The new members of the Big Red band were given a packet of music – marches — to learn. Many were by John Philip Souza, not much of a surprise there, and others were by composers I had never heard of. These were packaged in small portfolios, around eight inches by six inches, enclosed in a snap package with a clear plastic front, which made them pretty much waterproof. I’ve said that some bands mounted these music portfolios on special music stands strapped to their arms so they could read the music as they marched. We sneered at any band that resorted to this method. Pussies. We memorized the marches. The drills were too complicated to perform if we were looking at music as well. So we, the new boys, memorized the marches. And woe betide anyone who couldn’t play every one of them from memory.
Everyday in the summer we went to the grassy lawn in front of the high school for marching practice. Before going out front, we would warm up by playing the marches in the band room for fifteen minutes or so. If Frank thought someone, a new guy, was faking his way through the music, he would stop the band, point at the offender, and say, “Turn your music over.” Which meant you then had to play the march, from memory, all by yourself, without the psychic and practical help of an entire band around you. These were terrifying moments, and you could get reduced down the ranks for a bad performance. If you flunked one of these challenges, once out of the band room you knew someone was going to kick your ass all the way down to the practice field. I saw this happen on several occasions, so I broke my usual lethargic practice schedule and learned the marches well enough that Frank, who seemed to have a preternatural ear, couldn’t hear me faking my way through a piece of music.
Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post, The Thunderer, El Capitan, are all classic marches that we would play while executing drills. If you listen to recordings of them today, (they’re all on the Internet) one thing you will notice that is common to all of them is the one instrument you can actually hear individually is the damn piccolo. The masses of brass, lead by the cornets and underpinned by the trombones and sousaphones take the lead, with the reeds — the clarinets and the saxophone filling out the wall of sound — and over it all, flitting, dancing, is the piccolo. You don’t need a whole section of them, one will do, just as that music teacher told me years ago in grade school, it is the littlest, but it is the loudest.
There were three broad lawns that stretched in front of the high school down to the street. A giant horseshoe drive arced up and around the front of the school. We practiced through the month of August, two times a day, two hours morning and late afternoon, on the right-hand lawn, as you looked from the street toward the high school. If the first two weeks of the month was a sort of hell because you were getting your ass kicked, the last two weeks were another sort because of the heat. Even though we worked in the morning and the late afternoon/evening, it was still hot.
The grass was laid out with limestone lines exactly like those on the football field. There was a kid who did this, limed the practice field, and redid it every time the rain washed the lines away, or we wore them away by walking on them. Looking back now I see him as a sort of unsung worker hero who probably never got the appreciation he deserved.
The evening practices had a magic to them. You have to remember this was a small town, West Virginia, in the late 1950s. I’m sure there were the usual bad aspects to our life — poverty, inequality, stupidity — but we, or at least I, didn’t seem to worry about any of that. Maybe the adults were worrying about the Korean War, racism, the atom bomb and other societal ills, but we weren’t. Everyone had enough money to live on and even those who had a lot of money didn’t live very differently from the rest of us. The band was a great leveler: you learned your music, the drills and you did your best. If you didn’t, you got your ass kicked. Outside, there was another world, but we didn’t live in it. The social revolution of the 60s had not yet befallen us; we existed in a lovely haze of hot, halcyon summer days, golden evenings and privilege.
There wasn’t a lot to do in Parkersburg. One of the main attractions was the large city park just a block from our house. You would go there to swim in the pool, fish and feed the ducks in the pond (the Second Largest Man-Made Lily Pond in the World, it was said. Really? The question always in my mind was why was it the second largest? Where was the first largest? It was rumored to be in Japan, but no one really knew.) In the winters the pond froze over, and we ice-skated on it, building bon fires, roasting marshmallows and skating until we were exhausted. When we got back home there was always hot chocolate. We picnicked in the park, played on the swings, and climbed the memorial aircraft gun commemorating the dead from WWII. There was a log cabin museum in the park which never seemed to be open. And a band shell where members of the band would sometimes play concerts on the weekends; the townsfolk would bring blankets and sit on the grass and enjoy the music while little kids ran around. There was a small zoo. I related in an earlier entry that one year a drunken hunter climbed over the fence and shot one of the deer and was caught by the cops trying to drag it over the six-foot, chain-link fence. As my friend Butch reminded me after I posted that entry, the fact that the hunter was a city councilman made this crime even more amusing.
