This just in: The cat has finally leaped out of the bag on the "Unknown Float" in the 1983 Beaufort Water Festival parade.
Retired attorney Jim Gibson was messing around in his garage on Lady's Island recently when he found the engraved, wood-like plaque: "Grand Parade, First Place, The Unknown Float."
It undusts the story of how four otherwise responsible adults pulled off a secret spoof in front of everybody in town.
The motive was to pull the leg of their friend and former Water Festival commodore James Williamson.
Jim recalls that he and his wife, Weezie, were at a party the night before the parade. Adult beverages were served, and somehow the Gibsons and Joel and Mary Patrick concocted the idea to enter the parade unannounced and unregistered.
They played off "The Unknown Comic," a regular on a popular television show of the time called "The Gong Show." The Unknown Comic came out with a bag over his head and told painfully corny jokes.
"I don't know exactly how it came up," Jim said this week, as the 59th Annual Beaufort Water Festival weaves new stories into the community fabric.
Jim got Ed Campbell to open his grocery supply store the next morning to get a large roll of brown butcher paper.
"We wrapped my tan El Camino completely in brown butcher paper and put Weezie and Mary in the back, sitting in chairs," Jim said. "They were dressed in tan, holding brown magnolia leaves, and wearing paper bags over their heads adorned with big eyebrows and lipstick. I drove and Joel rode shotgun. Both of us had paper bags over our heads."
They eased into the parade line near the tennis courts.
They had written on the butcher paper things like, "The Water Festival is our Bag" and "The Unknown Float from Baghdad."
Mary recalls that she and Weezie wore tiaras made of tin foil and were identified as "Miss Baghdad" and "Miss Saks."
"My son was a little boy then," Mary said. "When we passed him and I said, 'Hey, Hugh,' he almost fainted."
As they drew near the review stand, the leaders of the local garden clubs who judged the 80 official floats were busily flipping through their note cards to figure out who they were.
Soon thereafter, the Unknown Float eased out of the parade line.
They meant for the lark to be forever a Beaufort secret.
"We just sat back and listened," Jim said. "Of course, everybody said they knew exactly who it was."
But the Unknown Float was so popular among parade watchers and the judges that a special award was bestowed, and Jim decided to come forward to accept it.
The Beaufort Gazette identified it only as the "Sack" unit. The real float winners were the Pirettes and the Foxbow women's apparel store.
William Rivers "Skeet" Von Harten was the commodore in 1983, when the modestly named First Annual All-World Beaufort Water Festival Bed Race lurched into its long run.
Leading the parade was one of the greatest Marines who put on the uniform. Maj. Gen. James L. Day was representing the commandant of the Corps. Fifteen years later, President Bill Clinton slipped the Medal of Honor over his head for staggering heroics on Okinawa Island in World War II. Day also earned six Purple Hearts and three Silver Stars, in part to give Americans the freedom of expression in local festivals.
Both James Williamson and Joel Patrick have passed away. Williamson was a bundle of energy who gave the Water Festival its logo, and its traditions of annual T-shirt art and red commodore pants. Patrick was a Beaufort raconteur and dealer in rare books and maps, specializing in Caroliniana.
On that one hot day, these otherwise mature adults rolled into Water Festival lore, simply for the fun of it.
"Everybody has a sense of humor," Jim Gibson said, holding the old memento from the garage. "Or they ought to."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.