It must have been 30 degrees outside, maybe colder. The wind was blowing, the ground was muddy from a freezing rain the night before and earlier in the day. We cut the tips off our white gloves so we could cover the fingerholes properly on our instruments.
The air was cold. It was dense and soundwaves traveled a little more quickly. The air was humid, and maybe it was like tapping on a full glass of water as opposed to an empty or half-full glass. Our sound was thuddy, but so was everyone else’s. Our goal was to make thuddy sound good.
We had preliminaries in the early afternoon. It was almost a joke, preliminaries. We were still kind of coasting on our victory at the Azalea Festival in Palatka a couple of months before, and we’d pretty much won every other contest since. We needed to score in the top 10 to make the finals. Or something like that. For our other contests, we placed first in prelims and only had to defend the position in the finals. For the Kingdom of the Sun festival, we placed second or third in the prelims. It wasn’t first, that’s all I remember. We had real competition. I was a little scared.
I chuckled that day, Kingdom of the Sun. It was overcast and cold and completely miserable. Sometimes we sat on the bleachers to watch some of the other bands. Some school marched to the Simpons theme. The dance team carried around huge cardboard cutouts that looked like clouds. The bleachers were cold.
Our marching band uniforms were red jackets that fastened at the neck, white pants, white shoes, white gloves and white Aussie hats. We also wore ruffled dickies. Mr. Ball, our band director, emphasized white shirts and white underwear for the uniforms. I saw occasional stripes and print patterns while standing in various formations.
Mr. Ball was against black pants and shoes. White was a huge risk: it was easier to detect missteps and not-so-sharp marching, but when everyone marched on point, stepping exactly at the same time to the beat, it looked fantastic. Marching band was a visual as well as an aural experience.
We waited for the evening for the finals to begin. It had begun drizzling. We warmed up in the parking lot, marking time, playing scales. Whole notes, B-flat concert. Played the big hits in “Georgia” and “Tennessee Waltz” and “Precious Lord.” Whenever we didn’t play, we kept blowing warm air through our instruments.
We marched and played our hearts out. We were known more for our musicality than our marching, so we knew we had to step up our playing. Plus, we had an advantage being at around 130 members, where the The Big Red Machine (or whatever the heck they were called) were around 180, or even bigger. More people to keep in tune. They didn’t sound nearly as warm and rich and full during their warmups.
During our show, I marched right by a field judge. He talked into his handheld recorder. We kicked up some mud, and we kneeled with confidence onto that soft football field at the right time during “Precious Lord.” Our show had kind of a patriotic theme, and maybe it was the Gulf war, and maybe we were good ol’ Southern kids, but our music really, really pleased the crowd.
Our sound was crisp and musically appealing and nostalgic and religious. I just about cried when the drum majors cued our last note, which I marveled was in perfect tune. After horns-down, we held our instruments and stood at attention and breathed hard, exhausted from the past ten minutes. We waited for our drumline to cadence our exit.
We left everything on the field.
We were the underdogs that day, the Broncos. We were used to winning and didn’t know how we would fight our way back to first place. The Big Red Machine (they had gross, cream-colored pants and white shoes, but they also had red jackets) had a pretty long history of being a great marching band. They were the favorites; they led going into the finals. They were definitely bigger. They were better marchers.
But we were better musicians. Our music cut right through the cold, humid, floppy air, in tune, on beat, the way a concert band would sound in an insulated and controlled environment. Except we slammed the audience with a massive wall of sound. We pushed back the bleachers with our fortissimos, and we surprised everyone with our pianissimos, and the audience, with even our competition’s band parents, went wild.
We, at a modest 130 members, stood at attention next to the massive and pretty obnoxious Machine of flirbity-7 googolplex on the field as they announced the results. We won. Our drumline played as we marched off with smiles that would not quit. We got to the buses and went wild. We hugged and hooted and congratulated the other bands. Joel Agcon asked me to homecoming.
There was no way I would be sleeping on the ride back to Middleburg.