• DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    DRINK TO THE LASSES: Notes from a Woman's College Womb
    by Mary Beth Ellis
  • Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers
    Random House Trade Paperbacks
This area does not yet contain any content.
« Discovering | Main | Pre- Ohio State Interviews Novena to St. Francis de Sales, Patron of Writers (minor markups included) »
Tuesday
Feb222011

I Got 99 Problems But a Lack of Drum Majors On The Speed Dial Ain't One

In these violent and troubled times, it is my civic duty to announce that if you, or anyone you know, experience an emergency in which the services of a drum major are needed immediately, I am a valuable national resource.  I consider this an essential aspect of the War on Terror. 

There were certain moments yesterday in which the reality that I was where I was, doing what I was doing, would manifest itself--such as when I noted that the entirety of Saint Mary's campus could fit on the roof of one commuter parking garage, with room left over for Canada. Or when, on a friend's suggestion, I flipped on the car radio to relax my nerves and upper gastrointestinal tract and immediately heard "Le Regiment" blaring from an Ohio State men's basketball ad. Or when I stepped into the second-floor toilet of the Student Union and saw Script Ohio FREAKING TILED INTO THE MOTHERFREAKING WALL, PEOPLE, as in a particularly spirited Roman bath, or your higher-end Disney World cruise ship cabins.  Oh honey, it's a The Ohio State University world and you're just making an illegal turn down a one-way street in it.

When we met yesterday, Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major and I had a discussion about the Baseline of Awesome, which I once in jest directed towards Jillian Michaels for yelling at people who deserve it and now, prompted by a The Reader, officially apply non-ironically to Ohio State's whole entire Drum Major program within its whole entire marching band. 

There was a crystallizing event in which I realized that I have quite publicly just Nestea Plunged myself into a pool of Epic Awesome which I will never quite understand.  For behold:

That's Josh Halter, Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major's predecessor. It was maybe the second video I watched while trying to understand this business of sousaphones and fierce shoulder fringe.  What th-- what the fresh gobsmacked hell was this?  Had he been bought and paid for as a one-man Inaugural Parade?  Was he part of a DOD intimidation campaign, promoting peace through strength and twirling?  What was he doing?

You want to know he's doing?

Here is what Jason The Young told me he was doing: 

Warming.

Up.

Like, as in, "not even really trying."  As in, "just getting started."  As in, DID YOU SEE THAT $%&* AT THE END WHERE HE BENT TIME AND SPACE WITH HIS BATON AND SPUN IT TO THE GROUND AND IT TOTALLY BOUNCED RIGHT BACK UP AT HIM?!

Now what, given Matt's choice of temple and cheek decor, would force an Ohio State Drum Major to hand the scripting reins over to his assistant for a game?

As it happens, something between an Act of Congress and and Act of God.  Jason told me, in awed and wonderful detail, the tale of one of his Lorain County predecessors, who, on the day of a game, was in the freaking hospital with a wicked virus (I'm guessing an unholy hybrid of typhoid fever and the Black Plague) and an IV, which he apparently regarded as some sort of fashion accessory rather than a medical necessity. 

Dude insisted upon trundling to the stadium in an ambulance, waited until the last possible second to disconnect the IV, and took off down the ramp onto the field.  He made his way down to the opposite goalpost, fighting off a desperate need to throw up; lead the band into Script Ohio, throwing up;  hit each mark, still throwing up, most likely in perfect time to "Le Regiment"; and then precisely struck the I-dot position for the sousaphone player with cellular matter from his own bone marrow.  And also by throwing up. So no, beloveds, I am thinking that Jason The Ridiculously Young won't bag off if he's feeling a bit stuffy some Saturday afternoon.

I heard these things, and I was so fascinated, I didn't even feel the need for grain alcohol, the way I usually do while engaged in conversation with another, previously unmet human being.  This seemed to somehow paternally amuse Jason The Ridiculously Young, that I should have such a reaction to these facts of life.  Now that I think of it, many things about me seemed to paternally amuse Jason, such as the announcement that I do not, in fact, actually know what I am doing as I put this book together.  You should have seen his face, when I attempted to explain this aspect of my life's work to him; it was as though he were watching a small child crawl under a laundry basket and yell, "Hey, what do you think of my spaceship?"

