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Frozen in roughly 4/4 time

October 30, 2009

As soon as I heard the announcement telling me to report to the principal's office, I knew what it was for. Or more precisely, what it was not for: Since I'd been skipping band practice religiously, I knew some comeuppance was in store.

After Mr. Murphy and I exchanged the obligatory salutations, he got right down to business.

"You know," he said, "you've been dropped from the band."

"Yeah," I said. "I know."

Actually, I was lying through my teeth. Sure, I hadn't been to either a practice or lesson in weeks, maybe months, but I didn't think that I'd be kicked out for it.

An action so decisive and final never occurred to me. It may have been a fervent hope and burning desire, but never a possibility. In fact, I'd come to regard band as a form of servitude from which there was no escape except graduation or death.

To my overactive imagination, quitting band was like deserting the French Foreign Legion - there was no statute of limitations and no means would be spared as bounty hunters scoured the globe, eventually dragging me back and chaining me to a music stand, doomed to forever play - what else but - "Stars and Stripes Forever."

So if band was such a pain in the piccolo, why did I ever join in the first place? The most likely answer is peer pressure.


Facing the music

Back in them days, Bunkie, playing a musical instrument was considered de rigueur. I remember in sixth-grade, an orchestra was started. I tried the violin but gave it up in short order due to extreme arm fatigue, coupled with extreme string screeching.

In ninth grade I joined band. I was on the rebound from chorus, from which I'd been punted for what I thought was an unjustified reason - I had a lousy voice. So band was my only option for musical greatness.

Now keep in mind, back then band - like the world - was a gender-restricted place. Thus the instrument you were given depended on your sex, and sometimes your status within your sex's status hierarchy.

For example, woodwinds were girls' country, as were flutes, piccolos, triangles and glockenspiels.

Drums were muy macho and thus the exclusive province of jocks, hoods and rebels.

Brass instruments were a guy's gig (except for French horns and occasionally a sax), but there were separate strata among them. Even though tuba was the biggest instrument, ironically, the gentlest guys got them. Saxophones went to the hipsters, and trumpets to the ladies' men. Finally, trombones. They were assigned to a motley crew - nerds and geeks, the myopic and dyspeptic, third-string football players and third-rate poets.

It should come as no surprise that I was assigned a trombone.

If nothing else can be said about me as a trombonist, I was consistent. I started out incompetent, and three years later I was still incompetent. It was because I believed in magic.

This all took place long before I actually became a magician, which is why I believed in magic in the first place. As a magician, I know its three most vital secrets - practice, practice, and more practice. But as a kid, I didn't even know what practice was. I just figured, hey, I'd give the trombone a toot here and there, whenever the mood hit me, and within a few months I'd become the next Glen Miller. Since at the same time I also sent away for books on mastering mind reading and telekinesis, it made perfect sense.


Winter of my discontent

While my musical career was, to use world-class understatement, undistinguished, it had some major highs. Or, in a meteorological sense, some major lows, namely marching in the Winter Carnival parades.

They were waking nightmares in the truest sense of the word.

First, we're talking Winter Carnival during the old Adirondack winters, when a parade-day temperature of minus 10 would've been considered downright balmy. It seems minus 20 was closer to the norm.

Next, there were our uniforms. They were old-school band uniforms, frayed, quasi-military rigs that tried to exude a certain martial pizzazz but actually came off looking like something worn by an impoverished nation's army - after their final defeat.

But the real deal was the "accessories." Our hats were shakos with a moth-eaten red plume on top. I guess they added a certain panache, but they sure didn't add any protection from the elements. They were cardboard and had no ear flaps. And while I guess we could've worn earmuffs, no self-respecting man in uniform would ever consider such sissification.

Our footwear? Sneakers, of course. After all, everyone had a pair, and since the most important thing was uniformity, who gave a flying flute if we were freezing our tootsies off?

Oh yeah, I don't think we wore gloves either.


Storm King's brutal reign

The whole scene can best be summed up as "Ivan Denisovich meets John Philip Sousa."

We got dropped off somewhere around the Vets' Club - early, of course - waiting around long enough to make sure our ears, nose and toes were about to fall off. Then we lined up, did the old "Hut-one, hut-two" and took off down Broadway, perfectly in step for probably 50 yards or so, until our feet went completely numb. After that, the best we could muster was a somewhat rhythmic and wooden stumbling, accompanied by soft moans, groans and gasps. All in all, if we looked like anything military, it was the remains of Napoleon's army desperately straggling out of Russia in the fateful (and fatal) winter of 1812.

But still we soldiered on.

By Berkeley Square, the only thing warm on me was the boogers flowing out of my nose and the tears running down my cheeks.

Interestingly, we never played anything the whole time. Instead, we were saving the best for last: The plan was to pull up in front of the town hall and wow the judges with a brilliant rendition of that classic march, "Storm King."

Actually, "Storm King" was chosen for only one reason - all the brass instruments could play it without moving either keys or slides. And darn good thing, because everyone's instrument had been frozen solid since the start.

But it was all to no avail because not only were the instruments frozen solid - so were we. Even if the instruments had worked, none of us had the wherewithal to know how to work them. At that point all we knew was we were at the end of the parade and our ropes.

Still, we persisted, haggard, hysterical, hallucinatory, essentially spitting into our instruments, making a sound like "blaat, blaat, blaat" in very roughly 4/4 time.

And then, hypothermic and half-mad, we were herded into a school bus and dumped off at Petrova School, left to heat up and heal as best we could.

Then, a year later, the entire scenario was repeated, step by frozen step. But not for me.

Because I'd been booted from band my senior year, I could no longer be part of the team but was doomed to watch them from afar.

And watch them I did, as they floundered up Berkeley hill, red-nosed, red-eyed, shaking like buttons on an outhouse door.

Seeing such courage and nobility in pursuit of yet one more lost crusade brought tears to my eyes - but not tears of sorrow or compassion.

Instead, they were tears of joy that I no longer shared their sorry lot.



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