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Waldo Grebb And His Electric Baton
Airdate: December 1964

Show Description
WHEN THE BITTER WINDS of winter howl out of the frozen north, making the ice-coated telephone wires creak and sigh like suffering live things, many an ex-B-flat-sousaphone player feels that old familiar dull ache in his muscle-bound left shoulder - a pain never quite lost as the years spin on. Ancient numbnesses of the lips permanently implanted by frozen German silver mouthpieces of the past. There is an instinctive hunching forward into the wind, tacking obliquely to keep that giant burnished Conn bell heading always into the waves. A singular man carrying unsharable wounds and memories to his grave, the butt of low. Ribald humor, of gaucheries beyond description, unapplauded by music lovers, the sousaphone player is among the loneliest of men. His dedication is almost monklike in its fanaticism and solitude. He is never asked to perform at parties. His fame is minute, even among other band members, being limited almost exclusively to fellow carriers of The Great Horn. Hence, his devotion is pure. When pressed for an explanation as to why he took up the difficult study and discipline of sousaphone playing, few can give a rational answer, usually mumbling something very much like the famed retort of climbers of Mount Everest. There is no sousaphone category in the renowned jazz palls, and it would be inconceivable to imagine an LP entitled: Harry Schwartz and His Golden Sousaphone Blow Cole Porter. Yet every sousaphone player, in his heart, knows that no instrument is better suited to Cole Porter than his beloved four-valuer rich, verdant mellowness, its loving, somber blues and grays of tonality arc among the most sensual and thrilling of sounds to be heard in a man's time. But forever and by definition, those brave marchers under the flashing bells are irrevocably assigned to the rear rank. Few men know the facts of life more truly than a player of this noble instrument. Twenty minutes in a good marching band teaches a kid more about how things really are than five years at mother's granite knee. There are many misconceptions which at the outset must be cleared up before we proceed further. Great confusion prevails among the unwashed as to just what a sousaphone is. First of all, few things are more continually irritating to a genuine sousaphone man than to have his instrument called a tuba. A tuba is a weak, puny thing lit only for mewling, puking babes and Guy Lombardo - the better to harass balding, middle-aged ballroom dancers. Ant upright instrument of startling ugliness and mooing, flatulent tone, the tuba has none of the grandeur, the scope or sweep of its massive, gentile distant relation. The sousaphone is worn proudly curled about the body, over the left shoulder, and mounting above the head is that brilliant golden, gleaming cornucopia - rivaling the sun in its glory. Its graceful curves clasp the body in a warm and crushing embrace, the right hand in position over its four massive mother-ofpearl-capped valves. It is an instrument man can literally get his teeth into, and often does. A sudden collision with another bell has, in many instances, produced catastrophic dental malformations which have provided oral surgeons with some of their happier moments. A sousaphone is a worthy adversary which must be watched like a hawk and truly mastered lest it master you. Dangerous, unpredictable, difficult to play, it yet offers rich rewards. Each sousaphone, since it is such a massive creation, assumes a character of its own. There are had-tempered sousaphones and there are friendly sousaphones; sousaphones that literally lead their players back and forth through beautiful countermarches on countless football fields. Then there are the treacherous sousaphones that buck and fight and must be held in tight rein lest disaster strike. Like horses or women, no two sousaphones are alike. Nor, like horses or women, will man ever fully understand them. Among other imponderables, a player must have as profound a knowledge of winds and weather as the skipper of a racing yawl. A cleanly aligned sousaphone section marching into the teeth of a spanking crosswind with mounting gusts, booming out the second chorus of Semper Fidelis, is a study of courage and control under difficult conditions. Sometimes in a high wind, a sousaphone will start playing you. It literally blows back, developing enough back pressure to produce a thin chorus of Dixie out of both ears of the unwary sousaphonist. I myself once, in my rookie days, got caught in a counterclockwise wind with a clockwise instrument and spun violently for five minutes before I regained control, all the while playing one of the finest obbligatos ever blown on The National Emblem March. The high school marching hand that I performed in was led by a maniacal zealot who had whipped us into a state rivaling a crack unit of the Prussian guards. We won prizes, cups, ribbons and huzzahs wherever ever we performed; wheeling, countermarching, spinning, knees high, all the while hunderously playing. On the Mall, Under the Double Eagle, El Capitan, The NC Four March, Semper we had mastered all the classics. Our 160-beat-to-the-minute cadence snapped and cracked and rolled on like the steady beating of the surf. Resplendent in itchy uniforms and high-peaked caps, we learned the bitter facts of life while fingering our spit valves and bringing pageantry and pomp into die world of the blast furnace