Signing up for band in junior high was one of the best decisions I ever made. Before sixth grade started, we future band members met with the band director to discuss which instruments we wanted to play, and to determine which would be the best fit for each of us. I wanted to play the flute and, fortunately, had a good embouchure from the start. I was even more excited when some of my girlfriends also chose the flute; we’d sit in the same section during class and while performing concerts.
After moving on to high school band, one thing remained constant for the next four years: the grueling dog days of summer marching practice before each school year started. I'm not sure how we survived; those were the pre-bottled-water years. When we took a break, we all headed for the nearest water fountain. A few years ago, I saw a local high school band practicing their marching routines at 7 p.m., and each student had a water bottle or thermos waiting for them. Lightweights, I thought to myself. Then, at a football game soon after, I saw band members wearing khaki shorts and polo shirts as they sat in the stands waiting for halftime. When they got up and left the stands, I thought perhaps they were going to change into their uniforms for the halftime show. Instead, they lined up on the sidelines dressed like that, half naked. It was a travesty to all I’d held loathsome and cruel in my formative years.
“What? They get to wear shorts?” I said to nobody in particular.
A band parent turned to me and explained, “The schools let them wear such things during the August games.”
“How humane of them,” I responded. But in my head, I was appalled. Where's the sense of tradition? Where's appropriate decorum? Where's the glorious moment when a stream of sweat is pooling in their eyes, but they cannot wipe their brows because they must stand at attention before the drum major starts directing? In keeping with the infernal theme of our uniforms, our hats were covered with fur; we resembled British guards at Her Majesty’s palace. I’ve seen modern marching bands perform with no hats. It’s almost risqué. Today’s unfortunate band kids are deprived of the character-building wool pants and double-breasted coats of yesteryear, designed by the Marquis de Sade. We looked good, as we melted with every step. Band heat scarred me for life; now, my wardrobe largely consists of tank tops, camisoles, and flip-flops, worn February through November.
Most grueling were parades. Much longer than a 15-minute halftime show, that Walk of Pain lasted for city block upon city block. Even with fall soon approaching, the slightly lower temperatures were no match for our insulation. I contemplated streaking, but who was I kidding? I was the kid who never changed into my gym suit in front of the other girls; I strategically faced the wall and avoided eye contact during the ritual. When we returned to the bus after the parade, we stripped off our coats, with super-human speed. It wasn't a pretty smell, but we were all in the same stinky boat.
Practicing our drills on the field adjacent to the high school was one thing; marching on Astro Turf was quite another. The stadium where our school played home games had the latter. That plastic grass doesn't lie down like the real stuff, so our shoes slid across the blades, making walking in a straight line especially challenging. I wondered if the football team had slid into each other before they learned to run on the stuff. With concentration and practice, it got easier for me to stay in line, rather than looking as if I'd had a few drinks before the game.
I was nervous every time I performed at a football game or at marching contest; it never went away. It was crucial to not misstep, to execute the routines perfectly. When we started practicing new shows, we learned them piece by piece. Somehow, by the grace of the Marching Band God, everything always came together for our performances. As an adult, my worst nightmares have consisted of being back on the field during a halftime show and forgetting the routine. Always relieved when I wake up, I drop to the floor beside my bed to kiss my non-Astro-Turf carpet. Of course, there were other terrors of high school. On countless occasions at the beginning of each year, I fervently prayed I wouldn’t walk into the wrong classroom, forget where my locker was located or its lock’s combination, or forget which class was next in my schedule. I’ve had countless disturbing dreams of those scenarios, too. Apparently, my subconscious goes through puberty on a regular basis. I’m hoping it will graduate soon.
After the football games, we drove home, peeled off our sweaty uniforms, and got ready to go out, as fast as we could. Pizza was always the post-game fare at Pizza Hut or Mr. Gatti's Pizza Parlor. And pizza never tasted so good. Afterwards, I usually wrapped houses with a few friends. I don’t know if kids all over the country wrap houses, but it was common in the Houston area. It involved buying copious amounts of toilet paper, driving to a friend's house, and throwing the rolls over trees and bushes repeatedly until the entire yard was a sea of white. It was a stealth operation involving no talking, in case those inside the house were near any windows and might hear us. My friend Speedy drove the getaway car. One particular night, we wrapped our assistant band director's house. Someone must have leaked the information to him before the big night; right after we finished, he came outside and told us to clean it up. Killjoy.
Our most memorable wrapping was in a typical, middle-class neighborhood. While tossing rolls, suddenly we heard a sound from across the street. It didn't take long to see, in the glow of his yellow porch light, a man holding a shotgun. He didn't seem to have a sense of humor about our trespassing on his neighbor's yard. Faster than we'd ever moved, we jumped in the car, and Speedy performed one of her amazing maneuvers at lightning speed. That was our only hit that night; we were pretty shaken up, but only until the next Friday night.
Mom never minded my going wrapping; she thought it was good clean fun, and didn't understand when parents got angry about their houses being wrapped. One night, I wasn't able to join the gang because I was sick. When I woke the next morning, Mom was already up, waiting to watch my reaction. I glanced out the window, and everything in our yard was covered in pink toilet paper. Not one single green blade of grass was showing anywhere. It even extended to the car. I'd never seen a more thorough job. I've never repaid Speedy for that work of art, but it's never too late for payback.
