When my folks finally moved from their last home at the age 93 and 89, they had owned three different homes in Marquette over a fifty year span. They had toyed with the idea of downsizing to an apartment when both were in their late seventies, but we pointed out, a) they were doing fine in their own home, b) gardening was still one of their major hobbies, c) figuring out how to downsize a house full of stuff to a two or three room apartment was going to take a lot of work, and d) when the time came and they could no longer live in their own home, their three grown children could take care of sorting things out then. Living in Marquette, my brother Ron took on the brunt of their household chores and we helped as much as we could from two hours away. When the house was being cleaned out before it went up for sale, my wife and I ended up with the dining room set because my mother really wanted us to have it. We also took one book shelf my father had built years ago because some of my earliest memories involve pulling books from it. Oh yes, we also ended up with the family archive of photo albums and trays of slides. My father loved to take pictures and when he discovered slides, he documented a good chunk of our life in that medium. The photo albums and slides are currently sitting in the basement waiting for me to convert them to some form of digital storage.
If you are wondering what in the world any of this has to do with a thing called Band Day, let me explain. When I was trying to figure out how many slides there are in need of duplication, I pulled a couple out and held them up to the light just to see what they were. The first one I looked at was of fellow high school band drummer Wayne Maki and I standing next to our back porch in our full uniforms. It had to be from our freshman year in high school because we were both wearing marching snares. Wayne ended up as the marching band bass drummer for the next three years so grade nine was the only year we both played parade snare drums.
That was also the year we participated in our first Northern Michigan University Band Day held at Memorial Field. Being a Saturday, we were simply told to take our uniforms and drums home and get our own ride to the field. Wayne rode the bus so during lunch hour on Friday, we hiked the two blocks from the high school to my house and dropped off our marching gear. We had to be at the field at 9 a.m. Saturday morning to do a run through with all the bands on the field. Wayne’s dad dropped him off so we could get into our uniforms and my dad offered to drive us to the field. Once we got geared up, we had to let dad snap a couple of pictures before heading out. It was a great introduction to Band Day because it was a bright and sunny fall day. There were temporary bleachers set up across the endzones so we found our section and waited until everyone else showed up. We took the field and did a full run through of the program with the NMU Marching Band taking up the middle of the field and the high school bands arrayed in block formations around them. We played toward the concrete bleachers on the west side of the field and the echo returning from the empty stands was fierce. One had to consciously ignore the endless echoes and keep an eagle eye on the university band conductor. When we finished, he took up his bullhorn and announced from the top of his ladder, “That was great. I promise you won’t hear all the echos when the stands are full.”
We were done rehearsing by 11:00 a.m., leaving two hours for us to kill until the opening kick off. We wandered around and scoped out the other band’s gear. Luckily, the concessions were open early enough so we could get a hot dog and a caramel apple before game time. When the teams left the field after warm ups, we all assembled on the sideline to be marched into place for the pregame show. We joined the Marching Wildcat band for the Star Spangled Banner and then listened to them perform the school fight song and alma mater. Their drumline marched us off and we climbed into the stands to watch the first half. Our director, Joe Patterson, said we needed to stay put until after halftime. Once we were done performing, we could stay for the rest of the game or go home. Our ride wasn’t coming until 4:30 so we decided that watching the game beat the long walk home in uniform lugging a marching snare drum.
In the weeks before Band Day, we had run through the music a few times during our band period. While the other players had music to follow, we drummers had to memorize our parts. I thought we had done a pretty good job of it when our last run through sans drum music was done. There were other drummers around us who must not have spent enough time learning their parts. Some of the lines we heard them playing didn’t sound anything like what we were doing. Either way, getting to perform on the field with Northern’s band was great. Marquette High School had not yet built the football stadium next to the new high school yet, so we were playing on the same field that we did our halftime shows on Friday nights. For our efforts we were given a mini-LP recorded by the NMU Marching Band which still resides somewhere in my record collection.
For the life of me, I can not remember participating in Band Day the next fall. My buddy Jim (who was a freshman during my sophomore year) became the other half of our ‘dynamic drum duo’. When asked about it, said he could only remember taking part in one BD, but he wasn’t sure which year it was. Mr. Patterson passed away in the second semester of my sophomore year so perhaps he didn’t sign us up that fall for health reasons. Our new director decided we needed new uniforms and had plans to change up how we did our field routines for football games. This task was easier than it had been when we marched at Memorial Field because we could simply go around the school building and practice on the new athletic field which now bears the name of our former principal, Willaim Hart. The new band director, Bill Saari, told us up front that he wanted us to be ready to march in a couple of parades at the Traverse City Cherry Festival (which we went to between my junior and senior years). In that Mr. Saari made sure we marched in both the Marquette Fourth of July parade and the NMU Homecoming parade, I am willing to bet that we also went to Band Day during at least one of the two years he was the director. Again, memory fails me here as I can only remember one return to Band Day which may have been either my junior or senior year. I had my driver’s license by the fall of 1969 and I do remember driving Jim and I to Memorial Field in my mother’s beloved ‘whale car’ – a 350 cubic inch Chevy Caprice (we dubbed it ‘the whale car’ because if handled like one).
