This New Year’s Day marked the fortieth anniversary of my marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena California with my High School band. I was reminded of this by several posts commemorating the 1976 event on one of my hometown facebook sites. We traveled across the country from my hometown of Lakewood, NJ and spent two weeks practicing and living with families of band members in the Lakewood California area.
We were, at the time, the second largest band in the history of the parade. We joined together with three other bands from the Southern California communities of Artesia, Mayfair, and Lakewood, our sister city. Our band uniforms were blue and white. The California marchers wore red uniforms. We marched in alternate colors and were billed as “Lakewood USA” in honor of the upcoming Bicentennial celebration.
I was a four-year member of the Marching Piners, although I still have no idea what a Piner is. It even gets a red squiggly line as I type this in Word. I can only assume it was the name was characteristic of the typical lack of imagination in American public education. Our fight song was stolen from the University of Wisconsin and our school song, if you can believe it, was a bunch of sappy lyrics sung and played to the old standard, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.
Love is a Battlefield
For four years we battled our rival high school, Toms River South, on Thanksgiving Day. They had a much better football team than we did, but our bands were both pretty evenly matched. What I was unaware of at the time, was that my future wife was also on the field that day marching in the band front for the hated Indians. It’s possible that we might never have paired up had we met in high school rather than college. What made it even more horrifying is that she twirled a gun. Now, I come from a long line of pinko pacifists. When she brought that fake gun into our home, I told her it was the gun or me.
“But you still have your saxophone,” she said.
“How is that the same thing? I still play. Do you still twirl?”
“No, but it has meaning to me. What if one of our kids—”
“Our kids? Are your out of your mind? No one was ever killed by a saxophone!”
“It’s made of wood. No one was ever killed with this, either.”
“A swastika is made of cloth. You don’t see any of those around here, do you?”
“You are psychotic, you know that?”
A few years later, I found it hidden in the attic. Who’s the psycho, now?
As a freshman, I had no expectations for marching band. I was in a squad of three other saxophones led by a senior named Larry, who was the older brother of a friend of mine on the drum line. I didn’t realize it at the time, but band was a wonderful place where class standing meant very little. While my non-band friends were cast aside as “pissant freshmen”, I frequently hobnobbed with many upperclassmen. I even socialized among them occasionally.
Our Band Director, Frank Unger, was in his last year before retirement. He was a legend locally and in the state, having had my mother and two aunts in the band decades earlier. I was saddened to hear that Mr. Unger passed away only a few months ago well into his nineties. We only had one period of Marching Band per week and rarely rehearsed on weekends or after school. Still, we did a completely different show at each football game. That’s right, new music and new formations every week.
On Monday, we were given charts that showed where we were supposed to be on the field at various points in the music. It was up to us to work out how we got there. The squad leader would take us where we needed to be and worked out any collision detection with the other squads. We did this while learning new songs nearly all arranged and mimeographed by Mr. Unger. I would learn later what a monumental undertaking this was, but I just assumed that this was typical.
Our uniforms included a large overlay with a big “L” on it. It was belted at the bottom and was made of some sort of faux leather, colored white. The overlay was noteworthy due to its utility in holding small bottles of alcohol, which came in handy during the cold of late season games. I did not partake, but Blackberry Brandy was a band favorite. The small, flat, rectangular bottle distilled by Mr. Boston fit perfectly behind the overlay. The band also had several cheers which would result in expulsion, or at least several months of counseling if uttered in a public high school today.
All three of our kids were in the marching band and all three played the saxophone like their father (Take that, Miss rifle squad). Unfortunately, they felt that their accomplishments outshine any that their parents could have possibly accomplished. They too, had one show every year. They were unimpressed with the variety of my freshman year. They did, however go to many competitions and won or placed in most.
My oldest lost a competition by a tenth of a point, something that plagues her to this day. They did a show about West Side Story. When I went to the post-Band Camp show, I was blown away by the intricacy of the mambo number. They also formed a Jet and a shark on the field. They wuz robbed, plain and simple.
