I don’t remember what they called that night. Someone drove us to a house off campus. Someone blindfolded us. Someone lined us up around the perimeter of a pool. They made us practice fundamentals—low mark time (heel up, toes down), high mark time (up to the knee), glide step (dig in the heel, turn up the toe). There was a girl ahead of me in line. I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there.
We were in college marching band together, and there were thirty-five people in our section. Maybe eight of us were new. I tried to think how I would describe this moment, first to myself, then to someone else: that the air pressed in, humid and hot. That the pool’s cement edge warmed the soles of my feet. That layers of white tissue bandaged my eyes.
Then the girl ahead of me hit a brick wall. The impact knocked out her front teeth, bloodied her nose, and gave her a concussion. Or maybe it chipped her teeth and cut her mouth so she had to get stitches. I remember she was upset because she’ d had braces or other dental work, and her parents would be angry about the damage. Someone drove her to the emergency room, and the night ended. I remember some of the seniors were disappointed they didn’t get to do everything they had planned. They were going to tie us hand and foot and throw us blindfolded into the pool.
Was she holding her horn? Was the mouthpiece what damaged her teeth or was it the wall? Was her nose broken or bloodied? Did her parents file a police report? She would have been eighteen, like me. I forget how I got there. I forget how many other initiates there were. Did the university pay for her dental work? I can’t remember her name. I can’t remember any names.
Start with lips on a mouthpiece or fingers loosely gripping sticks of polished hickory. With breath, with heartbeat. What a marching show is especially good at: lines, volume, force. The best shows play to these strengths, bringing scores of musicians together in a tightly bounded art form, the field’s white grid pressuring the group’s physical motions just as the time limit shapes the arrangement of the music. You need variety: four songs that play well together, even if they vary in tempo and mood. By the end of the season, everyone in the band will know these songs in their blood, will hear them as the soundtrack to their dreams.
Open with an exclamation, an emphatic note: bodies in parallel lines flex and spin, melt into each other, shift into a parallelogram, then flatten into a front. The whomp of crescendo hits the audience hard—that’s from the turn the players have executed, dynamics at their most primal. Then a ballad, a drum break, and for a change of pace, brass solo. Something new every five to eight seconds. Then a big closer, some surprise or twist: maybe a callback to an earlier phrase, transformed in key or volume. The show’s early moments prepared the audience, but if the band does its job, nobody sees this coming.
You have a good ear, my first band director told me. Those high school band directors were the first artists I knew. They arranged music, wrote drill, created the show’s every resonant moment. That’s why I’ d come here, to a school far from home but known for its excellent conservatory. I played piano, French horn, trumpet, a little trombone, a little baritone, and I dreamed of the shows I’ d write someday.
Maybe something containing Aaron Copland’s music. Appalachian Spring was the first piece of serious music I felt was mine. My junior year of high school, we played it in a show, as many bands did; students could play it cleanly, and audiences had loved it since its 1944 premiere. Comprised of eight sections—some joyful, some yearning—it unfolded in the open space of a field, a stage so big you trust only what you see, not what you hear.
Dancers had always prized the spacious quality inherent in Copland’s compositions. Said dancer Pearl Lang in 1980: “We thank Aaron for the wide use of time that his music provides, for the energy his music ignites in us, and for the limitless space that we hear in his sound. With Aaron’s music, one leaps not across the stage, but across the land.”
Roll back the clock twenty years. Let me show you my parents, a young couple not long married, digging in a field in Logan County, Ohio. One thousand holes for one thousand seedlings, delivered in brown paper from the soil conservation district. They had not been to college but were determined that any child of theirs would go. Walnut brought a good price. Those trees, they figured, would yield enough lumber to pay tuition when the time came.
They were right in their hunch that two daughters were on their way to them, but wrong about the trees: a dry year killed most of them. Wrong about their assumption that they would stay in Logan County. We moved five hundred miles south, to upstate South Carolina, and different trees furnished my heart: shortleaf pine, white oak, sweetgum. Soon I was seventeen with college on the horizon, but we had nothing saved and no idea how to find the money. Somehow I had to find the money. I applied for scholarship after scholarship, wrote an essay about the biggest problem facing America’s youth (apathy), tape-recorded myself playing my piano recital piece. Then a letter arrived. I’ d done well on a standardized test, and Florida State University would pay for everything—tuition and fees, room and board, books—if I named them my first choice.
On the campus tour, I wore white flats and my Easter dress. There was a used condom under a live oak that I hoped my folks wouldn’t notice. Back home I had a core group of friends—some from band, some not—just as odd as me. We listened to They Might Be Giants and Dwight Yoakam, Buffalo Tom, Dylan, Robert Johnson. FSU was Hootie and the Blowfish, happy clots of people sunbathing on the green, and the Dave Matthews Band. What’s your story? people asked, but nobody listened to the answer.
Said Martha Graham of Appalachian Spring: “There is a house that has not been completed. The bar poles are up. The fence has not been completed. Only a marriage has been celebrated. It is essentially the coming of new life. It has to do with growing things.” On the drive home, after the campus tour, we stopped in Panama City, where for homework I read The Metamorphosis out loud to my sister. That night, in another room almost three thousand miles northwest, Kurt Cobain killed himself. Said Martha Graham, “Spring is the loveliest and the saddest time of the year.”