and the open hearth, under the leaden wintry skies of the Indiana prairieland. The central figure of the scene was our drum major. Ours was a Spartan organization. We had no majorettes, pompom girls or other such decadent signposts on the roadway of a declining civilization. It was an all-male band that had no room for such grotesqueries as flat-chested, broad-bottomed female trombone players and billowy-bosomed clarinetists. It was a compact 66-man company of hard-stomached, lean-jawed Ovaltine drinkers - led by a solitary, heroic, high-kneed, insufferably arrogant baton twirler named Waldo Grebb. Drum majors are a peculiarly American institution, and Waldo was cast in the classic mold. Imperious, egotistical beyond belief, he was hated and feared by all of us down to the last lowly cymbal banger. Most drum majors of my acquaintance are not all-American boys in the Jack Armstrong tradition. In fact, they lean more in the general direction of Captain Queeg, somehow tainted by the vanity of a Broadway musical dancer plus the additional factor of being a high school hero. In spite of legend, many drum majors are notably unsuccessful with women. Waldo Grebb was no exception, and his lonely frustration in this most essential of human pursuits had led him to incredible heights in baton twirling. He concentrated and practiced hour upon hour until he became a Ted Williams among the wearers of the shako. His arched back, swinging shoulders - at least four and a half feet wide - his 19-inch waist, his lightning like chrome wands, the sharp, imperious bite of his whistled commands were legendary wherever bandsmen gathered to swap tales over a Nehi orange. At a full, rolling 160-beat-per-minute tempo, Waldo's knees snapped as high as most men's shoulders. He would spin, marching backward, baton held at ready port, eyes gleaming beadily straight ahead in our direction. Two short blasts of his silver whistle, 164 then a longer one, a quick snap up-and down movement of die wand, and we would crash into The Thunderer, which opened with a spectacular trombone, trumpet and sousaphone flourish of vast. Medieval grandeur. Precisely as the last notes of the flourish ended and The Thunderer boomed out, Waldo spun his baton, accelerating to a blur, and began his act. Over the shoulder, like a rigid silver snake with a life of its own, under both legs, that live metal whip never faltered or lost a beat. Catching- the sun, it spun a blur high into the Indiana skies and down again, Waldo never deigning so much as to watch its trajectory. He knew where it was; it knew where he was. They were one, a spinning silver bird and its falconer. Even as we roared into the coda, attacking the Kith notes crisply, with bite, we were always conscious of the steady swish of that baton, slicing the air like a blade, a hissing obbligato to John Philip Sousa. Like all champion drum majors - and Waldo had more medals at 17 than General Patton garnered in a lifetime of combat - he had carefully programmed his act. In the same way that an Olympic skater performs the classical figures, Waldo had mastered years before all the basic baton maneuvers, all the traditional flips and spins, and performed them with razor-sharp, glittering precision. And he had gone on from there to the absolute heights. He would begin with a quick over-the-back roll, a comparatively simple basic move, and then, moment by moment, his work would grow increasingly complex as variation upon variation of spinning steel wove itself in die winter air. And then finally, just as his audience, nervously awaiting disaster, believed there was nothing more that could be done with a baton, Waldo, pausing slightly to fake them out, making them believe his repertoire was over, would give them The Capper. Every great baton twirler has one trick that he alone can perform, that he has created and honed to glittering perfection: his final statement. At this crucial moment, Waldo would whip a second baton from a sheath held by a great brass clip to his wide white uniform belt. Then, using the dual batons, lie worked upward and upward until the final eerie moment. As the last notes of The Thunderer died out, a drummer, On cue, beat out the rhythm of our march, using a single stick on the rim of his snare: "tic tic tic tic tic tic . . ." as we marched silently forward. Waldo then, with infinite deliberation, holding both batons out before him, began to spin them in opposite directions. Synchronized hike the propellers of a DC-3, twin blades interleaved before him, gaining speed. Faster and faster and faster, until the batons had all but disappeared into a faint silver film, the only sound, the "tic tic tic" of Ray Janowski's snare, and die steady, in-step beat of feet hitting the pavement. His back arched taut as a bow, knees snapping waist-high, at the agonizingly right instant, with two imperceptible flips of the wrist, Waldo would launch his twin rapiers straight up into the icy air, still in synchronization. Like sonic strange whistling science-fiction vampire bat, surrealist glittering metal bird, gaining- momentum as they rose, the batons, as one, would soar 30 or 40 feet above the band. Then, gracefully, at the apogee of the arc, spinning slower and slower, they would come floating down; Waldo never even for an instant glancing upward, the band eyes-front. Down would come the batons, dropping faster and faster, and still Waldo marched on. Incredibly, at the very last instant, just as they were about to crash onto the street, in perfect rhythm