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Does Paul Anka See Where Matt The Badass is Coming From, With The Integrity?  

Matt The Badass and I have a hot date at Applebee's.  We also have a chaperone.  In Josh The Supposedly Subdued One's car, at eight-thirty in the evening, it's surprisingly quiet, especially considering that the inhabitants are two drum majors and an MFA who, when threatened by the presence of fellow human beings, retreats to her natural defense mechanism of randomly stringing together nouns and verbs in the great, false hope of entertaining people into withstanding her.  Then we turn a corner and there's an empty field with an empty flagpole and Josh points to it and says, with sudden violence, "I hate.  This field."

"I have a love-hate relationship with this field," Matt announces from the backseat.

"I just hate it.  I'd get so mad.  I'd be concentrating on getting a trick, and get frustrated, and the wind would whip past that flagpole..." 

From the backseat issues a helpful approximation of the hateful sound of the flagpole.  Matt knows.  Their performance lives were often ruled by absolute noise or the absence thereof--the utter silence of an aerial routine during tryouts, the thunderstorm of the bass drums drowned by the hurricane force of the 100,000 people in Ohio Stadium.  And so small-to-medium noises, the ones which go unnoticed by you and me and other mortals of the realm, stand to register as unnerving to an Ohio State Drum Major hovering between practice and performance:  Boos from the capacity Michigan crowd so loud they can't even hear the trumpets playing their own fight song?  Screw it, we have a band to lead.  But the clanking of a rope and metal while I'm trying not to drop this whirling stick directly in the path of some vital organ... what was that?  WTF, flagpole? 

The flagpole sits in smug domination over a field where members of D-Row often practice.  The light we've been sitting at changes and the car is moving again, but I sit still, knowing that Josh and Matt are speaking ostensibly to one another but with full awareness of the outsider in the passenger seat, and I will take whatever they are willing to offer me, everything they remember or hate or love-hate.  If I have learned nothing else about writing research-heavy books in the past two months, it is this: Shut up.  You idiot.

"The other day, when it was kind of warm?"  Matt the near-graduate is saying, "I was like, 'Oh, I better practice.'  So I got all the way out here with my baton, and then I realized I didn't have to."

Josh's murderous intentions towards the field have abated somewhat.  "Whenever I go past at certain times, I look for batons in the air," he says.

Matt refers to this phenomenon of a large yellow ball of gas in the sky temporarily disrupting the normal course of wretched Ohio temperatures as "tryout weather."  For there is no winter and summer on D-Row.  There is tryout weather, and there is football season.  For the rest of their lives, maybe, even if the moment passes in less than a moment, the first 65 degree day of the year will mean "Go practice, if you want this" and the mugginess of August commands another stamina workout.  Even though they no longer have to.

This close in, the life of Ohio State drum majoring has stamped itself all over their iPods. Josh announces that his current favorite track shows maybe 25 plays.  An Mp3 of a band song he used to practice to?  Over six thousand.

"...And then you feel guilty," Matt is explaining, "if you listen to anything else, even if you don't have a baton in your hand.  In the car, while you're walking to class.  It's all you hear."

The waitress in the restaurant slides me a menu on one side of the booth, then dumps the other two across the table.  Matt and Josh file in, former Drum Major, former Assistant, and face me, hands folded on the table, like vice presidential candidates in a PBS debate.  This makes me highly uncomfortable.  I tell them so.  They claim to have merely followed the menus.

Well, there's protocol, and then there's a natural inclination to create order.  Assistant Drum Majors do lead Script Ohio, when it's part of a football post-game show, or, more commonly, when band splits in half and the formation is performed as a mirror image-- as you can see here, where Jason and Matt  tear it up (as much as one can tear up a perfectly timed Precision Exposition) at the 2011 Sugar Bowl. I say this as the wife of an identical twin:  These Double Scripts are utter parallel masterpieces. It is the matching sock pair of the college marching band realm, and never, never shall it come out of the dryer one Drum Major short. 