August. I walked across campus on sidewalks inscribed with obscenities that jolted me every time but which I always read because I was always looking down. I carried textbooks, my borrowed horn, sheet music nobody had time to memorize. Every day my route to the practice field took me past an abandoned frat house, its windows boarded up, the site of a gang rape. Over eight hundred people had attended a party there. One of them, a woman, had needed a bathroom.
I pushed open the fire door to my dormitory and climbed the musty stairwell past a torn mural of maidens on their way to a bacchanal. Slick paint, tape stain. My window looked across the street to the Phi Mu house on Sorority Row. As we had lugged in crates of my books, Dad had said he was pretty sure that was where Ted Bundy had murdered those girls. Later I found out it was a different house a block away, but every time I saw that white columned plantation-style mansion I thought of blood.
What are you writing about down there, a friend back home asked, in a penciled letter written on notebook paper that arrived in U-Box 60766, a cubby with a door of glass and brass I unlocked by spinning a dial. I didn’t tell him about the night by the pool; I didn’t tell anyone about it. He sent me a mix tape that included Björk’s new song, “Human Behaviour.” Be ready, be ready to get confused.
Tops for Fun
September. Here’s a photograph of me in the common room of my dorm, wearing my band uniform, a jacket with long tails trimmed in a diamond pattern in garnet and gold, and trousers creased from waist to ankle. On bye weeks I commandeered the lounge television to watch my favorite show, Ren & Stimpy. Animated and strangely paced, it fixated on the gross details of physicality—shiny zits, ingrown toenails, a sentimental fart cloud come to life. Ren was a Chihuahua with a hair-trigger temper. His ears pointed up like a rabbit’s or back like a hyena’s; his eyes were swollen as blood blisters, his mouth a red kidney. Stimpy the cat stared at the boob tube, rump parked in his litter box. He unzipped his bulbous blue nose to access a first-aid kit; he drove a truck shaped like a baby bottle, because he was a Rubber Nipple Salesman. He twisted his body into a tight coil or compressed himself into a tuffet or distended his mouth to hwarf a hairball all over Ren. “You filthy swine!” Ren screamed. “I will kill you!”
Back home I went out every Saturday night, but in the crime report of our campus newspaper, the Florida Flambeau, I read:
Peeping Tom holes were discovered (again) in the restrooms of an academic building; a suspect was accused of raping a thirteen-year-old; over the weekend, a student was beaten with a baseball bat outside a cemetery so badly he needed reconstructive surgery.
“Sexual assaults can occur in desolate parking lots or at crowded parties. Taking precautions can help to protect yourself from becoming a victim,” said the caption beneath a photo (re-creation) of a man forcing a woman into a car.
A cabdriver was killed, a Little Caesar’s robbed at gunpoint, and two women from out of town, aged sixty and sixty-one, were robbed at the Days Inn: “The robbers fled the hotel room carrying with them a purse and a suitcase full of clothes.”
A squib: “In both incidents, a man broke into apartments at University Towers, forced his way into the apartment and beat the women with a blunt object without taking anything.”
And a decomposed body was found behind a power substation. Workers thought it was a pile of clothes. One worker recalled smelling a terrible odor when he had cut the grass in the area a month previous.
And a woman was sexually battered. And another woman was sexually battered. (When it happened, if it happened, you were to blame yourself. I expected it every night.)
“Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that,” wrote Samuel Beckett in Endgame. “Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.” Oh, Ren’s rage was the real reason I watched. His body was fragile, but the depth of his anger meant you had to reckon with him. He let himself fly to pieces. He let himself be ugly (curling hair, hammertoe), gibbering (hee hee, hee hee), a petty dork, a weirdo.
Last year, Florida State was named the country’s Number One Party School. Said the creator of this award, “We only rate the things that make a school fun to attend.” Said a student when interviewed about the award: “This year, FSU is tops for fun.”
In 1892, in Greenville, Illinois, long before his surname would become synonymous with high-quality marching band apparel, photographer Edmond DeMoulin had an inspiration: build a goat to help draw new members to the Modern Woodmen of America. At the time, the average lifespan for a white American man was forty-seven years. Commercial life insurance wasn’t widely available, and fraternal societies like the Woodmen—and the Knights of the Maccabees, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and dozens more—offered mutual aid. Men joined these societies so that when they died, their brothers would help their widows and children. Member dues sponsored hospitals and orphanages, but if nobody attended meetings, the lodge couldn’t collect. More than that, these societies, which traced their lineage back to medieval guilds meant to protect the livelihoods of traveling stonemasons, gave their members a sense of belonging to something larger than themselves. Members were links in a long chain stretching back hundreds of years, and they were responsible for carrying on that tradition. Part of the appeal was the groups’ sense of exclusivity; we’re not for everyone. The initiation process underscored that.
The “riding the goat” initiation ritual, popular among many groups, spoofed the idea that fraternal organizations were secretive cults in league with the devil. How do you build a goat? You kill a goat, skin it, and stretch its hide over an iron frame. How do you make a candidate ride a goat? You blindfold him, buckle him down, and push him around the room.
If ritual places an idea into tangible form, then evil becomes the devil, who becomes a goat. Cloven of hoof, rutty of mind. His scent (rank, cheesy) you will not forget. His unblinking eye (slot, pupil) fixes on what he desires. Put an obstacle in his way: he clambers atop it, or bashes it flat with his skullpan.
