Taking more than 200 students across the country to Washington D.C. over the Fourth of July had to be a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, every three years that is exactly what the Springdale High School Band program did without regard for the sanity of the staff or the trip chaperones. It was a tradition held long before I ever became a student at the school. I was simply there for a moment, lucky enough to be a participant in the madness in the summer of 1995.
We had packed our full band uniforms. Back home, when we marched in the parade, we wore shorts and our band t-shirts. When we marched in D.C., we would wear the full uniform. I, along with several other members of the color guard, had to bring two uniforms. That year, a slightly smaller group of us would be performing with Stacy Keach on the Capitol lawn during the televised performance of “A Capitol Fourth”. For that performance, we would have to wear the non-color guard uniform. It was my one and only time to ever wear that uniform.
As we were gathered in the band room to leave, Ms. Ellison gave us another long warning about socks. “I do not want to see one single pair of navy socks on any person’s foot! Black socks only! This is your last warning to check and make absolutely sure you have BLACK socks in your bag and not NAVY!” I double checked my own socks. I knew good and well they were black and not navy, but when people issued strong warnings, I always listened. The people who didn’t listen were probably the ones secretly harboring navy socks.
The next portion of the “getting ready to leave” speech focused on our behavior. “This band has a reputation. You are getting to do this trip by standing on the shoulders of the band members who went before you and left a positive mark on the world. Your privileges were earned by them. You have to earn it for the people who come behind you. When we leave a place, we leave it better than we found it. We are respectful and we clean up after not only ourselves, but others as well!” Her admonition took root. We would clean up after ourselves and others. We always answered questions with “Yes ma’am or yes sir” and “No ma’am or no sir!” and if we went through the door first, we held it open for the person behind us. The door holding was a habit that would stick with me for life, much to the bafflement of some men who walked through a door behind me.
The trip was a 27-hour bus ride. We stopped to eat at various places on the way to and from D.C. But I remember little of how we spent our time on the bus. There was a lot of listening to music, playing cards, and sleeping. It’s just a blip on the radar in comparison to the rest of the experience. We stayed at a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. In truth, we were only at the hotel for sleep. One night, midway through the experience, I was jarred from my sleep by a woman’s voice. I was sharing a room with three other girls. “Please exit the building. The building is on fire. Please Exit the building” was playing on repeat through some intercom system. I sat up in bed and looked around. Everyone was asleep. “Hey, wake up!” I said, as I started to wake up the other girls. As we all started waking up, the sleepiness left us and the panic set in. We ran to the door and opened it to see many other folks coming out of their rooms. We joined the throng of people going down the stairs and through the lobby.
As we walked outside, we found other band girls and stood with them. Our chaperones counted us to see if we had all made it out of the building. The hotel had two parts, a low building and a tower. Girls and boys on our trip were in separate buildings. None of the guys were outside, their alarms hadn’t gone off. It turned out there was no fire. A drunk couple had been messing around and pulled the fire alarm. After shivering outside for 20 minutes in our pj’s we were glad to go back to sleep. The next morning was a groggy one.
Our time in D.C. was packed to the brim. For those of us who were doing the Capital Fourth, we also had very little time to sight see. While other members of the band got to see some of the sights, we had to go rehearse on the lawn of the capitol for what would be a live performance on the 4th. The sights I remember seeing were ones we went to in uniform as part of a performance.
The day of the parade was hot. I had no idea a D.C. summer would be so hot. I knew heat and humidity from living in Arkansas, but I had always imagined the east coast would be cooler. It was not. We lined up to get ready to march our route. Our rifle routine was relatively easy. No one wanted to be messing up complicated things in front of the world. I was surprised to find myself glad we had practiced with our faces in the sun so much back home. Our faces would be in the sun for most of the parade.
We were the first marching band in the parade. The “lead band” as Ms. Ellison called it. That position was achieved through merit. There was also a bit of a connection Ms. Ellison had with President Clinton, and the fact that this band was from his home state. As we marched in the hot sun and made the left onto Constitution Avenue, we marched right under a proudly displayed U.S. Flag. That view might have been obscured by hats or instruments for some of us, but for me, I was looking right up at it. I got chills even in the heat. I had only been a member of this band for one year and was in the youngest group of kids on the trip. I felt the weight of something special in that moment. It was only one of several such moments during the trip.
