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One Night in August

For everyone who didn’t make it, for everyone who did, for everyone who fought back through the heartbreak, for everyone who for the first time in many years aren’t waiting on the news—and especially for everyone who loves them.

My Worst Official Day as Aunt Beth arrived on June 4, 2012, when I watched a kindergartener shove my small child nephew backwards off a baseball bench.

I was on my feet before Will even hit the ground.  The perpetrator saw a charging blonde rhinoceros of auntly fury raging towards the scene and vanished.  This was a blessing-- my employers tend not to look kindly upon attempted murder of a person who cannot tie his own shoes; also, I’m pretty sure he could have taken me.

Will was sitting again by the time I reached him and checked for blood and bumps.  He was fine, but not fine.  He was crying.  So I wasn’t fine either. 

“Will, can you tell me what happened?”

“We’re supposed to stay on the bench,” he said, inhaling with great heaves.

“Yes, and you’re on the bench; you’re doing a good job.  What’s the matter?”

“Coach says we have to stay on the bench.”

This was to be my full briefing on the matter—I still don’t know if this was a bully issue, a single action rule-related altercation, or some sort of socio-economic kindergarten uprising against the proletariat-- so I squatted down next to Will and patted the warm vinyl number on his back.  “How about we put on your gloves so you’re ready to bat when it’s your turn?”


The child required comforting, but wouldn’t be comforted-- at least with in the realm of my extremely limited aunt toolkit-- and I could not grasp a full understanding of his distress.  I did know, however, that when I was five, peer disagreements reached the proportion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation breakdown, the nearest adult made all the world turn with his or her mighty power and car keys, and that sometimes you could pick between the Barbie nightgown and the Dukes of Hazzard one, but for the most part, what happened to you and for you took place without a great deal of your own input.

There are, of course, good reasons for this, and once I was released to make choices more consequential than nightwear, I proceeded to make some colossally stupid ones (“It’s so nice of you to invite me to your dorm room at 1 AM while I’m crying and tipsy and my boyfriend is five states away!  What a great idea!”)  And by this time, what I did or did not do, achieved or did not achieve, was in my own fumbling hands. 

I’m just now discovering, however, a thin cross-section—one of heart tissue-- of what the stumbles must have been like for my parents.   Not hired right out of college, what with my super-employable English and poli-sci degree?  What, outside of providing chocolate and moral support, could they do about it?   Car wreck after I moved to Florida while they were in Ohio, the air bag lacerating my face and arms but bridging the short inflatable distance between walking away and the back of the paramedics' sheet?  They let my co-workers of two weeks take care of me.  They had to.

And as Will tumbled backwards into the dirt, in that jagged half-second of reality between Self vs. Rest of Humanity, he edged me closer to a fuller understanding of what happens one night in August every year outside the Steinbrenner Band Center in Columbus, Ohio.

I was there in 2011, circling an enormous concrete planter and a bunch of candidate parents.  It was the same planter of Spring Game Carmen fame.  It does not look the same in the dark, without any trumpeters around it.

I was orbiting not on my own behalf, or really anyone’s.  A few people trying out for the first time didn’t have an anxious person waiting for them, so I promised to be their person.  And the parents—they were there because they could be, because they knew their child pushed him or herself to the physical and mental cliffedge, and he or she was about to find out if that cliffedge was high enough.  And there was absolutely nothing they could do about it but stand outside and stare at the door, their cell phones, the door, their cell phones.

This scaling of the cliffedge was something the parents were not permitted to see.  Tryouts, which run for two days, are closed to the general public.  It is good that this is so.  The entertainment value of tryouts is zero, because their human angst quotient is somewhere between “Awaiting Results of Apollo 13 Landing” and “Defusing of Large, Multi-Trigger Nuclear Device Left on Porch of UN Summit.” 

I was dipped into the roiling boil of tryouts about 45 minutes last year.  I left trembling, nauseated, in tears and with the muscles between my shoulder blades gone igneous.  I hadn’t heard anyone I knew play a single note.

What was happening inside the Band Center here on "Make the Band Night" was this:  Assuming they’d survived two previous cutting sessions, these sons and daughters put on neckties and high heels and were herded into a very quiet room.  Some were thanked and told that they were reason the Band is so good.  And dismissed.  Others heard their names read on a roster.  Some heard their names called last year and did not hear it this year.  Some had been imagining themselves in a dark navy uniform for over a decade, but more than half who amassed on the tryout field would never wear one.

