The Amityville Corps

Some people grew up with penis envy; not me. I owned one and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about – the minor pleasure of writing your name in the snow was more than balanced by the fact that all the equipment was on the outside, where evil strangers and perhaps raccoons could get at it.

No, I had something much worse…. I had Band Envy.

But I couldn’t help it. You see, I came from Norwalk High School in Norwalk, Connecticut, and the high school marching band was so perfect I suspect they all stepped out of a big spaceship that was shot here from the planet Krypton. You may have heard of the NHS marching band, simply because they were the kind of band that got invited to the Rose Parade and the Superbowl – and one year they placed third in the national championships, as opposed to their usual first- or second-place finish, and the principle put the flag at half-mast for two weeks. At Norwalk High, the band members got everything – dates, snazzy uniforms, automatic “A”s if you worked it right – but alas, if you were a talented beginner (as I was) you had NO HOPE of getting in. You had to be so good at your instrument that hardened criminals would weep openly when you played your solo… and even then, you had to pass two tryouts before they’d even let you sniff the training seats.

Got the idea? All of these riches, and I was locked out. I had Band Envy.

So when I went to college, my fourth choice was Southern Connecticut… but thank God I was a lousy enough student that I attended all of my first three choices and flunked out, one by one. So I finally got to sink to my level. At Southern I quickly acquired many friends, friends who were in this band and were desperate for me to get in, so I joined as snare drummer.

But I had forgotten – Norwalk High was a great school populated by the richest kids in the USA; Southern was a small armpit of a school (Official Motto: “When You Can’t Afford Anyplace Better”) that was interesting only because I could do whatever the hell I wanted there. I took over the school newspaper with my rampaging editorials, I routinely walked into the radio station and started doing monologues…. And the Southern band was no less pathetic.

After a solid year of intensive twice-a-week training, the Southern’s band reportoire consisted of three Beach Boys numbers.

We hadn’t quite gotten the hang of “marching and playing” yet, so the entire band performance consisted of marching out to the middle of the field in complete silence, standing in the middle of the field while we played – and for one glorious moment during the middle of “California Girls”, the entire band got up and walked single-file around the edge of the field. Once. This usually involved half of the wind instruments losing step. Then we finished up and marched out in silence. Truly, it was a show-stopper in more ways than one.

The drum line for the Southern Connecticut Marching Band consisted of three people – there was me on snare, clueless but at least playing rock ‘n’ roll. Matt was a very talented drummer who was trying to whip this entire drum corps into shape, and as such took the sexiest instrument. He was on rack toms and did all sorts of fiddly bits – he considered prepared parts to be beneath his immense talent, so he just improvised and yelled at us to keep to the rhythm. And there was Deanna, who had never played drums before; so they gave her the bass drum, which she whomped on every quarter note whether it was supposed to be there or not. “Wish they all could be California Girls BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM” was pretty much the way Deanne played. But she loved every moment of it and counted with an almost religious zeal – and let’s be fair, she never lost the beat.

Deanna was highly enthusiastic – of course, in retrospect I see that didn’t hurt that she was as cute as all hell and with a smile like hers she could have played the gas chamber and we would have loved her. Matt was a bit of a perfectionist, but we liked him. And, of course, everyone loved me because – well, because for the past three months they hadn’t had a snare drummer and they were happy to have anyone. A sentient porcupine would have done as well.

So. Just before our first football game – in the middle of November – Matt decides to get tough. He wants to impress the crowd, to wow ’em. So he comes up with this ridiculously ornate marching beat for the guys to march to on the way to the field (whereas before we had just clicked our sticks to keep time). It’s a great rhythm – snazzy, elaborate, involving triple ruffs, double paradiddles, and rapidly alternating flams. (Note to non-drummers: It’s hard.) Problem is, he’s the only one who can play it. He’s doing this weird, stop-and-go rhythm thing perfectly, while Deanna’s just going BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM through it like the Energizer Bunny and I’m fucking it up left and right. Finally he trains us so that I barely know it – and Deanna, for all of her enthusiasm, still hasn’t mastered her part and has created her own custom-designed part, which, strangely enough, consists of going BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. (She was a smart girl, but not a musician.) Problem is, we’ve never walked while playing it and tomorrow’s the night to play. We have to march. We’re in trouble.

We’re in more trouble when I get there. The windchill is around 30 below. You can spit and the saliva freezes and shatters on the sidewalk. (I ain’t kidding.)

We walk in and Matt ? the only one who can play this marching rhythm with any confidence, mind you ? has his right arm in a sling.

