Monday, July 21, 2008
And the band marched on
On Outside the Beltway, Dr. James Joyner posted today a story (with an embedded video clip that, alas, appears to have already been zapped from YouTube) entitled Army Band Hit By Skydiver, Marches On. It reminded me of an incident that I witnessed in Austin at the Texas/Texas A&M football game during Thanksgiving Weekend in 1974.
I was a high-school senior visiting the UT-Austin campus where I planned to enroll the next year. And I already had my application on file to join the Longhorn Band's trumpet section (following in the footsteps of my older brother), so I was certainly looking forward to the halftime performance of the Showband of the Southwest (not pictured below!).
It was a cold, blustery day, and the portents were grim. A&M entered the game as heavy favorites with only one prior Southwest Conference loss (to SMU) and a high national poll ranking. The Longhorns' season, by contrast, was already a comparative disappointment that included a remarkable loss to Baylor in Waco. Eaking out a tie for second place and spoiling the Aggies' post-season bowl plans was the best we UT fans could hope for. But the Texas/Texas A&M game was, after all, a yearly rivalry that dates back to 1894, the third-longest among NCAA Division 1-A teams. Whatever's happened earlier in the year, neither school ever has any difficulty in gathering up enthusiasm to play the other.
If I recall correctly, the Ags fumbled the opening kickoff and it was returned by UT for a touchdown. The Horns kicked off again, and on the Ags' first or second play from scrimmage, Texas intercepted and ran it back for a TD. Again Texas kicked off, but after another Aggie fumble, their stunned defense managed to hold the Horns to a field goal. Thus was the highly-favored A&M team down by 17-0 less than two minutes into the game. The game went on to be a UT rout, 32 to 3. With the loss, the Aggies' Cotton Bowl plans evaporated, and in fact they went to no bowl game at all that year. (The Horns went on to the Gator Bowl, which but for the lesser bowl prestige, the LHB vastly preferred to yet another trip to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl anyway).
The Aggie Band, however, insists that they have never lost a half-time, no matter what the scoreboard reads. And by some very specific and narrow standards, that's probably true. Although we in the Longhorn Band often kidded and teased the Fightin' Aggie Band, beneath that we held a genuine respect for their great tradition and their marching precision. As to their creativity and their overall musicianship, eh, not so much. But they did the particular things which they prided themselves on doing very well indeed.
In particular, the Aggie Band drills and drills on marching in big, traditional block-band formations — none of this modern stuff with curved lines! Precise six-to-five strides, straight lines, and sharp corners are their stock-in-trade every year. Per a Wikipedia entry:
The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band (also known as The Noble Men of Kyle or the Aggie Band) is the official marching band of Texas A&M University. Composed of over 400 men and women from the school's Corps of Cadets, it is the largest military marching band in the world. The complex straight-line maneuvers, performed exclusively to traditional marches, are so complicated and precise that computer marching simulations say they cannot be performed.
Almost always, the final rank of the Aggie Band is filled with spectacularly polished sterling silver-finished sousaphones (which are basically tubas reshaped by John Phillip Sousa for marching) that gleam in the sunlight. All the members of the Aggie Band make crisp military turns, but the sousaphone players execute two exaggeratedly sharp 90-degree turns during every counter-march: Stomp-WHIRL!-stomp-WHIRL!
The photo above is from the 2007 Texas/Texas A&M game, and I think their uniforms as shown there may have changed substantially since 1974. But this photo gives you some idea of how impressive their merging rows of marching brass can be — especially those sousaphones, which are generally carried by especially beefy young men.
On this ill-fated day for the Aggies in 1974, however, one of their bandsmen — a senior, so identifiable by his beautiful and highly polished riding boots, and by his position on the far west of his rank, closest to the home-field press box — had apparently failed to tighten carefully the set-screws that attached his sousaphone's bell to the rest of the instrument. Or perhaps he had assembled it perfectly, but there was a materials failure in the screws or the flange. In any event, as his rank finished one of the Aggie Band's signature counter-march maneuvers, he snapped off one crisp 90-degree stomp-and-pivot, performed the second stomp, and immediately executed the second whirl — at which moment his instrument's entire bell detached itself from the rest of the tubing that wrapped around his body and was flung violently into the air.
The bell sailed a good ten yards in the air, vivid silver flashing against the green astroturf. It landed on an edge, twirled in a circle, and finally rolled to a rest. The entire Aggie Band continued marching down-field without it. The poor senior remained on that same exposed, trailing corner of the block formation, looking oddly decapitated. The 60,000+ Texas fans rose as one, howling with laughter and pointing. But to the Aggie senior's credit, he kept his composure, pretended nothing had happened, and finished the rest of the performance without a missed turn or any other screw-up.
After the Aggie Band finished in its traditional manner — a mass, screaming charge to the sidelines upon an abrupt cut-off in the "Aggie War Hymn" — that silver sousaphone bell still remained on the field, just outside the near hashmark at about the 20 yard-line. The crowd waited. And waited. Wally Pryor, the Memorial Stadium announcer and the Voice of the Longhorn Band, waited too. The Longhorn Band, as representatives of the home team, was to perform next, but the LHB drum major was not about to lead it onto the field while that silver bell remained. The Aggie Band had put it there; the Aggie Band was going to have to see to its removal, and there weren't going to be any distractions permitted.
Finally, some poor Aggie Band underclassman was dispatched to run out onto the field and retrieve the bell — again to laughs, jeers, and cheers from the hugely amused and highly partisan fans. The competition with the Aggie Band always sharpens up the LHB's own marching, and on this day, they both entered and left the field triumphant.
"Pooo-oooor Ag-gies," the Longhorn crowd sang near the end of the game. I sang along and laughed too, but I certainly empathized more with the poor Aggie sousaphone-playing senior than with the Aggie football players. I hope that guy, whoever he was, went on to a great career and a great life, and that he has a great sense of humor. If, as is likely, he served as an active-duty military officer, I would bet that everyone and everything under his command remained button down and screwed on tightly.
Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to And the band marched on and sent a trackback ping are listed here:
Thanks for the story, Beldar. As a former (high school) sousaphonist, I feel a certain tinge for that poor bandsman...even if he's an Aggie. Sorta. Maybe.
Apropos of nothing in particular than timing (since we set this up last night), I'll be able to watch The Showband of the Southwest in October when I fly into Texas and join my brother and nephew at the OU game in the Cotton Bowl. Undoubtedly, a good time will be had by all. Well, at least the UT fans, and we're the only ones that count, anyway.
Thanks for the kind words, Boyd, and I hope you have grounds to celebrate next October.
I recall that the next day after the 1974 game (which I think was played on a Friday for national TV purposes), the Austin American-Statesman had a front-page photo of the sousaphone bell all by its lonesome, out on the field — it was an emblematic symbol of how everything that could go wrong for the Aggies that day, did. I'm sure the Statesman still has that photo somewhere in its archives, but alas, that's from a pre-internet age and consequently much harder to obtain.
(3) ech made the following comment | Jul 21, 2008 3:48:47 PM | Permalink
That was 2 years in a row of bad luck for the Aggie band. I was at the 1973 Rice-A&M game where we poked fun at the Aggies.
(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Jul 21, 2008 5:20:35 PM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: I repeat, you need to give up this attorney business and set up shop writing. Terrific story.
The comments to this entry are closed.