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Finley: Give Mother Goose a wide berth at parade

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The first thing I learned about Mother Goose is that she’s old and cranky and has loose joints. I can relate.

Nolan Finley prepares for parade float training at the Parade Company headquarters in Detroit.

Next Thursday, when America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade rolls down Woodward, I’ll be deep inside the Mother Goose float, doing my best to keep it headed in the right direction without damaging either it or the hundreds of thousands of spectators who’ll line the route.

Like the Wizard of Oz, I’ll be well out of sight, pulling levers, flipping switches and turning wheels.

And none of it will be as simple as it sounded when I agreed to drive the parade float The Detroit News is sponsoring in the annual event sponsored by Art Van Furniture.

“Mother Goose? Wow!,” exclaimed Tony Michaels, CEO of the Parade Company, when he looked at my assignment. “That’s the hardest float to drive. Good luck.”

I headed off to float driving school to find out exactly what he meant. We practice for a while on a smaller float, something with cartoon cats in a cart, and I start to relax.

Then I finally get a look at Mother Goose.

There are no doors on a float, at least not on this one. I enter through a hidden tunnel under the wing and then crawl toward the middle. Right off, I boink my head.

Inside, I learn the float rests on an ancient Ford truck chassis, with the engine and exhaust systems fully exposed. The driver’s seat is in a narrow, dark cocoon. Don Morris, director of operations, shows me where the fire extinguisher is located, as if I’d stick around long enough to use it should I smell smoke.

He also points to something I haven’t seen on a vehicle in nearly 40 years — a manual choke. This girl is old.

Once I’m over my claustrophobia, I notice the second significant Mother Goose feature, or rather one she’s lacking: The windshield. There isn’t one.

The driver’s only view of the parade route is from a tiny video screen connected to a camera on the front of the float.

A spotter walks backward, facing the camera and leading the driver with hand signals. My instructor has useful advice.

“If the camera goes out — and it happens,” he says, “make sure the radio is on.”

From that point, the driver would be driving blind, moving the float based on voice commands from the spotter.

But that prospect is not what makes driving Mother Goose so challenging. There’s no power steering to assist in turning the massive beast, and the handling is so loose you have to constantly saw the wheel. I haven’t driven anything like this since my uncle’s wheezing Ford Tractor more than 40 years ago.

Although the parade is all fun and games, driving a float isn’t. My instructor stresses the many ways in which a float could go rogue and kill children. It focuses your attention.

Morris has a more direct concern:

“You’ll have four beauty queens sitting on top of the float,” he says. “Any sudden moves and they come toppling down.” You don’t want that in your obituary.

While you’re watching the parade Thursday morning, give me a shout as Mother Goose approaches. And then get out of the way.


(313) 222-2064

Follow Nolan Finley at detroitnews.com/finley, on Twitter at nolanfinleydn, on Facebook at nolanfinleydetnews and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.