The first thing everyone comments on, of course, is the hat. Those floppy orange and black da Vinci hats are the hallmark of P-rade marshals, as distinctive as the headgear worn by Canadian Mounties or English bobbies. The rest of the marshal uniform, for both men and women, consists of a white shirt, white pants or skirt, black shoes, and a blue blazer.

Only at the P-rade does a blue blazer help someone stand out from the crowd.

Contrary to what you might suspect, we marshals don’t own our da Vinci hats — the Alumni Council does. When the hats are brought out, freshly cleaned, at our mandatory pre-P-rade breakfast in the Mathey College common room, there is a rush to grab one that is close to the right size. It is a matter of taste how far the black brim should be pulled down on the brow and how poufy the orange crown should be, but once everyone is attired we look like a convention of Renaissance merchants.

There were 92 marshals at this year’s P-rade, 10 more than last year. As younger classes grow larger and return in increasing numbers, more help is needed to keep the throng in order. Being a marshal is an honor, but we tend to be chosen because we live close to Princeton and are known to attend Reunions regularly. Many do it for decades: Herb Hobler ’44 has marshaled since 1945, and this year was the only active marshal who is also a member of the Old Guard.

Once everyone has found a hat, grand marshal Jean Telljohann ’81 and Mibs Southerland Mara, the Alumni Council’s Reunions guru, give us our marching orders: Keep the spectators off the P-rade route, keep alumni moving, be firm but friendly, and make sure everyone has a good time. With more than 20,000 marchers and hundreds of spectators, Jean and Mibs also set a goal: Complete the P-rade in less than three and a half hours.

There, I’m afraid, we failed. The running time was 3:40, but we can plead extenuating circumstances. For one thing, a couple of golf carts broke down. Also, 99-year-old Joe Schein ’37 bravely but slowly walked the entire route from FitzRandolph Gate to Poe-Pardee Field, about six-tenths of a mile.

Good for him! Ambulatory nonagenarians are the heart of the P-rade’s charm, and they are welcome to take as much time as they like. It’s the kibitzing 30- and 40-somethings with baby strollers, lollygagging 30 yards behind the pack, who need to pick up the pace a bit. As for the golf carts, we might want to consider having Joe Schein run them. Clearly, his batteries are more durable.

Student golf-cart drivers practiced on the P-rade course ahead of time; the alumni drivers did not. I am happy to report that there were no accidents, although there were a few close calls. The P-rade’s stop-start pace and tight corners, particularly on the upper campus, would challenge even the best driver, and there are plenty of distractions.

The marshals’ other big job is to keep the path clear, so the floats, vintage cars, and marching bands can get through without crushing any feet. This requires constant vigilance. Spectators creep off the grass to take photos, hail passing friends, or just spread out. I used to be one of the worst offenders.

As generations of motley alums roll past, the marshals relentlessly admonish everyone to stay behind the white line. Success is never more than fleeting, as the crowd inevitably creeps back. It’s like trying to command the tide.

I wonder what kind of hat King Canute wore.