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Building a Parade Takes Time
By Navy Lt. Penny Cockerell
JTF-AFIC Public Affairs

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the screen it comes alive. One click starts the march and another starts the music.

With an ear for tone and an eye for style, Army Sgt. Maj. Robert Powers uses his experience as a member of the U.S. Army Band to provide the Presidential Inaugural Committee with a frank look at the contestants.

He may tell them the band they’re watching on screen has superb timing, or that it lacks maturity. He will point out which bands come from states not yet represented and which have marched in prior inaugurals.

“It’s the Presidential Inaugural Committee’s decision. We’re just helping them out,” says Powers, the noncommissioned officer in charge of band control in the Ceremonies-Parade Division at the Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee.

Building a parade for the presidential inaugural is not easy. But it sure is fun.

Timing is everything. Because darkness comes quickly in January, inaugural parades can only last about two hours. That means ensuring thousands of moving parts keep in precise step along the 1.7-mile route down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Powers uses his musical skills to rate each band on a scale of one to four. They’re judged on talent, performance and appearance. Powers will also suggest including enough floats and marching units to spread out the bands, so their music doesn’t drown each other out.

In 2001, marching units included such groups as Colorado’s “Precision Lawn Chair Team,” an Alaskan dog sled team, and Idaho’s “Red Hot Mamas,” a group of dancing women who wore groceries on their hats.

“You just don’t know whose going to apply,” said Powers, who compares his commentaries to “walking a tightrope.” On one hand, Powers’ experience with past inaugurals gives him a keen sense of what it takes to march in one. He’s played in the band for three presidents and was part of the 2001 Armed Forces Inaugural Committee.

On the other hand, he can’t be too judgmental. And no matter what he says, the decision ultimately belongs to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

As bands and marching units are selected—a click on the American flag gives them a thumbs up—a computer program keeps track of how many states are represented and how long the parade has become.

Once these decisions are made, the work really begins.

JTF-AFIC helps to organize participants in five divisions and, on Inauguration Day, ensures all bands and marching units are lined up and screened for security in exactly the order they’ll march.

Buses that carry them are given precise times and lanes to park in at the Pentagon North parking lot and at the National Mall assembly area. Anything can happen – bad weather, sick horses, a stalled float.

“This is where the military really helps the PIC, because we’re so organized in our mission,” Powers said. “It’s painfully detailed, but it’s got to be that way.”

As the parade begins, so does the ballet that goes on behind the scenes.

JTF-AFIC route control members control the parade pace with hand-held signs that tell band drum majors to “close the gap” or “speed up.” Signs also tell bands when to start and stop playing along the route so they don’t drown each other out, and when to “render honors,” which means to play their theme song, near the White House.

By sundown, when the parade usually ends, members of JTF-AFIC will have been on the job for nearly 14 hours. Months of effort, of training and practice and planning for the worst, really comes down to this one big day—this single chance to shine.

“The key to doing any event, but especially something this huge, is to have thought of all the scenarios that could happen,” Powers said. “It’s about staying in control and solving problems.”

Last Updated:
11/30/2005, Eastern Daylight Time
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