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Dyngus Day Parade route takes Poles down road of family histories

It took a year of meetings at assorted taverns, but Jeffrey Bebak, his brothers and friends finally settled on this year’s twist for their annual float in Monday’s Dyngus Day parade.

A confetti cannon.

Along with the usual two flaming torches, the Polish eagle banners, their “Buffalo Polish All Stars” sports jerseys, Bebak’s team will fire its newly rigged contraption. If all goes as planned, shreds of red and white paper will float over the crowds gathered for the parade in Buffalo’s old Polish neighborhood. The float will be among about 150 floats and groups in the parade.

Bebak’s PVC-pipe cannon rig, fueled by a bicycle air pump, had its first successful test shot in a crowded bar a couple of weeks ago. Then he filled three gigantic garbage bags with shredded red and white “ammo” in preparation for the Dyngus launches.

“It brings us together as a group,” Bebak said of the parade he’s joined for the last five years.

He traces his passion for Dyngus Day revelry to his late father, Donald.

“He taught us to be proud of who we are, and we took it to the next step,” he said. “It’s awesome to see the Polish heritage alive and kicking.”

The Monday after Easter Sunday has turned into a contagious Buffalo Polish festival, with smoked sausage and sauerkraut feasts, polka dancing, Tyskie beer and squirt gun battles.

The day also launches a jubilant evening of parties celebrating the end of Lent, spring, silliness and Polish heritage and immigrant success.

Bernadette Pawlak says the parade “is probably one of the most unconventional parades you’ll ever see.”

She has been parade coordinator for the last six years.

Parade history

Founders, including her late husband, Russell, made a point of encouraging unusual tributes instead of traditional parade groups like marching bands.

“They wanted everyone to do their own thing,” she said.

And, so they have.

Trucks, bicycles, roller derby skaters, pussy-willow wielding zombies, the “Housewives of Polonia” and a woman in an Easter egg dress will step off at 5 p.m. from the Broadway Market and Corpus Christi Church and then meander through the streets. Organizers estimate 15,000 people will watch and cheer in the neighborhood where spires of old Polish Catholic churches and an abandoned Art Deco train station create the background.

Pawlak has seen parade people hand out all kinds of food, from General Mills cereal to loaves of rye bread, vacuum-sealed kielbasa and boxed butter lambs. Bebak’s float team purchased $300 worth of cinnamon discs and peppermints for the crowd.

One year, someone tried tossing out golf balls.

“We put a stop to that one,” Pawlak laughed. “Golf balls and people who are having too much fun aren’t a good combination.”

One of her fondest memories was of her 30-something daughter forgoing beer for a dash to the parade’s dairy truck.

“I have a great picture of her wearing a Tyskie shirt and drinking a container of strawberry milk,” Pawlak said.

Steel pussy willow trees

When Joe Barnashuk was persuaded to join the parade and celebrate his Polish heritage seven years ago, he set up steel “tree trunks” with branches of pussy willows, a traditional Dyngus Day flirting tool used for tapping.

Barnashuk harvests thousands of branches from a secret pussy willow patch in Orchard Park. As his float makes its way through the streets of the East Side, he and about 100 ironworkers and their families pass them out.

“People love it,” he said. “As you’re walking down the street, everybody’s clamoring. It’s invigorating that you’re a part of a community and handing out stuff.”

Like the Bebak team, Barnashuk’s group comes up with a new float twist every year. When TV personality Anderson Cooper dissolved into giggles making fun of Dyngus Day a couple of years ago, the ironworkers’ float featured a toilet seat throne and a dummy dressed up as the CNN anchor.

For this year, Barnashuk’s float will have a red-and-white cake of repurposed steel cable spools topped with ironworker figurines made from wood and salad dressing jars.

“You always gotta be innovative,” he said.

When he travels with the parade down the streets where his family used to live, Barnashuk said he sees the old houses and faded signs on long-closed businesses and imagines the neighborhood as it used to be.

“I see memories and I see hope,” he said. “I see opportunities that maybe some day that neighborhood will get turned around.”

Bebak sees possibility, too.

He has no trouble recruiting people to come watch the parade. Sometimes the team float gets so crowded, he has to get off and walk.

“It’s such a multicultural diverse area,” he said of the East Side. “It can only get better.”

Creating tradition

For him, the best part is sharing culture with his 7-year-old son, Andrew.

“We can only talk about it so much,” said Bebak. “For him, to be there firsthand and see everyone wearing red and white, it gets him to ask questions ... He’s got as much Polish pride as any of the adults.”

On parade day, Andrew waits for his dad with his mother outside St. Stanislaus Church. When the “Buffalo Polish All Stars” turn from Fillmore Avenue to Paderewski Drive, she hoists Andrew up to the float. The minute he climbs on, he looks for candy to give to the kids.

Bebak loves seeing it all come together at such a young age. The culture, the fun, learning to be an adult. One day, he hopes Andrew will take over the float-making.

But Bebak knows he’s going to have to give in and let his son have what he’s been begging for.

Training on the confetti cannon.

“I’m going to have to let him shoot the cannon,” Bebak said. “I don’t want to be a bad father.”