It’s been quite a year for James Madison University freshman Blake Mabe. Named both Drum Major and Homecoming King at Carroll County High School as a senior last year, the Cana native added another once-in-a-lifetime experience to his portfolio Thursday as he participated in the 87th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
“It was unreal,” Mabe said of the time-honored national tradition. “First and foremost, it was extremely tiring, but awe would be the word. I never expected that amount of people on the streets. It was people as far as the eye could see. To be in the middle of all the balloons, The Today Show host and all the celebrities, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Mabe, a freshman majoring in computer science, plays in the sax-alto section for the Marching Royal Dukes of James Madison University. The 2013 band’s members represent 47 academic majors, and more than 400 Marching Royal Dukes are non-music majors. The 485-member band is the largest in JMU’s history.
The band performs at all home football games, travels to select away games and represents JMU at local and regional high-school exhibitions and community events.
The JMU band was one of 11 marching bands performing in the parade, and one of only two college bands - the other was the University of Massachusetts Amherst - that were invited to perform. The Marching Royal Dukes were selected from more than 150 applications sent to Macy’s Parade’s Committee. This is the band’s third appearance in the parade. They previously performed in the 2001 and 2008 parades.
Mabe said while the Marching Royal Dukes were shown performing live on NBC, the parade route and preparations were much more extensive than the four or five minutes they were shown on live television. Mabe said the parade route was two miles long, after which the band performed on Herald Square outside of Macy’s.
“It is actually pretty interesting. Before you do the parade, that morning you have to do one practice run-through with the NBC producers. We did that at 1:30 in the morning until 3. Then we came back to the hotel and slept to 5, and then loaded back up and got to the parade about two-and-a-half hours before it started to get ready and practice,” Mabe said. “I was frozen to the core. It was in the 30s, but the worst part was the wind chill. I even had hand-warmers and foot-warmers but my face and limbs were just frozen.”
Much like the city of New York, Mabe said the massive floats and balloons have to be seen in person to appreciate their sheer size and pageantry.
“My favorite would have to be the classic giant turkey at the beginning of the parade. It is something that is so iconic, and to actually see it in person, it is huge,” Mabe said. “It is probably four or five stories high. It is awesome.”
To get to New York City, Mabe said JMU took 11 charter buses. The actual trip from Harrisonburg to the Big Apple itself was only about six hours, but more like 8.5 hours once traffic was factored. Not only did the trip to NYC open new horizons for Mabe, it also gave him a deeper appreciation for home.
“Traffic in New York was crazy. We arrived in New York on Tuesday and (are staying) until Saturday,” he said. “If you ever get the chance to go, I would strongly suggest it. It gives you a different perspective. It not only allows you to see how other people live, but going from a quiet Carroll County town to New York, I miss it. It gave me a deep respect of not only New York, but also back home. It is two completely different ways of life, each with its ups and downs.”
Blake is the son of Keith and Karen Mabe of Cana. Missing Thanksgiving with family was bittersweet, Mabe said, since it was to be a part of something so iconic and so engrained in the hearts and minds of every American.
“Seeing the pictures and posts on Facebook from Thanksgiving back home, I hate I missed it,” Mabe said. “I miss my family, but it’s also something not many people can say they have accomplished, so it had its ups and downs.”