One of the trips my first year in the band, fall of 1959, was a bus trip to some small high school with a ramshackle stadium, and, probably, a hapless football team that was destined to be steamrolled by the juggernaut that was the Big Red football program. I have forgotten what the school was named or where it was, but I remember their stadium as being sad, old, and beat-up. Of course no stadium looked as good as PHS in those days. In the next three years we never went back to wherever this was. I wonder if it was because of what went on with the band after the end of the football game.
We were forming up on the cinder track, getting ready to go on at halftime. We were down at the end of the field, a good distance from the sparsely attended ramshackle bleachers. There was a chain-link fence that separated us from a dimly lit parking lot. As we were waiting, a gang of around a dozen young men sauntered up out of the parking lot, scattered along the chain link fence and started yelling at us. I can’t remember the threats and curses of the time, but it’s a safe bet the word “queers” was somewhere in there. Frank said something to the head drum major, and he whistled us into formation and attention. Frank gave us an “eyes front,” so we weren’t looking at the gang. We knew better than to break formation or say anything. We waited. We ignored their taunts. Frank stood in front of the band.
A loud clang rang like a brass bell as a rock struck one of the big sousaphones. Frank came trotting back beside us at the fence. The following conversation took place. Maybe not in these exact words, but this is the way I remember it.
Frank: “What do you guys want?”
These guys were what we called greasers or hoods, a term I’ve explained earlier. They weren’t high-schoolers, were probably drop-outs, but they weren’t really functioning adults yet either. They had hood hairstyles, long greasy hair swirled into pompadours or the ever-popular buzz cut. They wore hood clothes: leather jackets, white T-shirts, cuffed blue jeans and heavy black boots. James Dean-style hoods.
Gang leader: “We want to kick your queer asses.”
Frank: “We’re not interested. We’re busy.” He glanced over at the field and saw that the home team band was finishing up whatever pathetic drill they had put on, (they were the sort of band who allowed girls as members and carried their music on their arms) and that we needed to get into place behind the goalposts. He turned away and trotted back toward the front of the band.
Clang! Another rock hit a sousaphone, and Frank went into full Teutonic, V-2 rocket mode. He ran back to where the hoods were.
“OK,” Frank yelled at the leader, “You want a fight? You’ve got it. We’ll meet you back here after the game. You’d better round up some more guys, because we are going to kick your asses. Right here! After the game!” He whirled around and blew his whistle and the drum major blew his and the drummers got us marching to our position. We did the drill and went back to the sidelines where the rest of the football game played out. Nobody talked about what Frank had said. He stood off to the side by himself, which is where he always stood, dealing with his fingernails as always, but you could tell he was really pissed off. The game ended. Frank came to the front as we were getting up from our chairs.
“Leave your instruments, we’ll get them later. Form up on the track and get into position. Some guys want to fight us, so we’ll fight. Nobody throws rocks at the Big Red Band. The older guys will tell you what to do.” He walked over to the cinder track and waited.
This was pretty thrilling. Good thing I couldn’t see myself — there I was, this tiny kid putting his piccolo down and turning to one of the older guys. A few of us gathered around him (clarinet) and he gave us a demonstration. The rest of the guys were huddled in small groups.
“Take off your belt,” the older boy said. We wore what is called a Sam Brown belt. The always helpful Wiki tells me it was named for its inventor, Sam Brown — what a surprise — who was a soldier who had had his left arm cut off in a sabre fight and needed a way to keep his blade from clanking around when he was running into battle, one-armed. What typifies the belt is a smaller belt that runs from left to right over the shoulder, which allows the waist belt to hold up any amount of equipment that you want to pile on. The main part of our belt, the part that goes around the waist, was four inches wide, white, and had a very large, square, brass buckle in the front. I see from videos of today’s Big Red Band the belts now have two crosspieces over each shoulder. The older guy showed us how to wrap the belt around your fist so that the belt buckle ended up on the knuckle portion of your hand. That way when you punched someone the buckle did some serious damage, especially if the prong thing happened to be sticking forward when the punch was thrown. Let it be noted that belts of this type could also be usefully employed in a fight by swinging them overhead and smashing them into opposing faces, but we, the band, did our fighting in close formation and didn’t have room to swing anything without possibly hitting our own guys.
