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The Next-Up Man in Front

When I attended Drum Major tryouts in May, I sat/stood/paced/puked behind a pretty dark-haired lady and a rather tight knot of people who clapped very loudly for one contestant--one of the few I hadn't already met and properly traumatized, BlondeChampagne-style, with many hugs and crying. I couldn't discern which member of D-Row they belonged to, as I was otherwise occupied with admiring the hairbun-creation skills of Claudia The Campus Sister, gently but lovingly slapping JD Who Gots Game across the face, and not watching eventual victor Jason The Ridiculously Awesome Drum Major drop the occasional practice toss. 

There were times when I couldn't look directly at whoever was performing, which meant it was stare at the ground or leave, and I'd already paid up on the parking, so I stared at the ground.  At a set of keys on a Lakewood High School lanyard-- the alma mater of Josh Halter The Supposedly Subdued.  The mental puzzle pieces still failed to assemble.

In fact they failed to do so until after I learned who would be serving as Jason's assistant, taking the place of Matt The Badass as Chief of Pretty Much Never Filling In For Jason On Saturday.  The little crowd in front of me burst into great cheers, the pretty lady dialed her cell phone and cried "Kyle just got assistant!" into it, and one of the members of the knot said to her, "Well, happy birthday, Mom!"  And then I realized something that had been obvious all along:  Claudia's hair is thicker than mine, which makes it way easier to bun up.

I must cop to the fact that, obviously worthy as Kyle is, my reaction to his elevation from former D-Rower to Assistant was, to be honest, "...Oh."  And I don't mean "...Oh" in a knowledge-gaining way, as when Jason explains certain mysteries of Drum Major life such as where he ices down his legs on game days or why he hates twirling to slow music or why we mustn't fall into walls.  It was the "...Oh" of social panic.  I was grappling with utterly self-destructive task of meeting an entirely new person, one who had to find me, at minimum, tolerable if the football season is going to be any kind of comfortable.

Also one who knew more about me than I knew about him.  "I know who you are," Kyle West said, shaking my hand two days later in the bowels of Ohio Stadium.  "I've seen you around."


Kyle then resumed the posture he'd originally held, which was sitting on a low-backed chair, one leg balanced over the other, fingers laced behind his head.  I clasped my hands against the skirt behind me and, pretty much against my will, stared at him.  At times, but only when publicly functioning as Drum Major Lord And Master, Jason sits exactly like this.  In my entire life, I have seen this posture-- one so stereotypically SuperAlpha that even Hollywood is loathe to shortcut to it-- exhibited by exactly two groups of people:  Ohio State Drum Majors, and astronauts.  This guy, even on a subconscious, how-do-you-do level, was serious

He was smiling, but it was this utterly unreadable half-smile which could have meant anything from "I see how barely competent you are, as a human being, but to be polite I'm not going to necessarily say anything about it" to "I am humoring you so that you don't flash-boil and eat my pets."  I told Kyle that I was looking forward to getting to know him (true) and that I would completely leave him out of this book if he so wished (also true) and that I just knew that someday very soon we were going to sit down to a nice, relaxing conversation, one involving a balmy spring evening, rustic Adirondack chairs, and baring our souls (not... quite as true.) I spoke quickly, voice canted to a near-countertenor pitch, and all the while there sat Kyle, clasping and half-smiling as the beta display reeled out. 

He simply sat there, owning.  The Owning Aura was just as much a part of him as his inescapably impressive biceps.  Which he also Owns. 

Point of comparison:  On the evening I met The Badass for the first tme, we parted on such hearty good terms that he slung an arm around my shoulders as I kissed his cheek.  But it was quite clear that there wasn't going to be any touching of Kyle unless the room we were currently occupying suddenly burst into flames and he had to pick me up off the floor from a dead faint, and even that wasn't going happen unless Jason was not only somehow also passed out, but with all four arms and legs compound-fractured in multiple places.

"I thought that went well," I said brightly to Jason later as he, driven by pity and necessity rather than feminine charm-inspired to chivalry, escorted me out of the stadium.  "It went well, didn't it?  I like Kyle.  I mean, I was totally nervous, but I really do like him.  Do you think he likes me?  Or, at least, he doesn't hate me, does he?  Or at least the hatred was minimal, right?  Right?"

The Head Drum Major smiled gently at me, the same benevolent, custodial smile I bestow upon my little nephews when they manage to use a fork without incident, and guided me into my car. "Bye, MB." 

The next time I saw Kyle, this happened.  I was kneeling on a row of bowling alley chairs under the influence of driving exhaustion, yelling questions at him about baton balance and his declared major and in general creating my usual magnificent impression. 

Kyle, meanwhile, politely answered me without even warming up.  Kyle didn't even leave the ball return machine, so intent was he on Owning everyone and everything within a fifteen-mile radius.  And again:  He wasn't constructing an anti-social lashout, to dwell so fixedly near the closest point of battle-- quick-stepping down the lane, choosing his angle of attack without commentary or hesitation.  It was just Kyle, bowling.  He is; he Owns.

Thus was the sum of our interaction as I stood next to the 2011 Assistant Drum Major on the Fake Grass Field of Summer Sessions.  This time, for the first time, I was quiet, and Kyle was talking.

He was talking to the freshest of the fresh recruits.  They hadn't so much as touched a baton before.  Far across the field, Jason was slapping out a cadence as a rising Ohio State freshman practiced the ramp entrance; behind us, Josh patiently coaxed an eighth-grader into holding her baton so that it tumbled properly through her fingers.  The sun crouched at a low June angle, and the occasionally high-tossed baton flashed orange and rose-gold as it arced overhead.

Kyle was explaining the intricacies of marching "8-to-5"-- crossing five yards in eight steps.  The foot is angled like this, and the knee should be held like that.  His charges watched, copied, turned, repeated, and stared at their feet, the white lines rushing up and receding at an uneven pace.

"No," Kyle said, not unkindly.  It's like this.  But you guys were doing this

They gazed at his shoes, tried again, spun around.  Better.  But still, no. Kyle repeated the demonstration. 

"Hold your feet up," he said.  "Let me see the angle."  He walked person to person, pointing with his baton, gently nudging ankles and toes into position, and then demonstrated yet again. 

"Try it."  Five paces behind them, I obediently raised my toes in the air, the automatic reaction of a trail filly's hoof tugged at by a farrier.  More nudging from Kyle, then he lined them up once more.

"Ready?"  he said. They nodded.

"Tap, tap, tap."  He cruised backwards, the little line of three straggling about a second and a half behind, none of them matching his pace or even one another's. 


The sets of battered tennis shoes halted. 

"Here at Ohio State," Kyle said, "that's how we start a drill.  And that's how you'll start.  That's how we establish the beat, okay?  It's tap, tap, tap.  All right?" 

Three nods.

"So.  Tap, tap, tap."

They took off correctly this time, with Kyle, mostly with one another.  I put my foot down, slowly resting the toe on the warm rubber pellets.

"Okay.  That was better."

Hands clasped behind me again, I edged over to Kyle as he sent his little group off to rest for a moment.

"Thank you for letting me watch," I said finally, in even tones, examining the pellets.  "You're a terrific teacher."

"Rest one," some C-Row flugelhorn candidates hollered directly behind us.  Otherwise it was quiet.  Kyle's baton was stationary, supported under his arm. 

"Oh-- thanks."

"They know so much more now than they did half an hour ago.  And so do I."  I glanced over at Jason, who was crossing the field to join us as the three newbies put down their water bottles and began straggling back over.

I looked at Kyle, full-on, and saw him with a smile. 

This one I could read.

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