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Friday
Oct212011

Something to Say

The 2011 Ohio State Spring Game was a damp affair, a confusing jumble of scrimmage rules conducted in a steady drizzle.  The news of several suspensions handed down by the NCAA clung to the scarlet seats and the metal bleachers; there was no scrubbing it out of the day.  You’re supposed to see new life and hope and green shoots and baby chicks in the spring.  That day, in Ohio Stadium, there was winter drizzle.  Also lacrosse.

Where there was football, some sense of the vibrant colors and brittle, cleansing air of fall, there was the Athletic Band, playing cheers and snatches of school songs.  They’d been marching, rehearsing, and watching video playback for days, stitching together a post-game show complete with drills and a modified ramp entrance.  This was the same band I’d once lost, but found again by virtue of stopping to listen for it, stopping my own wandering and allowing the music guide me in where I needed to be.  There was yet more to learn. 

Before the scrimmage, I stood with a few slightly damp members of D Row within the Band Center as Drum Major Jason Stuckert, just a few weeks from defending his title, issued directives concerning the high school students who were visiting campus:  “…and then we need to turn the list into the office.  This is not my raincoat.” 

This final sentence, issued in full confluence with the previous pronouncements without a single break in rhythm, was punctuated by Jason staring briefly down in wonderment at this garment which belonged to someone else, then departing without further comment.  All of the Athletic Band wore the same University-issued rain gear, but Jason knew his own, and he was bent on re-claiming it.

With the scrimmage over and the players long off the field, the Athletic Band gathered around Assistant Director Jonathan Waters for last-minute directions, but what they got was marching orders right out of the Stadium.  There was lightning in the area, too close to campus for safety.  The post-game show was cancelled, but the A-Band would gather outside the Band Center and play the program anyway. Several heads tipped back in the rain to examine the exhausted gray sky for evidence, for flashes of light, but nobody saw anything.  They hoisted their instruments.

Jason and his metal baton marched them up the Stadium’s south ramp and loose ranks were formed on the wide sidewalk.  Parents and girlfriends and high school band directors pressed close, cameras in the air.  Jon Waters climbed up on a concrete planter, conducing from beneath a dripping tree barely in bud. 

The number of players outstripped the amount of people watching.  I backed away to the outer wall of the Stadium to give them room, stay out of the shot.  Over the past several days I’d seen the narrowed eyes on faces of the musicians, the straight axels of their backs, and those who’d stayed, who loved them most, must see this too.

Occasionally I saw the head and shoulders of Jason performing in a delivery unloading zone as he leapt to catch the baton between his legs.  Sometimes just his baton flickered high up into the overcast, the lightning we’d been promised but had yet to see. The little crowd gasped and rose up on the forward edges of their shoes.

They ended with Ohio State’s alma mater, “Carmen Ohio.”  As it concluded I bent down to retrieve my bag from its resting place again the Stadium wall.  And then I saw the man in the wheelchair.

The very act of sitting out the afternoon in the Stadium had left him sunken against the back of the seat, and yet he peered up at the source of the music, at Jason flinging his stick in the air and bringing it back down again.  His hair was gone.  So was control of his hands.  I looked at him and I saw the final week of my father’s life—the eyes dulled by pain medication, the misery that the pain medication failed to wipe away, the bent neck, the oxygen tank.  He would not live to see the football season promised here this afternoon.  The tiny knot of family members gathered around him knew this.  They sang very loudly.  Their backs to him, the members of the band sculpted the final bars.

His wasted arms pushed against the edges of the chair as the last notes neared.  I dropped my bag.  The last word of “Carmen,” which is “Ohio,” is traditionally accompanied by the formation of the letters of the word with the upper body.  He pushed against gravity, time, and common sense to form a defiant, definite, f-you death “O,” and he held it through end of the song—he hadn’t the strength to shape the remaining three letters. There was a bare crack of weak March daylight between his scarcely raised head and the sunken cup of his arms, but it was there, and as the final note sank into the Stadium concrete, his arms dropped again, his entire body crumpling into the soft plastic back of the wheelchair.  It was done. 

But Ohio State Marching and Athletic Band rehearsals and performances don’t end with “Carmen.”  Jon Waters pulled Jason up beside him on the planter.  “Now,” he said, “I think our Drum Major has something to say.”

Baton in hand, wrapped in his own raincoat, Jason tipped his chin back and arced two steady arms high over his head, the fingers of one anchoring the palm of the other, preparing to launch the most familiar, iconic cheer in Ohio State’s considerable arsenal. 

“O-H!”

Next to me, the man in the wheelchair again braced his body, preparing to gather breath.  The Drum Major had called; he would respond.

“I-O,” he said, the letters rasping from not his throat but the center of his chest, from almighty Midwestern pride and remembrance and the very last shards of his strength.  Around him, his family formed the letters he no longer could.

“O-H!”

Again the terrible fight to expand his chest:  “I-O!”

“O…H!”

Once more:  “I-O!”

In one sharp lash, Jason swung his baton across his body.

“Ohio,” the man mouthed, whatever sound he may have made fully doused out by the full-throttle voices around him, and he closed his eyes for just a moment before opening them again, because at the Spring Game, you’re supposed to see new life.

UPDATE 10/24/11:  Jason checks in with his own perspective-- we were a grand total of maybe twenty yards apart while he was performing, but he has an entirely different story to tell:

This game contained so many emotions and ups and downs. Ultimately ending in a big "Up". It was very close to tryouts, I had been practicing my routine for months, I had a clinic to plan, I had a Spring game show to learn, oh yeah and classes.

On this particular day my parents had driven down from Cleveland to watch me perform. So the show being cancelled did not exactly add to my anything but stress free mind set. The following events described above changed everything. It may have been the best thing that could have happened to me before tryouts.

I remember the sound of the band just blasting off the walls of the stadium. THEY SOUNDED AMAZING! I had to perform! I went off to the side of the band and a large circle of people formed around me. I felt like a break dancer. But it was one of the most enjoyable performances ever.

No matter where I turned there was an audience member cheering, clapping, or a look of awe on a child's face. I was thinking to myself, "this is why I love what I do and why I love this band". The informality of this "concert" was one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had.

And I knew the people watching wanted nothing more than to watch the band all day. They may have appreciated our make shift performance but they have no idea how much I appreciated sharing an up close moment with them. After all, its not whats done on the field that you remember its the relationships made off the field.

There were so many questions and gray areas regarding the season at this point. But at the end of that day I was reassured that there was no greater place for me to be.

-Jason

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