A couple days ago I was surprised by a John Phillip Sousa march. It was a drippy Sunday morning around 7:00 a.m. I was driving to the local Kroger to buy a half gallon of milk. When I switched on the radio in the car, there it was, this irresistibly jaunty piece of music. I don’t love a march, and my spirits were not particularly low that morning, but this sunny, optimistic music, the latest installment of 90.9 FM’s weekly Sousa Alarm, took me by surprise and awoke something in me, taking me back in time, to high school and marching band.
When I got to Kroger, I sat in the parking lot, listening through to the end of the recording. Inside the store, I felt a kind of after-march jubilance. I marched through produce, past paper products and frozen foods, and into dairy, thinking about the football field, about the band and the uniform.
I marched all four years of high school. I wouldn’t say I marched with pride or even with any particular pleasure. I marched because I had to. You couldn’t just opt out. You would create a gap in the formation and a headache for the band teacher, who was universally admired and loved. So I marched. I played the trumpet and marched, then I played the French horn and marched. One night I marched slightly drunk, crashing the cymbals to the drum cadence, somehow managing not to bring shame to myself, the band, or the uniform.
When you’re a kid there’s a mystique about uniforms. They take you out of yourself and, however briefly, offer an identity shift. Like: Maybe I’m that.
The one year I played Little League baseball I wore a uniform, a navy blue cap, a baggy whitish short-sleeve shirt with a navy blue stripe down the button front, and a pair of ill-fitting faded gray pants, size Small but still too big for me. I was a Giant. Briefly I felt like an official baseball player. I could be that! The Giants were the worst team in the league that year, and I contributed nothing. On offense I struck out, in the field I made errors. On Fourth of July, when all the Little League teams brought up the rear in our hometown parade, back there in the rear of the rear, there we were, the lowly Giants in our collarless shirts and striped pajama pants, swatting our ball gloves. I thought: I’ll never be that.
A few years later I put on the faux military duds of Boy Scouts. I was a tenderfoot. When instructed to do so, I stood at attention, practiced the official three-finger BSA salute, pledged allegiance to the flag, and recited the Boy Scout Oath, which I was told to memorize (“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, . . . thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”)
Work hard, I was told those Tuesday nights in the school gymnasium, and I could become Second Class. Well, hey. I would get a badge. It was like a promotion. And there was more, much more. Accumulate enough merit badges and you would rise in the ranks and eventually wear those badges of honor sewn onto a sash. I had no real fashion sense, but somehow I knew I did not want to wear a sash.
Then came band.
Soon after school began in the fall, if you were enrolled in band class, you presented yourself in front of the wide wardrobe doors in the band room, to be fitted with your uniform. I knew about the uniforms and their provenance. My father had worked on an ad hoc committee, a fundraising project called Band Boosters, whose goal was to outfit the band.
The Boosters made a purchase with longevity in mind. The bright green uniforms, made of stiff industrial-strength polyester, were virtually indestructible. A couple moms distributed them that day in the band room. They handed you a heavy jacket, a tunic with white horizontal panels across the front and gold buttons; a pair of crisp, eternally pressed trousers, “bibbers,” in uniform lingo; and a hat like an overturned bucket with a bill and what should have been a plume. Boosters must have reasoned that plumes were too delicate to withstand the test of time, so instead, topping our hats were these things that looked like elongated gold tinsel pine cones.
Friday nights on the football field, players and cheerleaders wore their uniforms with elan. Green and white, fight fight! Before the coin toss, when the band processed-flowed-marched onto the field to play the national anthem, and again at half time when we took the field to execute a formation and play the school fight song, I wouldn’t say we looked ragtag, but we were low on elan. No one I knew wanted to be in the marching band. On the varsity football team and cheerleading squad on the other hand . . .
In the week before a game, we had rehearsed formations. We managed to form the letter F on the fifty yard line. F for Freeland. F for Falcons. Fight team fight! On the field you looked left and right, trying to line up, trying to keep your step in synch with the rest of the band. Our uniforms shined, our plumes glinted under the lights. We stood up straight and performed. On the open field, minus acoustic help, the sound seemed to rise and dissipate in the air.
Also among the 136 marches, Sousa wrote a few intriguing outliers: “Pet of the Petticoats,” “Transit of Venus,” “Our Flirtation,” and “The Quilting Party March.”
Back home from Kroger that morning, in an online search I found the specific march I had heard in the car. It was called “The Federal,” written to honor the people of Australia and New Zealand before Sousa went on a world tour. Sousa must have had rock star stature. When I saw “world tour” I thought of the Rolling Stones. I wondered, Did he actually go abroad and march? I mean, did they clear the avenues and boulevards, set up signs and publicity: John Phillip Sousa is comin’ to town . . . and he’s bringing the Marine Band with him. There are plenty of photos of him in front of the band, with his turn-of-the-century beard, shouldering his baton, which looks a lot like a sword. He has the look of a serious man, like he’d rather be home composing marches than marching to them.
I knew there was more to Sousa than The Stars and Stripes Forever march we associate with him. I was surprised to learn he wrote 136 total. Unless you are a connoisseur of marches, which I am not, I’m sure they all sound vaguely alike, all more or less the same tempo, the same instrumentation, all in a major key. (You probably wouldn’t march to a minor key. You would trudge.)
The Sousa marches have predictable ceremonial names: “The Pride of Pittsburgh,” “The Invincible Eagle,” “Hail to the Spirit of Liberty.” There are also some martial types, “Solid Men to the Front,” “The Volunteers,” “The Gallant Seventh,” “The Dauntless Battalion.”
Also among the 136, Sousa wrote a few intriguing outliers: “Pet of the Petticoats,” “Transit of Venus,” “Our Flirtation,” and “The Quilting Party March.” The occasion and reason for the quilting march’s composition are unknown.
The night I arrived at school a little drunk, the cymbals were a fluke. When I joined the gathering in the band room, I was both weighted down and held up by my uniform. The heavy tunic felt like body armor.
That afternoon I had ridden around the countryside with Clarence Daughenbaugh, Doug Haynes, and Jim Vasold, a guy we called Schnel. Schnel because he had taken German one year. Schnel because that was the only word he remembered from the class and he used it all the time. Schnel took us to a spot on Curve Road where he and the Savage brothers had left half a case of beer in a ditch, the universally accepted way of storing booze you weren’t supposed to have. We put the windows down, popped the caps off longnecks, and cruised. I thought, At last, I get to see what this is like. I drank three bottles of luke warm beer, which I did not enjoy, and experienced the woozy euphoria my friends talked about, which I did enjoy. I felt brave and uninhibited.
“Bailey,” someone said. “Wanna play cymbals tonight?”
Did I ever. I was under the erroneous impression that crashing cymbals would make me attractive to a girl I was interested in at the time.
Pre-game I marched onto the field behind the base drum and the two snares. We came to stop midfield and formed a block. When the music called for a crash, I crashed with a little too much verve (O’er the land of the freeeeee, insert cymbal crash, and the home of the braaaaave, insert multiple cymbal crashes). Cymbals, I discovered marching off the field, were heavy. Cymbals, I also discovered, were not a subtle way of getting a girl’s attention.
By half time, when we marched again, the euphoria had passed. All that was left was the woozy part. I had been taken out of myself, I had briefly and perilously enjoyed an identity shift, and now I was back. Maybe, I thought, maybe I didn’t want that to be me.