I Mislay the Band
MY first adventure in France was a musical one. From the capacious maw of the Leviathan we had been disgorged, like Jonah from the whale, upon the shores of Brest. En route to a place humorously called the ‘Rest Camp,’we had been approached by the first detachment of the ten million ingratiating young innocents who were, in the ensuing months, destined to grasp our hands and demand ‘une cigarette pour papa à Verdun.’ As we marched, the girls and women had smiled and waved and thrown flowers at us. The men, mostly cripples, had saluted. It was altogether the most inspiring walk that I had ever taken.
By supper time we had made the ‘Rest Camp.’ This was a very small enclosure of the sacred but liquid soil of France, roofed by a desperately weeping heaven. The enlisted men threw up their pup tents and, in default of supper, slumbered heavily. We officers had an excellent chance to get near to Nature’s heart, or at least her Brest. For our tents, bedding-rolls, and handbaggage, though officially present, did not appear until late the following day.
About the time they appeared, our colonel sent for me and thrust a wad of francs into my hand.
‘Lieutenant, we entrain at fivethirty to-morrow morning. You will purchase five rations for each of the headquarters officers. The regimental band is still probably on board the Leviathan. You will see that it entrains.’
As I hurried down to the port, I realized that I was in a dilemma. If I went out at once in person to get the band, all the stores would be closed before I could return and buy food for the long journey that lay ahead of us. If, on the other hand, I bought the provisions first, I might miss the band. Whichever I did, I was almost sure to go wrong.
By good luck I found, almost at once, the skipper of the official fighter, and sent him out to the Leviathan, with strict instructions to bring me back that band. Then I got a detail of doughboys, and with them raced for the shops against closing time. A strange picture my detail must have made as they stumbled back through the black streets of Brest. Their arms were heaped high with figs and huge branches of grapes, and every pocket of their blue jeans was bursting with wine. I thought they offered a fair modern version of the spies returning from the land of Canaan. But I did not tell them that they looked like spies. It would have been bad for the morale.
At eleven I met the returning lighter. No band! That skipper vowed they had taken another lighter an hour and a half before, bound for a remote place called Pier 7. Gracious heavens! It was a case of innocents abroad. It was a case of the little children of the fairy tale wandering about bewildered till Robin Red-Breast should come and gently cover them over with beautiful leaves. So far as I knew, those artless bandsters could n’t muster two words of French between them. Even the French horns were pure Irish. Fisher, their leader, had but recently been commissioned. And while he could lead the fingers and the lips of his men through the Maritana Overture in masterly fashion, I feared that he might lack the more mundane capacity to guide their feet through the stygian mazes of a strange foreign city, darkened against air-raids. I imagined that miserable band wandering about like lost sheep, weighed down by the tuba and the big bass drum and dragging them wearily deeper and deeper into the dark labyrinth of the slums.
Of course I hastened to Pier 7.
No! Positively no band had arrived there that evening. No band of any kind. If they had, they would most certainly have been held up for a tune. The dusky American stevedores always worked better under the stimulus of the divine art of melody. No band was ever allowed to effect a landing there without limbering up their instruments and playing a shake-down and a cakewalk. ‘You ought,’continued the young shave-tail, ‘to see the “shines” put their backs into it when that happens. And it happens quite often. They unload a boat in half the time. Say, do you know, what I’ve seen on this dock has convinced me that we’re going to win the war toot sweet. The very first month we Yankees took hold here we unloaded twenty-nine times as much freight as the French had ever unloaded in their best month. Why, there’ll be nothing to it. But about your band. I wish they’d show up here.’
I stemmed the young officer’s rhapsodies over the effect of my favorite art on the activities of the darker side of the S.O.S. The S.O.S. was not what interested me just then. What interested me was helping to get the 313th Infantry intact to the front. I asked what he thought could have happened to the band. He could n’t say for sure, but a couple of lighters had that evening broken away from the Leviathan and were rapidly drifting out to sea in a helpless manner. Perhaps my band was on one of these.
Good heavens! The outlook was growing worse and worse. A lighter that had got so far out of control as to break away and drift seaward might be in a sinking condition. My unhappy imagination boggled at what it beheld. Why, the poor fellows most likely did n’t even have life-belts along. I imagined their frantic but vain efforts to plug both ends of the bass tuba so that it might float and serve as a life-raft. This failing, I beheld, with the bloodshot eye of my mind, the thirty-seven heroes all struggling in concentric circles to lay a hand on the buoyant bass drum.
In vain! Down goes the doctor of philosophy who performs so divinely on the piccolo. Their last gasps bubble up from the lips of the plumber who plays the bassoon and the tutor who tootles the flute. For the third and last time the commanding head of Lieutenant Fisher emerges from the foam, commanding his merry men to swim allegro vivace, while his baton arm rhythmically caresses old ocean’s gray and melancholy waist.
Wild-eyed I hunted up the quartermaster lieutenant in charge of unloading operations, and persuaded him to send out an inquiry to the Leviathan regarding the whereabouts of the band. He was a good fellow and consented at once. According to him it was a perfectly simple matter. He would merely telephone to the Naval Station, which would flash the message by Morse code to another place, which would pass it on to a dreadnought. And the dreadnought would flash it out to the Leviathan. It was all as easy as A B C. The answer would be back in twenty minutes.
