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    by Mary Beth Ellis
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    Random House Trade Paperbacks
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Entries from October 16, 2011 - October 22, 2011

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

Wednesday
Oct192011

All The Way to the Stairway

Just past the halfway point of Summer Sessions, fresh from Lexington Green, I saw my first live ramp entrance.  I was barefoot on the practice field, a long cotton skirt barely rippling in the evening air as about two hundred candidates lined up near Buckeye Grove, the softly lit stadium behind them.  The cadence was marked, the band members offered up war cries to the cloudless night sky, and all of D Row, Jason The Ridiculously Awesome Drum Major in the middle and Kyle Who Owns at his right hand, strutted through the ranks and performed the toe-touch salute in a single line. 

As scattered parents knitted and tapped iPhones on the hill behind me, I trailed them all down the sideline, tears on my eyelashes.  Such passion.  Such tradition.  Such glory and dedication. 

Jason returned to the bleachers for water, baton in hand.  He saw this, saw the tears and overwhelm and the utter disaster this rehearsal squad had made of me, and he said:  "I have got to introduce you to other people in this band."

I was, for once, a step ahead of him; I'd signed up for a program called Adopt A Row, which matches dinner-wielding alums and friends of the Band with students in the first few weeks of the season, when they're on campus but the dining hall menus really aren't.  I was paired with S Row, which is comprised of trumpets, flugelhorns, and a dead squirrel on a stick

There are fourteen marchers in S Row.  They are excellent musicians, rich in tradition as well as seniority depth, and steady drillers in toiling in a relatively unglamorous non-i dotting, non-first-on-the-field taking, non-baton twirling position.  They are faithful to the Band, to their University, and to their Buckeyes.  These are the very bandsmen which form the stalwart bedrock of the OSUMB, and they... were... given... to... me. 

In my terror of unfamiliar trumpets, I expanded the invitation to include D Row.  That brought the number to nineteen.  This made me feel quite the raving social maven, smug in the problem that I now had more attendees to a party than square footage in which to put them.  I was living in a rented room in one of the most notorious drug havens in Columbus with a paralegal and her two cats.  The cats liked to open closed doors by the handle with their upsetting little paws and pee on my air mattress.  Even by male college students standards, this was not an acceptable locale for a gentle soiree.

The smugness evaporated when I presented my problem to the staff of the Band Center and was placed in a second-floor conference room, which is far more table than room.  It's all wheelie chairs and projector screens and huge slab of corporate bolted into the floor with maybe an inch and a half for maneuvering around the sides.  I closed my eyes briefly when I entered to take a look at my venue; logistically, I'd have an easier time catering for a team meeting on the first Death Star.   

Then it dawned that I might, as the hostess, be expected to produce food of some sort.  I pulled a Lunchables out of the fridge and ate the processed coins of turkey out of the plastic wrapping while I pondered this.  I do like to cook.  I have this hardback little photo album with folded-up recipes crammed where the pictures should go, and I use it.  I turn on the stovetop and I boil s*&#.  I own an egg separator, people.  But... nineteen

The greatest number of people I'd cooked for at once until this point was four.  Two were my parents and third was my husband, who I once saw attempt to eat ice cream off the floor.  So half of that party knew not to expect much and the remaining quarter had the culinary standards of a third-world leprosy patient.  S Row, well-- the poor sweetings didn't know any better.  They were too busy being competent.

As the aunt of a peanut allergy kid and a meat-free Vatican baby on Fridays in Lent, I was wary of placing food on the behemoth table which my guests might not be able to eat.  So I gathered S Row around me following rehearsal a few days before the dinner.

"Hi.  I'm Mary Beth.  I'll be feeding you."

(Terrified stares)

"Any of you have allergies?"

(Head shakes)

"Any of you under dietary restrictions?"

(Head shakes)

"Any of you vegetarians?"

(Head shakes)

One, Frank, deigned to speak.  "We're carnivores."

I high fived Frank.

"So anyway.  I love you guys."

(Terrified stares)

"See you Tuesday!"

Pasta was in order.  The distance between my room in Graffiti America and the Band Center could be covered in about fifteen minutes, enough time to keep the food warm but not enough to justify the requisition of one of these, which for some reason I'd failed to register for upon my marriage.

For a German who deeply distrusts any foods more spice-laden than yeast, I can present a fairly decent lasagne.  I also have in my arsenal a family recipe for macaroni and cheese fashioned from sour cream, cottage cheese, and crack cocaine.  But I have seen college students eat--mostly male, marching-all-day college students--and even after doubling the recipes, they'd be left gnawing on the projection screen. 