Initiation nights drew such crowds that the rituals grew more and more elaborate, becoming the actual point of the meetings. As the years went by, the DeMoulin brothers devised a range of ritual objects. The goat on wheels became the goat on runners became the goat welded to a hoop (“Ferris Wheel Goat”). Trophy trowels and collection plates, Lifting and Spanking Machines, Traitor’s Judgment Stand. In 1915, DeMoulin shipped enough catalogs to fill two boxcars. Their list included Baby Dolls, Binding Straps, and the Bleeding Test; Deceptive Burning Brands, human centipede costumes, electrified smoke. “Keep things moving—fast and furious,” the catalog advised, alongside a listing of noisemakers from Rickety-Rackety to Rattler to Rooter. “Something doing every minute—that’s what the members enjoy.”
From the 1915 catalog: “Charleston Girls . . . all dressed up and ready to go.” Someone stuffed a life-sized form with sawdust, fitted joints at knee and elbow. Someone sewed the halves of the scalp together and tucked in the knot so it would not show. Someone glued eyes in place, sewed eyelashes, painted a mouth. Someone wired her for electricity. When a candidate took his girl by the hand, a senior brother threw the switch. Said the catalog: “They are the clinging vine type; the fellows that draw them are sure to step high, wide and handsome.” The current clenched the candidate’s hands and he could not let go. Said the catalog, “They are a scream.”
I think now that the elaborate nature of these evening rituals were a way to take the members out of their workaday lives and into a desert, a jungle, a Babylonian pleasure hall. Taking part in these rituals, you are not yourself; as in a dream, you participate in another story. No coincidence that membership in fraternal organizations began to fall after the Great War—and radio—and World War II—and television. Now a man could escape into a fictional world from the comfort of his living room, alone if he chose, and passively. But in the twentieth century’s early years, he had to use painted glass and costumes, a metal sheet someone flexed to make the sound of thunder. He had to use his imagination.
DeMoulin stopped production of initiation devices after a factory fire in 1955. Today it is one of the leading manufacturers of band uniforms for high schools, colleges, and drum corps; they do quality work. And if you go to the DeMoulin Museum in Greenville, as I have, you’ll see an oaken altar with a skeleton emerging from its tabletop, a false cigar clamped between its teeth. “Wacky fun!” says the museum’s website. “You’ll walk in wondering why . . . and leave thinking why not?” A trick guillotine with a wooden blade, a Knife-Throwing Machine with straps to hold the candidate in position. All of it showing its age; you can’t believe anyone would be fooled. Not here, anyway, under the fluorescent lights. Outside the windows, maples leaf out in the square. But what about in a darkened room, disoriented by a blindfold, noise, exhaustion? What’s sinister in and of itself; what isn’t? A glass of water. Balled sock. A cord tying your wrists.
October afternoons, we practiced a stiff prance that popped the knee ninety degrees and needled the toe down into the dirt, bam! Scissor! Bam! Scissor! High mark time went above the knee, which meant we scraped left foot against right calf and then stabbed it into the ground. Because it rained every afternoon, the practice field was muddy, so our legs were muddy, and after a full practice, mine were bloody too, because the grit scraped like sandpaper. Our eyeballs smarted from sweat and somebody was always yelling at us through a bullhorn. FIIIIIIIIIIVE, hollered our section leader as we ran through warm-up. None of this was about thinking; it was muscle memory, spots scuffed in the crabgrass, poker chips dropped from darkest color to lightest to help clean the show. My breath turned to water and I pushed it up into a note and a phrase; I poured it onto the ground.
Together we worked to body the green land, sod painted with arrow-straight lines. We had to fill the bowl of the stadium with sound from the field up into the stands and higher, the press box, banks of floodlights, the blimp floating on its cushion of helium a thousand feet up, little planes towing signs advertising pizza and Barnacle Bill’s. One person alone couldn’t do it. One person’s breath was not enough, even pushed through a brass tube stretched at the factory to a total length of fifteen feet, then coiled and turned back on itself so as to be compact to carry.
I can’t remember her name. I can’t remember whether we ever discussed that night. I don’t think we did, although there was plenty of time—during practice, in the stands, in the nice hotel rooms paid for by the booster club. I don’t remember any conversations with any of those people, the ones I thought would be my friends for life. For away games we rode charter buses for hours, staring out the greasy windows at fields of saw palmetto. Smell of diesel exhaust. Jacket fitted to the small of my back. Sometimes fans of the opposing teams cursed and screamed and pelted us with trash, but glass bottles had been banned from the stadiums not long before and this was why. Halfway through the season, the section leader ordered shirts for each of us with nicknames across the back. Because I never said anything, he named me “Holly Hobbie.”
Across the field from us was the practice ring for the Flying High Circus, the country’s only collegiate troupe. I watched the acrobats slap chalk dust from their palms, grab the trapeze bar, and swing into space; watched them release, tuck and tumble, and drop into a giant net that bounced them up again. Somehow I began to pace out a song as I walked from place to place alone, aware of every hedge and shadow; a song of warped plywood, storm, earplugs in a plastic bowl. Legal-sized sheets stapled and rolled: drill charts, each person a numbered X. I had a number of my own, and I split the difference between myself and my neighbors, pacing forward and back, spine straight.
Who Am I?
In “Space Madness,” the best episode of Ren & Stimpy, our heroes hurtle through galaxies on a seven-year mission, overcome by claustrophobia and boredom. Stimpy tries to cope, first by preparing a special meal (three tubes of meat paste) and then by drawing Ren a bubble bath. “Yes, sir,” he says, “a nice hot bath is just the thing for nerves.” Nothing helps, and Ren explodes, accusing Stimpy of trying to steal his bar of soap: “My ice cream bar! Oh, its chocolatey coating, its oh-so-creamy center! People always try to take it from me! I’ve had it since I was . . . a little child!”