Two hours and a half dragged their slow length along. No answer. We called up, and the Naval Station vaguely but optimistically reported progress. It was two in the morning and we were to entrain at five-thirty. We flashed out another and more imperative inquiry. At length that great, slow-moving body, the Leviathan, responded. It was an ambiguous message, saying that the band had just left. It did not say which band or what pier it was bound for. But the lieutenant explained that there were only two possible docks where it could land, and he was positive that there was no lighter en route to either of these docks. He said he ought to know about that if anybody on earth did, as he was the ranking officer in charge of docking facilities. By a process of elimination, the 313th Infantry band must be still on board the Leviathan.
There was only one thing to do. I extorted a small tug from the authorities, climbed precariously over the mountainous cargoes of three freighters waiting to be unloaded, swung down a chain into the tug, with difficulty aroused the French skipper and his crew, and, in no more time than it takes to get sleepy and reluctant Frenchmen limbered up and launched into a full tide of activity, we were off.
There was room in the cabin for only ten men packed close; and I spent my force figuring out where to accommodate a band of thirty-seven souls, supposing them not to have been on one of the lighters that had drifted out to sea. For large waves were breaking over the scanty deck above. And where should I dispose the bass drum out of the wet?
We drew alongside the huge cliff of the Leviathan, and I tackled the deck officer. He thought my band had left, but was not sure how or when or why, or to what end. I thought of recommending to that band, if I ever caught it, to adopt as its motto those lines of Omar Khayyám’s: —
And, without asking, whither hurried hence!
But then I recollected that the stanza ended in a resolution to hit
and it occurred to me that it might perhaps be better not to bring these encouraging words to their attention.
At a moment’s notice it is a difficult thing to lay your hands on thirty-seven dreamy, unpractical, and retiring musicians, in a ship whose war-time capacity is fourteen thousand souls. Beginning with the officers higher up, and progressing methodically to those lower down, I woke up all the naval dignitaries, one by one.
Like true knights-errant of the sea, they were all dignified and courteous, once they had dug the sand out of their eyes. But none of them knew anything definite about the 313th band except that it had played very agreeably during the voyage. Of this fact I was already aware. And as I was now hungry and thirsty and a bit on edge, I had some ado to restrain myself from pointing out that my knowledge along this line equaled theirs in every respect.
I woke up the men of the band of another regiment of the 79th Division which had not yet disembarked. (I thought I could distinguish the bandsmen from the less æsthetic doughboys because they snored with greater sonority and sweetness, and because their combined efforts blended into one mighty barber-shop chord which came nearer to being the lost chord than anything I have heard since on sea or land.) I asked them what had become of the 313th band. Wakened thus abruptly in the small hours, they had some difficulty in deciding whether this was tonight, last night, or to-morrow. But they finally agreed that my band had left the evening before. They could, however, supply none of those precise details for which my soul yearned.
I woke up their colonel. He heaved aloft his pink-spotted pyjamas, pondered darkly for a space of time, and then swore softly to himself.
‘Well,’he finally said, ‘I’m an old West Pointer and I’ve heard of mislaying everything in the United States Army from a firing-pin to a field kitchen; but I’ll be — — d if I ever heard of mislaying a military band!’
Then he pulled the blankets over his head and morosely prepared to relapse into slumber. As I went out I could hear him mutter:
‘Lost a band! Well, I’ll be d — d!’
Finally, from one of the stokers in the hold I learned definitely, with impressive concrete details, that different sections of the 313th band had left that night at eight and nine-thirty in two coal barges. Destination unknown.
On this I climbed back into the tug, aroused the French nation, and combined a nice cool shower on deck with watching the early dawn streak the surface of that marvelous harbor. If I had been in a properly receptive frame of mind, I should doubtless have received some very æsthetic impressions.
‘ That’s bad! ’ exclaimed my lieutenant of the port when I told him the stoker’s story; ‘ I never thought of those coal barges. Your band is probably, at this moment, five miles away down the harbor, hopelessly stymied. Here it is, four-thirty, and only an hour left before your entrainment. With the fastest truck I have, you could n’t possibly get out there and back in an hour through the mess you’d have to negotiate.’
At that crucial moment, had I for a second lost control, I should have begun to gobble like a turkey and run up the walls. Never before had I realized so clearly the wonderfully expressive power of that vulgar phrase, ‘to beat the band,’ in connoting superlative states of longing or passion. In a superlative degree I now passionately longed to beat the band of the 313th Infantry, A.E.F.
‘There’s only one hope left,’ said I. ‘That stoker, like everybody else, may have been wrong. I ’ll call up the railroad station again on the chance.’
I had never liked the telephone much; but that morning I experienced a change of heart toward it; and if the Signal Corps had only been courteous enough to run a wire out from the port to the so-called Rest Camp, I probably should never have another word to say against that instrument of torture, even if I lived to be older than the Father of Lies who had distributed his offspring so plentifully about the city of Brest.
‘Hello, hello! Yes, the 313th band have just arrived. I can see them now through my window, sitting on their instruments in the yard. Yes, yes, I see both the bass drum and the big bass tuba. They look intact. Talk with Fisher? Why, certainly. Hold the wire.’
Then Fisher explained to me in a voice faint from exhaustion that, in obedience to orders, he had taken the band from the Leviathan at nine-thirty the previous evening, by still another lighter than had ever been heard of by me or by the port-lieutenant; had landed at still another dock that was far out of our combined kens; and had spent the entire night of my anxious researches marching, like the King of France and thirty-seven men, up the hill to the Rest Camp, and immediately turning around with the outfit and marching down again, dragging the bass drum and the tuba in his wake.
Nunc dimittis! I had the band and I had the grub and I had the five-thirty, too.