Drummer in the Band
I think being a drummer is like being a redhead. You just are. At sixteen I’m the snare drummer in the Round Lake High School band, the only snare drummer. It’s a small school.
I’m head of the percussion section in the Round Lake High School concert band, pep band and marching band, and in the marching band I’m trusted to create my own street beats, those drumming solos between songs when the band is parading.
There was one long march where the crowd was in clusters along the rural highway, and I was instructed to begin a street beat whenever I saw a crowd – and that would be a signal for the band to begin our next marching tune. On this never-ending parade we past farmland, pastures, some of the band members huffing under the burden of bass drum or a Sousaphone.
We marched in silence along an empty highway. A herd of cows saw us…and came down to the fence. I started my street beat. The kids laughed. The conductor, Mr. Genualdi, gave me his wry smile, and the band played – we played The Stars and Stripes Forever to the cows, and their mild eyes followed us for a long, long while.
As a concert band we won awards, traveling to exotic cities to compete: Peoria, Rockford, Waukegan. We were good because of our conductor, who was a teacher every kid prays for, a bright, enthusiastic, compassionate man who demands your best, and so you find your best, you create it for yourself and for him, for Mr. Genualdi.
We travel to a town where the bands will compete. We reach the hotel. I share a room with a trumpet player a tuba player and the other boy in the percussion section, who plays the big bass drum. More band members begin collecting in our room, even some girls, even a boy who has somehow bought beer. Just three bottles for all of us, but we feel wild. I engineer the room, giving orders. Stand the tuba in the corner, slide the drums under the beds, put the trumpet case in the closet – give us room. The place fills up. We sit on the beds and talk with the girls. You, see, it’s 1957. So we sit on the beds and talk with the girls. Later there’s some kind of water fight. There’s more beer. A card game. Nobody sleeps. In the morning we put on our uniforms and board the bus.
We try not to sleep on the bus. We have to be sharp. We’re first on the program out of the ten competing bands, performing as soon as we arrive at the hosting school. The bus ride will last only another ten minutes. We have to have our edge, for our band, our school, our town, and for him – Mr. Genualdi in his all white uniform, sitting up front behind the bus driver.
It’s at that moment that I realize that the drums are still under the beds back in the hotel. The realization cores me like an apple. I’m hollow inside, and I’m sweating now, soaking my shirt, and yet I’m chilled. Maybe I have an instant fever. I hope I’m going to die. I keep trying to hold off the fact of the left-behind drums. It’s as if it’s a too-bright light, and I can’t look at it. Maybe if I close my eyes; maybe if I don’t think about it, or maybe if I think so hard that its not there, I can erase it.
I close my eyes, but when I open them I see the bright light. It’s the white uniform of Mr. Genualdi, who is sitting in the front of the bus, and there is nothing else to do, but to stand up and walk down the aisle and tell him.
I stand up. I begin to walk. I steady myself. The aisle seems so long. I want it to be long. I want the walk to take forever, so I never have to tell him. He sees me now, coming forward. He smiles. I try to swallow. I can’t. I have to speak. His smile is gone because he sees my expression. “I’m really sorry,” I tell him. And then I form the sentence that is like a club. He’s a mentor, he’s an inspiration, he’s a great guy, and I’m about to club him. I say the sentence. “I left the drums at the hotel.”
His eyes widen. He pales. I say again, “I’m really sorry.” Anger and disappointment crash on his face, and then he turns away. He looks out the window. He looks at his watch. His sigh is a sword entering my chest. I wish I could cut out my heart and hand it to him. When he looks at me again, he has his control. He says, “We’ll borrow some drums from a band that’s not playing till later.” And then he sighs again and shakes his head at me, but this time the small, wry, tolerant smile comes with it.
This boy standing in the aisle beside him is a good boy. This boy tries very hard. Mr. Genualdi likes this boy, and he sees this boy’s pain, and so he gives this boy absolution like a priest. Instead of the sign of the cross, it’s that wry half smile and a tolerant shake of the head. I feel relief; I feel even love; and I feel older. And we reach the school, and we play, and we win a first place for Mr. G.