OPINION: A marching band — an unorganized mess

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It's still summer, but football season is underway for high schools and colleges and that means marching band season.

No, I won't relive my humiliations as drum major for the Chamberlain High School marching band, although could I ever tell you stories. The point is, if you have a football game, you simply must have a marching band. Maybe it's a law, although I could never find such a citation in the code books.

Marching band popped into my mind because I saw a bunch of football scores, and because I saw a cartoon that reminded me of my time leading the Chamberlain High School band. That was well before they began to call themselves "The Scarlet Regiment.'' Perhaps I'd have had better experiences in my marching-band career if we'd had a snappy name. "Here comes The Scarlet Regiment" sounds so much more impressive than what they used to say when I'd lead my people past the reviewing stand: "Okay, this next bunch is, like, Chamberlain or someplace out there.''

The cartoon I noticed showed a group of young people wearing band uniforms and carrying musical instruments. At a glance, the group appears to be an unorganized mess, an observation supported by a caption that read something like: "The band seems to be making some sort of figure.''

That's exactly what I always believed fans of the Cubs' football team were thinking while the marching band and I went through our halftime show. You know how those used to go, right? The band had four or five songs to play, songs that fit some overall theme — Adventures in the Wilderness, for example, or Let's Go Cruising Down the River. Each song was illustrated by a silhouette or stick drawing of a bucking horse or paddle-wheel steamship.

Band members formed the silhouettes and drawings with precision marching that had them weaving in and out and across each other's line of travel until, in theory, each member arrived at exactly the proper spot on the football field to make the figure come alive.

That's how it was supposed to work. Mr. Roberts, our band instructor (we called him Charlie but not to his face), created the halftime shows, selecting the theme, choosing the appropriate songs and deciding the figures the band would make to, as I said, make it all come to life.

He had a scale-model football field on his desk. The field was complete with yard lines and endzones and even goal posts, maybe so he wouldn't design anything that had one of the tubas or clarinets marching into a post? He had a bunch of little wood or plastic band members to move around the field. He could design a figure to fit a song, then push each band member from their spot on the field for that song to the next spot for the next song, and so on. I imagine it worked quite well on his scale-model field with him playing his chess-like game of "Guess where the snare drums go next.''

Sometimes, because I was drum major and (again in theory) in charge of the entire band on the field, Mr. Roberts would call me into his office to work with him on the scale-model stuff. I might be selling myself short, but I'm pretty sure I was of no help whatsoever. When we were working on a show like that, all I could think about was the toy football game I'd gotten for Christmas one year.

The game was quite a lot like Mr. Roberts' model, but in my game a cord from the field plugged into an outlet. When I turned a switch, the whole field vibrated like crazy. I had two teams of scale-model football players. They had little metal fins under their bases, and the vibrations would send each player scurrying across the field, often over to the sideline and into the wall, sometimes backwards into their own end zone. At best it was sheer chaos.

Come to think of it, my football game was a lot like the marching band when we actually took the field. "The band seems to be making some sort of figure."