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Marching Band

August 1975 was swelteringly hot. I can say that with all honesty because, even though I cannot remember the specifics from the summer I started attending Forest Park High School, it is always hot in Southeast Texas in August. Moreover, it is usually humid, and sometimes raining. I know it rained on the first day of school, at least, because I know that I was 12-for-12 in having it rain1 on the first day of school.

Marching band practice started in early August, and consisted of 2- to 3-hour sessions on the practice field out in front of the school. As the biggest freshman boy in the percussion section, I was awarded the bass drum. The other bass drummer was a sophomore named Lester who had actually volunteered for the role.2

Lester showed me the ropes, and I learned to march in a reasonably straight line, and I learned how to play the bass drum part to “The Young Lions” (the school’s fight song derived from the title song of the 1958 movie).3 We marched “8 to 5”; that is, we took eight steps for every five yards, which means that each step is precisely 22-1/2" long. This has stuck with me; ask me to walk somewhere, and I will lead with my left foot, and my stride length is still precisely 22-1/2" long.

Somewhat to my surprise (at least when I look back in hindsight), the heat didn’t bother us much. Granted, it was hot, but it wasn’t like there was anything we could do about it. Heat, and it’s close friend Humidity, was something you had to accept in southeast Texas, or you wouldn’t last very long. Modern, all-season fabrics had not yet been invented in 1975.4 Our marching band uniforms were 100% navy blue wool, and they weighed about 14 pounds (even more when they had absorbed all your sweat). There was always a point in the middle of the football season where the first cold front of the year came through. The temperature dropped to about 50°F, and the uniforms became bearable.

Home games were pretty simple; we’d go home after school on Friday and return an hour or so before game time. We’d meet in the (air-conditioned) music hall for a quick rehearsal, then march across the parking lot to the football stadium.

Road trips, however, were much more fun. We would load up the busses (since our band had about 250 members, we usually required five or six busses for the band members and another bus for the larger instruments, which included the percussion). Bus trips could be as brief as a 10-minute drive across town, but they sometimes involved lengthy drives. I recall playing El Campo HS one year; that trip was about six hours each way, and we stopped in a local dance hall before the game for supper.

My first game was memorable. At half time, we left the stands and lined up along the field for the show. The drum major whistled for us to start, the band started to play, and a new row stepped off the sidelines every fourth beat.

Since I played bass drum, I was standing next to Lester in the very last row. As you might expect, I was a bit nervous, having never done this before. Our turn came; we lined up; we stepped forward; and I immediately swallowed a bug. The insect, attracted by the stadium lights, had flown in my mouth at the exact moment I stepped off the line. Suddenly, all nervousness disappeared, totally forgotten. In fact, pretty much everything was forgotten except for the feeling of a bug crawling around in my mouth.

Somehow, I managed to maintain my composure, and worked on getting the damn bug out of my mouth while still playing the bass drum and marching through the routine. Eventually, I managed to mangle him (the bug) up enough so that he stopped crawling, and I spit his lifeless corpse out onto the football field.

I went through the rest of the halftime show in a bit of a daze. The moral of the story is: no matter how nervous you are, it can always get worse.5

Our band director, Mr. J, was a wizard at arranging pop tunes for marching band; he also had an evil sense of humor. One year, he arranged “You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Lucille” (Kenny Rogers) for our band. We always thought it was hilarious to respond to the other team’s fight song with a country & western waltz.

Towards the end of the season, the UIL6 marching band competition took place. In my freshman year, it was held at Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School. For three days before the competition (which was held on a Saturday), it rained. Not just any rain: a deep, persistent, tropical east Texas rain storm. The day of the competition was clear and cold, but the football field was utterly saturated.

After the first band competed, it was 90% mud. After the second band, it was 99% mud. By the time we performed that afternoon, the field consisted of solid, sticky, gooey mud about 18 inches deep. We knew this, of course, and we told each other to make sure that our shoes were laced tightly. That didn’t help. We stepped off the sideline into the muck.

Marching, for the first few yards, wasn’t actually that bad. At some point, however, our routine called for us to stop and “march in place” for a while. When we stopped and lifted our left feet for the first “in place” march, our left shoes came off. On the next step, the right shoes came off. The following step, and the left sock came off. On the fourth step, the right sock came off, and we stood there for the next few dozen beats slowly stomping our footwear into the cold, wet ground.

I have been told that, years later, when they would turn over the football field each spring, they were still discovering lost shoes, socks, mouthpieces, drumsticks, and trombone slides(!) embedded in the field. I can only imagine a team of archaeologists a few thousand years from now trying to determine what weird religious rite took place on that site.

  1. Torrentially. If you haven’t lived in Southeast Texas, you should be grateful. ↩︎

  2. I think that they didn’t want two freshmen on the bass drum because the bass drum is somewhat critical to setting the tempo when marching, and because they didn’t trust freshmen, but I don’t know this for certain. ↩︎

  3. An irrelevant aside: if you’d like to hear what this sounds like, go to Spotify and search for “The Young Lions.” You should find an album entitled “Music From The Films Of Marlon Brando” (he was in the movie, “The Young Lions”). Click on the “Superman - Main Theme” link and not “The Young Lions” link; the two tracks are mislabeled and reversed. ↩︎

  4. Ok, they may have actually been invented by then, but they certainly weren’t common. ↩︎

  5. You could swallow a bug, for example. ↩︎

  6. See the footnote on this story for details. ↩︎

Glen Campbell
January 27, 2012