There was a curious bunch of men who would hold meetings in the park at least once or twice a summer where they would bring motors, noisy gasoline engines of all sizes, and set them out on the grass and start them up and leave them running for hours while they sat around in lawn chairs and listened to the infernal racket of the popping, sputtering engines. Why? I had no idea, but they always seemed to be enjoying themselves.
At least once a year, usually twice, small carnivals would set up for the weekend. There would be rides and games and carnival workers who appeared very exotic to us, leathery, thin, tanned sly-looking people, men and women, who tried to cajole you into tossing rings, firing BB guns, or pitching ping pong balls into small glasses with goldfish. No kid’s mother was ever pleased to see you come home with a goldfish. If you won one it would surely be dead within a couple of days. No one ever won any of the decent prizes.
In the summer the park was filled with picnickers and extended families holding annual family reunions. There were long covered shelters with end-to-end picnic tables where these reunions were held, much coveted, sheltered spaces because of the possibility of rain. On a summer weekend when a reunion was scheduled a member of the family would be assigned the job of going over on a Friday night and sleeping on one of the picnic tables in a shelter so no one else could grab it the next day for their own reunion. I hated our reunion, the Bush family reunion, mostly because as a kid you were continually besieged by at least three or four hundred (no, I am exaggerating) very large aunts who were all enormously fat with arms the size of smoked hams where the skin of the upper arm flapped heavily, bosoms that threatened to smother you and facial hair that tickled and prickled when they gathered you up and gave you kisses. Acres of country dishes were spread out on the tables with several grills nearby pumping out platters of grilled chicken and hamburgers and hotdogs. The men worked the grills and played horseshoes, and the kids just ran around and around. As much as I hated it, I also loved it.
We went to the swimming pool almost every day in the summer. We had books of tickets, one of which you would hand over to the bored teenager at the entrance who would give you a basket that had a number on a small metal plate and a giant safety pin with the corresponding number attached. You’d go into the appropriate dressing room, change your clothes and stash them in the basket and hand it to another attendant behind a beat-up, wooden counter on the way out. The safety pin was attached to your swimming suit. You would give it back to the attendant as you left the pool, and it would be matched with the basket with your clothing so you could change into your clothes and head home for dinner. We would be at the pool for hours and hours and usually had the sunburn to prove it.
One year when I was very young, my Aunt Mary was in town, and she took me to the pool. Because I was so young she dragged me into the women’s side to change my clothes. There were no cubicles there, just benches with all the women stripped down as they were changing. Beside me, an enormous fat woman, and I mean really enormous, stark naked, bent over to put her suit on and her giant behind was so close to me I was severely traumatized; I told my mother I would never go in the women’s side again, no matter what, and I never did. I went in alone on the men’s side and changed by myself; if a pervert had kidnapped me and made me his sex slave I would have preferred it to ever having to see another fat woman’s ass the size of a Volkswagen bus.
Here’s a city park story.
The summer I joined the band I was fourteen; most of my friends were fifteen. By the next summer, the oldest would have their driver’s licenses, which greatly expanded our roaming range. But this summer we were on foot except when our parents gave us rides to wherever we were going. The city park was centrally located to the houses of our small gang that met there at night on the weekends. We certainly weren’t going to have our parents drive us to the park for these revels, nor did we need them to.
These were pre-mall days. In many ways having malls to drop young teens off is a godsend for parents. They’re indoors, climate-controlled, patrolled by their own police forces, clean, have food and drink and provide all sorts of legal entertainment. The city park, on the other hand, was dark and provided plenty of semi-hidden places for small groups of young men up to no good to gather.
There were usually three or four of us: me, (piccolo); Jim Green, (cornet — his brother Dave was first trumpet and one of the leaders of the band); Steve Telemeyer, (drummer — his brother was first clarinet, another leader); Bill Parker, (drums) and Bill Stone, known as Stoney, another drummer. My closest friend Jake Patterson, clarinet, and my neighbor, the aforementioned Butch McGee, drum major. Not that we ever took our instruments to the park with us. Well, actually we did. One night very late we sneaked over to the park and sat in the dark in the band shell and played marches. No one seemed to notice. Or perhaps they did, the music floating in through half-opened windows, causing sleepers to stir and dream of Friday night football games and marching bands.