I augmented with salad.  Which I bought ready-made.  I was gladly spending six hours a day with these people but I wasn't making them a mega-salad.  There's a familiarity line in every author-subject relationship.  Mine is ripping apart eight heads of lettuce.

"For how many?"  the supermarket deli clerk asked as I placed the order.

"Two-seventeenths of a marching band."

She wrote that down. This was, after all, Columbus.

And... cookies.  Cookies for my TBDBITLovelies.  I have long presented affection in sugared form, and thus S Row would be force-fed love in the form of shortbread.  And because I am me and lack basic time management skills, I made them myself, and so of course slid the last batch into the oven at four in the morning as the cats looked reproachfully on.

I wiped down the batter on the ceiling (the less said about this, the better) and pulled the strings closed a full trash bag.  And then I steeled myself for the out of doors, because only the smartest MFAs hang around garbage cans in the back alleys of neighborhoods described as "challenging and diverse," which is realtor-speak for "A day without bullet casings in the driveway is a day without Ohio sunshine."

I was simultaneously doing laundry in a separate part of the house which for security purposes required a separate key and also a Glock hidden deep in the box of Tide, so I performed a Green Beret security sweep, switched a load of whites from the washer to the dryer, and dumped the trash.  And turned to go back inside.  And realized that I had no idea where my keys were.  And realized that yeah, actually, I did have an idea where my keys were-- I just didn't want to admit to myself where that place was, which was... not the laundry room.

I do not recommend dumpster diving by the light of a cell phone, as this somewhat increases the odds that the cell phone might also wind up in the dumpster. 

Back in the house, I ousted the cats, who left with ominous mews, and made myself a ball on the borrowed sheets.  A woman grieving is a well-dressed wreck and a woman falling in love, even with a marching band, is a fiasco in perfume... and I was both.  But now I had lasagne in flimsy little tins to show for it.

****

Transportation. Everything in coolers packed tight with handwarmers, which I considered a genius stroke until I noticed the NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION warnings on the packaging.  Too close to the food?  ...Whatever. These were members of The Ohio State University Marching Band.  They were tough.  They were impervious to the ravages of the ingestion of mere polypropylene.

Some of the students were moving that day and needed to leave early.  Right, I said, I'll be there at 5:30 with the food.  And pulled into the parking lot at 5:32, because the really great thing about Columbus traffic is, it goes along click-click-click-click at the same pace at the same time for weeks on end, and then it throws a wreck at you, and it will wait to do this with a full row of flugelhorns, trumpets, DM candidates, and the Head and Assistant Ohio State Drum Major sitting in a conference room, patently awaiting their evening meal.

Band directors are fond of this directive:  "To be early is to be on time; to be on time is to be late; to be late is to be left behind."  At this point, "be left behind" could have been easily swapped with "gladly suffer public lashings instead unpacking a Corolla full of pasta and Diet Coke no one will drink," because as we all know, when it comes to creating first impressions, I am fine and I am fierce.

I gathered an initial armload of napkins and empty to-go containers, because... priorities.  Two passing students stood nearby, transfixed by the display of a blonde kicking a cooler before her down the parking lot before suddenly remembering that she'd left her car door standing open, then doubling back, still hugging her napkins, to boot it closed.

"Hey," one said, "you need help?"

I could have cried, but I reserve that for only barefoot Summer Session ramp rehearsals and truly important parking lot-related occasions.  "O gentle Buckeyes," I said, "I require help on a more constant basis than any woman ever born."

They unpiled the contents of the car into the Band Center elevator and sent it upstairs, as requested.  I clattered my way into the conference room.  Maybe practice ran over.  Maybe they were still slowly wending their way from the field.  Maybe they were wandering around the Band Center conducting deep philosophical discussions about tuning slides.  Maybe they weren't hungry.

Or, maybe every single one of them was already seated around the conference table, hands folded before them.  

"Can we... help you carry something?"  This from dashing soloist Ryan Columbare, who, as a fifth-year, has seen it aaaaaaaalllllllllllllll.  He was now about to see a row dinner with a row and no dinner.

I threw down the tongs, braced both hands on the nearest flat surface, head down, and nodded.

This type of thing is where D Row comes to play. "Okay.  Out," Jason said, and the entire room rose.  I led them to landing of the second-floor elevator.  Where there was nothing to carry.   

Now...

I've lost my car, my keys, my middle nephew, my laptop, and my cell phone.  And my wedding gown, and a neighbor's parakeet, and a boat, and a VIP tour group I was leading through the Kennedy Space Center, and (ironically) my college diploma and (somehow even more ironically) my GPS. I'm a structural disaster, okay.  I know this.  I had not heretofore, however, misplaced an entire meal for two-seventeenths of a marching band.