I didn’t know it back then, but the notion of space madness had been part of pop culture since before the first astronauts ever entered orbit. To choose the first spacemen—and they were all men—a team of bureaucrats screened applicants with an elaborate battery of tests. The idea was to spot any suicidal thrill-seekers long before liftoff, when they could jeopardize the mission. Candidates wore suits pressurized to mimic 65,000 feet of altitude, sat in rooms heated to 130 degrees for two hours, performed calculations at faster and faster rates. They were left alone in total darkness in a silent room (most fell asleep for at least part of the time). They spent time in the human centrifuge under various g-loads: said a 1959 report I read, “This procedure leads to anxiety, disorientation and blackout in susceptible subjects.”
I’m most compelled by the 1950s-era psychological tests: Rorschach, Draw-A-Person, Find the Shape (teapot, handsaw) hidden within the tangle of lines. Guess the right half of the pair in Shipley’s Inventory of Needs: yes to “I wish I could have more excitement,” no to “I wish I weren’t bothered by bad dreams.” Yes to “I never notice my heart beating,” no to “My heart sometimes speeds up for no reason at all.” Answer “Who am I?” twenty times over.
In later memos, some of the government agents admitted that the real reason for the tests was to ensure the candidates would do absolutely anything they were asked. The process worked: the astronauts chosen for the Mercury and Apollo missions completed their tasks without fuss, despite incredible stresses. But the notion of space madness endured.
A version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is still in use today. Its more than five hundred true/false statements include “I have not lived the right kind of life” and “There seems to be a lump in my throat much of the time.” I think about that, and about answering the question Who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Said Shipley’s Inventory of Needs: “I have had very peculiar and strange experiences” and “At times I feel like smashing things.”
Trip Through a Stormy Desert
Start with a man in a darkened room. He wears a blindfold. In each hand he holds a pail heavy with stones still dusty from a nearby field. He tries to believe, as the man beside him whispers, that he is crossing a desert at night as a storm builds. Flash of light. Peal of thunder. He does believe it. “Let us get away from this approaching storm,” says his guide, grasping him by the shoulder. “The air and ground seem filled with electricity.”
His guide tells him of the trackless waste they wander, where vipers warm their bellies on the sand and bands of marauders lie in wait to torment him until he tell the mystic passwords of this ancient order, whose secret he must never reveal. He must walk the path that burns him. He must heed his guide’s every word. Finally, after some hours, his guide unties the blindfold, its velvet facing damp with sweat, and lights the torch. The candidate blinks, dazzled.
You blink, dazzled, trying to discern the hooded figure who holds you by the elbow. Is he a friend? He must be, for he has been kind to you despite your faults. You have done everything he commanded, but you have done it wrong. You have walked too slowly and hindered him from his goal; you have walked too quickly and stumbled. The buckets’ wire handles dig into your palms. You hunch your shoulders so as to bear the burden. You strive to become single in mind. “We are now in the center of the desert,” says your guide; “yonder remains the only well within fifty miles of us. Shall we not refresh ourselves?” You lean over the lip of the well, but when your lips touch the cup it bites you; a gunshot cracks and you fall.
And when it is over, and the swindle revealed—the lycopodium powder that flashed like lightning, snakes alongside the path (two coiled, three stretched their length) shown to be painted paper, water cup electrified, four brothers come from behind the screen—how will you take it? As you unlatch the electric sandals, will you admire the design of the heavy-duty battery and cord that power them? Will you roll the thunder sheet and tuck it into the Lodge closet? Next time, one of the parts will be yours. (Turn the crank of the wind machine and make the stretched fabric whine.) Or will you remember the room changed, turned shameful for how they hurt you? Yes and I will the only words they let you say.
In the Odd Fellows’ morality play, he’s Goliath. He looks out through the eyeholes, touches his fingers to his stiff forehead, his lips of roughened paper. He is alive in another body. He is not himself. From the catalog: “One special advantage of members wearing masks is that they may smile and enjoy the work unknown to the candidate.” Here’s the Grand Master, silent behind his cowl. From the catalog: “All persons should be careful not to laugh aloud.”
In 1916, two initiates in Birmingham, Alabama, died of electrocution during a branding rite and an electrified boxing match. In 1911, in Newark, New Jersey, an initiate had permanent spinal damage after a cartridge casing hit him. In 1907, in the Water Valley Lodge in Mississippi, a blindfolded initiate “was then and there carelessly and roughly assaulted and struck and beaten and wounded with some hard substance of considerable weight and force, upon pelvic bone of hip, so as to cause this plaintiff great bodily pain and suffering, and which has caused him to be permanently injured, and unable to pursue his usual avocation, that of a railroad engineer.”
Journalism professor Hank Nuwer has studied hazing since 1978 and maintains a database of hazing deaths on his website, on which he writes: “At least one U.S. school, club or organization hazing death has been reported every year from 1959 to 2019, according to my latest research effective August 2019.” I sift through newspaper reports of hazing events. One young man choked to death on a piece of raw liver; another drowned in the Colorado River. A young woman fell seven stories from a balcony; another died in a car crash. Death after death from alcohol poisoning, blunt force trauma. “A terrific blow to the head.” “Remained in a coma until he died.”