While my oldest’s big trip was to Indianapolis, the other two played in parades in London. The problem is that they think this makes them the cat’s ass.
“The Tournament of Roses is called ‘The Granddaddy of Them All’. What else needs to be said?”
“But we went to London.”
“So? If someone from London came here and marched in say, the Orange Bowl parade does that make it better? What part of ‘granddaddy ‘and ‘them all’ do you not understand?”
“But we went to London.”
I did not realize how fortunate we were until my sophomore year when we had a new, young director come in who was a devotee of something called “The Big Ten” style. To be fair, we did have to memorize our music rather than using a lyre, which did raise the bar a bit. It wasn’t as hard as you might think when it became obvious that we would repeat the same show every week. That’s right, the same show. I learned a valuable lesson about education. Students will try to attain whatever goals you set forth and lowering the bar is always bad. We also got lighter new uniforms that year, which really cut down on the alcohol consumption.
Fortunately, that Director was fired at the end of the year for having some sort of physical altercation with a student. In my junior year, our new Band Director came in with a new style, that of the drum and bugle corps. This included a higher level of music and more movement, but I was still not happy. This year, we started out with barely a third of a show. We actually added the pieces over the course of the season. I just did not find it very challenging.
The one improvement in my last two years was the addition of marching band competitions. My brother was drum major when I was a junior. The competitions were not fun because of our performances. Quite frankly, we stunk. I don’t recall ever placing. But I did like the travel and seeing some of the more talented bands. Also, as junior, I received a lot of attention from the younger girls who were often left lightheaded breathing the rarefied air of the upperclasses.
At some point during my junior year, the plans to possibly go to Pasadena began to take shape. Overall, it was kind of a nightmare to plan and to fund. I sold a lot of band candy. There was even a threat of an airline strike that potentially could ground us at the last minute. Eventually, we were all approved and made out way to California.
Orange County was still pretty conservative back then, and we had trouble finding housing for our African-American band mates. I stayed in a house with a blue-collar family and found it to be quite an interesting experience. Most of the time however, we marched…and marched…and marched some more. You would think that marching in a parade would be pretty simple. Stay in your row, start with your left foot, and well, that’s about it. The practice was primarily to build up stamina.
Righting a 36 year wrong
In January of 2009, my son marched in the Inauguration Parade for Barack Obama’s first term. This was an important event for our family as it erased a stain that has darkened our lives for thirty-six years. My wife, who also has claimed to be unimpressed by my trip to Pasadena, would usually throw her credentials in my face.
“I marched in the Inauguration Parade,” she’d say.
“For Nixon? You marched in our nation’s capital, carrying a gun, for Richard Nixon?”
“I wasn’t even old enough to vote.”
“Viet Nam? Watergate? Do these mean nothing to you?”
“Watergate was later.”
“No, he only got caught later. How do you sleep at night?”
“You are psychotic, you know that?”
I’m so proud that my son was able to in some small way remove some of the shame that my wife should have felt.
The Tournament of Roses Parade is over nine miles long. I would be carrying a baritone sax strapped around my neck. They go for about fifteen pounds, and I was about 150 at the time. The television cameras are by a turn in the road about a quarter mile into the parade. I guess they want you fresh for the folks at home. After the cameras, you turn and head pretty much straight for nine more miles. What made it worse is that we were marching toward a mountain that was much larger than anything we had in New Jersey. It seemed like we had to be near the end, but the mountain never got any bigger.
We were the last band in the parade. You may wonder why this was significant. No one had ever mentioned to us that there are nearly 200 horses in the Tournament of Roses. That results in a significant amount of horse crap. We were told not to break ranks for any reason, including fresh fertilizer. It was even less pleasant than the distance. Still, most of us made it safely and returned home as momentary heroes.
I rarely think about my marching career unless I’m arguing with my kids who apparently think their generation invented it along with everything else. I’m glad some of my classmates and bandmates took the time to post about it. It was a nice trip down memory lane…without any of the horse crap.
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