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Happy campers

Fans of the Rose Parade make a night of it

For 20 years, Kristin Varra has spent the night before the Rose Festival Grand Floral Parade camping out with her family on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Varra is 20 years old.

'It's definitely my dad's thing for the year: If I'm in the general area of the USA, I make it home,' says Varra, who now lives in Eugene.

For thousands of parade-goers like the Varras, camping out with families and friends beforehand is as much a tradition as the Southwestern Airlines Grand Floral Parade itself. The payoff, they say, is a prime viewing spot.

Many parade-eve squatters say they've done the overnights for at least 20 years.

The campers bring coolers full of food and drinks, lawn chairs, sleeping bags, canopies, tents, pillows, personal audio players, personal digital assistants, personal quirks, games, dogs, ducks, flags, footballs, flamingos (plastic) and attitude.

Some of them have camped along the route for 48 hours.

All for a parade.

This year, while the heat the day before and during Saturday's parade often proved oppressive, Friday evening was comfortable and fit for sleeping, with temperatures in the low 70s. The weather proved far better than that of the last two years, which veteran campers uniformly described as wet and freezing.

During a decidedly unscientific study of pre-parade squatting, the Tribune learned that:

• Most overnight campers do so on the route's east side, which begins at Memorial Coliseum before it crosses over the Willamette River and winds through downtown.

• Many campers return to the same viewing spot year after year.

• If interviewers spend more than five minutes talking with any particular group, they invariably will be offered a beverage or food.

• Most overnight campers say they enjoy the night-before ritual as much as or more than the parade itself.

With those points in mind, the Tribune began chronicling this year's camp-out on Friday evening:

9:19 p.m. Burnside Bridge, east half, north side: The Patient One

The parade starts in about 13 hours, and Bonnie Brown is ready. She's clearly marked her space in chalk. She sits alone, staring ahead as traffic whizzes past her and into downtown.

She doesn't read or chat up passing pedestrians. She simply waits.

10:34 p.m. Southwest Broadway and Yamhill Street: The Greater Portland Bible Church

As barhoppers stumble by, high school kids beckon them to grab a hot dog or a lemonade, and to take as many as they like.

The Greater Portland Bible Church, 2374 S.W. Vermont St., has given away pre-parade frankfurters for 15 years. The tactic, among other things, allows church members 'to talk to people on the streets, see people we usually don't see,' explains organizer Rob Howells.

Last year, a homeless couple spent four hours with church members, eating and talking.

'I don't know if we reached them, but we did what we could,' Howells says.

11:32 p.m. Burnside Bridge, west half, south side: The Jamisons

Oregon City's John Jamison does the pre-parade thing every other year with his two sons, Charles and Brian. It's loud on the bridge, thanks to frequent bus and truck traffic.

'Actually, the most annoying thing is the people who honk,' Jamison reports.

Asked why he does this, Jamison says:

'It really helps us bond as a family. I mean, you've got to do something with the family, and this is certainly an unusual thing to do. It's kind of like a bum's night out.'

11:53 p.m. Burnside Bridge, east half, south side: The Lovers

A young couple in amorous mode stop, interrupted by passers-by. No comment is made Ñ or sought.

Midnight Burnside Bridge, east half, north side: The Webbs

Murlane Webb bought six American flag-fabric lawn chairs, with cup holders, especially for this parade.

'There are supposed to be more people here, but they chickened out,' she says. This is her first mention of chicken. 'Would you like some chicken and potato salad? Come on. We have plenty. You have to try my potato salad. No? Maybe in the morning?'

This is Webb's fourth overnight venture. She sits in the same spot every time.

'This is a great spot: The parade slows down here, and the music always starts right here. Also, the toilets are right' Ñ she points 50 yards across Burnside to a lot at the corner of MLK Boulevard Ñ 'there.'

Does she ever worry that her new chairs, along with anything else not tied down, will be stolen?

'No, that just doesn't happen. You sure you don't want some chicken?'

12:20 a.m. Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Irving Street: The Varras

Kirk Varra, Kristin Varra's father, flits around the half-block-long area he's commandeered for 20 friends and family members. Josh Reeder, his nephew, calls to him: 'Kirk, come out here and talk to this reporter.'

Says Varra, peering up from the grill: 'Can't talk. Work thinks I'm out of town.'

