An earlier version of this story was included in Tales of Our Lives: Reflection Pond. It was my first published story and, for me, its status as an early effort looms large. I’m not mortified by its deficits, but admit I’d go about telling the story differently now. Since the book is no longer available for purchase, I’ve decided to include it as part of my website.
Before I stand, I unfold my legs from the driver’s seat of my aging Volvo and plant them securely on the asphalt. I pause, eyeing my surroundings, and draw the crisp autumn air into my lungs, thankful I have found a place to park within easy walking distance of the concert hall. It is a clear October evening, the kind I like best. The dry leaves crunch under my feet and the brightest stars are starting to shine in the pale indigo dusk.
Tonight my father is on my mind and jolts of remembrance keep nipping at me. I smile to myself as I shut the car door. The Volvo’s rugged construction and the solid thump it makes as the door closes reminds me of my father’s Oldsmobiles. He had been loyal to the Ninety-Eight line for most of my childhood; those premier land yachts were my doorway into adulthood. I learned to drive in them and their spacious back seats served as the mattress when I learned about the secret sharing between a man and woman.
But tonight isn’t about my youth. It’s about my father who died in May, five months earlier. I wasn’t surprised by his death as his health had been precarious for years. On one visit to see him, I remember my sister’s shrug and half-swallowed laugh, “The doctors aren’t certain how he’s still alive. He’s living on a quarter of a lung and a third of a ticker.” My belief was he stayed alive through sheer cussedness, piss and vinegar, and fear of death, believing he’d done things in defense of home and country that would cast him into hell’s eternal punishment.
He was in a rehab unit when my mom called. She reassured me he was making steady progress and they expected him to come home soon. “Isn’t that right, Bruce? You’ll be coming home soon.” She handed the phone to him and I was dismayed at his mental fuzziness. It was as if he were talking to someone he couldn’t remember, but was making polite conversation for form’s sake. My mom hadn’t mentioned his mental deterioration — out of love, I’m certain.
My mom and sisters were in Florida and my family and I were in New York, slogging through the aftermath of the death of my mother-in-law the previous October. We had made several trips back and forth from our home in Buffalo to Portland, Maine, where my husband’s mother had lived. Each time we helped sort through the stubbornly saved detritus of mother, aunt, uncle, and daughter. Each time we brought a car- or van-load of boxes and bags back to Buffalo to sort, clean, catalog, assimilate, disseminate or discard. I’m certain my mom was trying to spare me guilt and worry, being far away and immersed in my own life. After all, if I was in Florida, it would confuse my father and simultaneously hurt and anger me. I imagined the spark of intelligence, charisma and personality gradually emptying from my father’s eyes and a belligerent shell replacing it. This is what I imagine. This is my sorrow. This is my regret. Especially tonight.
I continue eying the ground of the parking lot. The neuropathy in my feet has progressed far enough that falls are an ever-present danger. I scan the ground looking for the uneven places that wait to snare my feet, knowing the slightest imbalance could topple me. My son, now out of the car, comes around to help me. I put my hand in the crook of his arm and step over the curb onto the sidewalk. He is a gentle giant. At six foot four, he towers over everyone. In this Rust Belt city, my friends—aging granddaughters of Polish and Italian immigrants—stand next to him, their chins reaching little higher than his belt buckle. We laugh as they hug him, their heads lying flat and secure against his belly, his long wookie arms forming a V as he awkwardly hugs them back. These days his honey-brown hair falls in thick waves to the middle of his back. He has shaved his chin, dividing his red beard into two immense mutton chops, the hairs long and wiry droop down the side of his face.
We are a distinctive couple making our slow way toward the entrance. The question of our relationship has an obvious answer. A glance at the two of us reveals the similarity of features in our faces. We have masculine and feminine versions of the same nose—narrow with a slight bulb and upturn at the end—the same mouth, somber at first but transforming into appealing curly brackets when amused. People find the transformation fascinating. It’s as if something pedestrian like a jelly glass mutates into an etched crystal goblet, turning from utilitarian into beautiful in an instant.
Tonight we are at Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo. It is said to be one of the finest concert halls in America. It’s near perfect acoustics will be put to good use during this evening’s performance by the United States Marine Band. We have come, in part, as a tribute to my father who for a short time was part of the band. We enter the wide, curtainless auditorium and make our way to our seats. I have bought tickets close to the stage—fourth row, left side, first two seats on the aisle. I want to be close enough to inspect the uniforms, to watch the interaction of instrumentalist and conductor, to observe the lively eyes flitting between sheet music and baton. I want to immerse myself in sound, but that is yet to come. For now we sit, perusing the program while the buzz of the slowly filling auditorium surrounds us. I learn that the Marine Band is the premier band of the United States Marine Corps, referred to as “The President’s Own” having played at every presidential inauguration since 1801. Today the band performs for state dinners, funerals, and arrival ceremonies, as well as marching in several parades. It reserves October and November to travel for its annual concert tour.
