Before beginning today’s story, I’d like to comment on some of the questions folks have been sending in, particularly why I am changing the names of people. Coach Eber in particular. I could look up his real name, but it pains me to call him a dope, though back then I thought he was, publicly, so I’m taking the coward’s way out and giving him a pseudonym. I’m sure there are many Big Red football players who revered the man as a God, which is fine, let them write their own stories. And while it seems silly even to me to change my friend’s names, I have learned over the years as a writer you can never know what someone is going to consider an insult. I might think a funny story about someone is completely innocent and have them, to my surprise, howl with indignation at being portrayed thusly. So everyone’s name gets changed, across the board. Except Frank.
As I said some time ago, it all began with Uncle Oke…
One summer day, we, Oke and I, were on the front porch of our house, alone, sitting on the green and white metal glider. Oke, looking far more serious than he usually did, pulled out a silver dollar and handed it to me. I could not have been more than eight years old. Oke said, “This is for you, but you have to promise me one thing.” I took the coin, which was to me a magnificent object: heavy and bright. I looked up at Oke, and he said, “ You have to promise that when you get to high school you’ll be in the Big Red Band.”
The next year, in fourth grade, I started taking music lessons.
To make the Big Red Band you had to try out in front of Frank. This would happen the summer after you graduated from what they now call middle school but was then called junior high. Your parents took you to the band room, dropped you off, you went in and played something for Frank, and he told you if you were in. I was pretty good, so I wasn’t really worried. I played something, I don’t remember what, Frank said I was in, I was back outside in the car ready to ride home in ten minutes. I can’t remember if my parents were happy about this, but I assume they were. Actually, the trying out for Frank scene, now that I’ve written it, sounds like I imagined rather than remembered it. I have been trying to be careful to not do that. When I’m unsure, I’ll point it out. Maybe we were just shunted along through music class until we reached high school and were recommended to Frank. At any rate, for me it was a forgone conclusion since everyone had been telling me that was what was in store for me ever since I began playing my piccolo in the fourth grade. Eventually I’ll get to why I chose the piccolo as my instrument.
Back then, the summer before beginning my freshman year, our vacation was three months long, and the band practiced two times a day every weekday for the entire month of August. You did not go on vacations during August; there were no exceptions. You went to practice every day unless you contracted infantile paralysis or some other dread disease of the day. So the first week in August I was dropped off at the band room. I went in with all the other guys, a few of whom I knew from junior high, and Frank got us seated in the right places. Different sections of instruments sat together. The clarinets sat on my right, up front, trumpets on the left, the flutes/piccolos in the center in the first row and the rest of the band behind us. The best player in each section sat in the First Chair, the second best in the Second Chair, the third in Third and all the rest in unnamed descending order in accordance with their ability. The First Flute, my section, was a tall, lanky senior with an extremely pale, acne-riddled face. We’ll call him Boris because I can’t remember his name, and he reminded me of Boris Karloff. He didn’t talk much, and in fact was consistently distant to the point of unfriendliness to anyone he considered beneath him, which was everyone except the First Trumpet, John Green and the First Clarinet, Roddy Glenmeyer.
We were four flutes, or rather piccolos, (we only played flutes during concert season) in our section: Boris first; a junior named Bobby, second; me, third, and a kid named Bert at the end of the section on my right. Bert lived up the street from me, though he was never really one of the regulars on Maxwell Avenue. On the first day of school, in the first grade, Bert walked to school in the morning with us, but he did not walk home with our gang. My mother loved to tell the story of standing at the front window, looking outside while we kids ate our after-school snack. There came Bert, slowly waddling up the sidewalk in front of our house, headed home, crying, with a giant load of shit in his pants. This happened every day for the entire first week of school.
That summer before starting our freshman year, in the band, Bert made it through two weeks of ass kicking until he couldn’t take it any more. What came to be his last day of practice, he showed up with a book stuffed down the back of his pants, a trick he probably picked up from reading Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or a comic book, as if he thought no one would notice. Of course he got kicked repeatedly that day because of the book, until Frank must have decided he was going to get killed and told him his days in the Big Red Band were over. Bert was a terrible player anyway, so it was no loss to the band. Shortly after this we were setting up for practice in the band room and I could see Frank having a meeting with the junior high music teacher who had sent Bert to the band. Frank’s office was right in front of where I sat, and I could hear him shouting about Bert, “You didn’t send me a flute player, you sent me a boy with a flute!” Which at the time struck me as the epitome of sarcastic humor.
The fellow who sat on my left, Robby, was nice. He was an effeminate kid, though we didn’t know or use that word — effeminate — back then. All I knew was he never kicked my ass, or anyone else’s, and I was grateful for that. Boris, the first chair, on the other hand, seemed to take great pleasure in kicking any Scum who he saw doing anything wrong. Since I sat and marched about five feet away from him every day, he kicked me plenty of times, always putting everything he had into it. I hated him. There was a cruelty about him, enjoyment at the pain he caused, an attitude I had never really experienced before.
As I said, in August we practiced twice a day, two hours each session, morning and evening, marching up and down the campus if front of the school, learning the basics of military drill. Those days were tough. Some days I, and plenty of other guys, could hardly walk after practice. One night my mom said to me after dinner, “I was doing the wash today; there’s blood in your underpants and on your sheets. Do you want to show me?” Face burning, head hanging, we went upstairs to my room, and I turned around and dropped my pants and my underpants. She didn’t gasp, didn’t say a word. She went to the bathroom, came back with a tube of ointment and handed it to me. “Put this on, it should help.” She left the room and never mentioned it again. I assume she told my father, though he didn’t mention it either. I was bruised and bloody, but everyone understood it was going to be tough, no one complained. Today, Frank probably would have gotten a couple of years in the state penitentiary for allowing the hazing. A bunch of kids dropped out, along with Bert, and no one blamed them.
It was just the price you paid to be in the band.