WILLIMANTIC -- An eclectic display of patriotism, social commentary and off-beat fun paraded Wednesday through the streets of downtown Willimantic at the annual Boom Box Parade.
The 22-year-old Independence Day tradition attracted thousands, including Gov. M. Jodi Rell, for an event widely known for its creativity and "anything goes" attitude." No permits are needed, only a boom box and something with patriotic colors.
Dennis and Gloria Perriolat of Willimantic watched from curbside folding chairs as large papier-mâché fish passed by -- with members of the Fish Head Club of Northeast Connecticut carrying "End Global Warming," signs.
The group joined a large number of marching organizations with a message. A "Northeast Connecticut Says No War," banner mingled with signs supporting the troops, dairy farms or political candidates.
"It gives every group a chance to advertise, to speak out," Dennis Perriolat said. "It's not your average Joe parade, that's for sure."
WILI radio personality and lifelong parade marshal Wayne Norman, with slicked-back black hair and high-top Converse sneakers in honor of the radio station's 50th anniversary, shared a hug with Rell before the 11 a.m. start.
In keeping with Norman's "over the top," personality, WILI broadcast a pre-recorded and narrated virtual fireworks display and a flyover by an A-10 Warthog, turning some confused heads to the sky.
"We can fool around and have some fun," Norman said. "That's what it's all about."
Part of the parade tradition is to carry portable "boom box," radios tuned into WILI for the official marching music. It is an idea dreamt up in 1986 by the late Kathy Clark because of the lack of an available marching band at the time.
Attractions this year included a medieval castle, a hovercraft created by students at Parish Hill High School and miniature of the Prudence Crandall Museum in Canterbury.
"I've heard so much about it, and (Norman's) been asking and asking and asking me to march," Rell said. "Everybody loves a Fourth of July parade, especially when it's a hometown parade. This, of course, is unique."
Diane Evashowski of Willimantic, who joined about 20 family members, said they arrived an hour early for good seats.
"We've been doing this forever," said Evashowski, who forgot her boom box, but not her spirit. "I look forward to this every year. It sets off the whole Fourth of July day. We'll be picnicking later."
Evashowski's only suggestion, perhaps contrary to the concept of the parade, is to invite marching bands to next year's parade.