LAST week’s Veterans Day parade provided an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, Mountain Charlie Chapter No. 1850. The Clampers, as they call themselves, are a men’s drinking fraternity of the absurd that doubles as a historical preservation society. They sport Old West duds and install historical plaques at various locales throughout California, swilling drinks in the process. The Mountain Charley chapter, our local faction, is named after “Mountain Charlie” McKiernan, the legendary Santa Cruz Mountain trailblazer and grizzly fighter. Every Veterans Day for the parade, the Clampers bring their own floats, one of which is a homemade wooden outhouse, complete with a shingled roof and all the expected accoutrements stuck to the outside: empty beer cans, a rusted toilet seat, a satellite dish, prospecting equipment, a “2 hour parking” sign, an American flag and more. In pure Clamper fashion, a beverage keg sits inside, routed to a tap on the outside of the structure. A pickup truck tows the whole thing. Another float, a wooden trailer complete with bales of hay and an ancient barber’s chair for the imbibing, also made its annual appearance last week.
I arrived, coffee in hand, somewhere around 10am, as the rear fleet of parade floats maneuvered for position along Autumn Street next to the Shark Tank. A whorl of activity enveloped the scene. Harleys roared up from St. John Street. A float carrying the American Legion contingent appeared, complete with full regalia. Wandering firemen casually surveyed the scene on foot. Clampers gathered boisterously, all wearing their distinctive red long-sleeve shirts and black leather vests covered with buttons and patches. On the sidewalk by the Arena Green, they fired up a stove, the smell of propane filling the air. Hot dogs were flung onto the grill. The roar of a generator erupted in order to power the popcorn machine and the coffee maker. The men drank while the women operated the grill.
Another pickup truck eventually emerged, towing a mock old-school locomotive that the Clampers have hot-rodded with two stoves in order to cook sausage sandwiches during the parade. Unfortunately, they are no longer allowed to use the apparatus, due to the ban on flaming parade floats. Leave it to the San Jose Fire Marshall to ruin everything, as always. But the Clampers continued to shell out hot dogs for every passerby on the sidewalk. I wolfed down three myself. It was a free-for-all.
“We go alllll out,” one Clamper told me as the golden beverages continued to flow. The vehicles then began to fall in line as the noon hour approached, signaling that they would soon embark on the parade route down Santa Clara Street toward Market. A few dozen Clampers parked their butts on the main float, using the bales of hay for seats, while raising their black and red mugs on high. The rest of the Clampers, along with their families, primed themselves to march on foot.
After the parade, the well-oiled fraternity made its way to Henry’s Hi-Life, the legendary San Jose mecca for carnivore fundamentalists and the latest locale to be graced with an honorary plaque from E Clampus Vitus. Henry’s boasts a century of gluttonous history, well described in the text of the plaque. As I approached from underneath the freeway overpass and watched the dedication ceremony mastered by Clamper Patrick Aloysius Sweeney, the scene was Dionysian. The plaque permanently rests outside on St. John Street, encased in brick, and the whole crowd of Clampers let out a raucous ovation while Sweeney, standing up above the masses, voiced the dedication. By 4pm, the bar area of Henry’s Hi-Life was filled, elbow-to-elbow, with Clampers, many holding drinks in both hands. A delectable smell of barbecue emanated from the banquet room. Eventually I then slithered away as the sonic collage of clinking glass and high-octane conversation continued. As the Clamper creed goes, Right Wrongs Nobody. Support your troops!