The weather on Return Day 2008 defied meteorologists. The rain was expected to clear in time for the parade. It didn’t. The blustering wind was supposed to subside. That didn’t happen either. Few were dressed warmly enough to withstand the cold, steady drizzle. Even fewer were psychologically prepared to stand in hour-long security lines to empty their purses and pockets and glide through metal detectors merely to gain access to The Circle.
This was Georgetown, after all, the county seat. Good ol’ Town Hall, and state and county buildings that regularly welcome Delawareans fill that Circle. Yet on this Return Day, the day we cheer the politicians we’ve voted into office, we needed permission to enter.
Ah, but this Return Day was unlike any other.
Joe Biden was coming.
Biden has rarely missed a Return Day in the three decades he’s served as U.S. senator. But hours before this one, he became vice president-elect.
Joe’s a rock star now. And when our own Elvis came home, an army of Secret Service vehicles followed. Armed men stood on rooftops. A constant presence of secret service suits hovered about. There were lots of cops. Good-looking D.C. types in fitted black coats circled The Circle.
The parade started an hour late. We endured improvised banter from well-intentioned announcers Wayne Pickens and Bill Whitaker. We applauded the gospel sounds of Joe Dawson, who sang many, many songs. We saluted Miss Delaware 2008, Galen Giacconne, who suffered six-inch stilettos in the rain and played a pretty mean jazz flute.
The rain got heavier. The wind blew stronger. Our mascara ran down our cheeks. Our feet stunk of wet leather. And just as we were about to throw in our wet towels, or worse, the tiny American flags a retired Vet handed us hours earlier, the whistle blew, indicating the start of, er, something. Joe was rounding The Circle.
Beautiful Belgian horses pulled the white carriage Joe shared with his wife, Jill. He leaned out of his ride and waved. The crowd went nuts. “Yo, Joe,” they yelled. “Bi-den, Bi-den,” was chanted around a Circle packed with thousands holding thousands of umbrellas. Teenagers texted frenetically. Forty-somethings worked digital cameras. Older folks stood up. Tears streamed down the faces of African-Americans.
After Biden’s secret service brigade came a lull. More nervous banter. Finally, the real Return Day returned: the procession of rivals Bill Lee and Jack Markell, Matt Denn and Charlie Copeland, Karen Weldin-Stewart and John Brady. Even Christine O’Donnell and Karen Hartley-Nagle enjoyed rides.
Former Governor Russell Peterson appeared in the parade prior to his stellar performance as Grand Marshal. That his appearance came 40 years after he was elected made his presence just as impressive as Biden’s.
Leaders like Peterson, after all, made Delaware politics what it is, and they’ve made Return Day the spectacle no one else in the country understands.
Which is why folks like the Reverend Covington, a longtime Georgetown resident, weren’t so thrilled.
“Used to be we all roamed the streets freely during Return Day,” Covington said, holding a box of Return Day pins he was trying to sell. “We never went through security to support our politicians. We filled the streets. They had to push us back for the parade. Now we’re held back with these ropes. Nope. Just not the same.”
It’s not the same. But change happens. Maybe for the better. Joe Biden has achieved something no other Delawarean has. That meant getting drenched to get a glimpse. It meant getting frisked. It meant losing our Swiss Army penknives.
If after having served two years as vice-president Joe does Return Day 2010, it’ll be an even bigger deal. And we’ll do it all over again.
Even if it rains.