STAYING AFLOAT; As a balloon handler and team organizer for Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, Earlene Bradford of Glen Burnie knows all about the small miracles it takes to bring it all together.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NBC's Katie Couric may not mention it on television this morning, but Millennium Snoopy, the 64-foot-long opening spectacle in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, is being escorted by a troupe from Glen Burnie: friends and co-workers of Earlene Bradford, 47, an effervescent saleswoman in the children's department at Macy's Marley Station.

If the cameras pan down far enough, you might spot her, a brown-haired lady toward the back of the balloon. Extra-wide glasses, smile, a bulge under her black cowl-neck sweater where her camera is hidden? Hanging onto the ropes for dear life? The only thing she says her weight has ever been good for -- she's 5-foot-7 and 220 pounds -- is this parade. It keeps the giant balloon steady.

Who would relinquish a warm seat before the television on Thanksgiving to walk tired and cold in sleet and rain, as ballast for a balloon?

After last year's experience, when monsoon rains soaked through every layer of clothing to the skin, the bus home was strewn with wet socks, and feet stayed wrinkled for three weeks, why would anyone vie for a chance to be a balloon handler again?

Or the year before, when Earlene and friends were struck down like bowling pins by a leg of the Pink Panther, only to be crowned asphalt queens on Page 1 of the New York Times? Or the embarrassment in 1995 of popping a brand-new balloon, Dudley the Dragon, after 11 blocks and having to explain it the rest of the way to disappointed children?

There is the moment all handlers cite, when their balloon is announced and they step out onto Central Park West to the cheering and clapping of 2.5 million people and the smiling faces of children. They get goose bumps talking about it.

And there's Earlene Bradford. Her friends call her Earl, and her sister says she's never met a stranger. Seven years ago, when Macy's sent her store a letter asking for a team of parade volunteers, she told co-workers it sounded like fun. Soon she got to organize it. "I was the most outgoing fool," she says.

Bowing to her ability to draw a crowd in any weather, indeed to fill a bus of volunteers before anyone else in the company, Macy's this year offered Earlene whatever balloon she wanted. And she asked for Snoopy, billed by Macy's as the most unforgettable balloon in this year's parade -- if not ever.

"We're proud of her," says Jean McFadden, producer-director of the Macy's parade. "Yes, it's a group effort by all means. The truth is, it's individuals and their influence that has been the success and tradition of the parade."

Excitement builds

After six years as a captain in the Macy's parade, Earlene knows that each parade can bring surprises. But getting there has become predictable:

As she's done every year, Earlene worked yesterday, 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Then she went home to greet her sister, Lynnette, who drove in from Charlotte, N.C., and change into her warmest clothes.

Around midnight, they joined dozens of other balloon handlers and four clowns at the Double-T Diner across from Marley Station to shore themselves up with eggs, bacon, muffins and plenty of coffee. The waitress, one of Earlene's longtime Macy's customers, had been warned to expect at least 30 this year, up from a handful when Earlene showed up the first parade eve in 1993. The midnight meeting is an ice-breaker, when veterans hug, the story of the Pink Panther is retold, and newcomers wonder whether knowing Earlene will be worth the work.

"That's when you really get excited," says Jae Lee, 28, manager of the Gloria Jean coffee shop where Earlene takes her break. She recruited him last year when she heard him say he'd always dreamed of visiting New York. This year he returned with six of eight employees.

By 1: 30 a.m., they would have boarded the bus Macy's sent to the store parking lot; husbands and wives, sisters, three young cousins, 17 to 19, giddy with excitement. Earlene pops in a movie to set the mood -- "Miracle on 34th Street" -- and after visiting up and down, settles back to catch up with Lynnette. They walked the American Cancer Society Relay for Life the same weekend in different states, they discover; Earlene styles wigs for cancer patients while Lynnette runs a leukemia benefit; and in the running total of blood donations they keep, Earlene is way ahead, about to hit the 8-gallon mark.

They never had much growing up, the children of a Washingtonpoliceman and a homemaker, but they watched their parents always help people. Treat people as they would want to be treated, the girls were taught. With this in mind, Lynnette periodically hits the aisle, offering chocolate-covered coffee beans to anybody else too wound up to sleep.

The sun lights the Manhattan skyline when they arrive at 6 a.m. Until two years ago, the group went to Brooklyn to put on costumes, but now a hotel on 81st Street is the staging point for 4,000 Macy's employees and friends.

Getting ready

Inside the hotel, clowns and people who are cupcakes or pieces of pies are directed to makeup and the balloon handlers to a cavernous basement filled with garment racks of costumes. The laughter is palpable as they step into one-piece cover-ups and their sneakers get stuck and they reach back for a wall to lean on so they won't fall. This year their cover-ups are white, to match Snoopy, the same as they donned last year to handle Eben the Bear. At the sign-up in October, Earlene advised everybody to "lie" about their size -- add 6 inches to 10 inches for the extra clothes -- so they wouldn't feel as she did her first year, wrapped as tight as a sausage in casing. She makes sure everyone has a costume, exchanges those too tight or too large and keeps them together; some people are nervous, never having been to the city before.

Less than an hour later, they leave the hotel, and police direct them to their balloon. Street after street, giant helium balloons inflated the night before lie on their sides, covered with fishing nets and secured with sand bags. Police are everywhere. Earlene sees people as cold as she is, carrying bundled babies, but at least she is moving.