Our families stretched across the social strata; they knew each other, but didn’t really socialize. The band was the only connection for the adults. Jimmy Greens father ran a dump truck, dirt-hauling business and was rumored to have spent many years traveling across the United States in carnivals before creating his trucking empire. The Greens lived in a new one-story house that was unlike the older homes that the rest of us lived in. His mother was young, and even we, callow youths, knew she was very beautiful. Jimmy’s father was tough and took absolutely no crap from his three boys. Or, we were afraid, his beautiful wife. The oldest brother raced stock cars on mud tracks. Sometimes we went to see him race, and everyone in the audience hated him and booed him, but as far as we were concerned, he was a hero.
Steve Telemeyer’s father was a respected doctor. They lived on a beautiful, tree-lined street of stately homes. We never saw his father, and his mother seemed to exist only in the semi-darkness of their brick home: quiet, frail, delicate. She always seemed faintly amused at our group of boys.
Bill Parker’s father was the head of one of the sprawling chemical plants that lined the Ohio River near our town. He was a big-deal kind of guy, but was hearty and helpful, willing to drive us when he was free, a wonderful father who bought me my first decent steak. More on that later. Bill’s mother was a tall lady, privileged, aristocratic (for West Virginia) probably bored, another mother who observed us with calm bemusement. We liked her. Jake lived fairly far out of town though I was at his house often; more on his parents later.
My mother was much closer to my friends than these other ladies, a sort of den mother who was always willing to pitch in on whatever project — no matter how whacky — we had thought up and needed help executing. She could also be counted on to feed anyone who happened to show up at mealtimes.
I was surprised at one time, back then, when we thought up a really twisted stunt and enlisted her help and she pitched right in. In fact I’m still surprised at it.
Easter was coming. One of the Parkersburg traditions was the annual Easter egg hunt in the city park. As a child attending, in previous years, I had noticed that most of the eggs were snagged by aggressive parents who raced into the park at the given signal, children following, sometimes far behind, and scooped up all the obvious eggs and handed them over to their kids.
That year, the first year in high school, I came up with a plan. I believe it was Stoney and Jake who joined me in this endeavor of revenge. I decided that we three would pose as Easter Egg “Police.” Armed with clipboards, we would go up to every adult we could find grabbing eggs ahead of the children and take their names and addresses, telling them that the city would be sending them a ticket in the mail for breaking the rules of the hunt. I told my mother we needed three clipboards, told her what we intended to do, and asked if she could get them for us. She heard me out and decided it was a funny idea and went out and bought the clipboards and pads of paper for them. Not once did she say,” Someone is going to punch you in the nose,” or, “you’re going to get into trouble.” She just handed over the clipboards the night before the big egg hunt.
The next day, armed with the clipboards, we headed over to the park. There were probably 50 or 75 kids and adults, all formed up around the band shell, waiting for the starting bell to begin. Around us, in the nooks of trees, beneath bushes, nestled in the grass, were the plastic eggs that held small plastic trinkets. A public address system had been set up in the band shell. The announcer, I believe he was a dj for one of the local radio shows, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, called down the count and the egg hunt was on!
And the adults did what they always did.
We did what we had come to do.
Me. “Excuse me, sir?”
Man with small child in tow: “Yes.”
“Did you just pick that egg up from underneath that bush and give it to your child?”
“Do you know that’s an infraction of the rules, which clearly state that the children are supposed to find the eggs on their own?” I tap on my clipboard as if I have a copy of the Official Rules right there.
“I was just helping her.”
“I think it was quite clear that you found the egg, not the little girl. Isn’t that right, little girl?” The little girl hides herself behind her father’s leg.
“I’m going to have to take your address. The city will send you a ticket in the mail.”
“What is your name and address, sir?”
Here’s the crazy part — every adult actually gave us their names and address. We each corralled five people and the result was the same for each of us. The adults looked sheepish and trotted out their names and addresses without any more prompting or whining on their part. They’d been caught, and by God they would suffer the consequences. After five people each we called it quits, partially because we had proved our point and shamed the adults who were snatching up the eggs, and mostly because it didn’t cause any fuss at all and soon became boring. Can you imagine pulling a stunt like that today? We’d have been shot, stabbed or beaten by every “wrongdoer” we approached.
When we got back to my house and told our story, my mom had a good laugh and declared it a successful prank and served us all a slice of her famous chocolate pie with whipped cream. She didn’t actually whip the cream, but squirted it out of a can, which was a fairly new product for the time. We called the whipped cream “Fuff” because of the sound it made coming out of the spray nozzle. As in, “Would you like some more Fuff on your pie?”
We had another slice of pie and told the story again and laughed. I believe my mom laughed the hardest of us all.