I’m With the Band

For this drummer, the heartbeat of camaraderie goes on

By David Claude Bailey

On fall Fridays after I fired up the charcoal in our backyard in Sunset Hills, I’d sit and watch the sun go down and pop my first IPA. In the distance, faint but insistent, I could hear the rhythmic, tribal thrum of Grimsley High’s drumline. But you don’t just hear drums, you feel them, deep down, where it matters. Primal, appealing to our innermost sense of rhythm and communication, no wonder schools use them to whip fans into a fury.

Drums and I go way back — to my mother’s kitchen where, convinced that I was a child prodigy, she’d allow me to turn her pots and pans into misshapen hulks until my sister pleaded with her to make me stop. In eighth grade when James Moore brought a carload of instruments so we could try out for band, I went straight for the snare drum. For the next four years, drums were my constant companion.

For this clueless and clumsy oddball in a small town like Reidsville, being in the marching band allowed me to join the tribe, and with zero athletic ability, be part of football and basketball season. Despite my straggly goatee, my longish hair and my stupid grin, I was someone, someone special, in fact, first drummer in the marching band. An introvert by nature, my central position in the marching band helped me grapple with sometimes being the center of attention. And little by little I realized that having power over others was an important responsibility.

Take the Sun Fun Parade. It was in Myrtle Beach, which had a deserved reputation for its libidinous and wild atmosphere. But what sticks in my mind is not the raucous night in the motel with 25 coed band members and maybe three chaperones. What I remember best is Art Frazier, standing in the middle of the street, blowing his whistle four times to get things going and hoisting his baton high in the air to begin our 2-mile-long, fun-in-the-sun strut. It was totally my responsibility to set the pace so we would catch up with the Shriners’ crazy little cars, which were buzzing around in front of us. I did this by speeding up the cadences — until people began looking at me with concern, especially the tuba players struggling to swing their massive horns from side to side. Eventually, we closed the distance, at which point I slowed the beat down to the pace of the rest of the parade, screaming out the names of the cadences we played until Art announced which marches we’d play. Never mind the 100 percent wool uniforms that exuded a naptha-heavy mothball aroma as the 93-degree temperature beat down on our navy-blue-and-gold school colors. Or the sweat that dripped off the leather bands that held on our ridiculous Nutcracker toy soldier hats. Or the bite of the drum strap after 10 minutes. Or the blisters you earned from the drumsticks, an extra pair of which rattled around in my pocket so when the heads snapped off, flying like bullets through the air, you had a spare pair. It was a heady affair, prompting a really rare commodity among teenagers: deserved pride in a job well done after hours of practice.

Things got pretty tribal on the bus rides back from football games, when you might get a come-hither look from Ruby, to join the “wild” crowd at the back of the bus. For to be a band member meant acceptance into an otherwise exclusive club. Al, perhaps the best-looking and coolest guy in our class, who gave me advice on dating; Jimmy, who accepted me though he ran around with a group that had a lot more fun than I ever would; Kathy, the only female drummer, with naturally blonde hair and a flippantly joyous personality, someone who wouldn’t have given me the time of day had I not been a member of the drumline. Their fathers weren’t members of the Penrose Park Country Club as my father was, nor did they fraternize with the beatnik crowd that I ran with. But we were best of friends and I learned so much from them.

At age 40, I wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Moore, aka “Curly.” I can see him now, waving his baton madly and screaming — the only way he could be heard — “Drums! Drums! Drums! Please! Not so loud.” That memory occasions a twinge, no, a stab of remorse because there was always genuine pain and concern in his voice.

I told him how he had instilled in me an appreciation of music that has since been at the center of my life and has helped me navigate some really rough times. Mr. Moore graciously wrote back and said he was glad I’d learned to love music and didn’t remember my being particularly worse than anyone else.

That, of course, stung like the devil, but I’m getting over it.  OH

Contributing Editor David Claude Bailey still enjoys drumming on tabletops, car dashboards, and just about any hard surface until he drives his children, wife and workmates crazy. To hear some RSH cadences, click on www.rshdrumline.com, a website created by O.Henry frequent photographer Mark Wagoner..

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