S Row, however, was marching blind.  S Row just wanted to eat and instead found itself climbing up and down the Band Center steps, hunting-gathering its dinner.  Then I realized something, and grabbed Josh (I submit to you yet another Josh), a member of D Row, and begged clarification.

"The third floor," I said.  "The elevator goes there too?"

He nodded, for Josh, although quite eloquent and articulate, was too much a gentleman to point out that yes, Mary Beth, when a building with three floors has an elevator, it tends to run beyond the second, here in this magical era of electricity and pulleys and baseline adequate architects. Also I'd quite literally grabbed him, the desperate reach of a desperate Adopt-A-Rower whose adopted row at this point would have quite preferred to remained orphaned and eating drill charts for sustenance.  I dragged the majority of S Row up the final flight, and there:  The warming salad, the cooling pasta, the four AM shortbread.

As it happened, the to-go containers were not required.  I passed around a plate of desert, now enhanced with a handful of chocolate chip cookies.

"Did you make these yourself?"  lovely veteran Jeanette asked.

"Absolutely.  No problem," I said, tossing the plastic cover with the price tag over her head and into the garbage.

Tuesday
Oct182011

The Race is On

At the moment, my mother and I have matching wardobes, but her hospital gown is a delightful fabric print, while mine is a more sedate wood pulp green.  I offer my arm to the nurse with a blood pressure cuff and submit to the novelty of being on the opposite side of a bunch of personal questions.  

"You're here for a physical?  Are you having any symptoms?"

"Occasional headaches during stress."

"Do you take recreational drugs?"

"No."

"Particpate in sexual activity with multiple partners?"

"...I'm Catholic."

"Drink alcohol?"

"Not nearly enough, apparently."

She put the chart away, for now it was time for the medical delight of patient cocktail party chatter.  "So what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a writer."

"Oh!  And what do you write about?"

"Right now I'm working on a book about Ohio State's marching band."

"I just love to watch them dot that i."  She stripped the cuff off and studied the readout.  "You're way too young to have blood pressure this elevated."

"I can't imagine where that comes from."

"Let me get your pulse.   Do you go to the football games?" 

I held out my wrist.   "Yes, and every rehearsal I can."

"You see them dot that i?"

"I see them dot the i."

"Oh, that's exciting, right?"

I answered in as much personal detail as I could to a person seeing me in a garment constructed entirely of paper.  Suddenly she dropped my wrist.

"Your heartrate," she said, "is blowing right through the roof.  Like you're running or something.  You sit there and think about puppies and kittens for a minute, and we'll try this again, and then I don't want to hear one single word about sousaphones, or drum majors, or whatever you called it, The Regiment.  You got that?"

"Got it."

She left and I leaned back to stare at the ceiling and contemplate more boring things, such as thermonuclear war.

Monday
Oct172011

Your All Night Noise

Many are called.  Few are crossbelted.

The ranks of the Summer Sessions band build to stunning numbers in the final week.  Available marching real estate on the practice field which was hard-won even in June is now measured fake grass blade by fake grass blade as fifth-year veterans and rising freshman cram sideline to sideline.  When the individual rows come together as the world's most fearsome moving wall of brass and beating drums, the band is nearly twice the size of what the OSUMB will be after tryouts. 

I never really understood sound as a physical force, as waves every bit as real as each slamming slosh of the ocean, until I experienced a space shuttle liftoff four miles from the launchpad.  There was a rumbling and the rising light of the solid rocket boosters, and then the smashing of the front of my chest from both sides-- the sound vibration from without and my thrashing pulse from within. 

But on the downtrodden field across a parking lot from Ohio Stadium, I understood it again.  The drums and the ringing brass played catch with the brick fronts of the tall buildings, each note cast against the concrete flung back again.

On a hillside above the field, the newly wedded wife of Alex Who Talks Real Pretty is sitting on a blanket, creating a square pile of thank-you notes as her husband grimly makes adjustments of centimeters to the batons of D Row candidates, centimeters which will get them in or keep them out. 

A five-year member of the Band herself, Emily looked up from the corners-together stack of white notecards to tell me how to audibly separate the percussion wheat from the soon to be cut chaff.  "The drums," she said, "should be one beat.  It shouldn't sound like popcorn."  She paused to allow the rhythm prove her point, a few drumstick strikes slightly before and after blurring the percussion line.