He comes by this bewilderment honestly.  Jason descends from a regal line of Drum Major aristocracy.  This has nothing to do with genes and quite a bit to do with Lorain County, which is in Waaaaay the Frack Northern Ohio.  Jason grew up here.  Its main export is Ohio State Drum Majors. Were Lorain County to break off from the United States of America as its own nation, it would never, ever want for halftime entertainment.

And more than that, our Jason is a product of the same high school training camp which he now commands, along with his predecessors. While watching all of them work with their disciples, I saw the stylistic bloodlines of the past several Drum Major eras spooling out like an Old Testament reading:  Greg Eyer who begat Stewart Kitchen who begat Josh Halter and Matt The Badass, all of whom begat Jason The Young, who will beget another in his own image and likeness.

So far, I haven't mentioned Stew much or Josh at all-- much, I imagine, to their immense relief.  I haven't interviewed them yet.  (I imagine, once they hear about my highly professional interview prep techniques, I never will.) But I did meet Mr. Kitchen yesterday, and I must tell you:  Stew is Kind of a Big Deal.  In the modern era of Ohio State Drum Majoring, in terms of raw charisma between man and baton, you are going to be measured on a scale of one to Stewart Kitchen.

Here's what Josh can do when he's done warming up:

Much of what fascinates me about Ohio State's performance style is the fact that--Matt The Badass said this, I think, badassedly--there's no manual I can read, no DVD I can zip through to learn how to do this shiznit.  It's a craft and it's a tough one-- and it's fashioned face to face over months and weeks and hours and hours.  And in an era in which we may achieve 99.99% of information connectivity and social interaction via LCD panel, that is refreshing.  And remarkable.

So the hierarchy still stands even after a Drum Major is released back into the wild when he maxes out a two-year term.  There is little baton brain drain, and I saw even Stew Kitchen busted on by his Reagan-era predecessor, Greg Eyer, who continues to help with the Padawans.

"Ooooohhhh, look at me-- 'I still know something!'" Greg hollered in his direction as Stew half-mindedly tossed of some kind of ridiculously ridiculous trick while just standing around waiting for the Earth to continue turning.

Because yeah, they all have batons in hand, all the time, at these training sessions.  While stretching out, while grabbing water bottles, while stealing the occasional worried glance at the occasionally crying blonde sitting Frappuccinoed and notebooked up in the bleachers... I saw carrying cases, people.  But in the bleachers I stayed, because batons were flying, I bruise easily, and... well.  You see the problem.

Jason was almost never without his baton as he shuttled between his fellow Ohio State students training to become Drum Majors, the Drum Major squad, (more on these lovelies in a moment), the high school students, and me.  At one point he retrieved me from the stands so that I might make the acquaintance of Stew--thus furthering the end times, as we all know--and I held my hand out for it.

"May I?"

I might.  And this thing was so precision-balanced, so simultaneously substantive and lightweight, and so custom-built for Awesomeness that even though I had about as much right to have my hand around it as I do the steering wheel of a Bugatti Veyron, as I stood speaking to Stew, fifteen percent concentrating on the conversation and eight-five percent in High Alert Nausea Control, I occasionally glanced down to find myself rolling it back and forth in my palm, tapping the tip against my instep, and in general yielding to the uncontrollable urge to at least attempt, in my own pathetic way, pure kinetic glory.  And then Jason returned from his Joy and Awesomeness Circuit to reclaim his baton.  And I was sad.  But you know what, I bet it flashed real pretty when I handed it back.

What Jason was doing was, I regret to report to those of you sharing dreams of a bare-knuckled Ultimate Fighting Drum Major Academy, joining forces with Matt The Badass to subject the trainees to a vastly disappointing lack of abuse.  I can't even tell you how far below my expectations this was, this business of calling it a night early not because the black helicopters had shown up to take them back to their mountain-hewn lair, but because it was sleeting outside.