“It’s okay,” he says. “I can still play.” Never mind that half his rack drums are on his right side – he’s right-handed, did I mention that? He’s going for it. Never mind that this ridiculously ornate rhythm involves both hands and a prayer to play. He’s got the ego, he can do it. He picks up a stick and starts banging it out – it’s lousy, but we need him. We already know we’re going to suck, but I believe the theory seemed to be that the more sucky drummers on the field, the more camoflage so nobody would be able to tell exactly who was sucking. So we don’t tell him how bad it is. The football team’s counting on us. We march out.

It’s a half-mile march to the field and out onto the grandstand. Literally tens of rabid Southern fans are waiting for us, shivering in the cold and muttering for us to get a moveon. They follow as we lead the way. But I discover, very quickly, that everyone else is doing one and three on their right leg, whereas I started out on the wrong leg and am on the left. I look like a retard. The entire band is in place except for me – viewed from the side with all those legs stepping in rhythm, we look like a big caterpillar with a tic. Problem is, I can barely play this damn rhythm from hell that Matt’s created. It’s tough. So when I try to switch legs, I get caught up in switching and I drop a beat. I realize that I can’t drop the beat, so I go back to my left leg. Then I try to switch again, lose the beat, and go back. I have to keep the beat going, because as bravely as Matt is flailing away at his rack toms with one very exhausted arm, it’s obvious he’s losing the battle. He’s sort of punchy now as he’s halfway to the field, just hitting anything in random time and accidentally smacking the tuba once or twice. Bing BANG bong boomboomboom rat blam clack. Very rhythmic. Thank God he’s spent his entire band career improvising, so the band members just assume he’s at it again, but we know that Deanna’s BOOM BOOM BOOM is the only thing that’s keeping us together.

So I’m marching. Deanna’s to my left. I look at her and smile. She knows I’m out of it. Dammit, I have to switch this leg before we get to the field, or I’m going to wind up on the front page of the paper. I’m marching – LEFT right LEFT right LEFT right has to become RIGHT left RIGHT left RIGHT left. Deanna’s still there. I’m going to switch now. LEFT RIGHT GODAMMIT I missed a beat. I’m still on left. Smile at Deanna. She knows what I’m going through. We’re going through an intersection now. I’m going to switch now. LEFT RIGHT DAMN DAMN DAMN. Look at Deanna. She’s fallen over backwards and is laying on her back in the street like a turtle, trapped under her bass drum. Okay, now how am I going to switch this marching pattern? LEFT right LEFT right LEFT right….

….waitaminute.

Sure enough, I’ve marched about twenty feet beyond before I realize what’s happened. The band dissolves into confusion as I run back – yep. Deanna, blinded by her bass drum, stepped in a pothole and sprained her ankle. I pick Deanna up. You ready to go? Yeah, she is. What a trooper. She walks on.

Unfortunately, she’s limping now. A limping bass drum player. And she had apparently been playing EXACTLY as she marched, because now her steady 4/4 BOOM BOOM BOOM has turned into a heartbeat-like BOOMBOOM…. BOOMBOOM…. BOOMBOOM…. Matt’s going BING bong bing in a fury of randomness and Deanna’s now syncopated. I am the only one who is now playing the march. But we are committed. So we start marching again.

I start off on the left foot and remain that way all the way to the field.

We get to the field. Deanna’s sitting down. We’re icing her ankle, which isn’t hard, because there’s no fluid anywhere that’s not ice. Thirty mile-an-hour winds blow right through our thin polyester costumes. There are precisely forty people in the stands. The people on both football teams outnumber the audience. We joke about staging a takeover and making the crowd play football instead. Of course, being the band, we’re doing all the little standard sports riffs – “Steam”. The “charge” bit. And just as the team’s trying to get one last goal twenty seconds before halftime – and our show – we play “We Will Rock You”. This is a BOOM BOOM WHAP, BOOM BOOM WHAP, the BOOM BOOM provided by Deanna and I go WHAP. So we’re playing.

BOOM BOOM WHAP. BOOM BOOM WHAP. BOOM BOOM click.

Click?

I look down. It’s so cold out here that my snare drum head has shattered. Into little flaky bits. All I have are some plastic tatters left around the rim. It is now five seconds into halftime – we are supposed to play. There is no spare. They left the spare head back at the clubhouse.

So. We march out onto the field. I am waving my sticks in the air over my drum, pretending to play. Deanna is limping and going BOOMBOOM…. BOOMBOOM…. the entire band follows her lead and limps out onto the playing field in unison. Matt is the only one making noise, and he’s just going BINGbabababang WHAPdoodle. This is the single worst drum march in history, and all I can think of is that I AM PART OF IT.

And unbelievably enough, our Beach Boys medley was even worse.

I was not only cured of Band Envy, but the very sight of a bass drum still gives me the whammies.

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