The following is a short essay I wrote on the prompt of “summer” for Sunday Assembly Atlanta. I read it to everyone this evening!
It’s morning on a hot, Georgia summer day. The moisture of dew on cut, green grass is matched by the humidity in the air. And the sweat on people’s brows. We’re standing still, giving our full attention*, as a man bellows out instructions over loudspeakers before giving us the go.
The sun is at that perfect angle where I can’t lower my hat further without obscuring my vision. I wish we could practice facing the other way, but squinting is my only recourse. I try to remember if I put on sunscreen while I got ready; my reddening skin by the evening will inform me of my carelessness.
I’m quickly moving with and between two people now, in a line, as one often is in this sort of activity. That line might not always be straight, but hopefully that’s by design: made to be a part of a cohesive whole, driving down the field with greater purpose. We’re brothers and sisters in arms, fighting with precision against the tyrannical forces of disorder.
Heavy breathing would be heard if not for the noise surrounding our every action. We are tired, but not sloppy. We are still on the ball.
A full week of this daily routine has left us tired, but prepared. We’ve repeated the same plays in our book dozens of times until everyone’s roles are solidified and perfected. Then we string them together in a series to simulate the real thing.
People on the sidelines fulfil their roles, as well. Tents and stations are manned to provide temporary shade in the scarce breaks. Parents fill water bottles while we are away. Some instructors watch closely for angles of approach on improvement. Some students roll their equipment with quiet purpose to their positions.
A group of uniformed girls faces the bleachers and dances, providing a flash of color and elegance to contrast our rigidity and stoicism.
20 yards. 15 yards. 10. 5.
As we near the endzone, we abruptly stop, still standing, rigidly, without relaxing. This is what separates us from what is more commonly understood to be the purpose of this chalked rectangle of grass.
We elevate this patch of green to a higher purpose. We utilize its football origins and language to create a new sport, performance, and art.
This is marching band.
Carrying tubes of brass or intricately perforated wood (or, if we’re being less coy, “instruments”), we play music that delights while making formations that entertain. A large portion of our high school’s Friday night football audience is there for halftime and timeouts, when the sport stops and the music starts.
This hot, Georgia summer day is in LaGrange, on the border to Alabama. It’s the culmination of a week of long, hard days of practice and performance, followed by evenings of “mandatory fun”. Away from (most) parents, left to wander a college campus among our best friends, enemies, and crushes, this is where we build relationships and find the personalities that will carry us for years to come.
This is where inside jokes become important traditions, where weird quirks become the norm. It’s an alternate, yet familiar reality, that lasts for a short time and vanishes.
My sister, ten years my junior, is at LaGrange right now. She’s a junior, which is that perfect spot with enough seniority to know what’s happening but without any of the responsibility. (There’s also less endless nostalgia and thinking of “lasts” that seniors have as band camp culminates.)
I went down there last year to see their performance. It was the first time I’d been to LaGrange in 8 years. The most striking element of my visit was the distance I felt from what I saw the students doing. What were so immensely important, like wearing matching sunglasses, having cheers, and Being There for the origin of the greatest, most hilarious moment, were simply not vital to me anymore.
I wasn’t on the ground level this time, slogging through the heat, repeating the same steps over and over while the clarinets struggled to make their mark while playing rapid scales. I wasn’t in the thick of it, in this alternate world where life is whittled down to a handful of priorities. When you are, the absurd becomes accepted. The strife becomes a communal experience.
Whether you remember your spot once school starts is no matter. You’re hooked if you survive band camp. Your friendship is sealed, your purpose defined.
Those sweltering weeks could have been spent bathing in conditioned air, designed to provide that cool, afternoon breeze at all hours of the day. …At least in my tiny, sheltered box with insulation, a roof, and walls.
I could have not done marching band. Could have chosen not to stand in an empty parking lot, three times a week after school, somehow simultaneously burning, boiling, and melting. But those people beside me, in whatever line or shape it may have been, and who would just as soon depart from my company, came to mean so much more than my suffering. You came to know their minds, how they’d react, and learn them more intimately than in their more prepared, composed selves in the hallway.
Having to march around in perfect form, while playing memorized music and nailing memorized points on the field, without hitting anyone but yet always watching everywhere near and far at once, and for goodness’ sake staying in tempo during movement 3…! That tends to lower one’s defenses.
In breaking you down, it lets people see you, and builds you up.
Eight to five: the long hours of the day spent dedicating yourself to practice; or the ratio of steps to yards that standardizes and synchronizes hundreds of people into uniformed movement and sound.
If I had but one moment to describe the camaraderie, cooperation, perspiration, perseverance, and friendship of being in a marching band, and suffering through summer band camp in particular; if I had one phrase to capture all of these experiences, I know what it would be:
“Trumpets suck, and trombones rule.”
Side note: I chatted with one of the waitresses at Manuel’s Tavern yesterday while I was there for at Atlanta Skeptics meetup. She served us when we piled into Manuel’s after the big Sunday Assembly at the end of the conference in May. She recognized me from high school and asked if I had played in the marching band!
So beware. We are among you, and we will toot our own horns if necessary.
* (Go Tech)