For Matt, drum majoring began in chaos:  Although a native of Columbus, he never thought that much about it until his father dragged out his own baton, gave it a whirl, and proceeded to destroy a ceiling fan.  Matt took up the sax and, in high school, his own baton.  The Reign of Badassery had begun.

When Matt became Josh's Assistant--unseating the current holder of the office-- he was measured for a red and white uniform exactly like that of his mentor's.  That meant, depending on his role in pre-game or post-game shows, sometimes he looked like this, and sometimes he looked like this (only that's not Matt in the Assistant's uniform on the far right in this picture--it's Josh--and eagle-eyed The Readers get a one-day free subscription to Blonde Champagne if they can positively ID any other Certain People we may have previously met.)  While battling malevolent  forces of nature with the Ohio State University Spring Band, of course, Matt looked like this

But the first time he stood in the uniform, the same one he'd been striving to wear in all those years of toil and vomit-mopping on D-Row, it was... well, kind of weird, actually.

"You look in the mirror," he told me, "and it's that uniform, and then... your face."  And even though Matt has worn some form of an OSUMB uniform for years, there is awe in that face now across the table.

Maybe it's the ceiling fan, maybe it's the lack of a decent beach bar in Columbus, but it is virtually impossible not to like Matt Berndsen.  If you meet Matt and you have a problem with him, I would bet this-here entire sleeve of Peeps on my desk that the problem is with you, and it's an utterly undiagnosable one.  Matt is the Type O negative of people:  He'll get along with anybody.  He'll get along with Joan Crawford, Ghandi, Donald Trump, Fidel Castro, Whoopie Goldberg, Russel Crowe, the Pope, Charlie Daniels, Rebecca Black, Hillary Clinton, Satan, and the drum major of Michigan State, and he will do it simultaneously

It's difficult to explain.  It's not at all that Matt is an unreasonably happy person, inordinately happy, like one of those horrible, constantly smiling idiots down the pew who has never gazed upon a picture of genocide victims without saying, "Well, isn't it nice that they've had a chance to lose a little weight!"  Matt is quick to laugh and radiates follow-me-to-this-epic-party energy, and yet he in no way throws off the roofie-tastic aura of a hedonistic frat boy.  At the same time, nor does he stray near the super-excited obnoxious Self Esteem Motivational Positive Personal-Talk Maximization crapstorm pouring out of every boardroom, class meeting, and book club in the world.  He has an edge without being, exactly, edgy.  You would immediately tag along with Matt to a kegger, but at the same time have absolutely no qualms that he would drop you off anything less than fully sloshed but also fully clothed at the end of the night.  He is either one of the best people I have ever met or posesses some of the best sleight of character game I have ever seen--and people, I used to work in politics

This is what I mean: The first time I sat in on training sessions, I was hovering near Matt, who was snapping the cadence to "Buckeye Battle Cry" as he and Stew nursed their charges through strutting practice.  Snap, snap, snap, snap, back and forth down the practice field without coming anywhere remotely near losing the cadence.  At one point a high schooler nervously approached him.

STUDENT:  ...Um.... Matt?

MATT:  (still snapping)  What's up.

STUDENT:  Is... it okay... if... can I go to the bathroom?

ME:  (trying valiantly, and failing miserably, not to laugh)

MATT:  (with sincere gravity and concern for his fellowman...and still snapping)  Sure.

STUDENT:  (runs off)

MATT:  (...still snapping, makes brief eye contact, manages to look both amused and reproachful in exactly the same second, moves on with life, still snapping)

This is also what I mean:  Matt's major is hospitality management, which, to a person who has lived in Orlando for more than five minutes, is akin to majoring in Roman Empire Galley Slave Rowing Studies.  I asked him how he came to this, and it was, as it happens, a matter of narrowing and narrowing and narrowing until he found a way participate in the business world and still spend as much time with other people as possible.  I will repeat that.  MATT WANTS TO SPEND AS MUCH TIME WITH OTHER PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE.  ON PURPOSE.  FOR A LIVING.  

