When something went wrong with the steering mechanism on the Bakery, Confectionary and Tobacco Workers Union float, Linda Payne had 30 seconds to make a decision.
She could let the float crew try to fix it where it was--stopped on Colorado Boulevard near St. John Avenue--and risk holding up the 28 floats and marching bands and equestrian units behind it in the Rose Parade Friday.
Or she could radio for a tow truck right away.
Payne called for the tow truck. Ninety seconds later, the float, "Be Mine," was under tow. Its prancing bears covered with mums, irises and orchids were trundled off, and the parade kept moving--still within the schedule designed to entertain an international television audience.
Payne was one of 60 "white-suiters," volunteers on Honda scooters who were assigned to shepherd the hulking creations from the time the entries were moved to the parade route Thursday night until the parade was over Friday morning.
"The idea is that the float should not be stopped for more than two minutes. The concern is that we have 2 hours and 20 minutes to get every unit in the parade past the TV cameras," said Dick Seifert, who headed a unit of nine white-suiters. "If an early float hangs up, there'll be some floats at the end of the parade that will not make it past the cameras. When you pay $100,000 to $150,000 per float, you want the TV exposure."
The white-suiters, riding between the floats and the screaming crowds, had to ensure that the taller floats made it under electrical lines and the 210 Freeway overpass along Sierra Madre Boulevard.
Yelling and using hand signals, the white-suiters acted as lookouts for drivers whose vision through wire mesh windows was limited to little more than the pink line that runs down the middle of the route.
"I never leave the side of the float," white-suiter John Flynn, 31, said as he prepared to escort the Fansteel float, "It's for You!," from its decoration site to the parade route. "I'm sort of the eyes of the driver, and the observer on the outside. (The driver) is looking at a pink line, the observer is looking at the float in front of him, and I'm looking at everything else, like a street signal that might be hanging down."
Flynn also had to worry about the 18-foot freeway overpass on Sierra Madre. When fully extended, the marigold-and-orchid-covered spaceship on the Fansteel float reaches a height of about 50 feet. With its legs collapsed, however, the float made it under the freeway.
White-suiter Jim Caldwell had to make sure the Baskin & Robbins float, featuring a pink elephant kneeling on its front legs, knelt down on its hind legs in time to make it under the overpass.
"He helps us, because a lot of times I can't see out height-wise or maybe side to side as well as I can see directly forward," said Mike Gillespie, 32, driver of the float. "He takes up a lot of slack."
Gillespie rode in the elephant's left front foot, and Caldwell rode his scooter about eight feet away, calling out directions and occasionally motioning with his hands to guide Gillespie. The two men, who have been meeting on and off since June, got through the parade without any major miscommunication.
"He's been to meetings with the float, (test runs) down the street, around corners, long before the parade," Gillespie said of his white-suiter, "so he has a good knowledge of how the float turns and moves, probably as good a knowledge as the builder himself."
In his five years as a Rose Parade volunteer, Caldwell has, among other things, worked on committees and helped out at the post-parade viewing area in Victory Park. But none of those jobs was as engaging as being a white-suiter on a scooter, he said.
"This is the best job that I've had so far," Caldwell said. "You have the float out there by yourself; it's you all alone. When that float breaks down, it's you that has to make the decision whether to have it towed. . . . There's no place to hide."