I am not one of those moms who willingly heads up school committees. But I feel obligated to volunteer, preferably aligning my limited kid-management skill set with the needs of the organization.

In Saturday’s case, my applicable skill set included sheer tolerance for long loud bus rides with many teenagers. My skill set was challenged.

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Buses ready for loading at Oakton High School.

Challenged and rewarded.

Oakton High School Marching Band, all 131 members, was scheduled to depart Vienna, Virginia at 5 p.m. Destination: James Madison University, 2 hours, 15 minutes west.

The bus to which I was assigned, known at the outset as “The Asian Bus,” “the Freshman Bus” and simply, “Bus Four,” was not the most populated. At least not at the beginning of the trip. We had only 25 kids.

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Oakton High School Marching Band approaches the field at a home game earlier this season.

Four buses, 131 kids, eight chaperones. Go ahead, do the math.

That’s right, ours was the least-popular bus. But our numbers swelled to 45, the most raucous, bouncy, messy … yes, we were the party bus by the time, 1:50 a.m. Sunday, we arrived back to Oakton High School.

Yes. At ten minutes to two in the morning.

The Oakton High School Marching Band is not like the marching band my children knew back in rural Lake County, California, which led two or three parades down Main Street of bucolic Lakeport every Memorial Day, Labor Day and Halloween … and that’s all.

The East Coast has something else in mind entirely when it uses the term “Marching Band.”

The origin of this marching band culture is Revolutionary War soldiers with drums and piccolos, charged with entertaining and motivating soldiers. And it goes way back from there.

As we travelled through Manassas, flying by the sites of the battle of Bull Run, Ox Hill and probably a dozen other civil war bloodbathtubs, I realized we were a historically significant cultural entity. I realized why my ‘pacifist’ spinster sister who preaches tolerance rejected this form of musical entertainment. It was about war.

By the time we got to Harrisonburg, home of the JMU Royal Dukes, I realized marching band skill was rooted in primal needs. Survival meant rhythm, spirit, camaraderie, order and simple brotherly, sisterly love.

These guys take marching band seriously. For a good reason.

At Oakton High School, where football culture is the venue for marching band performances — but the marching band membership exceeds football team in both numbers and popular support — the origins seem hardly relevant. What remains true is band geeks are the brains of the outfit, the spirit of the society, what holds it all together.

Oakton High School parent volunteer Ron Crowe finishes loading hat boxes, drums stands and other equipment before departing Vienna for JMU.
Oakton High School parent Ron Crowe finishes loading hat boxes, drums stands and other equipment before departing Vienna for JMU.

The competition for which we were destined required rental of two 26-foot equipment trucks, the four orange buses and a list of parent volunteers. Each bus had been stocked with a black bag labeled with a red cross, two cases of water bottles, snack bags for each student and two hardy volunteers armed with two-way radios, site maps, schedules and rosters.

Our bus driver, a kind-looking man named “A.J.” who appeared to be first generation Indian from India, drove skillfully, cautiously. Despite a gap in the steering linkage that made our bus sway from side to side, this man gracefully conveyed his roaring load of postpubescent teenage angst to its destination with only one wrong turn.

Upon arrival, landing about nine bus-lengths behind the others in the congregational lineup at the JMU parking lot earned him the derision of our three other bus drivers—all women. He was verbally attacked for being too slow, for not keeping up, for getting lost.

“Hey, we arrived alive,” I had to defend the guy as I watched this stairwell drama at the bus entrance.

Lisa, the president of the band boosters, (also a full-time employee of the Federal Aviation Administration) directed bathroom trips and costume changes in the parking lot upon our arrival. My only complaint was her decision to order the kids to change their shoes prior to disembarcation. Removal of 25 pairs of tennis shoes on the bus is not good news to anyone’s nose.

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The moonlit parking lot changing room at James Madison University.

Decisions such as whether to first assemble instruments or zip up uniforms were made by individual students. Painfully, I watched kids place trumpet bells on the parking lot surface in order to remove a sweatshirt in exchange for a uniform jacket. Multiply this times 131, all occurring between two foreign buses in a parking lot servicing 46 bands from all over the state. It was delightful chaos; the kids thrived in it.

James Madison University, like every other campus I’ve seen on the east coast, seems to have been built sometime after the highway system was put in place. The hundred buses were separated from the performance venue—a stadium that seemed to reach to the moon—by a major highway. But a tunnel for pedestrians allowed students and instruments a shortcut.
Unfortunately, the parent volunteer tasked with getting the percussion section, some 20 talented kids, in full uniform with shoes so shiny they reflect the moon well enough to make me squint, didn’t, apparently, know about the tunnel. A college student had told him, he confessed later, to go that way.
A dedicated organized, in-charge kind of guy, Mr. W fearlessly led the percussion students and the entire entourage of parents requisite to moving a rhythm section. We followed Mr. W up a hill across a dark street just before a blind curve with no crosswalk, down a right-turn lane, where, had it been any other hour, we would have had to compete with cars in traffic. We then achieved a sidewalk of sorts, crossed a bridge and recognized in the distance what could be nothing other than the stadium to the sky … a half mile away.

I remembered the bus-ride energy this would take out of the kids and smiled. I didn’t actually mind the walk.

But one of the volunteers had an asthma attack and had to be left in a parking lot enroute, diminishing our number by three as two other chaperones stayed to assist.

We marched relentlessly, jubilantly almost, on.

Finally, we arrived at the trodden grass lot where our trucks, the instruments and golf carts with trailers awaited loading.

