This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 5, 2008 - Lawn chairs play a part in almost every summer tradition. After being picked out of a dusty garage and jammed into a car trunk, these chairs make it to all kinds of vacation destinations: campgrounds, fireworks displays and parades. But their primary utility, that of holding up one’s derriere, has led most St. Louisans to overlook the endless possibilities the chair holds within its aluminum frame.
This is not the case for residents of Helfenstein Avenue in Webster Groves, who long ago adopted the chair as the weapon of choice for their drill team. Every other year, the so-called Lawn Chair Drill Team of Helfenstein Avenue can be seen parading up and down the street, twirling and dipping, folding and unfolding their lawn chairs in preparation for their march in Webster Groves’ Community Days parade. And this year, judges named the team "best neighborhood entry."
Marching backward at their head is team leader Lynn Laudermilk, a 15-year resident of Helfenstein Avenue. Laudermilk got the job after his predecessor, a former drill sergeant who put had long put his skills to work as one of the group’s leaders, moved away from Webster Groves.
The drill team marches in a military fashion, but gives a whole new meaning to commands such as “parade rest,” which calls for the marchers to halt, plant their chair on the asphalt, and sit down with hands folded behind their heads.
Like its military counterparts, the lawn chair drill team has no shortage of cadences. But its are tinted with humor for audiences and inside jokes for marchers — such as one that references a debate over the pronunciation of “Helfenstein.”
“At least two ways to say our name,” the marchers chant, pounding their chairs against the street’s pavement on Thursday. “You say yours and I’ll say mine: Helfen-steen or Helfen-stein.”
For his part, Loudermilk prefers the “steen” pronunciation, placing him with the majority of Helfenstein-ers.
But it’s a moot point for some members of the drill team who don’t even live on the street. A handful of neighbors from just around the corner on Rock Hill Road or Swon Avenue have also grabbed up their lawn chairs to participate in the festivities.
First-year drill team member Bob Paster of Rock Hill Road joined after his wife Sue enjoyed her stint with the team a few summers ago.
“It’s a good way to meet the neighbors,” Bob said. “And it’s really not difficult to learn the moves.”
Other members of the Helfenstein neighborhood have served lengthy tenures on the drill team — so lengthy, in fact, that they’re not quite sure when the team started. But exact dates aside, the drill team has been around since the late 1980s, and they have a collection of lawn chairs to prove it.
When Jerrie Plaegge moved into her house on Helfenstein Avenue in 2001, she also acquired a room full of lawn chairs above the garage — the property of the home’s previous owner who got the idea for the drill team after seeing a similar group perform at a parade in San Francisco.
Plaegge accepted her duties as keeper of the lawn chairs with vigor, and could be seen marching in the front row of the drill team at Thursday’s practice, repeating cadences with the best of them.
“See this chair I have right here? It is where I place my rear,” chanted the parade block before plopping down in the chairs at the “parade rest” position.
But even in the event the audience doesn’t enjoy the marchers’ antics — an unlikely occurrence, judging from the parade trophies accumulating in houses along Helfenstein Avenue — the team members certainly get a kick out of themselves.
They even have a street party after the parade to celebrate another year well done. Over the years, the names and faces at the party have changed. Neighbors moved away and others replaced them. Children grew up and babies were born. But all the while, the camaraderie stayed the same, said veteran marcher Bill Bishop, who has been drilling with the group since its beginnings.
“We’ve all gotten older since (the first year). The kids are all grown up,” Bishop said. “But there’s still the same great spirit and attitude.”
Amanda King is a student at Webster University and an intern for the St. Louis Beacon.