Matt and Jason were unfailingly supportive and encouraging, and in general two utter wastes of carefully controlled badassery.  I got my hopes up a couple times--once, Matt stood them all in a line and made them kick a wall, then walked back and forth to inform them they weren't kicking it properly.  I desperately hoped he would demonstrate, but he did not, possibly out of a grudging respect for the structural integrity of the building.

Then there was a promising drill in which Stew stood several yards down a running track as a few of the younglings strutted for a spell.  Stew clapped a cadence and yelled "Higher!" while Matt jogged alongside, a patient and encouraging chase plane.  In the meantime Jason would be doing things like demonstrating catches, nodding approval, and providing gentle but firm correction.  It was such a letdown.   

And then?  I understood.

With Saved By the Bell:  The Twirling Class released, attention now turned to the Drum Major Training Squad, or D-Row.  This is the pool from which Jason and Matt's successors will one day rise... and even then, it is far from a matter of Stew or Greg or even the band director holding Jason's baton aloft over the Chosen One's head, signifying by the will of Divine Providence that The Drum Major is dead-- long live The Drum Major.  You.  Are going.  To earn it.

With the practice field mostly empty, Jason took to honing his own Feats of Strength, and by his own Standard of Awesome, things weren't going all that well.

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

...that was the sound of the head Ohio State Drum Major becoming frustrated.  What was happening was that he was tossing the baton to freaking Kingdom Come, doing some sort of Cartwheel of Death/flip/instantaneous magnetic pole reversal/one-man performance of Hamlet, and then holding a hand out for what wasn't there.  But even failing to catch the thing, he was approximately nine thousand miles ahead of just about anything I'd seen from anybody else that night.  He was never wildly out of plane from what I saw--I mean, it's not like he was throwing the baton in Columbus and we were then forced to watch it burn up in re-entry over Bolivia--and it looked to me like he was right on the verge of making this maneuver his own particular and favored beeotych, but the more times the trick ended in THUD, the less forgiving of himself he became.

After about five minutes of this, it occurred to me that this is somewhat akin to approximately fifteen of The Readers draping themselves over both shoulders as I attempt whip random phonetic letter groupings into coherent sentences, and so I very deliberately swung my legs over the plastic barrier I'd been leaning against and started walkin'.

Absolutely none of this was lost on Stew Kitchen, who had previously attempted to leave about eight times but was discussing something with a member of D-Row--probably, I don't know, the most efficient manner in which to hurl a baton to Louisville and back--but it was clear that even with his back partially to Jason, he knew very well what was going on with his Learner.

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

(Stew drops his car keys)

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

(Stew puts down his baton in its Baton Cozy)

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

(Jacket slides to the floor)

whhhiiiirrrrr... THUD

(Annnnnnnnnd... The Baton of Stewart Kitchen is unsheathed.)

He worked with Jason for maybe ten minutes, instructing him to use the training remote with the blast shield down, and the THUDS became less frequent-- and at that point I had only known Jason in person for a grand total of maybe five hours, in no way qualifying me to make informed judgements about his state of mind but still WAY longer than many film industry marriages-- but the rigidity in his shoulders and arms were still screaming he was still Not Happy.

It was at this point Greg intervened.  We hadn't been formally introduced, but as I was returning to my proper domain in the stands, he swung into my path.

"Mary Beth.  Hi. I'm Greg.  Welcome."

"Oh, hi!  I'm so glad to meet you.  Listen, I was wondering--"

"So, this display of Jason's-- is this for your benefit, or his own?"

"Well, I wouldn't call it a disp-"

"Because he is tired, and if he doesn't stop it, he is going to get himself hurt."  And with that, he covered the remaining yardage to his protege with all the careful finesse of a particularly pissed-off bear who had just discovered that an offspring had decided that, hey, you know what would be really cool?  Seeing what these human beings with these enormous rifles are up to!

