By Stephanie Reitz
July 5, 2001
(Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 2001)

We know what the United States is all about, right?
The freedom to say what you feel, to worship as you wish, to have a voice in your government's decisions.
Oh, and of course, the freedom to walk proudly along Main Street dressed as a frog, carrying a papier-mache fish head, or waving a "Babes for Breasts" sign.
Ah, the American spirit of nonconformity.

That spirit was on full display Wednesday at Willimantic's Boombox Parade, an annual July 4 celebration of patriotism wrapped in an anything-goes party atmosphere.
The event has evolved into one of the most popular Fourth of July parades in Connecticut. Thousands of revelers line Main Street carrying boom boxes tuned to WILI-AM 1400 and its special lineup of patriotic songs.

"It's good, clean fun, and that's what a Fourth of July parade is supposed to be all about," said lifelong Willimantic resident Francois J. Gamache, who has been attending the event with his wife, Harriet, and daughter Jackie ever since it began in 1986.

The Boombox Parade sprang from humble roots. Lacking a high school marching band, the early organizers encouraged spectators to bring their portable radios and tune them to WILI.

Longtime WILI-AM station personality Wayne Norman, the parade's grand marshal, helps set the lively tone with his own outlandish costumes and modes of travel -- a decorated scooter this year.

"There's a little bit of everything in this area, and this is a way for everybody to come out and do their own thing," said Shirlee Sheathelm, president of the Windham Regional Arts Council, which was represented in the parade by several members dressed as frogs.

Frogs are a popular theme in the area, and were well-represented in this year's parade.
Perhaps the most popular folk tale about frogs involves a night in 1758, when Windham residents were awakened by horrific shrieking and rushed outside -- some naked -- with their muskets to fend off an attack they were sure had commenced against them.

When dawn broke, they discovered their "attackers" were hundreds of frogs that had fought each other to the death for the few puddles left in a dried-up mill pond.

As usual, the parade also drew many drivers of classic cars, firetrucks, businesses and community groups.

Participants came on scooters, in-line skates, regular and tandem bicycles, wagons and just about anything that could be pushed, pulled or maneuvered along Main Street.

"It's very informal. People bring whatever, and do whatever," said Columbia resident Grant Bombria, who went to the parade in his 1916 Ford Model T with his daughter, 10-year-old Ashley Bombria.

Politically and socially active residents also took the opportunity to spread their messages.
Only at the Boombox Parade, for instance, would one group advocate better monitoring and treatment of women's health issues (hence the "Babes for Breasts" sign), and be closely followed by giant stuffed carrots, dogs in hats and a woman "riding" a pink flamingo toy.

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