One of my fondest memories growing up was going to the Swallows Parade every year in San Juan Capistrano. It’s not much of a parade (though I have since learned it’s the longest non-mechanical parade in the US), but it was fun growing up – my dad would always ride his horse in his riding group and we’d often know some people from elementary / middle / high school who were walking. They used to throw candy (but apparently not any more). We’d all come down from the community I lived in and camp in front of the Del Taco (where there was a nice grassy hill), and sit and enjoy the parade. We’d walk down to the McD’s for lunch (or one of the other fast food places) and sit and enjoy friends and the parade – and usually get sunburned.
This year my dad was riding in the parade again, which he hadn’t done in a few years. I hadn’t ever brought my daughter, so we decided to go. Of course it just happened to be the same day as one of the biggest meetings for church leadership, so I showed up for about 45 minutes of the meeting, then ducked out (nice, hun?). Ah well, it was my Dad’s birthday, and he loves my daughter.
So we went down for the parade. We met my mom and her friend and went to the staging area to meet my dad and say hello to all the cowboys my mom knows. It was really neat seeing all the horses on the football field of the local high school – crowed together, wearing all sorts of costumes, just waiting for the parade to start. We said hello, took a few pictures, then left to find a nice spot near the Mission San Juan.
Then the peace was broken and it got scary really quickly.
Within about half an hour of the parade starting, a wagon pulled by 2 large horses pulled sharply to the right just in front of us. One horse had spooked and the horses careened into the crowd. People dove over the bushes, knocking over their folding chairs. Drinks and bags went flying. The horses plowed over the chairs (thankfully empty) and the people in the back of the open wagon clutched to the children sitting in the back, who weren’t wearing seat belts. The man holding the reins tried desperately to bring the horses back under control,and pulled them back to the street, but they spooked again, made a turn, and headed our way. My mom yelled, “RUN!” as I was a bit frozen with shock. I picked up my daughter, and started running, looking behind me as I noticed the horses stopped. Everyone slowly returned to our purses and bags – all abandoned on the sidewalk. There was an eerie quiet, then the ambulances started to arrive, followed by a horse from my dad’s group carrying a well known doctor. They checked everyone and the only severe problem was a man in a wheelchair who was already paralyzed – he had some minor injuries. A few other bumps and bruises, but it could have been so SO much worse. My daughter and I sat down and prayed for everyone involved, for the audience, for the participants yet to march, and for ourselves. I sent a note to our church prayer chain and got some nice emails back much later in the day, though I felt the calmness wash over me almost immediately (as did my daughter). (Read about the incident here.)
What I found the most interesting, however, was what followed the accident. As the parade was getting ready to resume, a lady working for the parade (probably a volunteer) came up and down the lines, telling everyone to take a few steps back, and to make surer they were standing. Everyone had just started to calm down, but her words of, “You need to be standing. There is a big group of horses coming next, and you don’t know what they are going to do after they have been waiting so long.” After one woman didn’t move back to the ‘director’s’ satisfaction, the lady said, “I don’t mean to be rude ma’am, but what are you going to do if the horses get lose again and come over here? Are you going to take your stroller over those bushes? I don’t think so.” Then she walked away. People edged away from the curb, all their belongings in hand, once again anxious and fearful.
My dad’s group happened to be the next group up – they were all dressed in crisp white shirts. Businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and real cowboys made up the group, but the horses were well-controlled, and the men were kind: smiling and waving at the crowd as if nothing had happened 30 minutes prior. Immediately everyone calmed down and began to sit again as a wave of peace washed over the parade route.
Watching the sharp juxtaposition in the wake of a truly scary event, I wondered what kind of person I want to be – do I want to be a fear-mongerer, frightening people into doing what I think is best? Or do I want to put people at ease, drawing them close, and bringing them the comfort they truly need when they have been deeply hurt or frightened?