For years I was the piano accompanist for my school’s choir. But band was a bigger deal in our school, and so the music director was always trying to find a way for me to be in that as well. This meant learning a band instrument, which I was not good at. So, after disastrous runs at the trumpet and French horn, it was decided that I should give drums a try.
I was less bad at this than I was at the wind instruments. But I was still not very good at it, mostly because I have zero sense of rhythm and can’t manage to stay on the beat. For this reason, Memorial Day held a particular horror for me, because it meant the town’s annual parade, of which our school band was the centerpiece.
Playing an instrument is difficult enough inside, sitting down. Taking the whole thing outside, in the sun, while walking, is a recipe for disaster. Especially if you happen to be playing the instrument that is supposed to be setting the beat for everyone else.
On the morning of my first Memorial Day as a drummer, I arrived at the parade area at the appointed time, only to find that one of the two bass drums we had was broken. This was a huge relief, as it meant that only one of us could march, and I assumed that the honor would go to my friend Doug, who was a much better drummer than I was and had been in the band for far longer.
Alas, Doug chose that morning to oversleep, and so arrived late. Our band director, in a move that she would shortly regret, decided that because I had arrived on time, I would get the chance to shine in front of our community.
Things started out well enough. I managed not to stagger under the weight of the drum, which, since we marched only once a year and never practiced, was something I was unused to. I even managed to walk more or less in time with everyone else. And I dutifully banged my mallets on the sides of the drum with enthusiasm. It was all sort of thrilling, really.
A couple of blocks into the parade route, however, I noticed that I was getting glares from some of my bandmates. I was flanked by other drummers who were playing snares, and they looked meaningfully in my direction and mimed the beat I ought to be hitting. I got back on track and proceeded, beaming at the flag-waving neighbors lining the sidewalks.
My joy was short-lived, however, as soon I was off beat again. I don’t know why I’m incapable of simple counting, but I am. And although my bandmates carried on without me, or rather in spite of me, I could tell that I was ruining things utterly. I was sure the elderly veterans saluting as we walked by were scowling, and that the children laughing and pointing were mocking me.
This had the effect of making me even more anxious, which I responded to by banging wildly on my drum. A minute later, the band director appeared at my side. “Like this,” she hissed, counting out a beat with her hands. I frantically copied her, but it was no use. I was unhinged, banging away like one of those wind-up monkeys that clack tiny cymbals together in manic glee.
Fortunately, the parade was a short affair, and it was not long before it was over. The effects, however, lingered for much longer. My bandmates brought it up at every opportunity, some teasingly but others as a way or reminding me that I didn’t fit in.
Already suspect due to my piano playing for the chorus and my general air of otherness, this was more evidence that I was somehow defective, unable to march in step with the rest of them.
When school resumed in the fall, I didn’t return to band. My excuse was that I was too busy with other things. But really it was that I knew my bandmates were right. I wasn’t like them. I couldn’t keep the beat. I couldn’t march straight. No matter how hard I tried.
Every Memorial Day, I think back to that parade more than 35 years ago. It seems like such a small, funny moment now, even if at the time it felt incredibly big and embarrassing. And maybe it was a defining moment after all, since it taught me to keep marching to my own beat no matter what. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael online.