October 17, 2007
by Jackie Davis-Martin
Age 13 at the time
The last parade of the summer carried me on highs and lows like those of the giant Ferris wheel dominating Kennywood Park, the magical scene of our annual marching band competition. It was 1955 and I was thirteen years old, equally preoccupied with garnering another victory for our junior high band, and trying to get a boy I really liked to pay attention to me.
As we scrambled off the buses the evening of the competition, the roller coasters undulated seductively around the parking lot where we were assigned to line up. I tried to concentrate on the parade route that Mr. Girotta, our director, was explaining to me, while keeping track of the boy I liked, Beanie. I was hoping to go on the rides with him afterward, my heart pounding already at the possibility of being buckled in next to him, of our being thrust with force against each other rounding the roller coaster curves, our arms shooting skyward in simultaneous joy.
Mr. Girotta followed my gaze and smiled. “Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about. Beanie’s on bass drum tonight.”
Our regular drummer was sick, he told me, frowning. Mr. Girotta had been teaching and drilling us kids since fourth grade and took us everywhere to compete. I was the drum major (or “-ette” as we added back then), sort of his right-hand girl, a position of both honor and isolation. As “major of the drum,” my job was to cue in the bass drum at times of playing opportunities, for instance while passing a judges’ stand. I got to wear a skirted costume with gold braid, a furry hat and tasseled boots, and carry a big fancy baton. I would hold that baton high and blow my whistle. Then, the drums’ rat-a-tatting would shift to the bass drum’s BOOM-boom! BOOM-boom! BOOOOM, BOOM-boom! The band would play! I knew that the worst thing that could happen to a school band was to march in muted cadence past the judges’ stand, instruments smartly and uselessly tucked under armpits.
Mr. Girotta stressed that the problem was to bring the band around the wide arc of the merry-go-round just before the judges’ stand. He left to collect our free tickets, and I crossed the dusty lot to Beanie who, although he made my heart flutter, was a wild card in the reliability department.
Beanie was tall and skinny and didn’t take much seriously. He had just moved here at the end of seventh grade, and everyone liked him. His spaghetti-like arms would wave above the snares or the triangles, or even, occasionally, on the cymbals. At our spring concert, before the curtain went up, he actually dropped a cymbal, sending of us into muffled paroxysms of laughter. When the cymbal had circled upon itself in resounding layers of clamor, Beanie scrunched up his eyes in a wincing apology.
“Hi, Miss Boss Lady,” he greeted me. I cringed; I wanted then to be a cute third clarinetist, in pants, with no concerns. “Mr. G. told me about the stand and all. I know what to do.”
“Oh! Good!” It was all I could gasp. Then, ever Mr. Girotta’s emissary, I couldn’t resist, “Beanie, your top button isn’t buttoned. Your jacket.”
He gaped at me. “My what? My button? Oh, well, pardon me!” He buttoned it up with elaborate gestures, his skinny elbows jutting wide. “Aha!” (He took a step back.) “What do I see here?” (He glanced at my white boots.) “Dust! Your boots have dust on them, Miss Perfect.”
I almost started to cry. “I’m not that at all,” I said. Did all this mean he liked me, or he didn’t? “You’ll watch me, won’t you? You know the signal?” I waved my clunky wand in the air, demonstrating.
He leaned forward, close enough to kiss. “I won’t take my eyes off you!” he said, smiling, then straightened to buckle on his drum.
I sort of auditioned Beanie early on. Our band was arranged in seven rows of seven, the percussion in the fourth row, bass drum in the middle. The first time I signaled, he boomed the roll-off, the band played its rousing Thunderer march. I felt on top of the world. I signaled near Kiddieland, then the Ferris wheel, and twice more. We were a team, Beanie and I! I strutted confidently toward the merry-go-round, pumping the baton.
But suddenly, the cadence grew fainter, and then got lost in the calliope music. I blew the whistle hard, and flourished the baton. Nothing happened. I did it again. Again, nothing. I turned around to realize with the worst of sensations that I had lost most of the band! Still with me were two rows of clarinets and flutes, looking over their shoulders nervously, and then there was a separation -- a big space -- that stretched around the merry-go-round into some unknown hell I didn’t want to think about. The piccolo pointed beyond me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see that I was also losing our connection to the rest of the parade.
I pranced through the space to the lost rows blowing my whistle hysterically. Nothing! I stopped and screamed “Roll Off! Take the Roll Off!” This was so far beyond protocol that even now I cringe at what I did.
BOOM-boom! BOOM-boom! BO-O-O-O-M, BOOM-boom! Finally. I ran in high phony marches back to where I was supposed to be, to the strains of The Thunderer, but it was too late. I was now in front of the judges who had watched our -- my -- humiliating show.
Afterward I sought the edge of the bus lot and crouched on a log until Mr. Girotta came and got me.
“I’m sorry!” I sobbed. He nodded and patted me on the shoulder. “Look, there’s someone here,” he said, producing Beanie from the shadows.
“I couldn’t see you!” Beanie said, in anguish. “I told Mr. G. I couldn’t. I didn’t hear the whistle, either. Those flanks took so long to go around -- I had to wait for them, didn’t I? I just couldn’t leave those rows behind, could I? Then, I didn’t know where you went, until you came running through!”
“Don’t!” I put my face in my hands.
“You didn’t even ride,” Beanie said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
“We lost.” I said, crying.
“Yeah,” he said, “ I know we did. I guess we did it together.” He lifted my hat from my lap. ”Anyway, I was wondering. I mean after all this, would you -- would you sit with me on the bus ride home?”
I turned to him in wonder. What did a trophy matter? Beanie liked me! I took his hand, and let him lead me back to the bus.