By Sarah White
Forward Marching Band at the Orton Park Festival, August 2021, Madison Wisconsin
In the 1960s, a high school stood behind our house in Carmel, Indiana, separated from our yard by a chain link fence. Beyond the fence was the high school parking lot, and beyond that a building that was constantly being expanded to hold the bulging Baby Boom. Its paved surfaces waited for me like open roads. I learned to roller skate, bicycle, skate-board, and eventually drive there.
Up and down that parking lot flowed life. Crowds came to football games on October nights. Families came to pageants at Christmas. Early spring snow locked the fans in the stadium many a time during the boys’ basketball tourney. But the most intrusive element of the school’s life on ours was the marching band.
Every year in early summer, the Carmel High School Marching Greyhound Band started practicing for the Indiana State Fair Band Day competition held in August. Thirty or forty teens drilled in that parking lot. Each year, the band would learn a three-minute show piece and marching routine designed to win the competition. They would practice every morning, going over the piece of music while marching the show routine, the sound dopplering back and forth. When they added two-a-day rehearsals by midsummer, the approaching and retreating music accompanied our supper as we ate on our screened back porch.
Shouts echoed across our back fence from the band director, Mr. Loveall, through his ever-present megaphone: “Come on, don’t be a Mickey Mouse band! March 8 to 5! Guide down your lines! Take it from Letter B!” Band music is the only type of live music performance where the players don’t have to worry about being too loud. This barrage of sound was maybe 20 yards from our back door.
After dinner I’d join my friends, a pack of half a dozen little girls from Audubon Drive. In summer 1962 I was the most recent one to master riding a bicycle—I would have been about five years old. We’d pedal around to the high school parking lot where the band was practicing. That summer, we had a mission.
Back then, majorettes—ours were known as the Carmel Coquettes—carried pompons made of tissue paper streamers. These shed strips as the girls practiced their synchronized gestures. With the perfect faith of children, we believed we could make our own pompons if we just collected enough of the fallen tissue strips. To catch them, we would circle on our bikes at one end of the parking lot and wait for the band to pass. Then, like birds after crumbs, we would dart in to pick up tissue fragments, leaning around the handlebars of our bicycles until the band reversed and approached again.
One day I failed to notice the band returning. Abandoned by the other little girls, I was suddenly engulfed, swallowed by a pattern without a space in it for me. Trombones jutted, trumpets blared, drums banged, and the sousaphones’ huge toothless mouths gaped at me. I howled with fear and embarrassment. There was my little blue bike and me, drowning in a scary noisy sea.
First the Coquettes and then the rows of instruments passed. The way I remember it, they actually went through me as if my bike and I were made of air, not steel and flesh. Not an eye turned left or right; not a hand reached down to steady me; somehow their marching feet varied from the designated pattern the minimum necessary to return to formation as soon they passed the obstacle that was me.
Why not stop and comfort a crying child? Because theirs was a serious business. In the middle of the 20th century, a high school marching band was the most visible manifestation of school spirit and carried the burden of the whole town’s pride. They had their eyes on the prize and that was winning the State Fair competition.
Had the drum major who led the band even noticed me? If he had, what could he have done? A band doesn’t turn on a dime. On the other hand, what kind of person doesn’t notice a marching band coming? I only know I haven’t changed. If one thing holds my attention nothing else can break through.
I have recently discovered the activist marching band movement, where former marchers piratically riff on the regimentation of traditional marching bands. They tend to be community-based and collectively-organized. They turn out for protests and street fairs. They dress in thrift-shop uniform bits and pieces. They make music, and out of music make a community, and out of that, bring a measure of joy to the angry business of protest. Their brassy volume demands our attention–just like the high school bands do, but for a very different goal.
When Portland, Oregon’s March Fourth Marching Band played a local summer music festival, they had me at first squeal. Dancing to their raucous brass sound, my early childhood trauma of being run over by a marching band was finally healed.
Our Madison, Wisconsin version, the Forward Marching Band, formed in 2011 in response to the epic protests surrounding our newly-elected governor’s regressive agenda. I seek them out and the spectacle never fails to delight me. If I knew how to play a band instrument, by golly I think I’d join them.
(© 2021 Sarah White