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Bella English

Newtown, Conn., parades its strength

Marchers in the Labor Day parade in Newtown, Conn.

Bella English

Marchers in the Labor Day parade in Newtown, Conn.

Two of our oldest friends live in Newtown, Conn., and it is a town that my husband and I have come to love over the years. Our son grew up loving it, too: the red general store just a few doors down from our friends’ house on Main Street, with its counters of candy, and the $2 movies at the nearby town hall. It is the only town I’ve ever seen where there is a 100-foot flagpole smack in the middle of Main Street.

Newtown is about the same size as Milton, where I live, but Newtown has more of a small-town feel. Unlike Milton, it is not a suburb, though some — including our friend Chris — commute the hour and a half into Manhattan. His wife, Lucy, teaches middle school in the next town over.

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Here in Milton, we residents feel lucky because we can be downtown in 20 minutes and in the idyllic Blue Hills in about 10.

In Milton, there has been controversy about “outsiders from Boston” (read: Dorchester and Mattapan) coming in to trick-or-treat. Newtown is more rural, and each Halloween, kids from all corners of town throng onto Main Street to trick-or-treat. Our friends give out 3,000 to 4,000 pieces of candy each Halloween night.

But the custom that most defines Newtown is the Labor Day parade, now in its 52d year. It is a mash-up of politicians, marching bands, bagpipers, baton twirlers, square dancers, history re-enactors, dogs, horses followed by pooper scoopers, and my personal favorite, the Pyramid Shriners Motor Patrol, which features a bunch of big men impossibly stuffed into tiny cars that swerve their way down Main Street.

People bring their lawn chairs and stake out a spot in perfect strangers’ Main Street yards, the better to see the two-hour parade. Marchers throw handfuls of candy at spectators, and kids bring big sacks to hold their loot.

We’d been to a few of the parades, and knew that this year would be special. As the world knows, Newtown was put on the map last Dec. 14 by the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20 first-graders and six educators were slain by a gunman who then shot himself. (My question for these dirtbags: Why don’t you just shoot yourself first?)

On Labor Day, as several of us stood on our friends’ porch, one of the parade staffers asked if we could help carry a huge American flag down Main Street, kicking off the parade. Once we unfurled the 45-by-90-foot flag, the adult volunteers grasped the edges while lots of kids got under it.

It turns out that the flag has flown in 34 countries, and over Mount Rushmore, and its home base is the USS Constitution in Charlestown.

The woman next to me grasping the flag — her daughter was underneath — said tearfully that she has three friends who lost children in the massacre, and that her own daughter, a first-grader last year, attended a different elementary school in town.

Her family moved to Newtown from Danbury several years ago. “For the schools,” she said. Her grief was still raw, but she believed the parade was uplifting for the community.

Beth Caldwell, the parade committee president, agreed, though she said there was more security this year, including some police dogs. There were also more participants, as first responders from other towns came to support their Newtown brethren.

In the parade program, Caldwell wrote: “The events of this past year have reminded us about the importance of community. We have witnessed Newtown’s pride, passion, strength, and generosity and we have come together.”

This was the first year since the parade’s beginning in 1962 that the town decided not to pick an individual as grand marshal, instead naming the town itself to the post. “We Are Newtown — Marching Strong,” was the theme.

Everywhere, there were reminders of the children now gone, including a Shetland pony wearing a pair of angel wings. Bumper stickers were seen on doors and cars: “We are Sandy Hook. We Choose Love.”

On a road leading into the Sandy Hook neighborhood, someone had hung a sheet with the hand-painted words: “There is no foot so tiny that it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”

It was the first responders — Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue trucks — and the Sandy Hook Elementary School marchers that elicited long applause and standing ovations, as well as cheers and tears. The school’s entry was a tractor pulling a cart of kids with “thank you” written in various languages and a sign that said: “We Appreciate the World’s Compassion and Generosity.”

There were oohs and ahs at the car bearing the adorable Sandy Hook Therapy Puppies.

A few days before the parade, the local paper, the Newtown Bee, had a front-page story on the festivities, and on the opposite side of the front page an editorial that reminded the town about its lost innocence.

“Newtown is no longer a town where people can find consolation by telling themselves that things always turn out for the best,” it stated. “The kind of naivete requires a level of trust in fate that just doesn’t exist in this place anymore.”

Since the April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon, we here in the Boston area can relate to that. I stopped in at the Newtown Starbucks en route to Lucy’s house and saw a woman wearing a “Boston Strong” T-shirt. “Are you from Boston?” I asked.

“No, I live here in Newtown,” she said. “But my heart goes out to Boston.” I thanked her, knowing she feels our collective pain.

Two years ago, the Newtown Labor Day Parade was delayed a month because of damage after Hurricane Irene, but in more than half a century, it has never been canceled. Skies were threatening this year, and in mid-afternoon, a cloudburst moved in and it poured for a couple of hours.

Two years ago, the Newtown Labor Day Parade was delayed a month because of damage after Hurricane Irene, but in more than half a century, it has never been canceled.

The skies were threatening this year, and in mid-afternoon, a cloudburst moved in and it poured for a couple of hours.

But the two-hour parade was mostly dry, with some light drops and an occasional speck of sun. Some were calling it divine intervention.

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.
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