The events I read about range from the military (punctured eardrum; set her clothes on fire) to the workaday (Terre Haute, Indiana: “A federal prison guard fired for hazing a trainee will try to get his job back, saying the initiation of a fellow officer was ‘a past practice and it has been condoned for years’ ”). They take place in colleges (“beaten like an animal”) and in high schools (one band in Illinois—with faculty and parents as chaperones—allegedly made students “put bags over their heads [and drove them] on a bus to a wooded area where they were sprayed with bug repellent and led to the ceremony . . . ‘similar to a sacrifice scene from an occult movie’ and a knighting, ‘including tall sword-wielding men in costumes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan’ ”).
There’s a stance I recognize: the impulse to make it seem like a joke. (“Even the band is in trouble at Florida State,” reads a headline about my hazing event.) (The DeMoulin Museum: “You’ll walk in wondering why . . . and leave thinking why not?”) An article about Major League Baseball in 2002, titled “Dressed Up: Rookie Major Leaguers Endure Pranks, Hazing,” describes the outfits the newbies must wear: tutu and leotard, wedding dress, short shorts and crop tops. Says the author of the article, “Everyone seems to be doing it.” One of the senior players “flashed a mischievous grin when asked if he’s the ringleader. ‘Yeah, you could say that,’ he said. ‘I try to get things together, try to keep that tradition going. We just try to have fun, keep things loose.’ ” (“We only rate the things that make a school fun to attend.”) Hopefully, we can make it even more special this year.’ ” The audience is necessary here; this is cruelty as spectacle. (Sang Kurt Cobain, Here we are now / entertain us.)
Hazing is hard to eradicate, because the ones who do it are the ones who had it done to them. Some experts believe that in order to stop it, you have to suspend the program completely for several years. In a newspaper article about our hazing event, a sophomore from Miami Springs said, “What they call hazing, we call tradition, I guess.”
Said a longtime DeMoulin employee: “I don’t know how many electric carpets I made. Because of the size, it took another girl that had to stand behind my machine and hold the carpet. It was on leather and we sewed these strips of copper wiring down it . . . I knew what they were and the guys who put the electrical connections to them said they tried it out on somebody and it knocked him to his knees. I knew it was for initiations but at the time I never thought too much about it.”
In 2011, members of the Marching 100 at Florida A & M University, also in Tallahassee, beat drum major Robert Champion “more than 100 times as he tried to bulldoze his way from the front of the bus to the back through fellow band members” until he died of “hemorrhagic shock.” A spokeswoman said, “There’s this culture of secrecy and this conspiracy of silence that has helped to institutionalize hazing.” Upon hearing about Champion’s death, another band member said, “I was shocked that it happened to him, but not so shocked that it happened.”
The very qualities I loved about band—community, hard work, the grand gesture—made it the ideal vehicle for hazing. What was it but walking in a line with others, the measured step, the matching jacket and trousers eliding visual difference? That moment beside the pool felt pointless, but it actually had a very clear aim: to break us down so we would do the next thing the leader demanded, no matter what it was. Press your lips to the silver mouthpiece. You will have to favor the brothers with a song. I knew exactly what to do: how to hold my body, where to step and when, what notes to play, how to arrange my face, how to breathe. Pace a careful step, eight per five yards. Adjust where necessary, motion for visual effect. You’re always aware of splitting the space between the bodies to your left and right, tuning against each other instead of absolute concert pitch. Listen, breath warm in your throat, then cooling in the horn’s bends; after, a red moon on the divot of your lip.
Start barefoot on wet grass. Tonight the players’ cleats will rip the turf, but now it’s marked only by our footprints, dark against the sparkling dew.
For me, football is a coincidence of geography: we share a field, time limits, and audience with young men who rise early to punish their bodies, whose discipline decrees what they eat and who their friends are, fractures them, concusses them, stretches and tears their ligaments and muscles. They pad up, tighten their laces, apply grease paint. Faces shielded but their names everybody knows: Dunn, Boulware, Brooks. We love them and fear for their safety. Anyone who would wish them harm must be our enemy too, from some other town; their ways are strange to us.
Hence the rituals: a man in redface and turkey-feather headdress thrusts a flaming spear into the turf. Boys naked from the waist up, coated in glitter, spell words with glyphs painted on their dented chests. Squares of ground cut from enemy fields after important victories are replanted at the Sod Cemetery with granite markers carved with date and opponent. At another school, a famous alum dies and asks that his ashes be scattered at the fifty-yard line. At a third, a famous coach dies and is buried near the stadium, so that on game day he can still hear the roar of the crowd.
Which is considerable, and being dead might not stop your ears to it. On game day, I stand with the rest of the band under the end zone before kickoff, as the fans stomp their feet and the stands above us shake. I can’t do this anymore. If I stay in, I’ll have to haze the new students next year. I’m caught two ways: by this music, which was what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and by the money; if I transfer to another school, I’ll lose my academic scholarship. Above my head, a wordless roar from the mob.
I have loved this: sweet smell of valve oil. Orange spray paint, Dixie cups full of Gatorade, pink crepe-de-chine cut in a crescent and unfurled from the silver pole. I have loved taking on a big project with other people. White cotton gloves dotted with rubber grips. I decide to complete the season; you finish what you start. But I’ll never play in an ensemble here again. The crowd noise rattles our teeth in our skulls and someone pushes a button and the aluminum garage door clatters open and the blast of the stadium comes shooting in like water through a tailrace and the drum major sounds his whistle, one, two, one two three four and we step through the open door onto the springy green turf, the brilliant point of light on which eighty thousand pairs of eyes are fixed, and we all, all of us, we all of us scream.
