Farrell Field and the Glory of Rome (a repost from September 2002)

I wrote this post in 2002, back when you capitalized “Blog”, and “my homepage” was still something you said with a straight face. I published this story as a bunch of short pages, but then they got lost in series of site reshuffles. I’ve stitched them together here, with horizontal lines to show the page breaks. I hope you enjoy it!

The house that Kate and I bought in April is a small, 1950s-style ranch. It’s in a quiet working-class neighborhood: our left-hand neighbor, Jerry, has a long, grizzled beard, cool merchant-marine tattoos, and an elderly springer spaniel (our catsitter, I think, has a crush on him.) Our right-hand neighbor, Todd, is an event producer, and has been sprucing up his small house with bright white and blue paint, low-voltage lighting, concrete benches, flags, and a hot tub. He also owns every two-stroke gas-powered yard tool that Home Depot has to offer.

Our street, College Avenue, adjoins the campus of West Chester University, and the summer has been filled with tennis camps, houses full of shirtless house painters, and the occasional sounds of band camp caught on the breeze. On the whole, though, it’s been pretty quiet.

A brigade of station wagons filled to the roof with pillows and oscillating fans delivered this year’s load of students about two weeks ago, and the campus (and the town) has been showing a lot more life since then. The activity extends to every cranny of the university. As I jogged past the University’s small stadium Sunday night, I saw that the parking lot filled with yellow school busses. The first football game of the season? Nope, a campus security guard told me as I huffed by, it was a band competition.

On my way back, the buses had disgorged numerous clumps of teenagers in brightly-colored polyester and cockaded plumes. Hot damn! I love stumbling upon random spectacles, especially spectacles involving hundreds of people costumed as tightly-jacketed neon hussars.

After dinner, Kate and I came back to check out the show.

By the time we walked down to Farrell Field, dusk had fallen and the stadium lights were on. Judging by the oom-pah sounds all around, competition was well under way, too. We skirted a couple of utility trailers bursting with kettle drums, passed several groups of excited teenagers clutching bassoons, and made our way around to the stands.

The bleachers were filled with parents, teens, and odd loners in nylon jackets (viz. the fellow in the nylon jacket with the flag patch on his arm.) Everyone was talking, laughing, catching up with friends, having a nice late-summer evening. A voice came over the loudspeakers:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Emmaus High School Marching Band will now take the field!”

A double file of teens in tight white suits and tall feathered plumes marched onto the field in approximate lockstep, then broke ranks and formed two staggered rows. The maneuver looked like a Napoleonic infantry attack, on a small and slightly ragged scale. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess: I had forgotten the martial origins of marching bands. It was fun to see all the bits of uniform that I’ve been reading about in the Hornblower books, War and Peace, and Exploits and Adventures of Brigardier Gerard down there on the field: cockades, shakoes, capes and gorgets. I eagerly pointed out these bits of costumage in some detail to Kate, who listened attentively. Further proof I married the right woman.

The band was unpracticed, which is hardly surprising for the second week of September. But who cares? Flags were waved, swords were twirled in the air, drummers mounted plywood boxes thumped away, then dismounted again. The theme was “Zorro”, and the wavering notes of the trumpets were undeniably meant to carry a Spanish flair.

It ended up being about as Spanish as one of the recipes in a 1952 Heinz cookbook, but I repeat: who cares?

I particularly enjoyed watching the drum major, a slight kid perched on a scaffolding who (ostensibly) directed the band’s efforts with showy, precise flourishes. At the end of each number, he turned around and saluted with a two-handed, cuff-waving superhero flourish.

Finally, he bowed deeply from the waist, to enthusiastic familial applause.

Following their finale, the Emmaus band filed into the stands, arranging their feathery yellow hats in rows. They radiated relief in all directions and directed their attention to the field, where a flurry of John Deere athletic tractors and students in blue suits were wheeling tympanis, kettle drums, and assorted glittery hardware onto the fifty-yard line.

The blue suits seemed older than the high schoolers, and we slowly gathered that there was going to be an exhibition performance by the West Chester Golden Rams, WCU’s college marching band, which (Kate told me) is highly respected: at least, she had heard of them at the University of Washington, whose own band gets respect for the way it belts out the best college fight song ever: “Bow Down to Washington”.

Anyway, the Golden Rams sure seemed to have the Emmaus students’ attention.

A round man in a gray shirt proceeded to hook up a pair of megaphones on tripods and work the crowd with a Janet Jackson microphone.
“One two, one [static] three, can you hear me? We’re [static] some trouble, there are some long-rangers in the area. And we have a McDonald’s nearby, ha ha.”

Judging from the laughter in the stands, I gathered that band announcers, just like carpenters, have their own repertoire of familiar jokes.

“Can you [static] me folks? That’s right, just three little “D” batteries. [static] fries with that?”

Band Announcer Man continued to rock the headset, while the field filled with more and more blue suits, xylophones on casters, and then something intriguing: a number of dancers clad in tap-recital Roman slave outfits. Females and males both were wearing shiny, stretchy tank tops with little fringed slave skirts, all over black jockey leggings.

Everyone knows the entertainment value of dancing Roman slaves, so I was getting pretty excited at this point, envisioning Blog posts full of goofy movie references. I zoomed my digital camera in all the way and checked them out.

The Spartacus slaves, anachronistically enough, were tossing white marching-band rifles high in the air, stretching elaborately, and generally basking in the admiring high-school attention. A group of the sparkly slaves, however, had congregated around a single figure in the center of the field. Something was familiar about that figure. Where had I seen him before?

