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Friday
May202011

And Now the Company Jumps

Friday, May 13

I'm sitting side by side in a campus sports bar with the 2011 Ohio State University Marching Band Drum Major, and he has asked for my assistance. 

"I can't make out what this says," Jason Stuckert tells me, pointing to one of of the score sheets that confirmed his title. He has seen my handwriting, and has turned to me as his Indecipherable Scrawl Rosetta Stone.

Heads bent over the table, we decipher "snap."  "'Good snap,'" I tell him, in reference to his ramp entrance from Tuesday afternoon.  He nods, for this is in no way news to him, and turns to the next one.  This says: "WHAT THE HELL?  How can you NOT give this a 15?!"  in the highest scoring block of the twirling section.  Two judges have awarded him perfect scores across the board.  He has put together perhaps the two greatest tryout performances, back to back, that the program has ever seen. 

And then he had class on Wednesday morning.  At the moment Jason is halfmindedly tossing down a can of Vanilla Coke, an indulgence back in his life now that he has officially established himself as a two-termer. 

"Look at this," Jason says suddenly, and I follow his gaze to the enormous flatscreen on the back wall which perpetually broadcasts ESPN.  The entire bar has stopped to appreciate the Not Top 10, and we both fall silent to comprehend the majesty of a woman's softball player garner an inside-the-park home run by plonking the ball about four and a half feet from home plate.

I watch him enjoy the Epic Fail flickering in the semidarkness before us, his face exactly like that of a twenty-year-old college male's consuming irony, and then, because his face is exactly like that of a twenty-year-old college male's consuming irony, I swing my head away fast.  I am a nightmare poker player; a failure of a politician; a constant, pending collapse of a negotiator-- all because I have never learned to veil raw emotion with a placid expression.  And it's not cool to inflict raw emotion on a twenty-year-old college male in the middle of SportsCenter.  But, well, there it is.  A Friday afternoon and schadenfreude and there it is.

It's there because Jason has room for this now, the Vanilla Coke and the SportsCenter and Being Twenty.  He has room for quiet.  He is tired, and for the first time lets me see him be tired, and in the three instances we spend time together from the end of tryouts until I leave Ohio again, we sometimes go several minutes sitting together without talking.  I let this happen. 

I have the water on the glass, after all, and whatever is going to flicker past us next.

Tuesday, May 10

I cannot believe this isn't broadcast on ESPN.  And I do mean ESPN.  No ESPN 2 or ESPNU or Versus for Drum Major tryouts.  These people should get primetime, basic cable, Goodyear Blimp treatment, and I see maybe one camera from the local ABC affiliate, which, local broadcasts being what they are, probably has a viewership measurable only with an electron microscope.  For shame, world.

But they'd probably ruin it anyway. They'd probably ship in, as expert color commentators, Danica Patrick and Keith Olbermann, with Rob Dibble to anchor, and maybe as a nod to common sense they'd interview Josh Halter The Supposedly Subdued on the sidelines, but that interview would go like this:

ROB DIBBLE:  ...And that is an in-depth exploration of all the apps I downloaded to my iPhone in the past week.  Let's for absolutley no reason put Danica Patrck on your television screen.  There she is on the crapper.  Now Keith Olbermann is going to turn a metaphorical sphere inside out without tearing it by talking to another human being who actually makes sense and has relevance to this broadcast.  Keith?

KEITH OLBERMANN:   Rob, I'm standing here with 2008-09 Ohio State Drum Major Josh Halter.  Mr. Halter, what will the judges be looking for from the candidates in today's competition?

JOSH HALTER:  The--

KEITH OLBERMANN:  I'm tired of listening to a voice which is not my own.  Can you cut this guy out of the shot, please?  Thank you... No, I don't want the incumbent Drum Major warming up in the background, either, nobody cares...  Get rid of the retching blonde too.  Tight on me.  That's better.  Now I will discuss the many ways in which the aerials portion competition discriminates against Asians and the blind.

...And so on. But if you want to do it right, and avoid pissing everybody off, you need Paul Anka in the anchor's chair; Matt The Badass with the sideline interviews; and Josh Halter delivering 45-minute soliloquies on the precise angle of a proper left foot toe point while thinking about preparing to strut, complete with charts, graphs, photographs, 3D animation, and a complete annotated bibliography.

PAUL ANKA:  ...Y’understand that? This is like football, baseball, like anything else. That’s Just. The F-ing. Way. It Is!  Matt Berndsen, put me some f-ing knowledge in here.

MATT THE BADASS:  Okay, so this-here disgrace to the program isn't dragging one single entrail.   

MATT THE BADASS:   Last time I tried out, I did it with no head.  I'm just saying.

PAUL ANKA: Don't make a f-ing maniac out of me. 

Actually, now that I think of it, some things are just better live.

4:08 PM:  This band doesn't even exist yet and we're already simpatico.  Start time was 4 PM.  I'm just now running in from the parking lot with damp hair and nothing to take notes with but my own blood, but all I've missed is A-Band practicing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which, as it will be played ten times today, might be considered unnecessary.  Not here.  Even the crowd weariness is rehearsed.  That's what makes Ohio State bands good.