The weather conditions are responsible for etching this second particular Band Day in my mind. It had poured rain for several days and we were warned the field “might be a little muddy.” When we did the rehearsal with all the bands, the drummers were marched to the center of the field with the NMU drum line. A little bit muddy? The middle of the field was a soggy mix of mud and grass and we joked that if we started sinking out of sight, at least we had drum sticks to help us crawl out of the mud pit. It was a damp, drizzly kind of day right up to the run through, but then the rain stopped. It remained a humid, damp day, but we figured,”Hey, at least we aren’t getting rained on.” It was a good thing our new uniforms did not require us to wear white spats over our shoes because they would have been mud brown by the time we left the field.
I would be lying to say I remember who the Wildcat’s opponent was that day, but it didn’t matter because their white road uniforms didn’t stay that way long. It was one of those games where a player would slide five or ten yards when tackled. Remembering how sloppy the field was before the game, we wondered how far we would sink when we marched out after it was chewed up by those beefy, cleat wearing players. At two minutes before halftime, we were supposed to leave the stands and form up on the sideline. Just as we stood up were to leave the stands, the stadium announcer told the high school bands to remain in the bleachers. The NMU band would take the field and we would play our parts from the stands to, “prevent further damage to the turf.” Further damage? Surely we would not have had the same effect on the turf as twenty two cleat wearing football players and the crew of officials did trundling up and down the field. In fact, we may have helped matters by packing down the clumps of sod that were sticking up here and there, but no, we stayed put. Massed bands playing together on the field was difficult enough. Playing with the bands all spread out around the stadium was much worse. Don’t ask me how it sounded because the only word that could describe it is ‘chaotic’. We could hear our own band, but Lord only knew what the people in the bleachers were hearing.
I hadn’t thought about Band Day in many years until our kids were in high school band. The first Band Day trip I chaperoned with the Ontonagon band was in the latter half of the 1990s. Things hadn’t changed all that much from my high school days. Full rehearsal for the bands was still scheduled for 9 a.m. and that meant loading the bus at 6:30 a.m. just before departure. We put the drums and big horns in the school van which yours truly drove to Marquette. Instead of being safe at home by late afternoon like my earlier high school trips to Band Day, it was well after 8:00 p.m. before we got the bus unloaded. One can’t put in a full day and then not stop at the Golden Arches to feed the troops on the way home. Trips like this made for long days, but they were always enjoyable.
Back before everybody was taking digital pictures, I lugged along my trusty 35 mm Canon to document field and band trips. With camera in hand, no one ever gave me a second look when I would step across the rope barrier at the edge of the field to get some ground level shots. On one such trip, I was leaning against the goal post, snapping away and WLUC – TV 6 sports director Mike Ludlum standing on the other side of the same post filming the halftime show as well. When he set his camera down for a few minutes, I said, “As an old baritone player, you will be sure to get some good shots of the bands on the news, won’t you?” He said, “How did you know I played baritone?” and I reminded him that he had tooted it at the beginning of his Friday Night Fever sports reports. “Oh, yeah, I guess I have. Yep, I’m an old band guy. I will be sure to get them some air time,” he said as he headed to the other sideline. It was a little disappointing that the only air time the bands got on the weekend news was a brief mention that NMU had hosted so-and-so in football and it was Band Day at the Superior Dome. Not one frame of film was shown to prove it.
The last time I chaperoned the Ontonagon band to Band Day, they volunteered to do a field performance after the game. In previous years, the long drive home dictated departure before the post game band performance. I was inwardly grumbling that this would make for a really long day, but there were several things that snapped me out of my moment of self pity. First of all, the Ontonagon band, at thirty or so members, was the smallest band that had ever been asked to perform the post game show. Secondly, our kids killed it. They put on a well oiled performance that was greeted by a very positive audience response. My high school band usually marched 120 (plus or minus a few bodies) and even that seemed to leave a lot of empty field. Watching the Ontonagon band perform so well at the Superior Dome reminded me that rule number one for a small school is always not how many bodies one puts on the field, it is the quality and enthusiasm of those musicians that counts.
I haven’t chaperoned a band trip in fifteen or more years, but if the chance arises to attend an NMU football game, I like to try and get there on band day. The only thing that I have found disappointing is the absence of my old school band. These days, travel is expensive and a band has to pay for transportation to festivals and solo ensembles so a director has to watch how many trips they take in a year. Transportation costs have kept the number of bands participating in Band Day lower than it was back in my day. Not seeing the home town high school band makes me wonder; Marquette Senior High certainly doesn’t have the travel costs the out of town bands face. Even when transportation costs were much lower, we were expected to find our way to the game and home again.
Top Piece Video – no one does Marching Band like OkGO – This Too Shall Pass – If the uniforms were red, I could pretend it was my HS band!