I sat bolt upright on the bench, camera clattering from my fingers.

The Roman slave choreographer was our next-door neighbor, Todd!

My elation at discovering Todd in the driver’s seat of this Capezio Toga Extravaganza was only heightened when Band Man used his headset to set the stage: “Ladies and gentlemen, the West Chester University Golden Rams will present… The Return of the Roman Empire!

Oh, hell, yes. This was going to be great.

“…but first, the drum battery! How many drummers we have in the [static]? Come on, we got any hitters up there?”

Lots of people in the stands, including the fellow in the nylon jacket in front of us, gave an enthusiastic Marine corps “ooh-rah!” Apparently, the drummers are the elite of the band, and aren’t afraid to broadcast the fact. Once a hitter, always a hitter, I guess.

When the battery crashed into its number, I could understand the pride. The WCU drum battery kicked ass. Twelve snare drums in perfect unison is a hell of a call to action.

Suddenly, Tolstoy seemed real: I wanted to stand up and go repulse the Hessian horde. Or join the Hessian horde. Or sack Jena, or something.

When the battery was finished (and I had made a resolution to rent Aliens to watch the lock-and-load scene again), the rest of the band marched on to the field, this time in perfect lockstep. They were followed by the sparkly Roman slaves, chains dangling from their wrists, their heads hung low.

At a signal from the drum major on the scaffold, the orchestra played a long, low, mournful minor chord.

Ahh, the wretched, wretched life of a Roman slave.

Bondage! Agony! Torment! The Roman slaves cavorted in their chains — now stretching their arms out to each other in supplication, now holding their chains to the sky in a mute signal of their fettered existence. Finally, the orchestra swelled in a great “hurrah!” and crescendo, and the slaves threw off their bonds! To celebrate, they seized big sparkly flags, and then they gave those flags one hell of a good waving.

The music became more brassy and martial. Rowing their flags in unison, propelled on a blaring torrent of brass, the mighty Romans rowed pantomime galleons to the far corners of the infield, spreading the majesty of the mighty empire all the way up to the steeplechase pit. The Pax Romana was established in Farrell Field! To celebrate, the Romans dropped their flags, danced martial dances, saluted each other, and finally fell to the ground and saluted mighty Zeus!

There’s just no way you can top that, right? Wrong. A hush descended, and a “Danse Bacchanal” followed, symbolizing (I’m sure) the eventual corruption, dissipation, and decline in the course of empire. Each dancer mounted a plywood box, and gyrated rythmically to the wailing of a single clarinet.

The Romans gyrated. They writhed. They curled up into balls and rolled around on their plywood boxes. They made cat claws at each other and pawed at the air, passionately but in a dissipated way. They wrung every last bit of burlesque out of the four-hundred-year fall of Rome.

Needless to say, they managed to keep the high school students’ full and undivided attention.

Once the traces of Rome had been swept from the field (by John Deere tractors, not barbarian hordes or Christian missionaries), an award ceremony was set up. This was the first “West Chester Invitational” event, it turned out, and was partly an opportunity for the Golden Rams to drum up eager student volunteers from next year’s Freshman class, and was partly an opportunity for each high school band to perform for the first time in front of a sympathetic audience.

Each band’s drum major was dressed in a different Marching Band Superhero outfit. As each trophy was handed out (one per band, the two levels being “good” and “excellent”), each performed their band’s particular salute. Each salute had at least three parts, and at least two of those parts came straight off the pages of Marvel Comics. It rocked.

Especially Emmaus’s Zorro-inspired, cape-swinging, nose-hiding Z-slash salute.

Things moved pretty quickly after all the trophies were gone; the drum majors posed for family pictures, band members filed back to their busses, parents snapped open their cellphones and walked back to their cars — a mixture of station wagons, minivans, and PT Cruisers.

Kate and I walked on to the field in search of our neighbor Todd: event producer, landscaper, choreographer, chronicler of the fortunes of Rome.

Todd was pleased to see us, though kind of surprised that we’d known about this “insider” event. I told him that we’d stumbled on the show, and he (like every director) told up about how much better the show was going to be, soon. Especially, he told us about the tall headresses that the Roman slaves weren’t wearing in this show,
but that they would be wearing at the next home game in two weeks.

Kate had noticed the slaves’ pantomime headress-taking-off motions just before the Bacchanal, so that explained a lot.

We took a photo. Kate showed Todd the LCD screen on the camera, and he laughed and said I looked drunk. And, you know what? Maybe I was drunk.

…drunk on the glory of Rome.

EPILOGUE: It’s probably worth noting that the West Chester marching band is a student-run organization with no full-time paid staff, which is additionally impressive. They collaborated with the West Chester Dance team for the performance I saw, and Todd must be their Sparky Polanstri. You can visit the Golden Rams website to read about this performance, and even listen to .MIDI files of the Roman music, and the music for their other show, a tribute to “Moulin Rouge”.

SECOND EPILOGUE: A few months later, Kate and I visited the Thanksgiving Parade in Philadelphia, which was organized and produced by Todd. We were flabbergasted and delighted to see the martial pomp of Todd’s Glory of Rome number being used to escort Santa up the steps of the Art Museum between a file of Centurions, which is just about the most apt metaphor you could ever hope to see. And then, just a few weeks later, we saw Santa’s decapitated papier-mache head guarded between armed soldiers on his lawn. Santa is dead! Long Live Santa!

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