Each balloon has its own director and trained team, and the 40 to 60 people who handle each giant character must master a series of hand signals -- stop, go, left, right -- before they raise it. When they are ready, everyone reaches under the balloon for a cord, wrapped like a figure-8 onto what looks like a large dog biscuit. This is the time to choose your place. Sometimes the ropes are mixed up under the balloon, and there's lot of shuffling as the nets are raised.

"Let your lines out 5 feet," the director may yell. Then another 5 feet, then 10 feet, and so on for a half hour. Then, if the balloon needs more helium, somebody climbs a ladder with a portable helium tank to fill some of the balloon's individual zippered compartments hidden under covers.

Standing around in the cold, waiting, after being up all night, some handlers now want only to go home to bed. But as soon as they hear a big pop, the signal the parade has begun, hearts start pumping, and heads take over. "Let's go," the director says.

A tug at the heartstrings

As they move out into the street, Earlene gets a creepy, tingling feeling all over. Her hair stands up on the back of her neck. Making the parade happen is the most exciting thing she's ever done, save giving birth to her two children. People are everywhere. As far up as she can see into the windows of office buildings and apartments, faces are pressed to the glass, packed in just as they are on the street, standing row upon row, the smallest sitting cross-legged on the curb. She's a "speckle" on somebody's TV, she knows, but as she passes, their clapping and cheering make her feel she is really special doing this, bringing all this happiness to people. That's when she tears up.

After that, she's too busy to look at the crowds. The only break is at intersections, where everybody stops to watch how the crosswinds treat the balloon ahead and Earlene whips out her camera. On orders, they break into a trot to cross each street. One year the wind was so fierce Earlene's hands never dropped below her head. If the balloon gets out of control, the crowd lets them know.

"All you are thinking is, 'I am just going to get this balloon all the way through,' " said Susan Kelly, 27, in her seventh parade with Earlene. "The people in the audience want you to let it go. You are under a lot of pressure. All you are thinking is, 'I better get this thing to the other side, not let anything happen to it.' As soon as it shifts to the left, you hear ooohs and ahhhs, and then they clap for you when you make it."

The Panther caper

This year, being first, Earlene and her friends will be the ones giving pointers. But Snoopy is only 47 feet high compared with the gangly 72-foot-high Pink Panther they tried to fly in 1997.

It was so windy that year that even getting the Panther across Columbus Circle on his back was a victory. The wind whipped under his leg, and it swung up and around, toppling eight of them. Earlene lay still on the ground, her hands over her eyes. Her sister, after picking herself up, yelled for help. Her wits restored, Earlene explained: she wasn't hurt, but she'd lost her glasses and couldn't get up because she couldn't see. A search produced them, intact; by the time the Panther bopped its own director at 42nd Street and droves of police took out their pocket knives, she could see fine. Watching them stab the wayward character was traumatic.

"The sad part is, we almost had him home," said Diana Griffith, 53, of Middlesex, who met Earlene country line-dancing six years ago and who is in her fourth parade today. Before the balloon was tamed, it strung Diana up by her feet a foot and a half into the air. The cord, which caught on her arm before she could drop it, nearly wrapped around her neck before her husband and police saved her. She felt like a failure. After rolling up the Panther on a side street, she and the others went to help with the Quik Bunny balloon.

The bus ride home that year was somber; before boarding they learned that the Cat in the Hat tore into a lamp post at 72nd Street and critically injured a 35-year-old Wall Street analyst. If the Panther hadn't been slashed to bits, he would have been retired under the new balloon height and wind restrictions the next year.

The experience prompted Paula Pinkney-Clapp, 51, who stocks Earlene's department at Macy's and was in on the parade from the start, to give notice: "I'm getting too old for this," she said. Earlene got her a job as a clown the next year.

This year, well, they always have a ball and Paula couldn't let her down, not when the pair mention the parade everywhere they go: the blood bank, the gas company, the coffee shop. It took three weeks to fill the bus, less time than they needed to sign up 70 people to walk for juvenile diabetes, paint benches in poor neighborhoods or pack school bags for needy kids -- some of the projects Earlene organizes. Last month she was named Macy's Maryland Corporate Volunteer of the Year.

Plus, the three-hour walk to Herald Square is part of history, a chance to carry on a tradition they observed in childhood. "It's like an adrenalin rush, to be so close to it," says Christine Fuller, 26, a clown, who was so excited she tried a cartwheel in front of Macy's last year and fell flat on her face.

The bus ride home usually is quiet, and everyone sleeps.

Earlene's first year was the hardest, since Thanksgiving is a big family holiday and she'd cooked a turkey for 20 years. Returning to her Glen Burnie duplex that night at 6: 30, she found a beautifully set table. Her husband, Bob, a bricklayer, cooked every traditional food and then some, surprising her with new wine glasses decorated with Christmas wreathes.

After dinner, she watches the parade on video. Last year there was a solitary shot of her gazing into space at the end of the parade.

Tomorrow, the biggest sale day of the year, Earlene must be at work at 7 a.m., ready to tell amazed customers of her parade adventures. She won the grand prize for selling the most Macy's collectibles -- a plush red-nosed Rudolph, $16.95 with a $35 purchase -- in the two weeks after last Thanksgiving. This year the plush toy at her counter is Millennium Snoopy himself, in jester's hat and party horn, singing "Auld Lang Syne." When customers hear she handled the Snoopy balloon in the parade -- well, there are more than 4 million Marylanders and only 2,000 Snoopys in the back ...

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