It’s a chilly October night in our small Ohio town: perfect football weather. The stands are full and the air is foggy under the lights. The marching band stands at attention in two ranks, one in each end zone, with the drummers positioned on the fifty-yard line. Everyone is waiting for me to play four rim-shots to set the tempo for the Ohio State fight song, which always opens our halftime shows. Angry voices are beginning to shout “Come on!” and “Let’s go!” My sticks tremble as I try to drown out the crowd so I can hear a tempo of precisely 160 beats per minute in my head. Below that, and the fight song will sound like a dirge; above it, and people will miss notes and maybe even stumble. After a seemingly endless delay, I hear a pulse that feels like 160—but just as I begin to raise my right stick, I wake up.
This is surely an odd dream for an English professor in his sixties to be having—and yet I do have it, probably two or three times a year. Not only does it remind me that we cannot outrun who we once were, but it also reveals precisely who I once was. In high school I was a drummer. Sadly, that’s pretty much all I was: if I hadn’t played the drums, I would have been invisible.
I owed this yearbook identity to my mother, who thought that I was becoming a loner and insisted, after I finished ninth grade, that I join a club or take up some sort of activity when I started high school in the fall. My older brother, then off at college, had played drums in the marching band—and since his old snare drum and some sticks were lying around the house, I chose the band. That summer, in weekly lessons at a music store, I dutifully worked my way through Books I and II of Haskell Harr’s Method for Snare Drum. By summer’s end I could play most of the twenty-six standard rudiments at reasonable speed, though I still didn’t have a decent double-stroke roll. I figured that I could fake one until I did.
A notice in the paper announced that auditions for the high school drumline would take place the following Saturday at noon in a large tin shed where the school system stored old furniture. All would-be drummers were requested to bring a permission slip from their parents and a pair of Pro-Mark 3S marching sticks. When I arrived on my bike, four boys whom I didn’t know were nervously fiddling with their sticks and waiting for the head drummer to arrive. After around twenty minutes, an old Chevy careened into the lot and slid to a stop in a cloud of gravel dust. Three guys hopped out, smoking and laughing as if one of them had just told a dirty joke. The seniors had arrived: John, bespectacled and overweight; Larry, broad-shouldered and somber-faced; and Rusty, rail thin with piercing blue eyes. It was immediately clear from how the other two deferred to him that Rusty was the head drummer.
Unlocking the shed with an air of self-importance, Rusty ordered us to place an old door over a pair of desks. He played a cadence on the door and told us to imitate it—then another cadence, and another, and another. Whenever somebody rushed or dragged the tempo, Rusty got inches from the offender’s face, yelled out the count, and threatened to kick his ass. Occasionally he grabbed our wrists and bent them until our upraised sticks were perfectly vertical. Rusty was even more intimidating when he didn’t yell but merely glared at us with a baleful, cold-eyed deadpan. All that afternoon we played cadences until our hands ached, but nobody complained or left. This, we assumed, was simply what it was like to be in the drumline.
* * *
Gently peeling first-aid tape from my hands after the first day of band camp, I am shocked to encounter open blisters on every finger. My thumb joints are red, and they ache so badly that it hurts to turn on the faucet of the bathroom sink. These hands don’t even look like mine anymore. As I lower them into the cold water, I notice something else that’s different: an acrid stench wafting from my armpits. It suddenly dawns on me, again with a mild shock, that today’s workout has produced my first grown-up sweat.
Band camp, or Hell Week, began two weeks after that drumline session. We spent mornings in the band room learning the music for the first halftime show; in the afternoons we went outside to practice marching. The afternoon sessions were what gave Hell Week its name. With the football team going through its paces on an adjacent practice field, we learned to step off with our left feet and lift our knees high, to make crisp right-angled turns and about-faces, and most of all, to take eight equidistant steps for every five yards. “Eight-per-five” became an endless mantra issuing from the band director’s bullhorn as kids of all shapes and sizes submitted to the unnatural movements of quick-stepping. The six guys hauling tubas inspired special awe: nobody blamed them for making the most trips to the plastic water jugs arrayed on a sideline bench.