In the meantime, here were these parents. They didn’t know what to make of me, because I was obviously not trying out for the Band, and yet everyone hesitated to ask which row my child was trying out with, for to do so would peg me as a sexually promiscuous seventh-grader.  So, as I was providing a distraction and therefore a public service, I continued circumnavigating the planter. 

At one point the door burst open and the entirety of D Row exited, Jason The Ridiculously Young Drum Major at the lead, wearing a tie and a pinched, granite expression I've never seen on him before, haven't seen on him since, and do not ever wish to see again. ("Tryouts... tryouts are tough," was all he would say when I asked him about it later.)  His excellent parents, mother Marcia and father Ed, having endured their own decade of driving and driving and driving and driving, were released from the vigil. They had already staged it, before local news cameras, at Drum Major tryouts.

Every single parent swung around at the sound of the opening latch.  Every single parent knew who Jason was, even without having met him, and fell silent as he led the baton-carrying little procession out of the building, for they knew this presaged the knowledge of whether or not their child would come under the command of this man's whistle at 9 AM the next day. 

"Wow.  That face was very... paternal," one bystander said.

One dad showed up with an emergency vehicle and his entire crew.  One mother was awaiting a second year of good news.  “I don’t know why I'm here,” she said. “Even if they make it, they come out and blow right past you.” Of course they do.  Their lives at that point had vectored.  Row traditions and rituals are planted in the first moments of rookiedom, and no matter how many miles Mom put on the minivan trundling back and forth to music lessons and band camps and competitions and Summer Sessions and now this vigil from home to the dark and looming stadium—well, she can’t come along.  She just can’t.  There’s time for “I made it” and maybe “I love you” and then there's this whole other life.

The ones who don’t dart off—these were the candidates that I stood very far away from, those who had painfully earned each inch of privacy for their sorrow.   They were why I left the instant I’d high-fived or comforted those who I promised to wait for.  Those not chosen bent over double, some of them, grief pushing down the backs that had struggled to remain ramrod straight for hours in the Ohio August sun.  And their parents bent with them, laying hands on their starched shirts; for after all of this, for all the driving and the ice packs and banging the screen door open and ordering their children inside when they were still marching on the lawn past 2 AM--  they could not make their son or daughter's name appear on that roster.

Mike Maley, who marched for five years, knew both the grief and the joyous blow-off.  The first year he tried out, he didn’t make it, and for an entire year afterwards, his father asked him, “What did you do to make Band today?” And Mike did things.  His dad taped a photo of the Band marching across the field at halftime to the garage above Mike’s weight bench.  It’s still there.  So are the hash marks taped to the floor of the garage, one yard apart.  Now his brother Zach, who just made his second year, looks at it.

If the The Ohio State University Marching Band sounds good, it’s because somebody put an instrument in little hands many years ago and said “Practice.”  If it looks good, it’s because somebody took away Twinkies and replaced them with carrots and said “Sit up straight.”  And if it is good, it’s because those habits remained.  More often than not, those people are a mom or a dad.

Some members of the Band have fathers who marched.  More and more have mothers who did.  One baby will soon arrive whose mother and father wore the white spats:  Mom carried a flugelhorn.  Dad led the way with his baton.


And when the child’s name echoes over those bowed heads in the rehearsal hall, the ministering does not stop.  There are row dinners and more concerts and more fundraising and more driving.  Many parents, overflowing with love and pride and absolutely nowhere to go with it but the camcorder, the Facebook page, or prodigious talents of their own, take to caring for their child’s bandmates as their own.

Jennifer, the mother of F Row’s Collin Poage, was one of these.  She made custom purses for the ladies of F Row.  She made one for me.  I’m afraid to use it, because it’s not a purse.  It’s art.  I can’t put Kleenex and four-dollar sunglasses in art and schlep it to WalMart.  So it hangs in my writing room, over a bookcase, like art should, and when this book is ready to be autographed in real bookstores I will use it to carry a pen through the doors, like an adult.  (Should the need arise.)

I know good craftsmanship, because I can’t do it, and this is it.  The stitches are tiny and straight.  The strap is heavy and beautifully anchored, and the fabric is lovely and thick.  It wasn’t easy to make.  When Jennifer was done, she was likely sorry to see this snip of herself leave her Singer.  But if she’s smart, if she knows true worth, she held it at arm’s length and was immediately, incredibly proud.

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