It was about one week into the first summer of band practice when I first had my ass kicked. I had been expecting it, I wasn’t the only one, but it was still a surprise. I was fourteen years old; it was 1959. Wesley Banks kicked my ass. He was a junior at Parkersburg High School; I was a freshman. Wesley was a big guy who played the saxophone. He had blond hair waxed up in a flat top, a style almost everyone sported. Wesley was dumb, at least it seemed so to me, but he could play the hell out of a saxophone.
“Bend over, Scum!” he shouted. He probably didn’t even know my name; we, the freshman, were referred to collectively as Scum. I had done something wrong — I was out of step, missed my mark, something, it doesn’t matter what. Frank, our gimlet-eyed band director, had found some flaw in what we were doing, stopped us, and we were moving back into position to try whatever formation we were working on again. I bent over, as commanded. I stared at my hands on my knees, waiting.
Wesley knew what he was doing. He had plenty of practice and big black shoes. This was before the days when everyone wore sneakers. You had a pair of what we now call Chuck Taylors, but were then known simply as gym shoes and the only place you wore them was to gym class. You certainly never wore them to regular classes or to band practice. Wesley took three or four steps, swung his right foot up and slammed it onto my ass, lifting me off the ground. I flew into the air and landed on my hands and knees six feet away from where I had been standing. If this had been the Olympics, the row of judges would have given Wesley all tens.
I stood up and brushed myself off. Wesley walked away, laughing with his friends. He’d already forgotten me. It didn’t hurt that much, but I was surprised how far I was thrown. I looked around. No one was paying any attention. Frank certainly didn’t give a shit, if he even noticed. A few of the other freshman watched out of the corners of their eyes, but there was no sympathy on their faces. They were just waiting for their own turn to bend over, which would surely come, if it hadn’t already. We were ninth graders, and we were scum –first year members in what was the most celebrated organization in our West Virginia town.
The Big Red Band. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? Just wait.
And what has brought this on, this looking back? A few weeks ago my oldest friend who now lives in Mexico sent me an email that contained a URL to a YouTube video of the Big Red Band marching in a contest in New York City, circa 1959. Who knew such a thing existed? It was shot on 8mm film, with ragged sprocket holes and no soundtrack. It skittered in places, but there we were, marching down the street, wheeling around corners.
And there I was.
Just for a second. Two blinks and you would miss me. I was beside a sousaphone player, third in from the end, playing my piccolo. Yes, my piccolo. We’ll get to that.
I played the film clip over and over again on my computer, astounded.
Astounded because I now saw something that had never occurred to me 56 years ago. Or since. Until now.
I was tiny. I knew I was short, I’m not particularly stupid, neither then nor now, but I barely came up to the shoulder of the guy next to me. I was dwarfed by his sousaphone. I showed my wife, Sherry, the video clip.
“Those guys are really big,” she said.
“They aren’t big, they’re regular sized,” I shouted. “It’s me; I’m tiny. Not just small, tiny! I never knew. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
“Maybe they did, and you just didn’t listen. Why don’t you write about it?” Sherry said. “Who knows what else you missed?”
Here’s the thing. In late 1950’s Parkersburg, West Virginia, a medium-large town situated on the Ohio River, football was big. Thousands of spectators streamed into the stadium behind the massive brick and stone high school on Friday nights to watch the Big Reds football team run, tackle, battle and overpower every other high school team in their league in the state. But unlike any other high school I’ve ever heard of, the thing the audience was waiting for, what they turned out for as much as the football game, was to watch the band perform. We were a strict, military, all-male marching band, where only the toughest, smartest, most talented kids in the town and from surrounding areas made it into the ranks. I wasn’t big, and I wasn’t tough, but I was talented. And I was an excellent talker. Many kids who played an instrument tried to get in, failed and were relegated to the ignominy of the high school orchestra where they sawed and puffed away at their instruments, seated beside girls, suffering the humiliation of not being good enough (or the correct sex) to make it into the band.
