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What I Saw

We may now add "rolling up on the Everglades with a parking pass from Ohio State still on the dash" to The List Of WTF Things I Find Myself Doing These Days.  It's a long list. There's still plenty of room at the bottom.

"Do you have to go to every rehearsal?" I've heard this question several times, most often from myself, but the answer remains the same:  No.  I don't have to go to any, really. 

But I don't like what missing what I miss when I don't.  You should see what this Band does in a week.  You should see what this Band does in a day, in fifteen minutes.  Each rehearsal of each passage hauls the performance level up another rung of OSUMB acceptability, and even when tens of thousands are keening their soaking, tailgate-fueled love, there's one baritone player who put one toe out of place on one maneuver and he is standing there haaaaaaaaaaaating that fact.  You could airdrop The Ohio State University Marching Band into your average third world country armed only with their instrument cases and their spit valves, and they would have free and open elections established by sunrise.  Then?  Concert at noon at the warlord's compound!  BYO string of wives!

So no, I do not like to miss rehearsals, let alone a two-week set of rehearsals, which is what I'm doing now as I undertake a stint as a writer in residence at Everglades National Park.  I applied for the program pre-book, when Script Ohio was to me but a few moments of especially loud cursive. But this is a necessary thing I'm doing, a good thing; a fortnight of forced perspective. 

The little buckeye I scooped out of Buckeye Grove last month rattles around an empty cupholder as the sawgrass and the marshes slide past, and I am where I am supposed to be.  I am content.  I am content until I see mosquitoes the size of B-1 bombers splatter on the outer dash, and then I am a little less content, but I am still, for some reason, where I am supposed to be. 

The clouds are spread thin and the sun is an egg yolk set on still waters here.  The crowd in Ohio Stadium wore winter gloves and woolen hats this Saturday; I was dumping sand out of my sneakers each time I re-entered my car, wilting against the frame of the door, a sucker to the sticky decline of rainy season.  On Sunday OSUMB were in my hometown, playing the halftime of the Bengals game; I was watching a single blue-bodied insect negotiate a marsh fern, contemplating the fact that the difference in elevation of an inch or two in these parts makes for an entirely different eco-neighborhood.  I read these things in National Parks Service brochures; I saw the panoramic HD pictures.  None of this prepared me for the acumen of the little blue bug.

When I first arrived here, I explained to a park ranger what exactly it is I do with the rest of my life at the moment, and he said, "You'll find it somewhat quieter here."

I wasn't looking for quiet when I started chasing down a 192-member brass and percussion band.  That's not their specialty.  It's not necessarily mine, either, but the wideness and the insistent flatness of the landscape here demand hushed tones.  There is no app for this.

But there are different kinds of quiet, even TBDBITL quiet-- the sousaphone player I saw the day of tryouts facing a pillar with his instrument about two inches from the wall, forcing a sheath of musical privacy in a rehearsal room screeching with trumpet arcs, snare beats, and stripped-off nerve endings.  The rest before the entire Band propelled itself down on one knee on a final note, body on the ground, instruments flung up towards lunar apogee.  The terrible pause on a Monday afternoon, instruments up, a last nanosecond of ambiguity before the destiny grinder known as challenges begin, when about twenty minutes will decide who gets to add a ramp entrance to the lifetime memory bank and who gets to stand there and watch somebody else adding a ramp entrance to the lifetime memory bank.

And even within the great and twisting vortex of screams of appreciation, sometimes, there is Everglades stillness.  When Ohio State played Toledo last month, I stood on the floor of St. John Arena at the Band's hybrid practice session and pep rally known as the Skull Session. They played "Zoot Suit Riot."

I should have known what was coming when Jason The Ridiculously Awesome Drum Major shouted for the graduate assistants who were standing on the opposite side of the floor to get out of the way.

He then performed, which is an inadequate verb-- but "pretty much rearranging time and space in 4/4 time" also seems, I don't know, something of an understatement.  In the nine months I have known him, it was the best I had ever, ever seen him do his job. 

It wasn't just that the high tosses were arrow-accurate or that he'd leapt particularly high or pulled the crowd in the upper decks along with him like a hijacked freight train.  There was an edge of undistilled self he was laying down, a vibrant purity of craft and art and athletics.  I heard the crack of the ground bounces.  I saw his fleeting eye contact with entire bleacher sections and the felt the trembling aftermaths from the detonations of the percussion section.  And I'd captured it with a video camera.

Except... I hadn't.  This is what Jason and OSUMB did, but it is not what I saw.  What you have here is some pretty impressive twirling backed by a terrific marching band; what I saw was phosphorescence in epaulettes, unadulterated spirit and energy and essence burning through a tired old gym with note-sucking acoustics and a dingy board-covered floor. 

And in a moment past the end, even beyond the instant when many in the crowd vaulted to a standing position, Jason stood there, after his bow, after saluting them with his baton-- he stood there, utterly still.  The kinetics were done but the message was not.  He stood there and stood there, four or five beats longer than strictly necessary, chin up and set but eyes absolutely blazing.  He stood there because this thing, this thing he'd been training to do since the age of ten because it was fun and he loved it-- he'd done this thing well.

I mentioned to Jason's excellent mother that I was on the floor at that session and would send her what I'd shot. Jason had his back to his main videographer, his father, for much of the performance.  He could not see his son's face, as I had.

"Did you get pictures?"  she said.

I shook my head.  "They wouldn't show what I saw anyway."

She nodded.  She knew.

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