Varra also has hooked up a 'water tent' Ñ consisting of a perforated hose lining a small canopy Ñ to refresh his guests during tomorrow's promised heat. All in all, he throws a good party.

'The parade is for the kids. This is for us,' says Josh Reeder's wife, Tracy, who's sipping a Corona.

12:50 a.m. Northeast MLK and Wasco Street: The Nertz Players

'Cheater! Cheater!'

'Gol' darn it.'

'Hey, that's not fair!'

So go the sounds of 'nertz,' a card game that requires one deck of cards per player and the ability to quickly slam down cards and taunt your opponents. The winner yells 'Nertz!' at the end of the game.

Most of the nertz players, along with about 10 other group members, recently graduated from Portland Christian School.

'Most of us will stay up all night,' said Chris Gray of Vancouver, Wash. 'After that comes the parade. Compared to this, that's the boring part.'

1:10 a.m. Northeast MLK and Wasco Street: The Benson Soakers

About 25 yards away from the Nertzes, four Benson students are emptying the contents of their Super Soakers, massive high-velocity squirt guns, into as many cars as they can.

If open car windows are the favored targets, convertibles and open-aired Jeeps are the mother lode.

To kill time before the parade, the Soakers have devised an ingenious plan: They've positioned themselves near the Marriott Courtyard Lloyd Center. The hotel unwittingly provides nearby fountains for quick and easy filling and arches through which the Soakers can disappear after antagonizing drivers.

The Soakers also have enlisted some needed muscle. When one doused driver screeches to a halt to, in essence, threaten the girls, four Benson boys run toward the driver. They ask the driver if he really wants to physically harm the girls, as he'd indicated. The man declines and drives away.

1:39 a.m. Northeast MLK and Halladay Street: The Sleepers

Somehow, despite the squeals of laughter from the Benson Soakers a half-block away, Connie Gunn and 8-year-old Jordan Gunn of Portland are cuddled together, enjoying a restful sleep.

1:50 a.m. Northeast MLK and Weidler Street: The 'Jackass'

He runs full speed and dives through a 'window' outlined by police tape Ñ intended to prevent squatters from occupying an encircled parking lot Ñ onto flattened cardboard spread across the sidewalk. Bones audibly hit the ground, yet he continues.

The night's first certifiable freak show draws attention from neighboring parties, who mock his every move.

Since he, like the jackasses in the movie of the same name, seems pathologically bent on receiving attention, it's not prudent to mention his name.

It is worth mentioning, though, that five minutes after his final tumble onto the cardboard, he's seen leaving the nearby 7-Eleven with a Big Gulp cup full of ice, no doubt to treat his bruised bones.

2:14 a.m. Northeast Weidler Street and First Avenue (south side): The Old Friends

Amy Dehnart and Stephanie Gaidosh are spending parade eve together for the first time since 1990, before Dehnart entered the Army.

'Of course, that time we rolled out of the bar with a couple of sailors,' Gaidosh says with a laugh. 'Now we're married with kids.'

Why do they do this?

Dehnart: 'We love parades.'

Gaidosh: 'Speak for yourself.'

A car drives by. A guy yells out the window, 'The parade is over. It's canceled.'

Says Gaidosh, 'Bet you that guy won't be up in time for the parade.'

2:30 a.m. Northeast Weidler and First Avenue (north side): The Fans

Cellophane roses dangle from the wires lining Maggie Anderson's canopy.

She'd made them in 1991, when the Skyliners Club named her Miss Tall Portland. She couldn't bear to throw them out and now displays them whenever she can.

Because she arrived Thursday morning, when viewers were first allowed to claim their spaces, Anderson may have been the first camper to secure a spot.

The Gresham resident, who's overnighting it with friend Pam Hagstrom, offers one key tip: If you set a chair down along the route, your rear end had better immediately fill it.

'You risk losing your chair Ñ and besides that, things can get pretty hostile at 9:30 a.m.,' she says.

2:55 a.m. Northeast Broadway near Memorial Coliseum: The Impetus

Three police cars, lights flashing but sirens silent, creep up Broadway, escorting scores of immaculate floats to the parade's staging area.

As parade goers sleep just yards away, lavish productions for such sponsors as George Morlan Plumbing Co. and Meier & Frank inch past. Had the sleepers awakened, they could have viewed the spectacle and gone home to their comfortable beds.

