Here’s a first hand account of the adventures and mis-adventures of the fugitive Chilly Willy from Mark Osler, a former Detroit resident who in 1990 was witness the Chilly’s escape and subsequent adventures.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. This is my favorite holiday– I love the idea of it, and the fact that it is a holiday geared more to reflection and humility than patriotism or commerce.
But, like many other good things, there is a dark side. Those of us from Detroit know to keep a lookout for a Thanksgiving menace that appears when least expected– Chilly Willy the Penguin.
In 1990, a frozen dessert company entered a 40-foot inflatable penguin in the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade down Woodward Avenue. Given the variety of social ills (street violence, poverty, a rotting infrastructure) faced by Detroit back then, few in attendance thought that a greater threat might be posed by the giant gaseous penguin. They were wrong.
Midway through the parade, Chilly Willy made a break for it. I remember this– I was there. He broke free of his handlers and charged into the sky, taunting those below. Legend has it that several bystanders stopped shooting at one another and fired at the fleeing bird to no avail. The irony was overwhelming; After decades of tragedy, now the city was under threat by a giant flightless bird that had somehow taken to the air. Now he headed for the home of the singer-songwriter who defined irony for so many of us: the Great White North’s own Alannis (“Isn’t It Ironic?”) Morrisette.
So, like other Northern-border fugitives, Chilly Willy headed to Canada. Many watched as he headed down the Detroit River and across Lake St. Clair toward freedom in a nation famous for its generous proportions of ice and snow. He got as far as Walpole Island, just into Canada, before he was finally apprehended.
Chilly Willy’s reign of terror was not complete, though. In a Napolean-like comeback, some months later he was trusted with the duties of appearing at a car dealership for promotional purposes. Not missing an opportunity, he lashed out with violence. It was not random violence, however– his target was an official of the very parade from which Willy had escaped! CW threw his terrified victim from the roof of the dealership, breaking her arm and leg, and teaching a valuable lesson on the hazards of trying to tie down a restless spirit that cannot be contained.
They say that Chilly Willy has been safely deflated and stored in a secure facility. Believe that if you want… I’m watching my back.