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Originally published July 26, 2013 at 9:47 PM | Page modified July 27, 2013 at 10:00 AM

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Seafair’s parade of memories

If you’ve heard of Seafair, but don’t know what it is or why it’s important to Seattle, these long-timers are here to tell you.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Torchlight Parade route

Click to see an enlarged version of the map.

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Ahh, Seafair.

Let’s say you just arrived from New York City for that high-tech job, and your old friends in the Big Apple ask if there is cable TV here (I was asked that, and not that many years ago).

You don’t really have a grasp of what this summerlong festival is, but you’ve heard rumblings about the Torchlight Parade on Saturday night in downtown Seattle, and the hydro races next weekend on Lake Washington.

To get you acquainted, here are a few anecdotes from Seattleites about the real Seattle, about Seafair, an event that began way back in 1950.

Phil Sprang, 82, one of the original Seafair pirates:

“During the 1952 Torchlight Parade in Chinatown, Captain Kidd and I were dueling in the street. His sword slid down my scimitar and cut my three fingers to the bone. ... I got sewn up and got a pint of blood infused so I could be ready for duty the next day.”

John Keister, former host of KING-TV’s “Almost Live” and the new Internet show, the206.tv:

“Several years ago, I was asked to host a promotional event for the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent. They didn’t have a budget for the host position, but they asked me if I would consider taking the job in return for a ride on an unlimited hydroplane.

“For a kid like me, who grew up a few blocks from the pits, this was the equivalent of asking a Boston Celtics fan if he’d like to spend a casual afternoon shooting hoops with Larry Bird. People who have moved to Seattle in the past 25 years simply cannot comprehend how important the Seafair hydroplane races were in the ’50s and ’60s.

“So the day came and I ... squeezed in next to Ken Muscatel, the driver. No seat belts, no problem. When we hit 100, I started to get concerned. At 140 I was more terrified than I ever have been. When I glanced at the water that was about a foot from my head it looked like a belt sander was being held to my face.

“He took the first turn and the boat caught a little air. When it slammed back down, some minor issue in the Rolls-Royce engine caused hot oil to get blasted on the face mask of my helmet. (Later) a man came up to me and identified himself as a driver. He laughed and said to me, ‘I wouldn’t do what you just did for a million dollars.’ ”

Dave Williams, executive director, Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum, Kent:

“Sunday was the big day. Mom let us skip church, and we would plunk ourselves down in front of the TV at about 9 a.m. to watch the race coverage. Seafair was the one time all year that we were allowed to eat in front of the TV. Mom would serve an amazing lunch of fried chicken and potato salad, and we would eat from paper plates balanced on our laps as we watched every second of the race.

“Between each heat of racing, my brother and I would rush outside to meet the neighbor kids and race our bikes around the cul-de-sac dragging small plywood hydros that we had painstakingly decorated with color crayons. Even now, 40 or 50 years later, you can still tell a true native Seattleite by how excited he or she gets when they tell you about dragging hydros behind their bikes.”

Bill Kossen, Seattle Times news desk editor and longtime Seafair historian, wrote this in the summer of 1998:

“A pirate grabbed me once. I thought he was taking me away for good. It’s one of my earliest memories. Welcome to the world.

“But not long after, I saw my first hydroplane race and quickly became a lifetime fan of those roaring thunderboats racing sponson-to-sponson with the roostertails kicking up high. That is, until they flipped over or collided, sometimes killing the drivers, our heroes. Seafair could be tough on a kid.

“Dealing with fear and death and noise seemed to be a major theme of Seafair. After all, it was a celebration of summer in a brash, young city.

“Times have changed. The pirates are sober and nicer, the newer turbine-powered hydros are quieter and safer. And the city has gotten much, much bigger and full of new residents who don’t know a hydro from a cappuccino.”

JoAnne Ludwig, of Seattle, Seafair archivist:

“My most interesting Seafair moment took place when I was very, very young. My mom and I met my dad at a seafood restaurant for a Friday fish ‘n’ chips evening dinner.

“While we were eating, I was overcome by this group of loud and scary individuals who rushed into the establishment! The Seattle Seafair Pirates arrived at our table and wanted to take my mom as prisoner.

“My dad was held at knife point (with a rubber knife). My parents understood, but as a little girl, I couldn’t comprehend what was taking place. So I proceeded to try to attack that Seafair Pirate with a fork.”

Pat Cashman, longtime Seattle radio and TV personality, and now with the new Internet show, the206.tv:

“When I started as new employee at KING-TV in the early 1980s, local television had a lot more going on than newscasts and gardening shows. And perhaps nowhere was the combat more fierce than in the coverage of the hydroplane races.

“Back then, KING, KOMO and KIRO all covered the big Sunday race — a head-to-head-to-head competition almost as exhilarating as the races themselves. Each TV station was certain their broadcast was better than the other two opponents combined, not to mention whatever coverage the local radio stations were serving up.

“If one station used six cameras, the next one had to have seven. I used to hear estimates of crowds of 300,000 or more attending the races in those days. Doing the math, among three TV stations all providing live coverage, that left only about 28 people actually available to watch on TV.

“There was intense jockeying and elbowing to get the first interview with the winner. One Monday morning following the races the day before, a sports reporter came limping into KING. He’d sprained an ankle getting to the first-place driver — vaulting a KOMO guy in the effort. He had not only earned himself a potential local Emmy, but maybe a Purple Heart as well.”

Geri Le Penske Fain, of Normandy Park, 1964 Seafair Queen:

“I was crowned at Green Lake at the intermission of the Aqua Follies to a full house. What an exhilarating evening. I was nervous, a bit scared, and overwhelmed by the pomp and ceremony. It first became a reality for me when I heard my father cry out, ‘Schatzie’ (German for sweetheart, a name he had called me since we returned from Germany many years before), when the crown was first placed upon my head. I was whisked away in a white convertible with police escort and lights and sirens blaring.

“Even reminiscing after all these years brings back such wonderful memories and still some goose bumps.”

Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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