Trace an individual’s position through the drill: one mote floating from point to point, a dot pausing two steps right of the thirty-five yard line for seven seconds, then moving backward toward the visitor sideline. A blip in thrall to a larger vision. Who am I? Even after I unwrapped the blindfold and walked away, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone. On New Year’s Day we played the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. The legend painted over the gate that led onto the field read abandon hope, all ye who enter here. When the game ended, I walked off the field for what I knew was the last time.
Some names, not all of them: Richard T. Swanson, Robert Bazile, Theodore R. Ben, Michael Davis, Tucker Hipps, Robert Champion. A thousand holes for a thousand trees. Lined up in tidy rows. A tree is not a person, but—a dry season killed almost all of them. A person is not a tree, but—struck more than a hundred times until he died. Hit with an open hand more than a hundred times until he lost hearing in his left ear. Hazing takes practice’s good repetition and warps it. I think of crushes never courted, mortgages never signed. Music not adapted for student players. Days and years gone, stolen.
In a 1953 newsletter published by the Masons I read: “The newly rich woman was trying to make an impression. ‘I clean my diamonds with ammonia, my rubies with wine, my emeralds with brandy and my sapphires with fresh milk.’ A quiet woman sitting next to her looked at her and replied, ‘I don’t clean mine. When they get dirty, I just throw them away.’ ”
Daddy Uv-Um All
The four-lane bridge over the Mississippi River rises toward an unseen vanishing point as tractor trailers pelt along behind and beside me, and under me the river rises, opaque and dark, sliding up the bridge abutments as it carries drowned oak trees along on its current. I came here of my own volition to get something I needed, but now I just want to go home. As my breathing tightens and my vision closes around the edges and the bridge keeps tilting up. Over the pulling river.
Finally I’ve arrived at the DeMoulin Museum, having taken two planes, a shuttle, and a rental car to get here; having crossed the flooded Mississippi River and driven past fields sheeted with standing water; having brought camera and notebook into this storefront museum kept afloat by the man in front of me. Who unlocks the door and lets me in, on break from his job at the bank across the square. What brought you here? he asks, and I end up telling him more than I intend. In five minutes I’ve told this kind-faced stranger more than I ever told anyone twenty years ago. He leaves to finish his shift and locks me in, says, Take as long as you need.
I page through the archives’ photo albums. There’s a lot of cake: birthday parties and retirements, women modeling band jackets over their street clothes, a hog raffle to benefit a daughter’s medical care. Pinned to the wall is a quilt in a tumbling block pattern made of scraps of velvet from robes. Scores of people made and make a good living here. In the factory nearby, I watch a woman embroider loops and lines onto the chest of a white jacket. Meanwhile the river rises. As the people fill sandbags and say they will wait it out, I walk through a place invisibly furnished with a bucket of adulterated blood, men in donkey suits, Yama Yama in good figured cloth, horse head with tongue (five cents extra) that unrolls with a puff of air. Silk pillow shams bear the legend While we live, let’s live in clover / For when we’re dead, we’re dead all over.
There’s an element of the theatrical in all this: Balloon Ascension or the Parachute Leap, the Rocky Road to Dublin, Raiding the Hornets’ Nest (or Trip Thru a Swamp). Here’s a photo on the museum wall, a gnome atop a goat atop a wagon. The caption says it’s nine feet tall. Surrounding the wagon are four black-robed men in devil masks: horns, wrinkled brows, pointed ears, bulging eyes. Slight differences between the faces show that the masks were made by hand. This one looks like he wants to convert you; this cross-eyed one is more malicious; this one daydreams about something worse; and the last one is proud, chin thrust out, shoulders squared. The sign he holds reads The Daddy Uv-Um All. All four demons wear black robes and black neckerchiefs; you can see no skin except for their hands. Hands hanging loose or propped on a hip; hands that turned doorknobs, picked apples, held a fork.
The season ended. Music became for me the mockingbirds imitating car alarms, percussive splat of volleyball connecting with forearm on the sandpit, yet another cover of “Margaritaville” played at the club down the street. The next September, when the football team made a big play, I could hear the roar from my dorm room, carried on the breeze from the stadium two miles away.
I remember the high whine of Highway 319 where it hugged the Gulf’s gray sand beach towns: Lanark, Sopchoppy, Carrabelle. In Tallahassee, at the Cow Haus, I swayed along as Will Oldham slurred Well it’s Valentine’s Day / And I’m catatonic. John Darnielle played “Going to Bolivia” on his guitar with such ferocity his fingertips bled. I slept in another dorm by then; painted on the hallway was a Paul Simon line, Losing love is like a window in your heart. I used to drive across Georgia in a day, headed home to South Carolina. Cotton scuds on the road shoulder. Billboards: papershell pecans fresh crop. Rumble strip, big rigs, Gregg Allman singing I don’t own the clothes I’m wearing. Some other girl sweated through the uniform that used to be mine.
