Terry Moore pulls his iPhone from the pocket of his American flag jacket, answers, and says, “OK, yeah, we've got a mess.”
He puts his black Cadillac in gear and cruises west on Cass Street through north downtown Omaha, spotting an inflatable Bugs Bunny bobbing in the breeze below the Interstate 480 on-ramp, two and a half blocks from where the rabbit is supposed to be if it's going to float in the Septemberfest parade in little more than an hour.
Paradegoers expect balloons, and Moore – who has organized the four-day Septemberfest and accompanying Labor Day parade since 1977 – doesn't want to disappoint.
To make the event happen, Moore's parade team arrives downtown early Monday, before the sun rises over the river, when the moon is a sliver above the city. They speed through the empty streets in golf carts, one hand on the wheel, the other on the iPhones that have replaced the big walkie talkies from the parade's early days.
Major planning for this annual parade and carnival, a tribute to workers, began early last October. But with a few hours to go and families already setting up blankets and lawn chairs, organizers push through what they call the “controlled chaos” at the end.
Under the overpass, Moore puts the car in park, jogs over to the balloon operator, and gives orders: “See where that light is? On the other side of that light, on that street, is where we're going to go.” Back on the phone, he tells Mark Patach, fellow officer in the AFL-CIO union, to round up a minimum of a dozen volunteers to help wheel Bugs Bunny, along with Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, Uncle Sam and a dinosaur, down the street.
“They're craftsmen,” Moore says of the union volunteers. “They know how to figure out a problem.”
Moore is increasingly relying on others to run the parade, which draws 3,000 participants and thousands more in fans.
At 70, Moore still is energetic. But after overseeing Septemberfest for 37 years, he said, “you also get what's called tired.”
He arrives about 7:30 a.m., later than in past years. He was waiting at home for his wife's caregiver. Tania Moore has a degenerative nervous system disorder and can no longer attend the parade she used to help organize.
Septemberfest started the same year the Gene Leahy Mall opened, both in an effort to revitalize downtown Omaha.
Moore, the event's founder, recalls saying to others: “There's nothing going on in downtown Omaha.We've got to have a parade saluting working men and women.”
Now, he is training others to follow in his footsteps. “I want to make sure we pass this tradition on to the next generation.”
The next generation includes Patach, a machinist for Omaha Public Power District, who helps oversee the parade. Saturday he spray-painted numbers one through 75 on the pavement of an eight-block area, letting all parade entrants know where to stage their floats.
There's Jim Pabian, who is in charge of the balloon staging area, and Gary DiSilvestro, in charge of parade marshals. And Jim Reveal, who runs the midway carnival, seeing to every detail, including where a refrigerated truck waits at the finish line of the parade with bottled water for each entrant.
“By the way, it's perfect,” Moore tells Reveal, as they drive by the truck.
“Well, it's right where we had it last year,” Reveal says.
Organizers handle potential crises so quickly that families lining the 14-block parade route don't realize the balloons were unloaded in the wrong parking lot; a scissor lift arrived late to the Cox Communications broadcasting booth; construction forced Patach to reroute the parade staging area; or, by Pabian's count, a couple entries never showed up.
All they see is that a few minutes before 10 a.m., Bugs Bunny is right at the starting line near 16th and Cass Streets.
The governor and mayor get into position, a group of girls shake open their candy bags, the sound of a snare drum gets people tapping their toes and three Omaha police officers strap on motorcycle helmets and rev their engines.
Moore leads the procession down 16th Street, waving to the crowd that is waving to him.
No one waves to Patach, running and sweating at the end of the parade – behind the excavator, the city bus, the marching bands, the pink tractor, the convertible hearse, the steamfitters and ironworkers and carpenters and machinists. When the last entrant has passed, he pulls the “no parking” covers off meters and stuffs them in a bag, ready for next year's Septemberfest.