Whether the band was playing or marching silently, the drumming never stopped. Our thighs ached from snare drums banging against them, and our not-yet-callused hands sprouted blisters that made it painful even to hold our sticks. First-aid tape kept us going, along with Rusty’s bellowed threats. And whenever he set the tempo too fast or too slow, the band director yelled at him, the confirmation of a hierarchy that I found strangely reassuring.
No one wanted to anger the director. A tall, dignified man in his fifties with a Marine-style brush-cut, Mr. Hite was referred to—always from a distance and under one’s breath—as “God” Hite. It was easy to see why: his bullhorn-amplified instructions thundered down, Sinai-like, from his customary spot atop an observation tower. Like any deity, “God” Hite was feared but also adored. Not only was he responsible for our band being one of the best in northwest Ohio, but it was widely rumored that his drill-sergeant demeanor masked a warm heart.
That indeed turned out to be true—but all I knew at this point was that a bigger and more powerful Rusty was perched in that tower. The fact that Mrs. Hite was my Latin teacher doubled the pressure. I figured that if I ever came up in the Hites’ dinner conversations, messing up in band would cancel out any success I might have in Latin, and vice versa. I internalized this concern as a moral imperative. Wouldn’t a good drummer who was incapable of translating Caesar’s Commentaries be, in some vague but shameful sense, only half a person? And wouldn’t a crack Latinist who routinely marched out of step be equally deficient? I spent all of tenth grade trying desperately to please the Hites. To disappoint one would be to disappoint both—and that was unthinkable.
* * *
Carefully placing my feet on the bass drum and high-hat pedals, I nod to signal that I’m ready. I can already play a basic rock beat, but when the guitarists launch into “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” several seconds go by before I fall in—softly at first, then louder to match the volume of what’s coming out of the amplifiers. This is my first time playing rock with other people. And despite my desire to be cool, I can feel my face spreading into an insane grin that draws a laugh from the seniors. When the song ends, Rusty hands me a beer.
The outward symbols of Rusty’s authority consisted of the head drummer’s traditional regalia: a black drum strap—everyone else’s was white—and a lanyard bearing the key with which all the drums were tuned before each game. Two rules were sacrosanct. First, nobody but Rusty could speak once a halftime show began. Multiple voices issuing from the drumline might throw the band off. Second, if Rusty dropped or broke a stick during a show, whoever was closest to him had to relinquish one of theirs. The punishment for breaking either rule was by now fairly predictable. The offender would get his ass kicked.
Although it soon became clear that Rusty wasn’t really going to kick anybody’s ass, a narrative had been fixed, and our roles as cowering apprentices reinforced a sense of order that I found strangely comforting. I played this role well, and before long Rusty invited me to watch his rock band rehearse on Saturday afternoons. These practices took place in the cinder-block basement of his house, with Big John and Larry—and now me—as overly enthusiastic spectators. The lead guitarist, another senior named Terry, initially objected to my hanging around, but soon accepted me as a kind of mascot whom it would be fun to initiate into the big-boy life.
Between songs came long stretches of lounging on a pair of ratty sofas: drinking, smoking, and discussing which girls the seniors wanted to sleep with. At first I refused the beers and cigarettes, but eventually accepted them to avoid getting teased. What I really wanted, of course, was to sit in. By now reasonably competent on a drum set, I wondered how it felt to play with other people instead of records. When Rusty finally let me play, my attempt to act as if it were no big deal fooled no one.
* * *
Seconds before his big moment, Rusty marches out from the drumline, positions himself midfield, and switches off his snares to get the tom-tom sound needed for his solo on “Wipeout.” But just as a spotlight finds him and he is about to start the required flurry of sixteenth notes, he loses a stick. We’re too far away to hand him one of ours, so he frantically scans the ground until he spots it just behind him. As he stoops to retrieve it, his mouth is open and his eyes are glazed with fear. For the first few bars of what should have been his solo, the band has been marching in dead silence.
