Late Summer, 1990. The August sun beat down on the young percussionists, attenuated only by the perpetual altitudinous haze endemic to the area, taxing their body temperature regulation systems to the maximum. Occasional drumsticks and mallets went flying randomly as sweat made its tortuous way down arms and hands, its unexpected lubrication rapidly releasing the musicians’ grips on their instruments. The mallet percussion section, AKA “The Pit (of Despair)” sweltered out on the field, more used to the indoor practice room that served as their normal home at camp. The Atlantic Coast Championships were still months away, but this year was going to be the one.  To the uninitiated, the idea of a competitive marching band may seem strange, nerdy, and a little bit ridiculous.  To these musicians, it was to be life for the next several months.

At Band Camp, most of the time, we spent our days learning and modifying our written parts, then after the first two or three hours, when we had mastered what written parts we had been given that morning and brushing up on the previous days’, jamming on old jazz charts that we found in the school’s music library.

We always had our official parts down cold, and when Gerald or the Big Man caught us jamming and demanded an immediate demonstration, they were satisfied–enough so that Gerald always went back and wrote something even more complex, so our parts were always changing and getting better day by day. 

Karl on the kit, Tom on the marimba, me at the vibes, Tony on miscellaneous mallets, Mike on keyboard and/or bass, and Ayn at the timpani, chimes, and whatever else was called for. We gelled like a well oiled locomotive racing down the tracks to some metaphorical station in the land of improvisation that only the music would eventually describe.  To be fair, we did have it a lot easier, physically, than the marchers, but we made up for our lack of mobility with the complexity of our parts and our performance.

The rest of the marching band, all of whom had been selected specifically by the Big Man for their talent and work ethic, held us in mild disdain, because we didn’t march, and we spent most of our time at Band Camp indoors. Gerald and the Man knew we could do whatever they asked of us, so they spent most of their time with the rest of the band, constantly coaching and honing the marching sections to an incredible competitive machine.  Throughout the upcoming season, the music would become more complex, the competition more fierce, and the band more and more a cohesive unit focused on one thing:  winning.  

At some point, Gerald and the Big Man must have decided we had fucked around enough, and had it too easy (or they were about to experience a mutiny among the marchers), so they put us out on the practice field with the marching percussion section. That morning we hauled our heavy, and definitely not off-road-capable, instruments up the hill from the school and set up for a few hours of practice and perspiration, which the posters in the long hallway between the music wing and the exit assured us was superior to inspiration. Me, I’d always considered Heinlein’s Laziest Man Alive to be the better alternative, but our school and its administrators understood the proper and approved ratios of sweat and genius, and made every effort to enforce them at all costs.

So there we were, out on the practice field, sweating our various interesting parts off, wishing we were back inside jamming like we were only yesterday. The marching percs had a very specific pecking order: Cymbals, Bass, then Snare, with Quads at the top. The newbs started off on cymbal or bass drum, and could be promoted to snare, then, maybe, if they worked their asses off, quads by their Senior year. That year, we had a very, uh, “experienced” bass drum line. Two newbs were balanced by the longest term bass drummers ever in school history. Seniors Hammer and Tommy took great pride in consistency, and clearly had the band’s best interests in mind, ensuring that year after year, the newbs would have the very best example to follow in their formative weeks.

Gerald paced along the sideline, listening and taking notes, sweat pouring down the sides of his head and face, dripping onto his tan, button down short sleeve shirt with pianos or some shit printed on it. We loved Gerald, but damn, his wardrobe was a one trick pony. He stopped the session with a “Great! Take Five,” and the marchers shed their equipment quicker than a house cat on a hot spring day. They wandered off in several directions, mostly toward the school for some A/C and a restroom break.

We, on the other hand, had been beginning to enjoy being outdoors for a change, and after a quick bottle of water, went back to our instruments, striking up our special version of Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk. The rest of the band kind of hated it the previous year, because occasionally we would play it as they marched onto the field at half time, providing a goofy counterpoint to their very crisp and businesslike cadence.

As we were finishing up, we saw Gerald hoofing it back down from the main field, where no doubt he had been holding a major strategy session with The Big Man and the Guard instructors. His goofy linen slacks, looking a bit like parachute pants, flapped around above his sweat-soaked, sock-less Docksiders as he headed our way, in time with our playing. Oh, Gerald.

Gerald came over to us and grinned as he listened. “Sounds great, guys, but watch it this year. Make sure The Man is in a good mood before you pull that during the cadence.”

Narrator: The Man was seldom in a good mood.

The percs were walking up the hill toward us and the practice field, so we grabbed another quick bottle of water, and as they geared up, we arranged our mallets and positioned the sheet music on the stands. Gerald looked out on the field, where everyone was geared up and ready. Except Hammer. And Tommy.

“Anyone know where Tommy and Hammer are?” Gerald asked, addressing everyone.

“Haven’t seen ‘em.” “Nope.” “Didn’t see ‘em inside.”

“Well, we’ll wait for them.”

Five minutes passed.

Gerald turned to us. “You guys were out here the whole time, where’d they go?”

Ayn shrugged. Tony shrugged.  I shrugged. Karl shrugged. Tom shrugged.

“I think maybe they went down toward the parking lot,” Mike chirped up.

“They didn’t drive anywhere, did they?” We weren’t supposed to leave the premises during Band Camp for whatever legal reasons the school district had come up with, so Gerald was really sweating now.

“I don’t think so, I think I see Hammer’s car down there.”

At that moment, we saw a someone start to climb up over the guard rail at the far lower end of the parking lot, at least three hundred yards away at the edge of the woods. Hammer waited for Tommy to climb up too, then they started on their long, plodding way up to the practice field, taking their good old time. They didn’t seem particularly motivated. Hammer and Tommy were known to have an interest in “foreign matter”, but usually didn’t partake on school time, so we weren’t sure what was up.

By this point, Gerald was sweating harder than ever, facing them, pacing back and forth. You could see he was getting ready to unload on them. Second only to the Big Man in his demands for perfection and timeliness, he didn’t like to have his time wasted. “C’mon, get up here, we’ve got work to do!”

Hammer and Tommy picked up the pace, just a tiny bit. As they got close, Gerald started yelling.

“Everyone’s waiting for you! It’s hot, and we’re all out here ready to go! You have to learn to respect other people’s time! What in the hell were you doing down there in the woods anyway? You know you’re not supposed to go off the property!”

They had stopped a couple of yards from Gerald at this point. We had all drawn a bit closer just to hear what was going to happen. We were a bit miffed, but Gerald was lit up.

“What were you doing that was so important that we all had to wait for it out here in the heat?!”

Hammer looked at Tommy. Tommy looked up at Hammer, shrugging.

“Well? What were you doing?”

Hammer shrugged, and very matter-of-factly, said, “Fuckin’.”