This one’s for Meridith
and our friends Horace,
Wyatt, and Brown.
In 1950 I’m eight years old and gravely beholding, from my vantage slot under the bleachers, the Dream of Pines Colored High School band. This group blew and marched so well they were scary.
The white band in town was nothing, compared — drab lines of orange wheeled about by the pleading of an old bald-headed pussy with ulcers who was more interested in his real estate than in his music. But the spade band was led by a fanatic man named Jones who risked everything to have the magnificent corps of student musicians he had. Jones was joked about and sworn at by educators, black and white, all over the parish.
Everyone voted on a special bond of fifteen thousand dollars to renovate the gray plank barn sitting in a basin of clay and pine stumps north of town. This was the colored high school. The bond was approved and they dumped it all on Jones, the principal, to administrate. It was well known that he was not a drunkard, lived with his wife, and was struggling to do something with the school. But the reason they voted him the money was that his school building was uglier than anybody could bear — I mean even too ugly for a casual dove-hunter to drive by and see. It looked like an old chalkboard eraser floating in a pool of beer. They awarded Jones the money at a ceremony where the white parish trustees whetted each other to death explaining what unprecedented heroes they were — most of the bond, of course, coming from white taxes.
Well yes Jones was struggling to do something for the school. He happened to be combination principal and band director of Dream of Pines Colored. His band was made up of squirrely, breathless boys and girls who wanted to avoid the physical education class. They whittled their own tonettes out of bamboo and otherwise got by on gift instruments from World War II; had lard-can lids for cymbal and a tuba full of flak holes and so on. Jones was good and sick of this. He was fed up getting the Best for Homemade ribbon at the state band contest every year, and having his band chuckled about by his colleagues, who said here comes Scream of Pines again. Here comes perennial dilapidation on the forced march again.
Jones was a marching band fool. He did take the fifteen thousand, used a thousand of it to repaint the exterior of the school building, and sunk the rest of it in new instruments and uniforms for the band. Then he drafted a hundred and twenty students into the band, which was the entire student body of Dream of Pines Colored, except for sixteen weaklings he left to the varsity football team — these boys were real mewling sluggards — because the school had to at least field a team to give the band an excuse for marching at half-time. The football team went out the fall after the bond money was awarded and got cut up in games to the tune of 70–0. But the score didn’t tell the whole story — these boys were out of breath and puking from just having run out of the locker room.
All the burly and staunch were in the band, with their new blue Napoleonic tunics and shakos, overridden with stripes and scrolled lightning filigree, and they were playing tubas, trombones, French horns, trumpets, and euphoniums, or bombing the hides of fresh, brilliant drums. And didn’t Jones and company have a band. In two months during vacation he rehearsed the hundred and twenty boys and girls. He met with them in a pine-needle clearing above the high school, right in the out of doors, and drilled them by section — now trumpets, now clarinets, now saxophones, etc. — eight hours a day, many of them standing up with their new, unfamiliar instruments, and the girls sitting on Coke cases, until the kids were ashamed to come back next day without their parts down perfect. It must’ve been like the mouth of an oven there in the clearing; the sun over Dream of Pines is so bad you begin thinking it’s an eye looking at you alone. It gums up your days; I can vouch for that. Of course it came down through the usual rank clouds from the Dream of Pines paper mills — and settled on you, dragging down to your body the wet junk of the air.
Jones told them they wouldn’t get to wear the new uniforms, wouldn’t deserve to wear them, until they came in one morning playing faultlessly. In two months, he had them all considering serious life careers in music. Jones was that good. The tone-deaf dummy on cymbals quit smoking so he could conserve his wind, and looked forward to studying at a conservatory after graduation. Three girls quit doing what they used to because of loss of energy on the clarinet. And Harley Butte, the mulatto fellow who tied up with me eventually in a sorrowful way, was fifteen then, and practiced marching and playing the French horn in the privacy of his own home. Harley told me later that the school bus which carried the band to out-of-town games and other parade events became like a church inside, that year. Jones rode in the seat near the driver; there were a hundred and twenty Negroes paralyzed against one another in the seats and aisles. And no more, the smoking; no more, the liquor out of the wallet-sized pepper bottles; no more, the wet finger with agreeing girls, or even any kissing, much — none of the universal acts of high school band trips. They knew they were too good, and had too much at stake. No one wanted to lose a dram of power on his horn. The instruments followed in a trailer truck that Jones rented right out of his own pocket money.