While we wait, I think about my dad. He was six feet tall. His height came in early, lending stature, torque, and athleticism to his frame well before his peers attained theirs. Handsome, with a high, square forehead and sky-blue eyes streaked with silver, my father learned to stand alone early in life. As a teenager in the 1940s, big band music captured his heart and he resolved to master jazz. He’d sneak into clubs to sit-in with traveling bands, as it was common practice to invite local talent to join the music making. It was part showmanship, part one-upmanship, and part joyous competition. My dad absorbed everything they could teach him about style, technique, and flare. He took what he heard and practiced for long hours on the wide porch, which wrapped around his grandparents’ home, serenading the neighbors with endless variations on a theme. During his senior year of high school, the Eastman School of Music offered him a full scholarship. No matter how many times I asked, no one would explain why he chose to join the Marines instead.
“Did you know your grandfather was a talented cornet player? Oh yes, he was a flashy player with a tendency towards showboating.” I shifted in my seat, turning to face my son. “He told me once he had a trick he used to perform during band concerts. In the midst of a song, the band director would point to him and nod; he would stand up and hit a high C note, then hold it for sixty seconds. At thirty seconds, people would start applauding.”
I remember my father, his eyes intent on mine as he told me the story. He had paused, certain I wasn’t suitably impressed. “Do you know how long sixty seconds is? Go ahead, try to hold your breath that long.” It was typical of our interactions, his urging me to action and my paralyzed resistance. Shaking his head over my struggle, my father had continued: “At forty-five seconds they’d be on their feet stomping and hollering, by the end they’d be going absolutely nuts.”
The Marines placed my dad in the Marine Band for about a minute. There’s proof. My mom has a picture of him, in uniform as part of the band. However, first he had to complete basic training and assimilate the tenets required to become a fledgling Marine. They called him blow boy, positive anyone willing to trot around in a swishy band costume was an embarrassing betrayer of the Marine’s rugged standards. Therefore, the band members were given disgusting and degrading duties, suffering through a fair amount of hazing and chuff. My dad was never specific about these assignments, but he referred to them once as horrific.
I didn’t know what being in the Marine Band was like for my dad in the early 1950s, but I was hoping to catch an echo at tonight’s concert. My thoughts kept turning to the poignant sense of possibilities sheared off — like a gigantic limb from a tree lopped off, leaving behind a sturdy but deformed tree, which always carries the scar of its loss. My dad was underage when he joined the Marines, having lied about his birthday when he signed up. He was just a kid, being molded into a Marine. Inevitably, a drill sergeant roared in his face with the extreme intimidation practiced by their kind, “Soldier are you going to be a blow boy or are you going to be a Marine?” Trained to respond “Yes, Sir,” “No, Sir,” “Right away, Sir,” my dad shouted back, “I want to be a Marine, Sir” and that was it, the end of making music for him.
During the Korean War, a mortar shell explosion wounded my father. It broke his leg, cracked his ribs, started the cycle of a lifelong susceptibility to bronchitis and pneumonia, ruptured his eardrum and left him with the irritating ring and buzz of tinnitus in his good ear. It wasn’t until I began to suffer through my own bouts of tinnitus that I came to understand the trial it must have been. For me, it manifests as the loud crinkling of cellophane or the vibration of a motor fan in my head. It prevents sleep, sends me prowling through the house desperate to find a spot where the damn buzzing diminishes to a bearable level. Mostly, it stops the music; I can’t sing or hear through the crackle.
Organizations whose members routinely face death like the military, the police and firefighters understand the value of tradition and ritual. The flag-draped casket, the measured, meticulous folding, the snap of heels, the precise turn, the formal presentation, one gloved hand palm up holding the triangular shroud, one gloved hand carefully placed on top, the softly spoken words of thanks for dedication and service to country.
The Marine Band understands this as well. The concert ended with a medley of official Armed Forces marches. The conductor invited audience members to stand as the music representing their branch of the military played, whether one once served, was currently serving, or simply wanted to honor a loved one. As the stirring marches played, with each new theme more people stood, some enthusiastically shouting, “Hooyah” for the Navy or standing at attention with a chest thumping “Oorah” for the Marines, amidst the clapping and applauding, slowly almost everyone in the auditorium stood in tribute and remembrance.
My son and I stood too. Tears streamed down my face, unheeded, unashamed. I cried for my talented musical father whose service as a Marine cost him so much. For the kid whose musical aspirations vanished in an instant, who would have been happier if he’d had the courage to say, “I’m a blow boy, Sir.” His life would have been different. No Korea, no ear damage, no sense of invisible branches severed. I listened to the Marine Band and saw the alternate possibilities play out before me. It was like glimpsing the hazy outline of the other bank of an immense river. A side you can never get to because the bridge has collapsed, leaving a tantalizing glimpse of a life that might have been on the other side of the bluff. I cried for that young man and that young life diverted. I cried for the idealist whose initiation into the Marine brotherhood comforted and supported him in later years. “Once a Marine, always a Marine” buoyed his experience and sustained him through his physical trials. I cried for the loss of my father, for our stormy relationship, for the understanding that came too late.
Semper Fidelis is the title of the official march of the United States Marine Corps, composed by John Phillip Sousa in 1889. The Marine motto Semper Fidelis means “always faithful” in Latin, often shortened to Semper Fi. It is a common greeting among serving and veteran Marines.