In our rush to get around to the places we had to be, it turned out that we would visit the Vietnam Memorial in full marching band uniform. Parents, chaperones, and band officials worked diligently behind the scenes to provide us with large wreaths to lay in certain historical places in D.C. I knew nothing of the procurement of such materials, only that they seemed to magically appear when we needed to place them somewhere. Looking back, I imagine that those parents and chaperones were going through their own set of hoops to procure these items and make sure we had them when we needed them. They were working behind the scenes to provide us with an experience. I hope somewhere down the line they knew we appreciated it.
As we approached the memorial it took a few moments for the magnitude to sink it. It was a large polished stretched out V shaped wall. As we got closer, we could see the names. At first glance I saw the size of the names and how small they were. As I looked along the wall, stretched out so far before my eyes, I realized how many names there had to be to take up that amount of space. It was sobering. All chatter ceased as one by one we realized the massive collective loss. We spread out silently, each of us looking at different sections. Other visitors to the wall had left items of significance in memory of the ones they knew. Some areas had flowers. In one spot, a single bottle of beer sat beneath a name, unopened. I imagined the drinks the friends had together before this one and thought about the tribute of the one left there. It was a symbol not only of friendship, but of experiences left unshared, lost forever.
When we got to the center of the memorial we stood there, silently, side by side. In the polished glass our reflections stared back at us in head to toe red white and black. We lay the wreath right at the corner. It seemed incongruous to have just celebrated with revelry and then to have stood there and seen such a thing right after. We walked away silently, sobered as we got back on the bus. Some things were just too hard to comprehend.
Later, we set up for an outdoor concert on the lawn of a Veteran’s Center in Fairfax, Virginia. Several folks came outside to watch. Chairs were set up for those who could walk. Nurses or aids assisted others out in their wheelchairs to listen right on the lawn. The building was several stories, and as we began to play, we could see some people wheel out onto their balconies, or to sit by a window and listen. We played several songs for them during this private concert of sorts. Patriotic favorites were the meat of our show. They listened intently, clapping along when the song called for it, singing along when they knew the words.
Looking closely, I could see tears in the eyes of some of the men. My own vision became blurred. Seeing such strength in vulnerability was hard. Of all the things we did during the D.C. trip, this had been my favorite. I hated to leave when we finally had to go. I don’t think they wanted it to end and leaving just didn’t seem fair.
Our final wreath experience was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were able to participate with the guards in a ceremony to lay our wreath there. In a weird twist of fate, I got to participate in this ceremony. Our leaders had chosen 4 of us, our band captain and one representative from each grade to march with the soldiers in the brief ceremony. Somehow, I, a virtual nobody, had been selected as the 10th grade representative.
Although I was quite excited, the experience caused me no small amount of stress. The dress I brought on the trip to wear when we visited the national cathedral would not work for this. The bottom hem of my dress ended right above my knees. Ms. Ellison told me I needed a long dress, nothing above the knee could be worn. In a panic, I had to borrow Rachel’s dress. She was a good bit taller than me, but we were able to somehow make her dress work without tripping me. I cannot even remember what she wore instead, but I was grateful she was there for me in the clutch.
The four of us met off to the side with one of the guards. He explained to us in detail what we would do, where we would stand, and how we had to hold ourselves. If we were going to participate in the ceremony, we had to follow some of the same rules they did. It was pretty serious business, as it turned out.
I tuned everyone else out and focused on hitting the mark, holding myself in the right way, and getting through it. I focused solely on not being the one who messed it up. It was difficult to enjoy the moment when I was that intently following instructions. It was the kind of memory where I know I participated in it, I have a couple of vague impressions, and I get to know in my mind I was a part of it. I would have no photographs of that moment to look at in the future.
Though the trip with our band was a high school experience that happened over the Fourth of July in 1995, I always think of it on Memorial Day. So many of my intense memories centered around the rich history of service and loss. I don’t know if that was the intention of those who worked to take us on the trip. I don’t know if that was the outcome they hoped for as they worked behind the scenes to make it happen at every stop. I cannot even say for sure that every person who went on that trip felt the way I did. I only knew when we all fell silent together, we felt connected not only with each other, but with those who had gone before us.