This was all before dinner.

During dinner--for Stewart Kitchen had, at long last, left the building-- I pried the truth about what bloodily happened out of Matt The Badass Drum Major, which I must say was an absolute triumph on my part of journalistic finesse, personal charm, and painstaking but rapid trustbuilding.  Also I turned to him at one point all, "What's up with the bleeding, Matt The Badass?"

Being a total badass, of course, he downplayed The Incident (turns out the correct theory was, as I thought, the one about the rabid wombats.)  Said it was no big deal.  Insisted that Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major is far more a badass than he is.  But you know what, I was sitting next to Matt in a moving vehicle for a few minutes at one point as I (wrongly, mistakenly, blondely) directed him to the wrong parking lot where I'd left my car, and the way he flipped on his windshield wipers?  He did it only in the manner a badass would.

In any case, there were many questions on my part, especially considering proper twirl terminology.  I beg you to remember that I come from the world of figure skating, where ev-er-y-thang, including falling on your ass, bears a graceful and delicately blooming title.  This, for example, is a "split falling leaf jump."  It is truly the sport of refrigerator magnet poetry.

"What's it called when you bend time and space with the baton and spin it to the ground and it bounces right back to you?"

"Ground bounce."

"What's that thing when you toss the baton a bit above your head and keep hitting it at a consistent distance with an open palm?"

"Palm toss."

"What about when you throw it really high and then catch it behind your back?"

"You will never guess."

This enlightening conversation took place in a campus diner.  It was one of those setups in which a table for four has been magically converted into a table for five by shoving an extra chair against the front end.   "Who's gonna sit at the head?" someone said, and we all in unspoken agreement looked at Jason, who sighed the world-weary sigh of a man who wears a heavy crown indeed, and sat.

With us were two members of D-Row, David Who Got My Purse and Nate Who Totally Ignored My Interview Request on Facebook. David is a freshman, and the reason I tell you this is because I'm fairly certain that was a significant factor in sealing his fate of carrying my purse across a rather significant part of campus.  Also he was not present at the moment this decision was made for him.  Matt The Badass (kindly, supportively) handed him the keys to his car with the announcement that I (wrongly, mistakenly, blondely) had left my purse in his trunk, and that this was now his problem.

Our conversation was deadly serious.  This happened only when we actually discussed drum majoring.  At these moments, Jason allowed that yeah, it was lonely at the top, and Matt nodded sagely and was all, New people have no idea, and David added, "Can I have some mustard?  And mayonnaise? And get my chili before the rest of my entree?  Thank you."  For thus are Ohio State Drum Majors born.

We sat there for two and a half hours, and I'm not entirely certain what I ate--lettuce was involved, I think, and Jason had pancakes which I coveted, and Nate had a top-naked pile of... something... on half a bun which I did not, and a terrible person who did not ask for my ID bought me not-impressive sparkling wine in a wine glass instead of a flute, which I suppose would be less of a horror had I been carded.  And I have been in and out of restaurants from the Colorado border to the Gulf of Mexico over the past eighteen months, and it was absolutely the most spectacular meal I have eaten in at least that long.

Outside, I tentatively made my way down the sidewalk behind the four of them when the pleather flats I'd wisely chosen for the occasion were unable to justify their existence, (figure skating term: failure to complete element) and very nearly wiped out about a third of D-Row.  "Do I need," Jason said, as I skidded in his general direction, "to offer my gentlemanly arm?"  And yeah, it's me and my Wal-Mart shoes, so it was necessary. 

Seeing his boss set the example, David offered his arm to Nate, who accepted with tender grace, and also to Matt, but Matt, who don't need nothin' from nobody and in any case was frightening off all remnants of dangerous ice with the sheer burning of his own badassery, walked on his own. Even so, I had hugely enjoyed my bowl of lettuce; and what's better, we made it back to where we came from, all of us, without getting hurt.

EmailEmail Article to Friend