4:09 PM:  Claudia The Campus Sister is trying out for the final time.  This afternoon will see maybe 3, 4 years worth of work boil down to about five minutes worth of performance. 

"Are you doing okay, MB?" she asks as she sees me walk past.  "Are you feeling all right?"

"Hey!  Great!  I'm half in the bag. Or at least I should be," I answer, slinging an arm over her shoulders.

The contestants drew numbers for the order of performance, all except for Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major, who, as the incumbent, retained the right to name his gate.  He'd chosen to go first.  Claudia has drawn the tenth position. 

"I'm glad!"  she says brightly.  "No really!  I'm very happy to go last."   Claudia could look on the up side of her own autopsy.

Later, I asked Jason why he chose to perform before the other competitors-- to bear the most spectator tension, endure the strictest contestant scrutiny, have the least amount of time to warm up pre-ramp, and possibly even risk lower scores if his performance faded in the judges' minds after the seventh, eighth, or ninth person to throw the same tricks. 

"I wanted to scare them," he said, not smiling.

4:10 PM:  Matt The Badass sighting.  He just keeps on walkin'.  He's got himself some to cheetahs to strangle with his bare hands and he don't need no hello hugs from nobody.

4:14 PM: Jason's ramp.  Oh, we're going to hear "Buckeye Battle Cry" ten times today, too, and we are going to like it.  Several other contestants are clustered behind me, totally not watching Jason except for when they are because they are not, in fact, watching.  He begins by marking time in the endzone. He's the only one all day to do so, and this sets up a murmur.  

It's not a low backbend, but it's solid, and I don't know it at the time, but this is the most nervous he's going to be all day.  The ramp entrance is worth fifty percent of the entire score.  Strut, twirl, goalpost toss, no problem, your so-called "ramp challenge" bores me, I will require one slightly warmed white towel and a bottle of chilled Vignette chilled to precisely 5.8 degrees Celsius in my dressing room.  He has, after all, done this a few times.

"You're more flexible than what you showed out there," I said to him later in the week.  "I know you are."

"You're right.  I can get down farther."

"Then why didn't you?"

"It was far enough.  In the stadium, that's as low as I have to get with the hat on."   

...Oh.

4:28 PM:  The ramp entrance is, in terms of Olympic ice dancing (and everything can be placed in terms of Olympic ice dancing), the compulsory dance.  Everybody uses the same music, performs the same steps, and throws the same tricks.  Aside from the differences in the height and stability of the backbends, there's not much difference to the untrained eye. 

That doesn't mean it's easy.  Contestants have collapsed doing this shiznit, mid-tryout.  I'm about to, and I'm just watching it. 

4:31 PM:  One of the sets of trained eyes is Josh Halter's. I've picked him out on the sideline, pile of scoresheets in hand, writing with great intent, and, somewhat hilariously, wearing a stick-on nametag like the rest of the judges, as though he were at the world's tensest and least musically mixed cocktail party.  There are more judges than contestants, in fact, spread out along twenty yards or so, and I cannot imagine what this is like for him--last year at this time, he was standing here watching to see who would become his immediate successor.  Now?  HELLO MY NAME IS JOSH. 

4:38 PM:  I'm sorry, but this is like watching somebody try to remove a splinter using one of those giant claw game booths.  The Ohio State fight song is blaring live to the square root of 100 from the middle of the Ohio State campus to a bunch of people who kind of like Ohio State, or at the very least are sending bazillions of dollars to it in the form of tuition or student loans, and under pretty much any other circumstances you could barely even make out A-Band under the screaming and sing-alonging.  But, I mean, the person next to me dared to tap his hand on the ground along with the beat and the whole entire crowd, every single judge, all ten contestants, and quite possibly the entirety of A-Band just turned and shot him this look like, "Do you mind?"

4:42 PM:  I glance over my shoulder; Jason is behind and to my right, practicing his twirling routine.  He releases a high toss and turns to catch it behind his back. 

4:42:01 PM:  ...THUD

4:42:02 PM:  I whirl back around.  For the rest of the afternoon, I face front.  I don't care if David Gandy is directly behind me, stripping to Men Without Hats.  I don't want to know what's going on back there.

4:48 PM:  While waiting to kick off the twirling section, Jason is chatting with Shelley Graf, Ohio State's first female Drum Major.  They are laughing.  What a lovely day to just kind of stand around on this fake-grass field.  He is totally, utterly, completely calm. 

Me?  Won't eat for another 72 hours.

4:49 PM:  A few seconds in, Jason executes a back tuck that he'd been working on for some time and was still struggling to perfect three weeks before tryouts.  When I showed a video of it to Josh The Pilot, he said, umprompted, "That's a pretty good back tuck right there.  Look how he pulls that."

He stopped, looked forlornly at me, and added, "I used to be able to do that."

