Band on the Sun: The Northwest Classen Marching Band and the Summer of ‘93

As the Oklahoma summer sun continues to boil and bake our hottest of days away, when I was walking in it recently—not heel to toe, mind you—every skin-searing beam took me back to the summer of ’93 and the overly-sweaty time I spent preparing to be a member of the somewhat illustrious Northwest Classen High School Marching Band.

Having just finished two consecutive summer school tours of duty—my parents liked for me to be ahead of everyone else apparently—August was generally my time to relax, which included working at the library and mowing lawns while I still could. But, this year, I was told that to be in the Northwest Classen band you had to get in on an intensive marching band boot camp, one that started at about eight or nine in the morning and going until question mark, throughout the hottest month of the year, August.

You’ll sometimes hear that, in Oklahoma, it gets so hot that you can fry an egg on the asphalt; I don’t know about an egg, but from that very first day, the grey parking lot covering, with its malleable spots of black tar, would oftentimes feel like it was burning a hole right through your Wal-Mart sneakers, the constant shuffling movement filling each sock with heated blisters that absolutely hurt to peel off at the end of the day.

And let’s not even get into the prickly heat between my legs. Pass the talcum.

The band instructor, Mr. Smith, made impressively sure that we were learning the proper way to march, the proper marching formations and the proper memorization of songs, all to the best of his ability; it was up to us to make sure it was reasonably done, the promise of not only playing at any and all Knights football games on the line, but being seen on network television in an upcoming O.U. halftime show constantly dangled over our perspiring heads.

The first basic thing we were taught was, of course, how to march; now it seems like it would be the easiest thing to learn, but for many of us incoming freshman (and a few eighth graders from Taft, surprisingly), these couple of days played like a true comedy of errors, only with a lot more screaming from both the director and, even worse, the upperclassman sometimes left in charge of us.

Marching on the balls of your feet as the heat began to rise and rise, there were days that felt like we were marching very near—or possibly even on—the Sun. It was, at times, unbearable and, to be honest, I was not very good; sure, I could play my alto sax alright in the band room, just not when I was trying to remember the marching steps at the very same time.

So often, as my sweaty palms tried to desperately hold tight to my instrument as I was stepping backwards in a circular movement, I usually found myself tripping over my bleeding feet and having to start everyone back over at one, making me an outcast even in the world of high school band. Let that sink in for a moment or two.

Soon enough, however, I learned that in a marching band, especially as a freshman, you’re actually a pretty insignificant cog in an overheated machine, so I would just finger random notes and pretend to play, all the while accurately counting my steps, which is really all that anyone ever wanted; the quicker we got it right, the sooner we would all get to go inside and sit in the somewhat cooler air.

To be fair, over the course of the next few weeks, I truly did learn to play my sax while accurately marching; moving in formation to pop songs such as “Louie, Louie,” “The Music of the Night,” and, my personal favorite, Chuck Mangione’s “Children of Sanchez,” with riffs from “Hangin’ Tough” and “Frankenstein” mixed in for good measure at the pep rallies as Mr. Smith, while sometimes harsh—I had a baton thrown at me more than once—slowly became my favorite teacher while I was at Northwest.

As the days, however, stayed moderately sultry well into early Autumn, I think it was sometime around Thanksgiving when we had our big marching band break at the University of Oklahoma; as we took to the football field, the midsection of my pants split open, mostly thanks to the months of heat that had worn the crotch practically down to nothing. I went out there, one hand on my horn, the other covering my ass.

Of course, I quit the next year.

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