Then as now, high school was governed by a fierce tribalism. There were the Honor Roll kids, the popular kids, the jocks, the religious kids, the artsy kids, the crazy kids, and the hoods. Most members of the marching band didn’t fit into any of these cliques. Lots of band kids were smart, but they weren’t obsessed over grades. How could they be, when our after-school practices devoured all that potential homework time? Some of the tuba players could easily have been jocks, but they didn’t want to take any more beatings than what their instruments were already dishing out. The obscenities tossed around during practice disqualified us as religious in any sense, and while you might think that musicians would qualify as artsy, that label was reserved for the school’s painters, poets, and actors. The crazy kids—the ones who pulled fire alarms and urinated on potted plants—would have gone even crazier under the rigors of band life. And even though Rusty and his crew tried to act like hoods, it was obvious that they didn’t really want to fight anyone.
Though we band kids were lauded on game nights, for the rest of the week we were dismissed as hopelessly uncool. Owing to our dorky, bellhop uniforms and our prissy movements when we marched, the name commonly bestowed on us was “band fruit.” We reacted to this label by sticking together. Following a standard high-school script in which outsiders try to redefine themselves as insiders, we hung out in the band room every chance we got. “To Practice My Instrument” was the formula that we wrote on slips requesting to go there during study halls.
We devoted ourselves to the one thing that our classmates did respect about us: the halftime show. This zeal had nothing to do with school spirit; we did it for our own pride and, of course, for Mr. Hite. You couldn’t endure the demands of band life without believing that what he wanted was a good thing for you to want, too. And in truth, it was. Marching band was my first experience of feeling part of something bigger than me. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but this disparate collection of misfits making music and moving in synch felt like a microcosm of life itself. Everyone had a part to play, but because we couldn’t hear the music well or see the formations from where we stood, we had to trust that it all added up to something. And since only “God” Hite was able to grasp that larger something, we ultimately trusted in him.
Maybe we belonged with the religious kids after all. In football-crazed Ohio, the Friday-night game was the centerpiece of an elaborate ritual that stretched from the pre-game pep rally to the post-game dance. There was a Judgment Day, too: the following Monday, when Friday’s heroes and goats returned to school. For most of our classmates, the goat would be a quarterback who threw a key interception or a receiver who dropped a perfect pass in the end zone. For us, the goat would be a trumpeter whose mouthpiece slipped off during the show, a trombone player who turned the wrong way and clobbered a clarinetist with his slide, or a tuba player who forgot to turn on his clip-on bulb during a lights-out number. It might even be a head drummer who set the tempo too fast or too slow.
I remember almost nothing of the shows themselves. I was in too much of a nervous frenzy for anything to register. What I do remember is the almost unbearable tension beforehand and the incredible relief when it was over. After all, anything could happen. The crowd made the music hard to hear; a field torn up by cleats offered treacherous footing; and the faded and sometimes nonexistent chalk lines at halftime provided none of the crisp guidance of the practice field. On rainy nights someone would inevitably slip and fall, leave spats and shoes behind in the muck, or lose a hat during a deep bow. One night I dropped a stick and was reduced to pounding my snare with a four-four beat like a bass drummer. Another night a trumpet soloist froze. His face reddened and his cheeks puffed out, but no sound issued from his horn. On yet another, a clarinet player’s suspenders came unclasped and her pants fell down. I don’t remember who it was, but I can guarantee that she does. Anyone could mess up, even Rusty. After the “Wipeout” fiasco, he kept pacing the sidelines, shaking his head and yelling “Fuck me!” to no one in particular. We kept our distance, partly because of his rage and partly because he had the stink of the goat on him.
* * *
On the trip home from a game in Mansfield, I have appropriated, all for myself, the head drummer’s traditional spot in the rear seat of the last of three school busses. The novelty of road trips has faded, and while most of the other kids are chatting excitedly, I am leaning against the window half asleep. Startled by a sudden waft of White Shoulders and the ruffle of a pleated skirt, I open my eyes. A cheerleader is sitting beside me, complaining that she’s cold. Although we’ve chatted before, I hardly know her, but before long we’re making out beneath my jacket. As I’m driving home after the busses have dropped us off at school, I know that I won’t be calling her like I said I would.
At the end of my sophomore year, Mr. Hite named me to succeed Rusty as head drummer. After the Memorial Day parade, our final event of the year, Rusty handed me the black drum strap and the lanyard with great ceremony and said that he’d come back and kick my ass if I ever screwed up. For once, this did not feel like an idle threat. He and Big John were enlisting in the Army, and soon they’d be learning how to hurt people for real.