My turn away wasn’t dramatic. Not splashy, or even visible to anyone else: the opposite of show. Holly Hobbie, silent. Three years after its inception, Florida State ended the scholarship program that had paid my way; administrators said it cost too much. I got in under the wire. This is a love story, which means it is about heartbreak. I took writing classes in which I worked to understand plot and conflict, but I know now what I really wanted: to get back somehow to that feeling of inexorable beat and melody, the totality of show, which shook anyone that touched it from rib cage to fingertips. Look at me, everyone in the press box, everyone in the stands. I am perfect. Back straight, carriage commanding, walking a slow measure down the fifty-yard line.
Where’s Your Prophet Now?
I need a song. A song that works like a spell to counteract all these acts of cruelty. And it could be the sorrow and hope that Aaron Copland wove with a Shaker tune in 1944, the sixth year of a long war. It could be a big-eyed girl from Iceland singing And there’s no map / And the compass wouldn’t help at all.
Or it could be a song that takes on evil made flesh, as the fraternal initiations pretended. A song called “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I’ d heard the story my whole life, how Johnny, naïve but talented, takes the devil up on a bet and wins. The shocker is that the devil admits defeat.
I watch a concert clip from 1979, the Charlie Daniels Band barreling through the biggest hit of their career. In the studio, Daniels had played the devil’s part seven times over and used overdubbing to create the sound of a demon band. He had custom-strung his fiddle with eight strings instead of the usual four. But even live, the band somehow makes it work, the keyboardist with one arm in a sling, Daniels bored by his own excellence, a cowboy hat pulled low over his face, masking it in shadow. When he tells off the devil at song’s end—Done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best that’s ever been—the packed arena screams.
The song owes a measure of its power to the fact that it carries the DNA of a much older story, like Faust, like the myth of Robert Johnson at the crossroads. Daniels cited his debt to a poem he read in high school, Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” which describes a fiddling contest at the Essex County Fair, a mythic place in Georgia. When our hero, Hill-Billy Jim, shows up, nobody thinks he has much of a shot. But when his turn comes, Jim muses, “They’ve fiddled the rose, and they’ve fiddled the thorn / But they haven’t fiddled the mountain-corn.” He does, and shuts everybody down. Both the song and the poem depend on beating all comers, whether it’s Dan Wheeling, little Jimmy Weezer, or Satan himself. Says Hill-Billy Jim, “Where’s your prophet now?”
What do you know like nobody else, and how do you carry it in your body? I know feathers wired and twisted into place, stored in tubes to prevent crushing. I know oily kumquat slick in my mouth; cud of tobacco; thigh scraped raw by Florida dirt. My own voice strange from disuse. Sock feet to protect the turf; finish rubbed off the horn; colored fire.
I sing what made me: sawdust and kerosene. Oil ruby red in the pan under the chucker. I sing putting up with John Q. Public at a contract post office at Christmastime. I sing people who loved me who didn’t get my chance: who kept chickens, gathered eggs on cold mornings and hot, washed them in the sink, and polished them with Bon Ami to sell. Who worked the laundry in the hospital basement. Speed Queen industrial washers, whine and clang and smell of Clorox. Land sakes, she used to say, for land sakes.
Statistics are hard to come by, but the year I finished my small-town high school, the graduation rate in South Carolina was 62 percent. This at a time when the textile mills that had employed thousands of local people were closing. Between 1970 and 1996—a generation’s time—a million jobs evaporated in South Carolina.
Somewhere in my twenties, I heard that a boy who played baritone with me in high school band had hanged himself. Since 2000, deaths by suicide and overdose have risen among white Americans without a bachelor’s degree, write economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their 2020 book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Part of me recognized that night beside the pool for what it was: another test to secure the middle-class economic stability that men had also wanted from those fraternal organizations. A few Aprils ago, I heard about another friend from band, dead at thirty-nine. At his funeral, his trombone stood next to the preacher’s pulpit, where a casket would go. His dad kept saying “my boy, my boy.”
And something I had not realized, as many times as I’ve heard “The Devil Went Down”: Charlie Daniels plays both the devil’s part and Johnny’s. He’s both.
So am I.
I sing a song of gust and blood, baseball bat and broken headstones, piles of clothes. Of a narrow bed and lying awake under a plaid blanket. Once I rode out a hurricane in that dorm, windows a blur of black rain. Afterward I walked down the sidewalk in the dark, cracking blowdown pecans against each other and eating them. The sodium streetlights reflected pink on the backs of cockroaches as they streamed out of the storm drain.
Sing sand and granular ash. Pigeon droppings in dark coils on the edge of the poured-concrete balcony. Hidden hallway in the English building, Floor 3 ½, reachable only by a shuddering elevator that smelled of ozone. In the cafeteria, mealworm larvae squirmed in my bowl of granola. One thing I learned was to be inexorable. Sometimes in a clinch and sometimes running full out and always, always, always toward the goal.
Sing the wrecking ball the demolition crew used a few summers back to tear my old dorm down. No implosion: asbestos. Hoses sprayed water to settle the dust, and the crew shoveled rubble into covered dumpsters painted blue. Brushed steel doorknobs, cinderblocks, common-room sofa where I watched Ren & Stimpy: everything saturated with unseen poison. This is what it means to become aware of living under threat. As did the fifteen thousand other women who lived there from 1959 until 2015. So knock it down, rebar, cement, light fixture. Break the brittleness I carried curled in my spine. Scrape the ground clean and burn it dry.
