I showed up an hour early to the band rehearsal. Trust me to be forgetful. Sigh.
The old barn was still there. I parked and walked inside the entranceway.
A few of the old timers were downstairs in the bar.
Yup. That's right. The band was founded in 1896; it's the last sputtering gasp of a dying breed, this band hall. These days, community bands present a professional image. They include high school students, college students, and professional musicians. But this band, loving and loved by the town for over a century, was just a bunch of people who got together to play.
The band used to be more professional I hear. An old friend once told me a story about his first day in the band.
My first time was different.
"You're not 21 are you? Here, have a soda. Rehearsal is upstairs." I took a soda can up with my trumpet case. A pint of beer sat next to the principal trumpet player, but when he put his lips to the mouthpiece, beautifully liquid notes melted out the other end. He must have been made of music, so clear and effortless was his sound. He died a year later from liver problems.
The director showed up, and I tried to keep up for two hours. My two years at Bainbridge were the most musically challenging of my life.
We chatted for a while. Jimmy was upset that I had missed a year. For him, college was an unknowable, a sorrowful void, an evil that sucked up the lives of too many great musicians. He struggled to understand the internship that a relative was taking. I tried to explain,
"See, in office jobs, they want you to have experience. If you don't have any experience, they won't hire you. To help people out, big companies and even the government do internships. You work for them for free for a summer, and they write you a letter at the end."
Jimmy shook his head. "I thought that was illegal. Whatever happened to minimum wage? I tell you, this country really is getting worse. There's hard times ahead."
I thought about the coal mines and wondered if there was much difference between an elevator and an underground coal car.
Jimmy talked. His bent-over body was shorter. The fiesty energy was gone. The joy was gone. I hadn't seen him since his son, the principal trumpet player, had died. Jimmy's face much more wrinkled than I remembered.
I remembered my first concert, when Jimmy played Ave Maria. I'm not Catholic, but if I ever came close to sighting the virgin mother, it was in the shape of his full, resonant notes. That night, I forgot to play my part I was so entranced.
After talking to Jimmy, I practiced upstairs for a while until I heard some people come in the door. I walked back down. We started to chat, to reminisce. Then Al walked in.
His lip was covered in a scab.
Jimmy spoke first.
"So, you rode for the last half of the parade, eh?"
Al began to laugh. His accident was a joke to them, these WWII vets who couldn't stop playing music, who hazarded their lives just to play a parade. They traded stories of the war with aging. Charlie showed me his bruise, a blotchy purple patch larger than my outstretched hand.
"I did that carrying a ladder yesterday," he beamed and chuckled quietly.
The lead clarinetist remained silent all night, his face (so energetic before) carved from saggy, craggy stone. But he too trudged upstairs to rehearse when the time came.
He doesn't march any more.
Jimmy doesn't march either, but he hasn't left the band. His baritone sat unused, its case unopened during rehearsal that night. For Jimmy was cooking dinner for the band as he listened beneath the creaky oak floorboards, downstairs in the bar.
Maybe Jimmy was right. Every once in a while, I go back. But I don't really belong any more. It's too real for an inhabitant of the artificial professional and academic worlds.
Someday I'll come back and the barn will be empty. And it will be partly my fault.
But life has overtaken me. I'm not marching any more.
Walk outside the band hall, down the street a hundred feet to the edge of the Susquehanna River. Over a hundred years ago, the first members of the band probably sat here and watched the water flow by.
What passages of time did they grieve?