Nobody in my high school band could BELIEVE it when word came down that I had just won a full-tuition music scholarship to Carbon College. I couldn’t believe it myself. After all, I’m a mediocre musician. Fact is, I can’t even read music!
The only reason I ended up in the band in the first place was because I had inherited a trombone. The trombone was a hand-me-down from my brother Jim, who in turn had inherited it from our father. I suspect the provenance goes back even farther because in our family, the likelihood of ever getting anything NEW was roughly the same as the odds of being struck by lightning—twice.
By all rights the family trombone should have passed from Jim to Chuck and then me—same as the paper route—but it so happens that Chuck was determined to play the trumpet instead. Unfortunately, Chuck’s dream did not pan out, thanks in large part to Professor E.M. “Toot” Williams.
Toot Williams was a living legend in our small town, a real life Music Man who had steered many a young man (and woman) away from the pool hall and into an itchy wool uniform. The school’s trophy case was filled with trophies his bands had won, including first place in the National High School Championship Band Contest of 1933. Like Professor Howard Hill, Toot was a relentless recruiter, and in fact made house calls.
The day he calling at our house, my brother Chuck proudly announced his ambition to become a trumpeter. Toot took a close look at Chuck’s mouth and shook his head.
“Sorry, sonny,” he announced. “You were clearly born to play the clarinet.”
Clarinet!!?? My brother was crushed. The clarinet was an instrument for girls, Benny Goodman notwithstanding. Chuck protested, he whined, he fussed, but it was no use. Toot Williams was determined to fill out his woodwind section, and if that meant an occasional boy would have to sit with the girls, well, so be it. Nobody ever questioned Toot’s judgment in these matters.
For some reason I never had to undergo such an oral exam. Either Toot had retired by the time I came of age, or else he just didn’t want to find another clarinet floating in the city canal. What I do remember is lugging that heavy old trombone case to and from Harding Elementary, secretly wishing all the while that I had inherited a piccolo.
Harding Elementary was about a mile from my house, but Carbon College was much closer—only two blocks. So for the time being I had no complaints, nor did my parents. What did it matter that I didn’t know how to play the trombone or read music? The proximity of the junior college to my home, combined with my full-tuition ride (cash value: $75) insured that my higher education wouldn’t be costing anybody anything—at least not in the short run.
Carbon College at the time had an enrollment of approximately 400, which meant that opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities were vast, if not obligatory. Leafing through my wafer-thin yearbook, I note with no small measure of pride that I served as editor of the newspaper, yearbook photographer, class president, second runner-up to the homecoming queen and (gasp) drum major!
Here’s how it happened. One day prior to band practice, Mr. Postma overheard me warming up and decided one way to improve the band would be to get that trombone out of my hands. So he appointed me drum major, and handed me a whistle and baton.
For the next several weeks I practiced twirling the baton and strutting—talents that had served me well in the Homecoming Queen Pageant. I practiced blowing my whistle and learned the rudiments of directing. I learned to stand up straight, head held high, one white-gloved hand resting smartly on my hip while pretending not to notice catcalls and hoots from onlookers. Then came the day of the big halftime show.
We assembled on the far sideline and waited patiently as the Snow College Badgers retreated to their locker room and our own players changed from their football uniforms into their band uniforms. Even so, our numbers remained pathetically small—so small that we could only form lower case letters on the gridiron. Hence the theme of our show: “A Salute To e.e. cummings.”
Tweeeet! Tweet, tweet, tweeeet!
Flanked on either side by majorettes, I strutted onto the field, along the fifty-yard line to the near sideline, where I marched in place while facing the semi-packed WPA-era grandstand known affectionately as “Old Splinters.” I blew my whistle again. The crowd looked on in puzzlement as band members broke ranks and set about arranging themselves into sentences.
“The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Most people have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone…”
My back still to the field, I spun my baton and blew my whistle.
Tweeeet” Tweet, tweet, clank!
I heard a collective gasp. Old Splinters brought the crowd to its feet. What was the clank, I wondered? I had hit something, but what?
I turned to look, and there stood Frank Mathis testing his two front teeth. Evidently I had clipped and dented his trombone slide with my baton, thus incapacitating one fourth of the entire low brass section. In the background, I spotted clarinetist Burton Needles lying unconscious in the grass, the victim of an errant baton toss. Happily, he lay curled up like a question mark at the end of a rhetorical sentence.
“Life, for mostpeople, simply isn’t. Take the socalled standardofliving. What do mostpoeple mean by ‘living’?”
In the many years since, I’ve often asked myself that same question. I’ve wondered, too, about the peculiar American art form of the halftime show. Is it in fact an art form, and if so, where does it rank among other art forms? How, for example, does Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” measure up to, say, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus? Is there a place on the football field for the likes of Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger? I think not. Had Mick Jagger begun his career on a grass-covered stage with crappy acoustics, I suspect to this day he could honestly claim that never once in his life had he gotten the tiniest little bit of satisfaction.
Same goes for me and the poet e.e. cummings.