Part of our regular band uniform was the pair of white buck shoes that you had to buy. Even Sears sold the same brand that everyone bought, so I was OK there. They were blinding white “buckskin” with red rubber soles. No one would ever buy a pair of white bucks unless it was part of the band uniform as they were considered totally dorkey, at least on guys. Pat Boone wore white bucks, which gives you some idea about how stupid they were. (I can’t remember if we had the word “dorkey” back then. Wikipedia says it was in popular parlance in the mid fifties, so maybe we did. I can’t remember what else we would have said. Nerdy? I don’t think that word was in use then either.) I should amend the above paragraph to read, “no one would ever buy and wear a pair of white bucks except me.” If you scroll down to an earlier entry where the picture is of me wearing The World’s Worst Sport Coat you will see I am indeed wearing white bucks. And I’m not even in my band uniform. They make my feet look about the size of your average clown shoe.
It was mandatory that we kept our band white bucks in pristine condition. Since we only wore them once a week when we were in uniform, this wasn’t really a problem. The way you touched them up was by using an accessory that came with the shoes, a small white bag of powder, called a “bunny bag,” that you used to pat on any scuff marks to cover them up. Losing your bunny bag or having scuffed bucks could get you a kick in the ass, so we were all careful about that.
The band usually traveled to the away football games on busses. We’ll get to the special trains at the end of this blog. (Not the end of this entry, but the end of the blog itself. That’s probably a couple of months down the road.) It took two busses to get the band to games, (didn’t it? I can’t remember.) but these trips were a lot of fun. The older guys played poker and strummed guitars while the younger guys just goofed around. One of the fun activities was setting yourself on fire. We wore heavy white wool socks with our uniforms and if you touched these socks with the open flame of a butane lighter they would catch fire and burn with a slow-moving, eerie blue glow. The trick was to slap out the fire before it took serious hold. There was plenty of burned leg hair until you got the hang of it. The other use for butane lighters was lighting farts. Anyone who felt one coming on would grab a lighter, hoist a leg, flick on the flame in close proximity to your butt and let ‘er rip. The methane gas would ignite and flame would jet out as much as six or eight inches. To the general hilarity of anyone watching. Fun days. Rampant stupidity.
Summer band practice had taught us new guys the basics and we were ready to learn the drill for the first football game of the season. The weather had cooled, and we were no longer sweating through August heat. We would hit the field after school for an hour or so, then head home for dinner. We had band practice a couple of hours during the week during the school day when other kids were going to the library or having homeroom. We would assemble in our homeroom and then be dismissed to go to the band room, behind the school underneath the football stadium.
After several weeks we had the music memorized and the drill down to perfection. Soon the big day, or night, came. I put my uniform on, and my parents took my picture standing in the living room in front of the mantel, where we took all our pictures. (See above.) When I came out to get in the car, the neighbors sitting on their porches clapped their hands and cheered. I waved, modestly. The power of the Big Red Band.
In the band room, we sat in our usual chairs while Frank gave us some last minute advice that no one paid any attention to. We tuned our instruments. This was accomplished by Frank telling the first chair flute/piccolo to play an A note, whereupon the rest of the band tuned on this note. Just another of the godlike responsibilities of being a piccolo player. Because I did this for so many years, to this day I can hum a perfect A. Then we sat around and joked until Frank finally said to form up and head into the stadium.
The opening drill, which we had practiced many times, was very simple: The spectators would be in their bleacher seats and the two football teams were on benches along the sidelines. The band would form up outside the stadium, march in quietly, and stand in the end zone in 12 rows of eight players. When the head drum major gave the signal on his whistle, we would break into the first march and after a few bars head off down the field in perfect step, march to the other end of the field, stop in front of the goal post and wait while the US flag was raised up the flagpole. When it hit the top, we would play the Star Spangles Banner. When this was finished, we would march off the field, playing, and head back to our seats – folding metal chairs — on the sidelines. As I said, simple. Just like we had practiced a hundred times before.
On the night of our first game and performance, right before we started to march into the stadium, our lead guy down at the far end of our row looked over at us and said, just loud enough for us to hear, “Listen. When you get out there, no matter what happens, Keep playing!” I could hear this advice being repeated up and down the ranks: Keep playing! Keep playing!
What was he talking about? What else was I going to do? I’d been practicing this moment for weeks; I knew the music, I knew the drill, I was nervous but pretty damn confident.
We started off, the drummers playing “on the rim,” which means they were not using the head of the drum, but just quietly drumming on the rim, just loud enough for us to hear and march to.
We formed up in the end zone and straightened our lines. The night was clear; clouds of insects dive-bombed the towering stadium lights. The audience in the bleachers was on their feet, completely silent.
The drum major raised his long baton, blew a piercing blast on his whistle, lowered the baton and we broke into whatever march we had been assigned. A few bars into it, the drum major blew his whistle again and we stepped off as one, out onto the field. A few bars after that, about the time we hit the exact middle of the football field, all ten thousand spectators began cheering and clapping and stomping their feet.
It was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life.
I was stunned.
I immediately stopped playing.
Which I knew was wrong.
I could see some of the other first-year guys, and they were as shocked as I was. Really, no one told us about this. Even if they had, we wouldn’t have believed how loud the crowd sound was down on the field. The veterans were playing, covering up the fact that we new guys were struggling to get back into synch with the rest of the band.
I began playing, a kind of feeble tweeting noise that only vaguely resembled the notes I should have been playing. I was gasping for breath, trying to get back some semblance of control. At least I had the presence of mind to see where I was, where I was approaching, and to hit my “mark” and stop moving forward. I regained enough control to play the notes of the march, which finally ended, thank God.
We stood in silence. Except for the thudding of my heart.
The head drum major whistled us into the opening bars of the Star Spangled Banner. I got it together and played my part. We finished, there was a moment of silence, then the crowd broke into cheers and stomps again. We started into another march, about-faced, and marched back down the field and over to where our seats were.
It was the most exciting moment of my life.