell said, "There will be no firing of anything" by re-enactors at the parade. That decree held up after further talks.
At nearly 60 square miles, Newtown is spread out, and over time five volunteer fire companies have formed. They typically lead the parade's five divisions, one by one, each accompanied by a band.
In the past, there's been head-butting between the chiefs and the parade committee about limiting the number of big trucks, about parade judging and other prickly issues.
At the committee's March meeting, fire company representatives sat with arms crossed. Everyone knew what they'd done in December; Sandy Hook's firehouse, near the school, was where parents came that day, where they got the news.
"12/14 changed us all," Caldwell told the chiefs, who had never met with the committee before. "I'm sorry it's taken so long to get you here."
The parade planners explained they expected more entries this year and had to think of ways to control the event's size. Maybe limit each fire company to three pieces of equipment? That idea was batted down quickly, and a chilly discussion followed.
Drop some out-of-town groups, someone suggested gruffly.
"Get rid of the politicians," another offered -- to welcome laughter.
Kym Stendahl, a former parade committee leader, spoke up, beginning, "I have a friend who lost a daughter..."
As she tried to articulate parade-goers' thoughts on seeing the firefighters this year, her voice caught: "To look these guys in the face and say -- no, I can't say I know what you went through, but -- to look you in the face and say, `Thank you."'
The discussion softened. In the midst of talk about costs, Joe Farrell of the Hawleyville area department broke in.
"We'll donate $500," he said. Treasurer Cluff wrote the number down.
"Just not a kazoo band in front of us," Farrell added, smiling.
There were several proposals for arranging the fire companies. In the end, they settled on the old one-per-division lead roles.
One more decision: A group of eight people would be chosen -- one each from the fire companies, police department, EMS service and search-and-rescue team -- to carry a banner saying, "Newtown's First Responders."
Unanimous nods this time.
After the American flag, it would be the first real unit of a distinctive parade, now taking shape.
Buchanan marched in the parade as a girl and joined the committee after retiring from 30 years as a psychiatric social worker.
"Today, I'm trying to get three bands," she said in an interview in July. "Calypso, oompah and, uh, Dixieland."
She laughed. But her voice changed when she listed others whose presence in the parade showed "how we're healing."
A float is coming from Stratford, hometown of one of the teachers killed. Created by a school there, it's covered with multi-colored, duct-tape flowers and butterflies, in tribute to the victims. Therapy dogs that appeared in town after the shootings to give comfort will march.
The 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company A, the Civil War group, will march again -- but with black armbands and with rifles pointed downward, a gesture of mourning, noted Cruson, whose son is part of the unit. "They had decided independently that they shouldn't be firing," he said.
And as months passed, even those closest to the tragedy began to think about joining the parade.
Sandy Hook Elementary School -- though temporarily moved to a nearby town, its old building awaiting demolition and reconstruction -- will be there. Its float will have a globe and thank-you signs -- for support sent from around the world.
St. Rose Church will march, a Tree of Life on its float. Trinity Episcopal Church's entry will feature "Ben's Lighthouse," the charity named for Ben Wheeler, one of the first-graders.
In July, the Avielle Foundation, named for 6-year-old Avielle Richman, said yes.
"Robin Buchanan sent me a message on Facebook and said, `Would you consider this?"' said Avielle's mother, Jennifer Hensel.
"It just felt right immediately," she said, then paused. "Grief has its own process," she went on. "And each family will have to do what's best for them."
She and her husband, Jeremy Richman, both scientists, will walk behind a banner for the foundation, which supports research into the brain pathologies behind violence. It also promotes community outreach, so that isolated, vulnerable individuals, like the Sandy Hook shooter, are not ignored.
"I feel that a way for us to heal is to pull into the community," Hensel said.
So they'll march, thinking of their daughter, her husband said. "Avielle loved parades."
In August, the planners met twice more, tying up dozens of loose ends.
Looking back, Caldwell thought the committee had found the right balance between respectful remembrance and celebration.
"There's going to be a lot of bittersweet moments," she acknowledged.
She was thinking of the memorial floats. "It's coming face-to-face with these things that allows us to move forward," she said. "But how can you not smile when those crazy Shriner cars come down the road?"
Buchanan, looking back, recalled the question, "Are you going to have a parade, this year?"
Now, the answer was clear. Her lineup finally set -- and bigger than ever before -- she visualized the scene at the ambulance garage where participants crowd in on Labor Day morning. Beauty queens and flag-bearers, jugglers and barking dogs. And Main Street lined to see Newtown marching again.