You should know that Josh, who made the Baltimore Ravens mixed-species cheerleading squad, is rather an aficionado of the back tuck.  He has exactly two Drunken Mayhem stories from college, and one of them involves performing a back tuck in a hotel room.  (The other has him falling asleep under a beer pong table.  I am not entirely sure Josh did college correctly.)  Jason throws his back tuck his sober, in time to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and with the eyes of Action 6 News upon him.

"Watch," Josh told me, rewinding the video.  "This is harder than it looks.  He's not crouching or swinging forward for momentum or anything.  He's just standin' there.  That's pure abs.  I mean he just rips it."

...Oh.

4:51 PM:  If you'd like to know how the rest of the routine went for Jason, listen to the woman standing about a yard and a half to my right, here to root for... somebody else.

"Who was that?" she said as he ran off the field. 

That's your doom.

5:05 PM:  ...And now the batons have started to drop.  This is where we separate the Jasons from the mortals, but it's not just about the no-drops.  I could make an entry into the competition by running in a circle for two minutes waving the baton over my head and have a no-drop day (although... no guarantees.)  It's the quality of the twirling between the tricks, it's the risk-taking, it's the ability to avoid inspiring the crowd to gather rocks and other small projectiles.  That's a lot to do before A-Band is done backing your tired ass.

They're all, at minimum, making an entirely respectable stab at this.  I drop my notebook, as a matter of fact, because all I'm writing is "I COULD NEVER DO THIS IN A HILLION JILLION YEARS."  Also "I AM GOING TO SPEW."

5:17 PM:  So here's this person named Kyle West.  We've not met.  I haven't seen him twirl, I haven't seen him banging around the Field House with D-Row, I haven't seen him looking at me, as all others do, with fear and pity.  But with his first high toss in the twirling performance, the crowd goes "Ooooohhhhh!" 

I have a feeling that I am about to meet Kyle West.

5:28 PM:  I used to like this song.

5:29 PM:  I really did.  You know I loves me my 40's swing.  But now, forevermore, I will hear that trumpet lead-in, see falling batons, feel nauseated, and give it to God. 

5:33 PM: Ariels.  Everybody gets five tosses.  No music, very little crap in between.  You chuck the stick, you better not go anywhere in the meantime, and you can club a kitten with a polar bear cub while it's up in the air, whatever... but you had better catch it.

But the underlying tension here isn't just about the ability to put a hand on the pointy metal object whizzing back to Earth like a ballistic (but jazz-hands!) missile.  It's to avoid "chasing the baton," or drifting to the left or right after the toss. 

That's not just a matter of looking real pretty.  The Drum Major will have a rather enormous fast-moving band on either side during a performance, and inaccurate high tosses could wipe out entire rows of trumpets. 

5:35 PM: Jason later described this section as whizzing by incredibly fast, to the point where he doesn't even remember it clearly, but according to my watch entire geologic ages passed between tosses.  Sometimes he'd wind up.  Sometimes he'd simply pass the baton behind his back.  But always he'd catch it, and always he was having the most marvelous time.  Meanwhile I was vomiting things I'd eaten when Just the Ten of Us was still on the air.

5:37 PM:  Bow to your partner.  Bow to your corner.  Jason Stuckert, quite literally Candidate #1, is done and this is now officially about the assistant position.  Behind him, A-Band is delivering a standing ovation.  I'm also fairly certain there was a Blue Angels flyover, a Department of Defense Pass in Review, and an Olympic Torch run-by, but I need to check the tape before you quote me on that.

5:57 PM:  Ed Crockett, OSU grad, i-dotter, and official Band photographer (there's an official Band photographer) wanders past and offers me a preview of some action shots he's taken.  All ten candidates, mid-air, are having better hair days than I did on the day of my marriage.  It's sick.

6:10 PM: I've been warned by multiple people since January that addition of the scores would take a while, that it took a while when there were three candidates, let alone enough to conduct a full-on regulation basketball game. A-Band begins to play "I Wanna Go Back to Ohio State" and for good measure swings into its medley performance from the Spring Game.  I'm thinking this probably isn't enough material to hold the crowd until the results come in.  They're going to need something a shade longer, like The Ring Cycle, or the album version of "American Pie."

6:20 PM:  Apparently an adding machine, an abacus, and enormous heavy Bob Cratchit-style ledger books were involved.  But rumors are flying that... this year?  For 2011?  A computer

I still don't trust this intelligence, and even then imagine punch cards and green and white striped paper with tear-off edges, so I wander up to Josh Halter for a conversation as everyone begins to gather for the results.  But no, they're actually announcing the results, and I retreat immediately from the people who actually have something to do with this.

6:21 PM:  Kyle West?  Buckle up.

6:22 PM: Forty-eight hours from now, I will meet Jason for dinner, and he will get in my car, and I will say, "Hey, what's going on?  Any big news lately?" and he will shrug, answering, "I'm the Drum Major." 

...Oh.

Because, yeah, this is a big deal, but it's one he closed entirely on his own terms, and SportsCenter is on.  Move along.

I'll have more to say on this, especially about the other candidates, but this is now running up into Preakness coverage and I haven't been hydrating.

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