'Naw, that wouldn't be fun,' says Dawnella Peddle of Vancouver, Wash., who awakened just as the Morlan float, on which she and fellow members of Gresham's Apostolic Worship Center worked, passed by. 'We'll stay.'

She goes back to sleep. In a few hours, the Morlan offering will have won the sweepstakes prize for the top overall float.

3:41 a.m. Northeast MLK and Weidler Street: The Scotts

Sheila Scott is awake. And not by choice.

'The sprinklers (for shrubbery between the nearby 7-Eleven and MLK) went on, and all of our stuff is soaked,' the Portland resident says. 'Our sleeping bags, blankets, clothes, everything.'

Still, Scott harbors great hopes for the morning.

'I love the One More Time (Around Again Marching) Band,' consisting of of former high school musicians, she says. 'They're so upbeat.'

Which, come 10 a.m., is something that Scott, with no sleep and an armload of wet linens, will need.

3:49 a.m. Northeast MLK and Clackamas Street: The Expletives

'The police came and put a stop to those girls using the soakers,' reports Robin Show-Kanniainen of Vancouver, Wash.

'They're lucky they didn't spray my car. I can go from zero to (expletive) in 2.5 seconds.'

3:58 a.m. Northeast MLK and Wasco Street: The Nertz Players, Part II

The nertz game continues. 'Did you hear about those girls using the soakers?' asks one.

'Nertz!' yells another.

4:10 a.m. Northeast MLK and Hassalo Street: The Dancers

Joy Moler and Sonja Sanderson beckon to the few pedestrians left strolling to sign their sidewalk. It's sort of like a parade campers' guest book.

After two 'visitors' sign in, Moler grabs her boombox. 'All right: Let's dance!' she implores, and she and Sanderson bust a move with Bernard Williams, a guest-book signer who's joined the party.

Moler, 24, vows to bring her 5-year-old daughter to as many pre-parade night rituals as possible.

'It's the only time of the year you can sleep on the side of the road and not get in trouble,' she explains.

4:55 a.m. Northeast MLK and Hoyt Street: The Insomniac

John Devine of Yuma, Ariz., may be the last person fully awake between Hoyt and Burnside streets.

He's a truck driver who's stayed awake longer than he should. He wants to catch the Rose Parade for the first time since serving in Operation Desert Storm. He thinks it'll make a nice complement to events of the previous day, when his daughter graduated from Tigard High School.

Nearby, snores echo from a man sleeping on a flatbed truck, his young son curled up with him.

6:14 a.m. Southwest Broadway and Morrison Street: The Sleepers, Part II

A mohawked parade fan sleeps on a Batman pillow in front of Bibo Juice, 622 S.W. Broadway. Across the way, a man dozes in a lawn chair, a pink flamingo nearby proudly alerting his cronies as to the choice viewing spot he's scored in front of Abercrombie and Fitch.

7:05 a.m. Burnside Bridge, east half, south side: The Butlers and the Rookie

Bob and Mike Butler of Bellingham, Wash., and Tigard, respectively, are pre-parade veterans Ñ this is their fifth overnight Ñ who brought along Matt Lagasse of Portland this year for his first outing. They call Lagasse 'Rookie.'

The Rookie has had a rough night.

'Kept getting kicked by people walking by,' he reports.

'That's because we stuck you on the end,' says Mike Butler. 'You're the rookie.'

At 8 a.m., when the bridge closes for the parade, the Butlers fire up the portable stove, cook some pancakes and toss around the football.

'The parade wasn't that huge of a deal to us growing up, but we like it now,' Bob Butler says.

9:05 a.m. Northeast MLK and Davis Street: The Corsons/Chapmans

Whereas seven of the younger Corson/Chapman family members have spent the night, another 43 begin arriving for a family reunion.

Corsons and Chapmans from Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and Washington are attending the reunion at, yes, the Grand Floral Parade.

At 9:10 a.m., one very important family member arrives on the scene. It's Merna Corson, who's attending the parade as part of her 100th birthday celebration. She hit the century mark June 1.

Corson is the great-granddaughter of Samuel Barlow, he of Barlow Trail fame.

'I never met the man, but I'm sure he would have enjoyed this,' Merna says, glancing toward MLK, where the parade will pass by in about an hour.

'I know I will.'

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..