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Knuckle Down and Knock

When I come into the Band Center’s main rehearsal room each day, twice a day, I must first negotiate the Ohio State University Marching Band Obstacle Course. 

The little corner where I sit—opposite and facing the students, behind the director’s podium, D-Row, and the usual thick curtain of terror that somebody is going to call me out for the hot constant mess that I am–-is very much the tailgate on this this monster truck of a marching band.  Scattered on the floor are sousaphones, instrument cases, plugged-in iPhones, somebody’s sweatshirt, and a crammed tangle of chairs never in the same arrangement twice.  And to get where I’m going, to find to a temporary place where I can work on this book, I must balance, often on my toes, listing desperately to avoid injuring myself or others or any innocent bystanding baritones.  It is terrifying.

When the music starts, I listen, but I also watch-- their fingers on the valves, the exhausted dingy sneakers mostly flat on the floor but sometimes in a seated version of the toe point the marchers must execute on the field... for this is where the story is told.  And making my way there through the brass forest and the uncertainty is always, always worth the trip; the runs in the pantyhose and the pounding fatigue, all of it.

I was introduced to the Band as a whole last week, and I emerged from my chair lair and stood before the podium with a microphone in my hand, at last face to face with this entity I'd prayed about, worried over, and listened for. 

"I'm Mary Beth," I said, "and, with your permission, you are my second book."

Some of called out for a story--this is how guests of the Band are generally greeted-- and I rifled through what I'd seen of them and from them as a whole for days and weeks, and found that I could compellingly share none of it, because it was all tales of their own existence, natural moments assimilated into the high-functioning careens from rehearsal to marching drills to practice time to meetings to sectionals to rehearsal again.  They'd already lived it, were living it.  What could I have possibly said? 

Do I mention the drummer who passed by a small child standing on a bench watching the marchers drag back from yet another two-a-day rehearsal on the baking side of some campus tennis courts--he was trying imitate the chair step, this little one, this baby, and the student stopped, bent down with his instrument, and put one of his own sticks in the waving little hand?

What about at the end of a Summer Sessions meeting, when Jason was late to his mark as the band swung into "Hang On Sloopy", so he made up the yardage and time in midair, roundoffing his way to where he needed to be?

Or the campus employee who stood with me at the top of a little rise during outdoor rehearsals, staring down at the Band as it practiced Script Ohio, a woman starving and saying, "I have been so sad about this season for months, but for the first time I am looking forward to it."

It is partly instinct and mostly defense mechanism for me to tick to the side of Bright 'n' Happy Talk when speaking before a crowd, so I said none of this, because really, these moments are wash-the-hands-before-eating automatic for this particular audience.  There is a reason why people don't walk around with a mirror directly in front of their faces.

I could have stuck to facts, I guess ("I'm donating part of my royalties to Band" or "I used to sing and I can read music, just really really really really badly" or "I tend to get lost on go-kart tracks" ) but I looked at all of them and forgot all these and instead let them know how I got there to that room and where I hoped to go, and tried to be as unscary as humanly possible, and then I returned the mike to its proper place in director Dr. Jon Woods' hand.  Then I backed slowly into my previously designated corner, pulse at a ferocious rate.  After all these months, I had knocked on the heavy gates of the current Ohio State University Marching Band.

In this post, the first one I wrote about this band, we first met Josh Halter The Supposedly Subdued One's predecessor, Stewart Kitchen.  It is the second video I'd ever watched, OSUMB-wise, having anything to do with anything.  I had no idea what I was seeing, but it involved, I sensed, a great deal of noise and potential destruction, which as we all know are firmly established baselines for deep emotional relationships around here, and so I liked it immensely and on sight. "I have been struck against the wall," I wrote then, "but you see, that also means that I'm a knockin'."

That was several thousand miles, one Badass, and a borrowed air mattress ago, and I now know the tradition is called "The Three Knocks," explained in detail here in this profile of the mega-magnficient former DM Adam Prescott. And now at long last I've seen Jason The Ridiculously Awesome Drum Major add some dents of his own:

This ritual is an outgrowth of the Drum Majors baton-knocking on a wooden stadium door to announce the arrival of the Band.  There is no practical need for it these days, which is precisely why it's done.  It is at once wildy raucous and soothingly predictable.  It yokes the students to those who have passed this way before and will pass this way once their own instruments and baton are laid down. 

I'm watching the forging of those links, the steel bent by determination and effort and sheer tenacity, all the notes perfected past midnight in the Band Center when the lights in the offices go out and the outer doors are locked, sealing the marchers in, them and their metronomes and calloused hands.  I will never truly know what that's like.

But I have my fingers cured around the heavy steel of the gates, and, having knocked, I have slipped into the stream of these tremendous sounds around me.

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