BRATTLEBORO—The people huddled under umbrellas and in raincoats weathered the drizzle and late hour to see — and be seen by — NBC’s Today Weatherman Al Roker.
Pliny Park, at the corner of Main and High streets, sparkled from the many strings of white lights arranged around trees and from decorative lights on the Brooks House.
Roker breezed through Brattleboro Thursday night as part of his world-record-setting “Rokerthon 2” tour, which followed up his previous world record for the longest weather report, at more than 30 hours.
This tour set a new record when he reported the weather from 50 states over seven days.
Brattleboro would be stop 48 for Roker, due to arrive in Pliny Park by 9 p.m. on Nov. 12. The Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce started promoting the event on Nov. 3.
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The weatherman and his TV entourage arrived nearly two hours later than planned, but it didn’t dissuade all the onlookers who came equipped with posters to hold before the television cameras.
A rough head count of those awaiting the TV personality’s visit appeared to top the degree of community participation at most public meetings.
By Brattleboro standards, a crowd gathered; those from other stops on Roker’s itinerary would probably consider the people filling the park an eclectic gathering of eccentrics.
Sprinkled among the posters wishing loved ones happy birthday and “Brattleboro Loves Al” were people holding signs for their local nonprofits or favorite causes.
Curtiss Reed Jr. and volunteers attended the event with a large banner inviting people to visit the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
Members of the Vermont Workers Center held red and white signs declaring “Health Care is a Human Right.”
A group of Landmark College students held signs for their school.
Another bystander sported a cardboard sign which provided a website (globalclimatescam.com) dedicated to “exposing the truth about global warming hysteria.”
The Brattleboro Reformer followed up its special “wrap” around the paper announcing Roker’s arrival by handing out brightly-colored umbrellas with the paper’s logo.
BACC Executive Director Kate O’Connor detailed the items in goodie basket that she prepared for Roker and his crew: ]beer from the Hermit Thrush and Whetstone Station breweries, goat milk caramels from Big Picture Farm, and various maple sugar products.
While people waited, a man dressed in Morris costume danced for the crowd. A couple on illuminated stilts joined the throng.
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Al Roker finally arrived and was ushered along Main Street, around the corner of High Street, and into Pliny Park. The crowd parted briefly before quickly squeezing a tight circle around Roker and WPTZ Chief Meteorologist Tom Messner.
The two men chatted about Roker’s whirlwind tour of the country. Roker gave his weather report.
Brattleboro Police Officer Matthew Petlock watched from the sidewalk while awaiting Roker’s arrival.
“What did you do to get this beat tonight?” I asked.
“The lieutenant assigned us,” he said, pointing toward Lt. Jeremy Evans. “I told him I’d rather stay [at the station] and do paperwork.”
“How’ve you been?” Evans asks me.
“The department’s been busy,” Evans said as he shakes his head and says something drowned out by the crowd’s cheering.
Over the course of the previous five days, the department had to deal with a four-alarm fire on Valgar Street, later deemed suspicious by investigators, that displaced 45 people, and a homicide on Old Ferry Road.
A community member asked Evans a question. O’Connor and her mother, former Selectboard member Martha O’Connor, joined the conversation.
“I’m going to attempt to get more photos, wish me luck,” I said.
“Olga,” Evans calls out. “No crowd surfing. Absolutely none.”
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Short of scaling a building, there was no chance of getting a good photo of Roker and Messner. The crowd formed a compact ring around the two weathermen and the television cameras.
Are the cameras more of what the crowd vies for rather than catching the eye of Roker, the weatherman and Guinness World Record holder?
My colleagues shifted into top-gear curmudgeons discussing Rokerthon 2.
“Celebrity worship,” one called the event.
“I hate that we need a celebrity to validate us,” said another.
They have a point. Why does “the One and Only Brattleboro” need Rokerthon 2 to put it on the map?
We don’t, really.
Yes, there’s likely some knock-on benefits to the visit. The Vermont African American Heritage Trail could catch someone’s eye. One of the businesses included in Roker’s Chamber swag bag might see an uptick in sales.
Rokerthon 2 drew a crowd for the same reason we stare at the archival photos of Brattleboro hanging in Kipling’s, or the Municipal Center, or private homes. We stare, puzzling out which buildings still stand or how Main Street operated with trolley cars. We stare at the people, their clothes, their faces, and wonder about the lives they lived.
Wanting to be seen, wanting to have a moment of potential permanence — a selfie on Facebook, a profile in the the newspaper, a painting in a gallery, graffiti on a bathroom wall, even an inn that can claim “George Washington slept here” — is part of humankind’s quest for an immortality to freeze our collapse into dust.
The next day, those of us who stood in the rain for hours could say to our friends, Yep, I was there.
I was there. Another way to say, I was a part of something. I belonged.
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Roker said his good-byes. A chant of “Bernie! Bernie!” hailed his departure.
On his way to his car, a haggard Roker shook hands with people along the sidewalk. He climbed into a large Chevy. One quick U-turn, and the Roker crew began traveling north to pick up Route 9 toward its next stop: the airport in Keene, N.H.
People carrying signs followed Roker to his vehicle. As they walked past, they laughed. They waved their signs. A few jumped for joy.
A woman stood on the sidewalk holding her smartphone. She wanted a photo with Roker.
She asked Evans and Petlock if they’d pose for a picture with her instead.
The officers agreed. They stood on either side of her, reflections from the street lights and rain-covered street bouncing off their bright yellow coats. The woman’s head just reached their shoulders.
Volunteer producers for Brattleboro Community Television filmed the crowd as it slowly dispersed. The WPTZ camera person chatted with Messner as he checked his gear.
Evans and Petlock drove away in a truck with a Town of Brattleboro logo on its doors.
Main Street was left to the lingering rain and a few remaining stragglers.