Every year, the University Interscholastic League marching contest was the Oscars of the band world. Sweepstakes, earning the highest rank of 1 in every category judged, was the goal. All of our toil during summer and fall culminated on that day. Band directors were always more mature and kind on contest days. In band class, they’d often turn and stomp off their podiums, throw their batons across the room, and storm into their offices, slamming the door behind them. I was stunned that teachers could get away with having hissy fits; they were the poster adults for Anger Management courses. But on contest days, they commiserated with us when we fell short of the mark or when we felt misjudged. They beamed when we did well. And, for better or worse, they told us how proud they were of us.
Shortly before we started high school, my friend Rosebud got a new flute. A silver-plated Gemeinhardt open-hole flute with a B-flat foot. It was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen.
“It’s beautiful,” I gushed to Mom one day. “It has these little corks you can insert, until you learn how to properly cover the holes completely with your fingers. It’s the best of the best.”
I dreamed of having a flute like that, but I knew it must have cost a fortune. So, I went on my merry way, practicing my music diligently, until dating became more important than honing my skill. I made sure I knew my parts for every performance, but my hours of practice lessoned in the light of “true love.” Even so, my desire for my first love, Gemeinhardt, never wavered.
As Christmas approached the next year, I hoped against all odds that there would be a Gemeinhardt flute under the tree waiting for me. Each week, I looked to see what newly wrapped gifts appeared, but nothing looked like a flute case. I knew that flute would be an extravagant gift, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would be playing my old nickel-plated flute for the rest of my high school career.
Sure enough, on Christmas morning, there were still no rectangular boxes that would indicate a flute. I tried to not wear my disappointment on my face; I didn’t want Mom to feel bad about what she couldn’t afford.
Then I saw them. Shirt boxes. Nothing says “boring” on Christmas morning like shirt boxes. Not only was I not getting the most important gift on the face of the earth, I was getting clothes instead. Ugh, I thought. But I need to look grateful. I made my face look relaxed as I picked up the light-as-a-feather box and began unwrapping.
I lifted the lid and pulled back the tissue paper, ready to exclaim over a trivial blouse or sweater. Instead, I stared into the face of a glorious, brightly shining Gemeinhardt flute headjoint. That was it. Just the headjoint. My mouth gaping, I looked up to see every eye on the room fixed on me. That moment is as fresh today as it was then.
“Very sneaky,” I told Mom, as I reached for the other two shirt boxes. The second held the flute body, and the third held that magnificent B-flat foot. I squealed, jumped up, and gave Mom the biggest hug in the history of Christmases. I don’t know how she, a single mother, afforded that flute. I remember watching her tediously balance her checkbook on Saturday mornings, and I could tell when money was especially tight. But we always had what we needed, and often had much that we wanted.
During my senior year, she was just as devastated as I was when someone stole my precious Gemeinhardt from me. I’d left it for only moments, sure it would be safe with other people around in the Band Hall. When I returned, it had vanished. Investigations never revealed the thief, so it was never returned to me. The worst part was wondering if a fellow band student had taken it; we were like family, so I couldn’t imagine that. I decided someone must have been passing through the building as a shortcut to another class, and took it. That theory was easier to live with. Mom was sick over the fact she’d put off buying insurance on it. My older, first flute had previously been stolen, that one from our home. So, I used a loaner for the rest of my senior year. I adjusted well, because the most important thing in the universe at the time was my impending graduation. Nothing could taint that. Later, Mom offered to replace my beautiful silver-plated flute, but I told her I was okay without it. Life went on, and the world continued to turn, without the company of a Gemeinhardt.
Until last fall.
When I learned that Rosebud’s sister-in-law Pixie, a fellow flautist and the wife of a band director, was selling a Gemeinhardt, my heart leapt. It was love at first Facebook photo. I bought it quickly, and couldn’t wait to meet in person. Within minutes of Gemeinhardt’s arrival, I was pulling out old flute music books and my piano books, since I could play the treble clef piano music on my flute. It all looked difficult, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Every good boy does fine; F, A, C, E, I reviewed in my head, to remember the notes on the clef. After decades of no playing, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of recall.
But my fingers had higher expectations. Somehow, I played the notes correctly, without taking time to figure out what the notes were. It was as if my hands were totally separate from the rest of my body, with minds of their own.
Flash walked into the living room and watched me play. “Oh my gosh. That was great. How long has it been? Thirty years?”
Cowboy smiled from ear to ear as he listened to my first concert in 36 years.
Ironically, this girl who got tired of practicing her flute on a regular basis when she was a teenager, can’t get enough of it now. What I once saw as obligation and duty, I now consider privilege and beauty. More than once, Flash has had to remind me that Cowboy was in bed trying to go to sleep, so my playing wouldn’t keep him awake.
Playing again, I feel like I’m back from a long trip away from home. A trip filled with twists, turns, and drops I never expected. In the midst of life, I’d stopped creating music with an instrument. I hadn’t noticed the deafening silence until I began to play once more. Now, I don’t think I could live without it. It heals me, it frees me, and childhood memories wash over me as I make new memories. The past and present join hands, and I am my truest self, again.