And the Band Spells On!

RALF KIRCHER has published three books of light writing, and many pieces in magazines and newspapers. This is his first appearance in the Atlantic.


TIME was when I was puzzled only by football itself, the game being such a confusing jumble. But I was complete master of the half-time ceremonies. When the band marched down the field tootling our old “Fight!” song my pulse perked up nicely. When the players wheeled at mid-field, faced the stands, and, after a hushed pause, raised the sweet strains of “Alma Mater Mine,”no one crushed hat to heart with warmer fervor than I, and no eyes grew mistymore quickly.

Today, however, for organized and premeditated confusion, the half-time shenanigans of the bands have taken the play away from the teams. At a whistle from the drum major, the ranks dissolve and each player starts off on a brisk course of his own. My spirits sag: they are going to spell something! Yes, they are going to spell HOWDY or WELCOME DADS or ATTEND THE HOMECOMING BINGO AT THE MEN’S GYM TONIGHT Of some other message that I can never quite decipher.

I try, however. “Look,” I say, “they have spelled out MACARTHUR IN ’56 — no, wait! It looks more like TO HECK WITH TECK —that must be it, although it also looks a little like WELCOME TO HOT SPRINGS.”

A stranger behind me takes brusque exception to these guesses. Apparently he knows the band leader or has seen the script, because he says they are spelling WELCOME GRADS. I stand corrected. I also stand indignant. Having flunked out in my junior year, I am not at all touched by those greetings to grads. Grads, indeed! GREETINGS TO EVERYBODY WHO GOT THE BITE PUT ON HIM FOR THE NEW FIELD HOUSE would be more like it.

The whistle again, a rattle of drums, and the players scatter to another formation. Now they appear to be spelling something for the visitors in the other stands. That i’s the visitors’ problem, not mine.

If bands would promptly retire after the spelling bee, I might learn to forgive them, but this they will not do. Now that they are warmed to their work they must make pictures. If their school symbol happens to be a panther, they have to draw one. This scatters musicians from end zone to end zone, some imagining that they look like a panther’s head, others pretending to resemble a panther’s body and legs, while six or seven others fancy themselves the panther’s tail, which they cause to lash angrily by running back and forth. This effort is largely unsuccessful. One hundred young men in red suits, carrying bass drums, tubas, trombones, and piccolos, cannot be made to resemble a panther or anything else.

In somewhat less critical vein I am bound to observe that drum majorettes seem to be enjoying an inflationary spiral. The band that had only one such toothsome ornament a few years ago now boasts a bevy, and some of the louder alumni are claiming that the trend is to more drum majorettes and fewer drums, and that the day is not distant when we shall dispense with the band entirely. Why, they ask, should we retain the services of an awkward trombonist who does nothing but dot is or run in a panther’s tail, when he can be replaced by a deserving girl who not only is good to look at but who also hardly ever drops her baton except now and then? This, they insist, is the march of the times where bands are concerned.

Frankly, that is a viewpoint in which I cannot fully concur. For bands seeking a viewpoint in which I can fully concur, try this one: Don’t spell at me, because I cannot read you. Don’t draw at me, because I cannot make you out. Just march out and play at me, because this I understand so well I can hardly keep from sobbing. As for drum majorettes, up to twelve will not damage things whatever.