First time they hit the field at an early September foot-ball game, it was celestial — a blue marching orchestra dropped out of the blue stars. The spectators just couldn’t imagine this big and fine a noise. They were so good the football teams hesitated to follow them; the players trickled out late to the second half, not believing they were good enough to step on the same turf that the Dream of Pines band had stepped on. The whites living on the border of the mills heard it, and it was so spectacular to the ear, emanating from near the colored high school, they thought it must be evil. I mean this was a band that played Sousa marches and made the sky bang together. The whites in town put a spy onto them the next Friday night. He found out Jones was billing the group as “The Fifteen-Thousand-Dollar Band” over the public address microphone. This was a slight lie, one thousand of the fifteen having been spent on paint for the unsightly barn. But aside from that, Jones’s band was easily the best marching band, white or colored, in Louisiana. That’s all Harley Butte knew at the time; he didn’t have much privilege of scope to broaden his judgment at the time. He’d only been with the band to the state contest from 1947 to ’50, and he knew they beat everybody down there. Then he sat in an end zone down at Baton Rouge and saw and heard the Bossier City band, which was supposed to be the best white band in the state, and he knew Dream of Pines was better. While the fact probably was, by what I saw and heard that afternoon hiding under the bleachers at the colored football field, Dream of Pines was the best high school band in at least the world.
The way it was affecting me, I guess I was already a musician at the time and didn’t know it. This band was the best music I’d ever heard, bar none. They made you want to pick up a rifle and just get killed somewhere. What drums, and what a wide brassy volume; and the woodwinds were playing tempestuously shrill. The trombones and tubas went deeper than what before my heart ever had room for. And I just didn’t know what to think.
Then Jones, who was standing on the bleacher above me and making it creak viciously, called them to a halt with this “No, no, no” “My ass,” he said under his breath.
He’d been waving his arms and yelling at separate people in the band. Now I could detect that one or two people were out of step. They were rehearsing in uniforms on a bright day when any kind of nonconformity could be seen, like the dirt spots in the grass of the field. But when the band put their horns to their lips, I had no doubts about them, the way Jones did, jumping up and down and scolding them during the music. I understood by Jones that some poor trumpet man was going to be canned if he didn’t make his part, but I heard nothing wrong. The band to me was like a river tearing down a dam when they played, and you just don’t hang around finding out what’s imperfect when that happens.
That Jones must’ve had some ear, and some kind of wrath to overcome that music the way he did. They stopped and listened to him. He went on, cracking the bleachers over me for emphasis. This was the kind of wrath you didn’t mess with. I got the notion he’d kill me if he found me hidden down there to peek on his band in what he thought was its imperfect state; it was scary, all the way around — the great music out there, and Jones above. And of course, the waves of brown faces on the field, though I was never taught to fear Negroes generally. In those Napoleonic shakos, with their faces dead serious and hearkening to Jones, though, they were a weird forest that sent dread right down to my bones.
“Tighten it up!” Jones bellowed.
The band was so thrilling that musicos from five parishes, mainly colored band directors, met on a bluff an eighth of a mile from the football field to scrutinize Jones’s band with the intention of revamping their own band shows in the coming weekends so they wouldn’t be embarrassed off the field. Others came to prove to themselves they shouldn’t even show their bands against Jones’s, and went off the bluff to their cars planning for everybody to have the flu on a certain weekend. Jones marched his band in incredibly difficult and subtle military drills, by the way, so that horn ranks were split all over a hundred-yard field but still sounded like the best thing they ever got up in Vienna.
The wildest success of the band was in 1950, the year I watched them. They did a pre-game show that dismayed the waiting football players from Alexandria so much, that the Dream of Pines weaklings were able to rally for a safety against them and, well, lick them—2–0. It was the only win for them the decade Jones was there.