I wrapped my belt around my tiny fist and was inordinately proud. I was a warrior, going into my first battle. The drum major whistled us into close formation, four abreast, on the narrow cinder track.
Being the drum major of the band was an extremely important position. Traditionally, the DM is, physically, a big guy. Historically, and by that I mean back in history, part of the DM’s job was to preside over any flogging that had to be done, not that there was any flogging being done in the Big Red Band. Just ass kicking. That year, my first year in the band, our drum major was really tall (especially when I stood next to him) and really tough. He wore one of those beaver fur hats, the sort that the guards at Buckingham palace wear only white, and he carried a long, heavy baton, which he could use to beat the shit out of people. With the hat, our guy stood around eight feet tall. Picture him at the front of our Big Red phalanx as we marched into battle.
We had to exit the stadium, which by now was largely empty, and make our way around back to the dark parking lot. I’m sure that Frank was hoping for a certain amount of discretion on our part, as what we were about to do would surely be frowned on by any authorities. We were in a really hick burg; who knows what side the cops would be on? Even Frank wasn’t about to take on guys with guns.
Today, what we were about to do would be considered insane, especially because the gang we would be going up against would be armed with street weapons featuring names like Glock and Beretta. Back then there were knives and whatever clubs could be picked up along the way.
One of the many things that struck me as we went about getting ready for the fight was how calm and matter-of-fact everyone was. The new guys kept their mouths shut because they knew they had nothing to add and everything to learn by paying close attention, and the older guys acted like it was completely familiar and nothing to get excited about, as if they had made these preparations many times before. And perhaps they had, I didn’t know, this was my first year. As always, everyone seemed perfectly confident that the band would prevail.
Picture it. We were drawn up in a solid, tight formation, red uniformed phalanx. In front was the head drum major, an eight-foot giant wielding a long metal pole. There were a couple of slightly smaller drum majors just behind him. And by his side was our stone-faced, very pissed off German leader, Never-Throw-Rocks-At-My-Sousaphones, Frank. Frank tossed out a command, “On the rim.” The drum major lifted his baton and brought it smartly down and the drums began the cadence.
“On the rim” meant the drummers used the wooden rim of the drumhead, rather that the drumhead itself. This was employed when we wanted to get someplace fairly quietly, but still needed the cadence to stay in step. It produces an odd sound, and on this night, lit by the stadium lights behind us and headed for a dark parking lot, it sounded like the rattle of old, dry bones. Our shoes crunched in unison on the cinder track. Other than these two sounds there was complete silence.
As we approached the lot, we saw the gang appearing out of the shadows. They had indeed called up some reinforcements. Twenty or thirty of them were walking slowly toward us. Some of them were carrying baseball bats and lengths of wood. I was scared shitless but marched along in step with everyone else.
Frank nodded at the drum major who blew a long, very loud blast on his whistle, and the drummers switched from the rim to the head of the drums. After the ominous clacking of the rims, the effect of the massed drums was thundering. I wish I could have stepped aside and just watched this sight: the solid band of red-uniformed young men, belt-wrapped fists, the roaring of the drums. I’m sure it was impressive. Even now it gives me a slight chill remembering it.
After standing their ground for about five seconds, the gawking gang melted away back into the darkness. In another five seconds they were gone. The drum major whistled us to a halt, and we stood there, in the dark, at attention, in complete silence. After a minute, Frank said, “At ease. Go get your instruments and get on the bus. It’s over.”
And it was.
Here’s a lesson about Frank Schroeder. He was never a friend to any of us. He was hard man and took no crap from anyone. He would kick your ass if you screwed up. He demanded as much perfection as he could wring from 80 high-spirited, young men. And he got very angry when anyone threw stones at his sousaphones. You may not have liked him, but by God, you feared and respected him.