So far in my forty years, I’ve discovered three happy sadnesses — people, things or situations for which I have an aching emotional draw, but know that to have them for my own is an unattainable goal. In honesty, though, I had never considered them in a category until some months ago, when I simultaneously discovered my fourth Happy Sadness, and realized a common thread connecting all of the parts.
But before I talk about number four; in fact, before number four even makes any sense, I should recap the first three and in doing so explain what I mean. So, in order of discovery, not importance, I’ll write about them here.
Happy Sadness #1: Marching Band/Drum Corps
On the second day of seventh grade, I found myself sitting in a sparsely decorated cinder-block excuse for a middle school band hall next to a kid who would turn out to be a lifelong friend, Jason. I was there because, on a survey during the last few weeks of my sixth grade year at Davenport Elementary, I checked band as an elective in which I might have some interest in the coming years. Jason and I were cutting up and generally being bored kids when the band teacher introduced Mr. Beutel, the junior high school band director. He had driven over from the junior high just about a mile away and brought with him a collection of some of the more expensive band instruments — the kind that the middle school did not have on hand.
He had a trombone, a baritone, a trumpet and a tuba. I didn’t realize at the time how important the day was going to be in my musical future, but being the biggest clumsy kid in the class, I was pegged with the this-kid-needs-to-play-the-tuba profile, and it was offered to me.
Jason had already decided to play trumpet, and I wanted to be in the brass section with him, so I accepted the tuba-player moniker, even though I knew it reinforced my fat-kid stereotype.
Among the first pieces of sheet music I was able to play without sounding like a wounded water buffalo begging for life’s sweet release, was The Baby Elephant Walk. The tuba part was awesome, I played it well (i think it had maybe five different notes), and I got the recognition of both my music teacher, and my new buddy Jason. I was hooked on playing the tuba.
Fast-forward six years to a football field in Buffalo, NY. I’m holding a contra bass bugle and am in the final phrase of an orchestral rendition of Ave Maria marching with the Magic Drum & Bugle Corps during their first year as group (the t-shirt read, “Member of the Making of Magic”). Elsewhere on the field is my now-best friend, Jason, with a soprano bugle. And in another part of the formation, my more recent friend Marcus, who time would later prove to be among my closest and most valued friends.
My part is a series of long notes serving as the bass for the chords, and they afford me time to think.
In the years between when Mr. Beutel handed me a horn and now, that tuba has brought me some of the greatest joys & sadnesses in my young life. Marching band shows, musical performances, all-state, all-county, solo & ensemble, all-star marching bands for the summer, victories, losses, making out with girlfriends in the bleachers during (and on the bus to & from) high school football games, and now drum corps (the closest thing a professional marching band that really exists, though you pay for the privilege).
This was it. I’m eighteen, and out of high school, and next year I’ll be too old to march in drum corps, and I’m playing the last few notes that I will ever stand on a football field and play.
Ave Maria is an emotional song, but even more so for me. I don’t know if it had the same impact on Jason and Marcus; I’ve never talked to them about it, but I have a very vivid memory of those last few notes, and being painfully conscious that they would be the last I would play, and that we would play together.
The last note ended. The crowd of thousands in the stands erupted into applause & cheers (for the last time). Endorphins coursed through my veins and I was awash a unique kind of joy that I’ve only every received from performing music (again, for the last time). I lowered my horn and held my head high (finally, for the last time). And I cried.
I marched off the field to a lone snare tap, and to my peers, if they noticed my tears at all, must have assumed that I’d “gave it my all” and “left it all on the field” and really “gotten into the show.” But I was furious. I knew I was done.
My parents had driven all the way from Florida to New York for the final show (drum corps finals are a big deal every year, and you may have even caught them once on PBS when flipping channels, and I was in it), and they drove Jason and me straight from Buffalo to Tallahassee for orientation at FSU.
Jason tried to recapture the magic by playing in the FSU marching band, but he soon dropped out due to his heavy course load. I never tried.
I told everyone who asked that I was just burned out, but I think was angry with music. It had given me just enough talent to last me through drum corps, but not enough to perform beyond that level. And even it I were good enough, it was the viceral part of hauling ass around a football field and playing at the top of your lungs at the bleachers in the crisp night air, not puffing away in an auditorium, that I truly craved. And that was gone for me forever.
And so, my Happy Sadness number one, is marching bands. Every parade I watch, or football halftime show I see, or, Flying Spaghetti Monster help me, drum corps event I might catch on TV, and I have to choke back tears — not always successfully.
I’m transported back to that field playing that last note of Ave Maria, and at once I’m awash in the joy music brought me, and its loss from which I will never recover.
Stay tuned for Happy Sadness number two.