Who I Am
As in a dream, there’s something you must do. The particulars might shift but the need insists upon itself. Maybe you have to find your way home, or your way into adulthood. This is a love story: a child grows up. Who am I? There is no map, sang Björk, so chart one yourself: I followed the Saluda watershed southwest into the Savannah, then the Chattahoochee basin, then into the Ocmulgee (past the crossroads where Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash) and the Suwannee, through (remnants of) wiregrass and longleaf and over black water bogs, past vineyards of muscadine and scuppernong, down a road tunneled by live oaks, and there I was.
Musical composition wasn’t a language I spoke, but I had the need to shape something that would move people. Something rare and wonderful, possible on field or page, or best, sung aloud. Together we make something that feels freed from normal time, yet built from breath and heartbeat. Something like paradise or play. Brief, blissed. And the listener makes this possible. I see it in the film of the Saratoga Springs crowd in 1979: when Johnny beats the devil (that is, hurt, cruelty, death) we shout for joy because we know: we can beat him too. On good days, we do. But once is not enough. We keep at it.
The company front was always my favorite way to end a show. The whole band stretches in a line from end zone to end zone and moves slowly toward the stands. As an audience member, you don’t think about the brass flashing under the big stadium lights, the flags all a flat of color at the same angle, the rounds of bass drums slowly advancing in a rank, the pit percussion hitting the marimba in dancing chords with yarn-wrapped mallets. All of that is present, but it’s not what you notice. You feel something past words and you leap to your feet, an uncontrollable physical response, a current passing between you and the people nearby. (“The air and ground seem filled with electricity.”) You yell your throat raw to share in the din. You tingle from crown to sole; sparks practically arc from your fingertips.
Look with me over those assembled here. Acrobats, bureaucrats, astronauts, dancers. The girl ahead of me in line. The fifteen thousand women who slept in Dorman Hall. Robert Johnson alongside my high school band directors (Bruce Caldwell, Barry Reese), Charlie Daniels and “Taz” DiGregorio, the keyboardist with his left arm in a sling. A woman with a Gibson Girl updo, addressing a stack of catalogs on a wide worktable, early 1915. A man removing a Goliath mask, wiping his sweaty brow. John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy, so obsessed with perfection he spent a year on a single eight-minute cartoon (“Stimpy’s Invention”). A woman washing her sapphires with milk. My friends who played baritone and trombone alongside me in the Copland show. Björk Gudmundsdottir, a string of Charleston Girls, and Warrick Dunn (the greatest running back of all time and a tremendous human who forgave the men who murdered his mother). Here, tonight, I’m making supper when Appalachian Spring comes on the radio. It does not pretend at a world without sorrow. Copland called it “music for use.” We’re all gone now, the kids we were.
Sometimes I still dream I’m back at practice with a show to learn and I feel so glad, my foot pressing the springy sod. It has to do with growing things, something doing every minute. One person alone can’t do it. Keep things moving—fast and furious. Take as long as you need and finish what you start. Leap from the platform, spindle through the air and catch the trapeze that drops into place at just the right moment and sail into a wordless roar of applause. You’re spinning, disoriented, sometimes blacking out and sometimes coming to. Be ready, be ready to get confused. A voice on a loudspeaker counts down from ten and the world shifts beneath your weight. For land sakes, while we live, let’s live in clover. Where’s your prophet now? Who am I? Who am I? Sometimes my heart speeds up for no reason at all. What are you writing about down there? Yes and I will the only words you need to say.
I know the place where the walnut seedlings grew and died. I know the smell of oil and the burn of sweat, how to work past tired, tune and pitch. He ain’t fiddled the walnut tree. He ain’t fiddled the sweet-gum gum, or the crabgrass sprouting from the sand. But I have. During a summer storm I hear a thunderclap: C#. I know it’s September when acorns drum the neighbor’s carport. I walk down the street with my beloved, in step. What we love, we see everywhere. Every choice affects the horn’s sound: the particular alloy of copper and zinc, how the artisan shapes the bell with a padded blackjack, this humid air, my lips. Those people whose names I’ve forgotten: that night by the pool marked them too. I walked away and somehow that decision set my feet on this good path.
We’re here now, walking a plain path with patterned steps marked out like dance. Give me green grass, sunlight, a sound big enough to shake the sky on its hinge. Take my hand. No masks, no secrets. Who am I? Tell everyone you know. Done told you once. I’ve had strange experiences in my life, I’ve crossed the desert on a stormy night, I’ve danced around the devil struck dumb by defeat. Who am I? You son of a bitch. Keep doing it. Once is not enough. Say it. Say it again. Say it so you know. I’m the best that’s ever been.
Note on Sources:
I’m indebted to many sources for this piece, most crucially John Goldsmith, curator of the DeMoulin Museum, and Donald Adamski, president and CEO of DeMoulin Bros. and Company, who took time out of their busy days to explain the history and manufacture of uniforms and other items to me. Mr. Goldsmith’s careful read of the piece saved me from many errors; I’m grateful to him for his help. We have different takes on this material, but I respect the fine history he does. Julia Suits’s The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions (Perigee, 2011) gives larger historic and cultural context for DeMoulin’s initiation devices. For more information on hazing, see Jason M. Silveira and Michael W. Hudson, “Hazing in the College Marching Band,” Journal of Research in Music Education 2015, vol. 63 (1), 5-27. I also relied on the work of Hank Nuwer, who has spent much of his career writing about hazing. Bill Faucett’s The Marching Chiefs of Florida State University: The Band that Never Lost a Halftime Show (McFarland, 2017) contained details about the hazing I experienced.