But you know what?  With Matt?... I see it.  I really do.  He pulls this off.  He'll be the Sam Malone of Columbus, running the coolest, friendliest, most get-better bar in town, tooling around I-71 in a 'Vette, being his own Roadhouse bouncer and nailing photos of various self-created Script Ohios on the red brick walls. 

This is also what I mean:  Earlier in the evening, Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major had ordered his minions-- and, it must be noted, himself-- to a Native American Indigenous Peoples Cardio Drill. Matt was, for the benefit of the students, All About This.  He said, quote, "YAY!" bounded across the fake turf, and set his feet on the track, one in front of the other, eagerly looking back at Jason, 90% totally pumped and 10% not really, but the leadership-sarcasm octane mixture was spot-on, more than enough to take the edge off the task at hand, and for about a second and a half I seriously considered cramming my Vidal Sassooned curls into a ponytail and joining him.

This is also what I mean:  The 2010 version of the Ohio State Marching Band could have been a 225-member chair-stepping disaster.  And in some ways, the ability to make it great or make it Six Months of Charlie Sheen was in the hands of Matt Berndsen.  He had the uniform, he had the respect and affection of his bandmates, and, last year at this time, he had led more Scripts than the freshman he was to serve beneath.  He had it all but the title he'd be reaching towards all this time.  He could think of himself, or he could think of the band he'd already served for three years. 

As a product of the band, he laid aside his own disappointment and reupholstered it with concern for the whole:  The freshmen reserve mellophone player he hadn't even met yet.  The fourth-year sousaphone player dotting the i for the first time.  The rising sophomore marching to his right side at the head of them all, fully cognizent of his responsiblites and looking to the man he'd beaten to help him fulfill them.

Every year, the OSUMB issues an award, Most Inspirational Bandsman.  It is voted upon by the students themselves, and the recipient is offered a vote in the next year's Drum Major tryouts.  Other than extending an invitation to dot the i during Script to a non-sousaphone player, it is the highest honor the band can possibly bestow.  For weeks I assumed that Matt was the 2010 recipient.  He is not.

"But I was voted in the top ten," he said, "and so was Jason.  I figured that meant we were doing something right, as D-row."  Any other person saying this, I would have smacked.  Matt saying this, I signalled the waitress to bring the dessert menus rather than the check, because no, we're not done here.

One of my The Readers suggested an excellent question to pose to Jason, Stew, or Josh, but right now, I ask it of Matt.

"Do you remember all the times you led Script Ohio, or do they all kind of blend together?"

"I remember," he told me, "every single one."

They were all different, he added, and I glanced over at Josh to see him looking at his former assistant with an expression that was on the inscrutable on the whole, but absolutely in part a smile.

On my last night in Columbus, Matt, the senior, the near-graduate, mentioned that he'd like to take in an Ohio State basketball game. "I have never," he said, "seen an OSU sporting event just as a student."  He was always either holding somebody else's hat or his own baton.   And the thing is, if I had a couple hundred thou to drop on sending him there courtside, in a limo driven by an Andretti, by way of Vegas and Monaco, I totally would have and then written him a very pretty thank-you note for the privilege of dumping truckloads of Benjamins in his general direction.  Because band music, these days, is not all he hears-- but he will mark a fresh path through his playlist, and universe will be better for it.

Raise your glass to The Badass, my lovelies.  Watch this combo, but do not look directly at it, as its sheer unadulterated magnificence may permanently damage the eyes:

The names of tricks, and also the coolest game of Twister ever, in order:

Behind the back catch
Under left leg catch
Left hand fake catch
Right blind catch
Backhand butt catch (Matt swears this is what it's actually called, and, perhaps to my own peril, I trust him)

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