Jones made his band rehearse in uniform toward the last of the week. This is the way the uniforms went seedy in five years, and were a disappointment to Butte when he saw the band march at Eisenhower’s inauguration later, during his stay in the army.
When I saw them, the band was still regal, and Jones had just added three majorettes up front. They weren’t the chorus-girl types who did a lewd fandango to novelty numbers, either. They looked like muscular, brown eternal virgins who strutted properly in a vehement gait; they wore the Napoleonic uniform briefed up to the knees, with black boots that put you in mind of discipline. The band seemed half a mile deep and long to me. And there was this astounding rigor that the first signal from the percussion put into them; everybody snapped straight, his hat plume shuddering.
“Sloppy, sloppy,” I heard Jones mutter. I knew this man was crazy. What could he be talking about? I never saw his face, not ever.
Harley Butte was out there with them playing his French horn, I guess. It was his senior year and the third year of “The Fifteen-Thousand-Dollar Band.” Tooting his heart out somewhere in that weird island of blue, was old Harley, in the middle of a ball field just outside niggertown, where everything else was ugly as old cooked oatmeal with a few snarls of green in it — the yearling pines.
Harley was ten years older than me. He was born in 1932, the year John Philip Sousa died. This always meant a great deal to him. Sousa was his god, like World War II was mine.
There are these rolling lumps of turf, with the forest looking deep and sappy, and real shade on the road and big rocks lying mossy off the roadbank, all of which at one time belonged to the Sink brothers, who were the paper mill barons of Dream of Pines. They called it Pierre Hills, and put two mansions out there on this premium property. The sign saying Pierre Hills on a turnoff from the highway would make you think it was a subdivision under development, or something like that But it isn’t There were only the two Sink mansions — which were simply big and New Orleans style in a fat way — nestling in all that luscious gloom of oaks and hickories. And none of the other hundreds of acres of Pierre Hills was for sale. Eat your heart out. The Sink boys had it for their own park, after tearing down every pine tree of beauty back in Dream of Pines for lumber and paper pulp. Dream of Pines was a smelly heap a mile east of Pierre Hills. By the time my old man moved us into our house between the Sink mansions, however, the Sink brothers and the rest of their friends managing the mills had stoked up such a glut of wood in the mill production that Pierre Hills itself breathed a slight fart of the industrialized woodlands.
So when we got into it, Pierre Hills was not the exclusive rolling green it used to be. Still, it was a great privilege for the old man to get to buy in and put a house out there. He always thought the Sinks had been kind to him. He paid so much for the land that my mother left him for a month in protest and stayed with her mother in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I mean apparently he shot about nearly everything from two good years at the mattress factory he owned. He was third richest man in town, after the Sinks. When my mother came back, he had the house he meant to build just starting. He and she fell down in the truck ruts and made love the afternoon she came back. It’s shadowed enough to do that in Pierre Hills. My mother is a fading egg-white brunette I can understand a man could miss after a month. And at heart, she’s wild for any kind of project — any kind of definitely plotted adventure. So I suppose it happened — luggage from Vicksburg being kicked everywhere. I can see the beauty. They were in between their big old shingled house in Dream of Pines and the huge country home of square gray stone we finally had in Pierre Hills. I always thought of it as the bottom half of a small English fort. My mother had a miscarriage, her last baby, when we were two months into the place. I remember everybody saying — I was six — that it was an awfully late and dangerous time to lose a baby. The Sink boys never sent condolences or anything. This came up. My aunt was sitting in the kitchen and mentioning this, while my mother was at the hospital. My old man didn’t really allow anything to be said against the Sink brothers. He always had a blind admiration for any-body holding monstrous wealth; he thought it took an unearthly talent to become rich beyond rich. He loved the city of New York because it was so incomprehensibly rich. He loved paying homage to it, and I guess that’s why we took all the New York magazines and newspapers. They filled up the house, and nobody read anything in them beyond the gaudiest headlines. I think he enjoyed paying out the ear for the land his house is on. And, by the way he acted, I got the idea we were owning this land in Pierre Hills on probation. No misbehaving or loose talk, or we were off.