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Saturday Night

The Ohio State University Marching Band is a great big organization, and it plays in great big places in front of great numbers of people. And so it can make great big statements.

It did this on Saturday, the day before the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Here's what else happened that day. 

You have just seen members of the Alumni Band joining several current members of the OSUMB to welcome home some of Central Ohio's heroes from an Honor Flight, which ferries WWII veterans to see their memorial in Washington, DC.  The flight was delayed, and as we waited, the ad hoc band played the Armed Forces Medley. Arrivals

Part of my undergraduate degree was earned in American History.  Another is in political science.  I've stood on the beaches of Normandy, shaken the hands of men who have walked on the Moon, looked out at the world from the summit of Pikes Peak, worked on a shoestring Congressional campaign which unseated a well-funded incumbent, and closed the shutters of the window over a table where John Hancock and Sam Adams sat and discussed what to do with the news this fellow Paul Revere had just brought.  And this-- here in this low-ceiling, badly lit, horribly accousticed baggage claim terminal-- is one of the most profound experiences I have ever had as an American citizen.

There was no Drum Major.  You couldn't have seen one anyway, so packed was the crowd, and the flash of the baton would have been fleeting beneath the dull fluFlags for each service branch awaited the vets.orescent lights. 

There was, however, a cadre of citizens waiting with flags representing each service branch.  In the aisle created for the returning veterans, they began to parade them as the songs rolled past-- women in jeans with purses over their arms and senior citizens wearing golf shirts. 

In the "America the Beautiful" tribute at the football game, Band alternates unfurled an enormous stars and bars banner, a maneuver which demanded enormous coordination, practice, and spot-on timing, the students at the point edges nearly rocked off their feet by the force of the thing snapping into place over the 50 yard line.

When this arrangement--one by OSUMB alum John Brennan, who brilliantly twined the strains of the National Anthem into the final measures--  was played at the open rehearsal prior just before the game, the crowd roared to its feet at the crescendo and stayed there through the rest of the song, the integrity of the floorboards no match for the weight of the brass and the drums and the thousands of spectators surprised The crowd greets a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.and relieved and proud to scream out a release of grief and gratitude and love like this, here on the day before September 11, 2011. 

And both moments were christened by the tears of grown men, some who have given their student lives and discretionary tee shirt spending over to Ohio State, some who could care less for the scarlet and grey pom poms hanging from the signs of the luggage carousel.

Saturday afternoon performances are what make this Band famous.  They are spectacular.  They are monstrous productions with thousands of moving parts, each edge sharply folded.  These tour de forces spill over the borders of this wide state, Assistant Director Jon Waters holding it all togetherfirmly and properly entrenching OSUMB in American culture. 

But Saturday night I stood balanced on the edge of a luggage carousel, watching a Korean and Vietnam vet give up their place in the rope line to a recent returnee from Iraq, her hair swept back from a fine-lined face.  Their hands struck the same beats of "The Stars and Stripes Forever."  "Carmen Ohio" on the bagpipes

The little band played the alma mater, "Carmen Ohio." They were answered by a bagpipe corps' version of the same, and the students, who had been in full wool and discomfort-constructed uniform since five in the morning, held their arms in the air to form the letters of Ohio.  Fully caped members of the Knights of Columbus stood attention and returnees filed through to cries of "Thank you!  Thank you!"

As the crowd dissipated, a man wearing a tee shirt bearing the name of his Marine battalion and a baseball cap proclaiming his participation in the Vietnam War sought out Mel Ponzi, who shepherds this particular section of the Alumni Band through such performances.  "Thank you," he said, holThe welcome he never got: After thanking the Alumni Band, this Vietnam vet greeted a current service member.ding out his hand to the man with the sousaphone.  "You guys got it going." 

"What is it about music?" I was asked when I sat for this interview.  My response did not make the final cut, largely because it was incoherent, but here is what I do know:  I was forced to amend my answer on that Saturday night, that day before September 11, 2011, for just as we all left that wretched little airport herding ground, we sang "God Bless America" a capella, without a snare or a trombone to lead us, exactly as members of Congress did on the steps of the Capitol that had been saved that morning by the passengers of Flight 93.  And we got to the part about the mountains and the prairies, and the loudspeaker blared an automatic security announcement about checking boarding passes and taking shoes off.  And we sang right over it. 

Because just as music sometimes has nothing to do with instruments, a college marching band sometimes has absolutely nothing to do with college football.


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