Every couple of years the football coach came to the band room to ask our guys to try out for the football team. The problem was, you couldn’t be in both. The band room was underneath the football stadium, behind the high school, three rooms with dusty wooden floors, a big central area where our chairs were drawn up in semi-circle formation, music stands in front of us, a side room where we hung our coats and a smaller side room where we were supposed to go to practice individually, except no one ever did. We were in our seats, waiting for after-school band practice to start. It was just a few weeks into the new school year. Frank stepped up on the platform in front. Frank Shroeder was a tidy man, about 5’ 9,” of German lineage with cool, cruel, grey eyes. He always seemed to be judging you, and he always was.
“Boys,” Frank said, “Coach Eber has something he’d like to talk to you about.” Frank stepped off the podium to the side and began cleaning his nails, his eyes intent on his fingers. Whenever Frank was in resting mode, he cleaned his fingernails. Coach Eber, I hadn’t noticed him standing stolidly near the door of Frank’s office, lumbered up in front of us onto the platform.
I played the piccolo and sat at the very front of the band in the center of the semicircle. I could have reached out and touched Coach if I had wanted.
Coach looked exactly like you would expect the leader of a West Virginia high school football team to look: big, florid face, grey flattop. He would be right at home wearing coveralls, sitting on a John Deere tractor.
“Boys,” he began. “If there’s anyone here who wants to try out for the football team, we’d like to have you.” He glanced at back of the room where the sousaphone players and the drummers stood. He seemed embarrassed. “That goes for you tuba players in particular,” he added, nodding his head. This made him not only pathetic in our eyes, but a dope as well: marching bands used sousaphones, big brass instruments that wrapped around the player’s body, not tubas. There was a long silence. “We’ve got a good team this year, but we could always use some help, especially from you husky boys.” He was watching the outer edges of the circle at the back where the guys who played the bigger, heavier instruments were seated. Instrument size seemed to radiate outward, starting with me, the smallest, and ending with the bass drummer and the sousaphone guys. No one spoke. Frank didn’t look up from his fingernail task.
“Well, Coach.” It was Wesley who broke the silence. He spoke in a West Virginia drawl, lazy, as if he was barely paying attention. We waited. Wesley could always be counted on to be a smart ass. “You’re not going to get anyone to quit the band and join the team.” You could hear the smirk in his voice. Silence. Coach was an ignorant joke who had bullied his players into the state championships for many years. He stood on the platform with his head hung down, red-faced, shamed by his having to come and beg, but he was a simple man who would do anything for his beloved team. I almost felt sorry for him, but he really was stupid.
The board of education had a rule that said that even the football coach had to teach a regular high school class, so Coach Eber “taught” ninth grade science. Every day he would tell us to sit at our desks and read the science book, and every week he would give us a test, which he would then turn over to Don Jones, another freshman, and me to grade for him. Don played trombone in the band.
Of course Wesley wasn’t going to let Coach down easy. We really hated the football players; most of them were dullards and, like their coach, bullies.
“You want to know why we’re not going to join the team?” Wesley asked Coach.
Frank remained silent, examining his impeccable fingernails.
“Because football players are all queers,” Wesley said.
There was a moment of silence, and then everyone laughed. Except Coach and Frank.
I was shocked. And thrilled. Without a word, Coach stepped off the platform and walked out of the room. When we heard the door slam, Frank took his place on the podium and said, “Washington Post,” which was a Sousa march we often played. We shuffled our music onto our stands. He raised his baton. On the downbeat, we broke into this resounding march.
I played the music, sort of, but I was thinking about Wesley’s smart-assed remark, and the way Coach slunk out of the room, and how Frank hadn’t said a word about it. He should have yelled at Wesley — he yelled at everyone — but he didn’t. At that moment, I really understood what had been unsaid, at least to me, for years, what the truth was in my town: if you were in the Big Red Band you could do any goddamn thing you wanted and get away with it.