July 4th is fast approaching, and in Lakewood that can only mean one thing: preparation for the annual Lakewood 4th of July parade. Chances are if you look around a bit, you’ll have no trouble finding plenty of residents hard at work on their parade floats.


One such group is last year’s first place winners — a group of dads and sons who have made float building a tradition for the past several years.


“It’s turned into this thing bigger than we could’ve imagined — I mean, it started with a wagon train,” says Kevin Turner, laughing. “Now it’s turned into a big community builder.”


It all started seven years ago, when a group of dads involved with YMCA Guides, a father-son camping group, wanted to have a special activity to share with their sons during the summer.


“The Y program goes through the school year, but during the summer they don’t have anything,” Turner says. “So the first thing we thought of was, ‘Let’s participate in the 4th of July parade.’”


So Turner and company, calling themselves the “Hoodoos,” designed their first float — the infamous wagon train.


“It was simple … the dads pulled it like a team of horses,” recalls Turner with a hearty chuckle.


It didn’t win.


But the wagon train is the only float that hasn’t won an award. Since then, the Hoodoos’ float designs have become bigger and better. They’ve had floats with a variety of themes, including “Jaws,” “Peter Pan and the Lost Boys,” “The Boston Tea Party” — they’ve even had a float that depicted George Washington crossing the Delaware .


“We try to create our floats to celebrate patriotism and independence and to teach the kids,” Turner says.


For example, one year the group built a “Higgins boat” float to teach the kids about the importance of D-Day and World War II. What the kids — and the parents, for that matter — didn’t count on was getting a lesson from a real D-Day veteran.


“One of the neighbors actually landed on Normandy in D-Day,” Turner says. “He stood there and watched us building every day — of course, he knew exactly what it [the Higgins boat] was.”


The neighbor ended up spending some time with the kids, telling them about his experiences in the war.


Last year, the Hoodoos’ winning float was called “Sunday Morning Sci-Fi,” which was basically a giant flying saucer. The overall theme for the parade was “Lakewood Loves Entertainers,” so the group strayed a little from the more patriotic themes of previous years. Turner says they decided on the UFO theme because they enjoy watching Sunday morning Sci-Fi movies with their kids.


          “And we knew no one else would have that theme,” Turner says.


In addition to creative themes, every year the group finds a way to incorporate a mini-swimming pool in the middle of the float — about 400 gallons of water, Turner says. Why? Because of those July temps, the kids need something to splash around in, he says.


Building the floats is one thing that has kept Turner’s son, Max, now 13, interested in participating over the years.


“I like to work on it and see how it all finishes out in the end … and see how people like it,” he says.


          But even more important than the awards and the crowd’s reception is the sense of community the project affords these neighbors and their kids.


          “Our kids are now 13 and 14. They haven’t been camping [with YMCA] since they were seven. Some have gone to different schools,” says Turner, explaining that these projects mean that for two weeks of every summer, even though they may be in different places the rest of the year, the kids can get together to work on the float.     


          He adds that for the grown-ups, the whole thing has been more of a support network.


“We’ve helped dads find work; we’ve helped a neighbor going through a divorce,” Turner says. “Rarely do you get to take that much time building something and talking with families.”


To top that off, participating in the parade has accomplished exactly what Turner and the other dads hoped it would do.


“This thing is just one more part of the Y-Guide experience, and that’s what the Y program is — it’s dads spending time with their kids,” says Joe Kaplor, whose been a participant in the parade for the past three years with his son Mike.


“I’m sure when I’m older and [Mike] is older, he’ll say, ‘Do you remember when we built that float…’”


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