By Tim Hayes

On a scorching late August morning, our high school marching band’s drum section, yours truly included, gathered under the limited shade of a withering tree at band camp, to work on our cadences – the drum patterns that the entire band marched to during parades and when coming onto or off of the football field.

Our section had a new member that year, Eugene, a happy and pleasantly plump freshman kid, eager and thrilled to have been brought into the band. The section leader said Eugene would be playing the bass drum. Having been in the band for a while already, I knew this would happen for two reasons. First, Eugene was a freshman, and the big bass drum was the heaviest drum of all to carry, so this became a way for the greenhorn to earn his stripes.

But mostly, Eugene got saddled – literally – with the bass simply because he could not keep time. The kid had absolutely no sense of rhythm. And when the very raison d’etre for the drum section is to keep the rest of the band playing in rhythm, this might present a problem.

So we started rehearsing, and the boom!-booms! from Eugene’s corner began coming in all over the place, as he whacked away with an enthusiastic verve, like a toddler on the kitchen floor banging Mommy’s pots with a ladle. And with about as much skill and musicianship.

The section leader tried to guide Eugene, telling him that the bass drum had the easiest part of anybody in the whole band. Just smack the thing for each beat, one-two-three-four. Got it, Eugene? Eugene said he’d gotten it. So we started again, but ran into the same problem. After a half-hour of this, with the section leader getting more and more angry and frustrated, and Eugene getting more and more embarrassed and anxious, we decided to take a 15-minute break.

Eugene had started walking alone, dejected, off toward a faraway bench. I caught up with him and asked if I could walk along. As we trod toward that bench, I suggested that we walk in step. One-two-three-four, left-right-left-right, boom-boom-boom-boom.

“Hey, Eugene, see how we’re walking? See how our feet are moving in rhythm? That’s the same way you play the bass drum. Just pretend you’re walking to the music, and play the drum along with your steps. If you can walk, you can play. I know it’s really frustrating, just coming into the band, but you’re gonna be fine. You can do this.”

In time, Eugene got better. Or at least good enough to not be a distraction. And the rest of the drummers took that as a victory.

Fast-forward two years. Back at band camp on a broiling late August morning. A senior, I had risen to become student director, standing high up on a ladder, waving my arms and leading the entire band. This was a Saturday, the last full day of camp. Everyone’s parents and families would be arriving that afternoon to see the main halftime show we’d been working on all week, before heading home.

As the sun slowly burned the morning mist from the expanse of grass that had been lined like a football field, it came time to rehearse the show from top to bottom just a time or two more. I climbed up my ladder, whistle around my neck and megaphone within reach. The band’s musicians, majorettes, flag team, and rifle squad – a 200-plus-strong collection of high schoolers – waited for my cue to start, so I blew the whistle and the show began.

Within seconds, it became painfully obvious that this was not to be our morning. The music sounded horrible – out of tune and out of synch, entire sections missed their positions on the field, kids looked at each other like this was the first time we’d even tried to pull this off, even though we had been working on this show for six days already!

Not five minutes into this debacle, I decided I’d seen enough. Now, this might be chalked up to one of those situations where a person becomes so enraged and emotional, so full of anger and adrenaline, that he abandons all pretense and turns into something completely counter to his normal behavior. I like to think so, anyway, because to this day I cannot recall what happened next.

But others – including the band director and a chaperone or two – couldn’t wait to tell me. They wanted to make sure I hadn’t blown a gasket permanently.

After screeching my whistle about 10 times, stopping everyone on the field cold in their tracks, I picked up the megaphone and went off on a full-rage diatribe, using language that sailors on shore leave might have had to look up, violently disparaging the intelligence and character and probably the families of my fellow band-mates, shocking them into silence, and warning them about the dangers of embarrassing me that afternoon in front of my folks.

I mean, this must have been a screed for the ages. I almost wish I could remember it. Perhaps it survives, hidden and forbidden, in some dark corner of my subconscious, ready to flare up and shock the crap out of me someday in the far-off future. Can’t wait.

After emerging from that little Mr. Hyde-like mental diversion, I yelled to the assembled throng on the field that we were starting over from the top of the show, and that it had damn well better be better this time. And it was.

Well, you can bet my meltdown dominated conversation in the mess hall a little later. I wasn’t sure whether I should have been mortified at myself or encouraged. Walking back to my cabin, I heard someone coming up from behind me. Eugene.

“Hey, Tim, that was something else today. You sure got our attention. But the show looks pretty good now. We just needed to get our butts kicked, I guess.

“I bet it can be really frustrating being the student director, but you’re gonna be fine. You can do this.”

That Eugene. Funny how good advice can come around again at just the right moment. Little wonder why I miss band camp, even now. One-two-three-four, left-right-left-right, boom-boom-boom-boom.

Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes

This story appears in “Growing Up Giffin: Reflections on a Happy Steeltown Boyhood,” available by clicking HERE.  ALL PROCEEDS from the sale of this book benefit the Hilltop Economic Development Corporation, to support economic revitalization efforts in Tim Hayes’ hometown of Mt. Oliver, Pa.  

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