The most intimidating thing about becoming the head drummer, especially as a rising junior, was being put in charge of other kids. How was a cowering apprentice supposed to transform himself, instantly and credibly, into a leader? I knew that I couldn’t pull off Rusty’s tough-guy act, but I had to be something. After a great deal of thought, I decided, with the binary clarity of the high-school mind, that I would be the Anti-Rusty: the nice-guy head drummer. Kids would surely obey a head drummer if they liked him.
All of the drummers went along with my plan except Joe, a new sophomore who did not defer to me or anyone else. He had good reason not to. His father, a drummer in a local dance band, had been teaching him to play since he was eight or nine. At our first practice Joe announced that he was the best drummer present, and unfortunately for me, it was true. I ruefully noted, though refused to admit, that his roll was much smoother than mine. Joe also insisted that the only reason he wasn’t the head drummer was that he was a sophomore and Mr. Hite hadn’t heard him play yet. This, I suspected, was true as well.
To everyone’s surprise, Joe did not quit in disgust when I was reappointed as head drummer for my senior year. This time it wasn’t age or anonymity that kept him down. It was his knack of getting into frequent shouting matches and occasional fights. Outraged at being passed over, he redoubled his efforts to subvert my role as the nice-guy head drummer. He had an uncanny ability to expose the very traits that I most wished to conceal: insecurities about my playing, a fear of confrontation, and an easily wounded sense of fairness. I had paid my dues by deferring to Rusty. Why couldn’t this mouthy kid see how a head drummer was supposed to be treated?
Growing increasingly defensive in response to Joe’s challenges, I began yelling at people, first at him but then in general. I also succumbed to other Rusty-like behaviors, smoking and drinking beer, pretty regularly. And despite being naturally shy, I did not hesitate to exploit the social opportunities that I knew existed only because of my position in the band. Weren’t drummers supposed to be bad boys? And weren’t girls attracted to such boys, even if they were “bad” simply because they wore the black drum strap? I stupidly fostered dissension in the ranks by making out, at various times, with several girls in the band. Things never went beyond that, and not just because they were nice girls. The deeper reason was that the head drummer was doing an inept imitation of a bad boy. Most of the time and in multiple ways, I felt like a fake. My roll never got that smooth, either.
* * *
It’s a chilly October night in our small Ohio town. The stands are full and the air is foggy under the lights. The marching band stands at attention in two ranks, one in each end zone, with the drummers positioned on the fifty-yard line. This is the final show of my senior year, and the pressure to set the right tempo one last time is almost unbearable. But I finally hear a pulse of 160 beats per minute in my head and rap it out, and we’re off and marching. The relief is so palpable that I’m on the verge of tears.
I inherited Rusty’s other drumming duties as well: pep band, dance band, concert band, orchestra, pit orchestra for the annual musical, and the community band. Naturally, the more I played the less I studied, and when my grades began to slip, my mother decided to meet with the teacher to whom I was most devoted. She had created this drumming monster. Now she was determined to tame it.
Naturally, that teacher was Mr. Hite. On the day after their meeting, he asked me to stay after practice. Although I expected—and fully deserved—a brusque order to shape up, he merely said that my mother was worried and that it was never good when mothers worried. Then he reached into his desk and pulled out the draft of a talk that he was scheduled to give at a regional conference for music educators. My English teacher had told him that I was a decent writer. Would I mind reading his speech and giving him some feedback? I had no idea why Mr. Hite was entrusting me with so important a duty. Of course, I didn’t understand what he was up to. When I gave him my comments the next day, I actually thought that I was doing him the favor.
Maybe Mr. Hite was God. At the very least he was prescient. My adult life would end up revolving around writing: studying it, teaching it, and occasionally producing some of my own. Had I known that I would become an English professor, I might have quit the band and studied more. But nothing in high school predicted such an outcome. My English grades were mostly B’s, and I wasn’t involved with the school newspaper, the literary magazine, or the drama club. Then, too, in the late 1960s you got to be only one thing in high school, and once that thing emerged, your identity was fixed. Since I was The Drummer, I was incapable of imagining being anything else until Mr. Hite enlisted my help and my grades mysteriously began to improve.