But in a time and place defined by sound, what's not heard during a sculpted Saturday performance by the OSUMB in November is scattered through the tense, overcrowded air of an August Summer Session.  Complex marching drills are thrown down like lightning strikes from disembodied voices on high ladders; a cacophony of shouted reminders from the candidates are frantic arcs in the damp evening air.  And when a ramp is rehearsed or a series of maneuvers completed, the block stands at attention, instruments down, but from where I am standing on the sidelines, there is still sound-- the labored breathing, the feeding of the lungs which were just moments ago exhaling this thing called music.

When the marching is ended, the instruments are cradled in laps or leaned up against, the burden now the prop.  Each Session ends with a motivational speaker, and on this night, it's the 2011 Drum Major. 

Jason The Ridiculously Awesome Drum Major is having fits with the mic.  "Well," he says, indicating the baton in his other hand,  "I'm better with this." 

He is facing Ohio Stadium.  Much of what will become the Band he will lead into it in about week is scattered before him. 

"I love this band," Jason says.  He pauses, forges onward.  "...Sorry.  I love this band..."

"We love you!"  a ragged male voice slices back at him.

At the back of the crowd, well out of his sight, I am listening.  His mentor, Greg Eyer, and a member of Jason's rookie class, Claudia, are on either side of me.  Greg is sprawled full-out on the ground, the crushed rubber pellets coating his arms and legs.  He, too, is listening, and he is crying.  "He hasn't even peaked yet," he says to neither of us.

"He will.  He has all season," Claudia answers, in this soothing fashion she conceal-carries on her like the lining of a purse.  If Claudia had been present on the Titanic, it would have been the mellowest shipwreck ever.

Greg shook his head.  "I'm stepping away when he's done." 

"When the masterpiece is complete," I said, hands clasped around my knees, "put down the brush."

Greg waved a hand to indicate the other predecessors of Jason who have also refined and redefined the position.  There will be others, others created in part by Jason.  All three of us know this, and we know it in different ways-- that the silence of the winter months will settle in, the turnover will come, and the man who will take his place will stand here with a microphone in the August night.

For now, though, the heat of the day sheds from the buildings and the instruments absorb the sweat of the musicians and the midwestern moisture in the air.  Jason stops talking, there is cheering, and then the unplayed brass and drums are carried from the field with a quiet somehow more articulate than all the fight songs and flung notes put together.

Sunday
Oct162011

Brass Harmony Growing

Unlike me, The Ohio State University Marching Band can indeed be several places at once.  It did so at Convocation, half marching the freshmen across campus, the other half awaiting their arrival as they tromped through Ohio Stadium.  It splinters off into small pep bands during Michigan week and scrambles into last-minute bottlerockets of ambassadorship. Even on football Saturdays, when it more than demonstrates its ability to perform well in en mass group projects, it smoothly bifurcates into mirrored Scripts, and little squads haul their horns and bass drums into the upper decks of the stadium in the third quarter. Those in the cheap seats shall inherit the cheer groups.

People point in their wake and say, "There goes the Band!"  It's not "What's up, crapload of flugelhorns?" For wherever two or more are gathered in the name of OSUMB, all 225 are present.

You might not get the full-on echo-glorious, banging effect.  But, as when a sonic boom rips the atmosphere, you know that something tremendous has just happened-- you might not understand the technical intricacies behind it, but you do know that it was marvellously loud, and it was a sublime moment of man doing something wicked cool for once, and it's probably not something you yourself should attempt without risking permanent injury.

The phenomenon of one representing the whole is given where the Drum Majors are concerned, but when the Band stands in for a university with the population of a medium-to-significant resort town, not to mention an entire state with an appreciable amount of breweries and electoral votes, it splashes over the sidelines and right into the cultural psyche. Each row of the Band is its own spectacular galaxy of craft and tradition; together, concentrated, it is a pulsar. From many individual notes, one sonic tsunami.

Those who even so much as brush past it, even in a tailgating haze, might not know a quarter note from a Post-It Note.  But they do know that this brass-flashing marvel pretty much just shredded the space-time continuum one eight-to-five drill at a time.

This is expressed differently amongst the people; some gasp, others scream or applaud or offer the occasional standing ovation.  Or, if you're the five-year-old girl I saw at the Toledo game staring solemnly at the Band as it departed the field in full resplendent march, you wave and shout after them:  "Band people!  Yay for band people!"

I should've resigned the entire book at that point.  She'd said everything I've been struggling to put on paper for the past nine months, and she said it in about four words, without the help of an MFA, an editor, or a badly underused spellcheck.  She knew that band people aren't nothin' without the other band people... and that they should be well-yayed.