The performance arena at James Madison University.
The performance arena at James Madison University.

Soon we were circumnavigating the stadium in order to enter from the farthest corner.  I saw one boy, a marimba player, pushing one instrument while pulling another. I offered to assist. The boy, named Julian, seemed very grateful.  We rolled up a long sidewalk, across a street, down another sidewalk, around a corner, through a gate where each parent was inspected for identification. Finally we were told to “shush” as we wheeled our train into the glaring stadium. We were warned that if we stepped one foot on the turf our performance time clock would start. Eeeek.

We halted at the edge of the first row of aluminum bleachers and watched the Westfield High School Band perform what appeared to be a middle eastern wedding ceremony. Three enormous props –white pyramids–set the scene behind the performers. In front a long line of painted desert scenery informed us of the climate.  The biggest TV screen I’ve ever seen displayed closeups of individual marchers on what the other volunteers called a “Jumbotron.”

Girls ran around waving flags and tossing fake rifles in the air, which I had learned, is requisite to every show.

Grace helps Julian adjust his hat.

At some imperceptible signal we began rapidly pushing and pulling all the instruments out to the field.  The hundred or so other members of the band filed neatly in from another entrance, the drumline setting the perfect pace. I sat down to watch.

The show was titled “For Queen and Commonwealth” and intended I believe, to bridge the ocean between England and Virginia. Beginning with God Save the Queen and ending with American patriotic melodies, each of four sets evoked the historic connection between the two.

At the outset I was distracted by three tightly-dressed men, judges who, talking into hand-held electronic devices, wandered surrealistically among the marchers as they performed.

The band, in perfect unison marched left, right, forward, back, formed circles, crossed backward through each other all in perfect step, while impossibly playing beautiful music. During a pause in the brass and drum carnival, a tall thin boy with a tenor saxophone sang out a sentimental solo, playing Yesterday with enough spirited intonation to make Paul McCartney sit up in his grave and applaud. Then a smaller, sweet-looking boy picked up the melody on what appeared to be a grown-up trumpet (but am told is a mellophone.) It was beautiful. It really wasn’t cold but I felt that chill.

Then in 15 minutes, it was over.

While an emcee told age-appropriate band-geek jokes, (how do you make a trumpet sound good? Throw it in the trash and get a trombone,) we reversed the process, hauling the instruments out a different gateway to be loaded back onto the trucks, to remove the uniforms, to pack up the flutes, oboes, clarinets, mellophones, trumpets, alto saxes, tenor saxes, tubas, marimbas, timpany, cymbals, drums and 131 hat boxes with feathers or “chickens” that had to be collected and stored separately.

Back on the bus we counted heads, crammed ourselves into the straightbacked seats and listened to the sound only a busload of teenagers can make.

One highlight of the trip occurred when I overheard a young voice somewhere to my right say “I’m not going to tell you with a chaperone sitting right there.”

“It’s okay,” I told the darkened seat across the aisle, “I’m not listening.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, these kids are good kids. Among the best in the country, according to their test scores.

But teenagers are teenagers.

About halfway home the driver’s radio crackled. One of the other drivers was getting a signal, an alarm, and was going to pull over.

We pulled over too.

A half an hour later, I informed the kids we’d be getting 20 more kids on our bus. “If you want to sit next to your friend, move now,” I hollered. With a fan blade through the radiator the bus would have to be towed. This had happened to me on a tractor. “At least you didn’t get a hot shower like I did when that happened to me,” I told the woman.

Soon the door opened and a file of tired, loose-eyelidded teenagers clambered aboard. “It’s the freshman bus,” I heard one acne-ridden girl say. But that was the meanest thing said. Soon kids who had chosen not to sit together were all crammed in physical proximity.

It was fun.

I watched two boys share their common passion for whatever video game they were playing. They used words like “deviation” and “erroneously.”

It was “epic.”

Girls fell asleep on shoulders, a boy with dark eyebrows but blonde hair had that unmistakeable look on his face that comes only from trying incredibly hard to ignore that dark-haired girl sitting next to him. She was doing the same. By the end of the trip they were talking nervously, although neither one was turning completely to really face the other.

The rules of the bus, according to A.J., included that everyone had to sit. I tried to enforce that one rule.

The kids had performed beautifully. They were good kids. With one minor exception, no one was throwing things (okay, it was me.)

I teased one kid who was opening a family-sized bag of M&Ms that there was chocolate tax on this bus. He willingly handed some over. Another kid, a freshman, looked terrified when I suggested the same thing. A tiny boy who can make the marimbas sound like a movie score, squinted through thick glasses at me as he munched some sushi. “How are you, Caleb?” I asked, restraining from informing him that I had hemmed not only his pants but also the sleeves of his jacket because he had grown precisely an inch and a half since last season. I looked at his sushi packed neatly into tupperware. I looked at him. I looked back at his sushi. I smiled my best smile.

His friend told him to give me some sushi. “Oh,” he said, obliging. It was the tightest, best sushi ever.

We pulled off the freeway nearing home to see a major intersection blocked by firetrucks, ambulances and police cars flashing red, blue and white, not an uncommon sight, especially late Saturday night.

We had to detour.

I saw bus one go straight into a subdivision where I knew she should turn left. Bus two followed.

But A.J. turned left.

Bus Four was the first to arrive at the school. I couldn’t resist and asked the kids to give A.J. a round of applause. “He might be the slowest driver, but he seems to be the only one who knows how to get to Oakton High School, so we got here first.”

Band kids know how to be really loud.

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Drumline marcher Ford Lee.