I paid a steep price for avoiding yearbook anonymity, especially during those Friday nights when my stomach churned and I wanted to disappear. I set faulty tempos often enough during practice to make messing up during a show a real possibility. Nothing that I’ve done since—teaching classes, submitting articles, giving talks at conferences—has generated as much anxiety as starting those halftime shows. And although I never set a tempo that was sufficiently bad to produce a disaster, the old fear still invades my sleep.
* * *
It is pleasant to discover that after nearly half a century, Rusty is still drumming. I know this because I’ve stumbled across a YouTube video of his three-piece blues band, which includes his old pal Terry on lead guitar. They’re pretty good, too, with regular gigs throughout northwest Ohio. But while some things never change, others do. During their cover of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right,” I notice that Rusty is now using a matched grip instead of the traditional grip. He’s also playing in a more relaxed manner than I remember. In contrast to his youthful intensity, he sits perfectly still as his sticks move effortlessly around the set. The most obvious difference, however, is that he is no longer thin, far from it.
After the Memorial Day parade I dutifully handed the black drum strap to Joe, who proclaimed that it was “about fucking time.” I didn’t know it then, but this small ceremony marked the beginning of the end of my life as The Drummer. During two college summers I backed a lounge pianist at a local bar, but it was easy drumming and my skills withered. This fact became painfully clear one night when I played at a private party with a swing band composed of other alumni of the high school dance band. Halfway through the night I got shin-splints so painful that I couldn’t work the bass and high-hat pedals; by the end of the night, blisters made it almost impossible to hold the sticks. My silver-sparkle Ludwig set, once my most prized possession, had become an embarrassment, and a few months later I sold it to a teenage boy who was just starting out. Although he sounded terrible when he tried out the set, he was playing better than I could at that point. As I watched him and his father drive off with my set, it occurred to me that drumming had become just something that I did in high school.
A decade later, when I was in my late twenties, I ran into Mr. and Mrs. Hite at a restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike while I was on my way to Chicago to interview for jobs at the convention of the Modern Language Association. The encounter prompted a surreal sense that my once and future selves—the drummer and the professor—were meeting on I-90. The Hites were surprised when I told them that I no longer played and that I was using Medieval Latin sources in my dissertation. They would never have guessed that Latin would outlast drumming in my life.
I can attest, however, that there is an afterlife for drummers, even those who never acquired a decent roll. Or maybe it’s simply that former selves have a way of turning up like bad pennies. Several years ago I bought a used set and began playing some occasional light jazz with members of the music faculty at my college. How could I not, given the ongoing presence—not always welcome—of rhythms in my head when I’m walking? I still can’t hear music without paying obsessive attention to what the drummer is doing. And sometimes I daydream about an alternate self who is still out there somewhere, maybe backing Wynton Marsalis in a recording session or touring with Springsteen when Max Weinberg is unavailable.
Most of all, perhaps, I daydream about getting the old drumline together and asking for their forgiveness, a fantasy that always emerges whenever I watch our college jazz band rehearse. As I peer in from the corridor, the musicians’ earnest faces reveal how I must have looked when I was trying to stay in line or make my roll behave. These kids make me wish that I had been kinder to my fellow drummers.
At least it’s not too late to wish them well. Among those who are still alive, one is a park ranger and archaeologist in Oregon; another is a math professor who specializes in the algorithms that enable encryption; another recently retired as a government environmentalist; yet another works in communications and is a lay leader in his church. My old nemesis Joe became a college-town landlord who rents houses to students. In an email exchange several years ago, he said that he had lost a foot to a Bush Hog lawnmower. I guess his marching days are over, too. Joe can still push my buttons, though. He berated me, repeatedly and at length, for the “candy-ass liberalism” that he detected in one of my books.
And then there’s Rusty, to whom I feel compelled, once again, to defer. After all, his drumming afterlife is an actual life. In that YouTube video he wears the same deadpan that used to scare me. Now, though, the expression seems more ironic than baleful, and his Zen-like stillness does not conceal the fun that he’s having behind that set. His band’s website contains contact information, but this time around I won’t be begging to sit in. If I were to pop back into Rusty’s life like a bad penny, the encounter might make him feel as sheepish about his stint as head drummer as I feel about mine. Besides, why risk getting my ass kicked?