Down South: quitting the band
By Tom Poland
I played trumpet in the Lincolnton High School band. Well, that’s not true. I was in elementary school, not high school, so the band must have had another name, and I never played the trumpet. I tried. I would quit the band to play football, and thus cart around lifetime memories of band directors, musty uniforms, and the old Green Building where the band practiced.
The vanquished Green Building stands tall in memory. I see it still. It was a drafty building with creaky floors, loose windows, and a spooky basement filled with coal. It had a boiler room and radiators that groaned and hissed. There was no other building like it, this building the color of congealed salad and a strange smell. Classmate Skip Hardin recalls, “The building had a real unique smell, probably the oil on the wood floors. Not unpleasant but kind of strange. I think it was compounded by the fact that you were immersed in a new experience anyway, starting school and all.”
The Green Building housed classrooms downstairs for PE and band practice upstairs. We’d ease up its squeaky stairs to the big room where we practiced, and it was there that the band director I remember most would vent his anger on us. Mr. Harrison was his name, and I suspect trying to teach country kids to play music was a frustrating venture. We had other band directors during my music stint. Seems there was a Mr. Holder and for certain Mrs. Brown. I do not recall one pleasant moment with any director. They all acted as if they would have rather been doing something else.
I don’t recall performing in concerts but we played songs during halftimes of Red Devil games. We probably played like the devil. I was no good; mastering the trumpet proved impossible. What I remember about the halftime shows were heavy wool uniforms of cream, off-white, and red that smelled of mothballs and dry cleaning and were hot. Mine was way too large. Sort of like the big suits David Byrne of the Talking Heads wore. We wore military-like hats with large white plumes. Those hats wobbled and keeping your hat straight while marching and holding an instrument wasn’t easy. On top of that an attachment held your sheet music in front of your face and yet you had to march in a straight line.
What I remember most will surprise you. It wasn’t the songs we learned, though “On Ohio” was one. It wasn’t my fellow band members, though Carl Ivey is memorable, and it wasn’t when Mr. Harrison hurled glue bottles at us, though one bottle disappeared down the bell of a sousaphone with a clunk. I most remember the mouthpiece of my trumpet getting stuck. The slightest knock against that mouthpiece lodged it hopelessly in the trumpet. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t pull that mouthpiece free, and Dad wasn’t pleased. Once the mouthpiece stuck, the trumpet wouldn’t fit in its case. It stuck so often that Dad finally bought a mouthpiece puller.
For me, being in the band wasn’t a happy time, ruined by that finicky mouthpiece, moody band directors, red-and-white uniforms that didn’t fit, and scary moments in a scary green building. I quit band to play football and left with a trumpet, a fuzzy ability to read music, and bad memories.
Looking back, which is usually 20-20 vision, maybe I should have toughed it out. Something good might have come of it. Maybe I would have gone on to a career in a real band. God forbid, though, I would have become a frustrated band director. Playing college ball didn’t work out either. One thing I learned from band and ball. The things we avoid and the things that elude us surely shape our future. It’s all part of the process of elimination, part of life itself.