both hands would dart out and die batons, together, would leap into life and become silver blurs. It was Grebb's legendary Capper! The instant Waldo's batons picked up momentum and spun back to life, Janowski "tic'd" twice and the drum sec-tion rolled out our basic cadence, as the crowd roared. Unconcerned, unseeing, we marched on. Waldo rarely used The Capper more than once or twice in any given parade or performance. Like all great artists, lie gave sparingly of his best. None of us realized that he had not vet shown us his greatest capper of all. The high point of our marching year traditionally came with the Thanksgiving Day parade. And one year, that fateful Thursday dawned dark and gloomy, full of evil portent. The last bleak week in November had been polar in its savagery. For weeks a bitter Canadian wind had whistled steadily off Lake Michigan, blowing the blast furnace dust into long rivers and eddies of red grime on the gray ice that bordered the curbs and coated the bus stops and rutted the streets. These were days that tried sousaphone men's souls. That giant chunk of inert brass gathers cold into it like a thermic vacuum cleaner. Valves freeze at half-mast, mouthpieces stick to the tongue and lips in the way iron railings trap children, and the blown note emerges thin and weak and lost in die arctic air. The assembly point for the parade was well out of the main section of town, back of Harrison Park. Any veteran parade marcher knows the scene, a sort of shambling, weaving confusion. The Croatian-American float, the Friends of Italy, die Moose, the Ladies of the Moose, the Children of the Moose, the Queen of the Moose, the Odd Fellows' Whistling Brigade, the Red Men of America (in full headdress and buckskin), the Owls, the Eagles, the Elks, the Wolves, the Guppies, the Imperial Katfish Klan, the Shriners (complete with pasha and red fezzes), the A.F. of L., the CIO, Steelworkers Local 1010, all gathered to snake their way through the ambient Indiana Sinclair Refinery air, for glory and to thank God that there is an America. Or maybe just to parade, which seems to be an elemental human urge. This gathering point is always known as a "rendezvous" in the language of Paradese. On the bulletin board the week before was the usual notice: "The hand will rendezvous at 0080 on Hohman Avenue opposite Harrison Park. Each unit will be numbered. Look for our number painted on the curb-12. We will step off promptly and smartly at 0915." By 12:30, of course, we are still milling around, noses running, always far off in the distance the sound of sonic band playing something, and still we stand. The thin trickle of glockenspiel music wafted back to us through the frozen trees and bushes as the Musicians Local Marching Baud tuned up. Megaphones bellowing, cars racing back and forth over the disorganized line of march, until finally, slowly and painfully, we lumbered into motion. Waldo shot us aggressively into our assigned march po-sition, and we were under way. Rumors had gone from band to band, from drummer to drummer, that the mayor up ahead on the reviewing stand was stoned out of his mind, that we were delayed while they sobered him up, that he had chased a lady high school principal around the lectern. But these are just parade rumors. It's hard to tell from a marcher's standpoint just what parade watchers think, if anything. As we got closer to the center of town, the crowd grew thicker, muffled, hooded, mittened, earmuffed - the gray staring faces of sheet-metal workers and iron puddlers - just standing there in the dead-zero air. This is where you begin to learn about humanity. Their eyes look like old oysters. They just look. Once in a while you see a guy smoking- a cigar; he spits. And front time to time a kid throws a penny or a Mary Jane or a cherry bomb into the bell of your sousaphone. All the bands, of course, arc marching to their own cadence. Up ahead the Ladies Auxiliary of the Whales shuffles on. In the cold autumns of the Midwest you can hear their girdles squeaking three blocks away. We march past the assembled multitude, Waldo glancing neither to right nor left, eyes front, brow (high. Up ahead the flags and banners of all kinds are fluttering in the icy breeze: HUNANIAN-AMERICAN CLUB, HOORAY FOR AMERICA, GOD BLESS ALL OF US. And the steelworkers just stand there, looking. Front somewhere far behind, a glockenspiel in the German-American Band tinkles briefly and stops, and all around the steady drumbeats roll. We were on the march. Strung overhead from lamppost to lamppost across the main street were strings of red and green Christmas lights. Green plastic holly wreaths with imitation red berries hung front every other lamppost. We marched past department stores with windows filled with mechanically mowing Seven Dwarfs - Grumpy painting a sled, Sneezy hammering on a ship model, and a big electrical Santa Claus maniacally laughing. Christmas was coming. We have reached the middle of town. This is the big moment. It's the Times Square of Hammond, Indiana. A streetcar line ran right down the middle of the main street, and I am straddling a rail, trying to keep up the 160-beat-per-minute cadence; blowing our own special version of Jingle Bells on my frozen sousaphone. Sliding along the tracks with the ice packed in hard. I have lost all feeling. My ears, my nose, my horn is frozen: my hands are putty. Haltingly, we moved ahead. Slowly, slowly. We'd bump into the Italian ladies ahead, and the German plumbers behind would bump into us. Somewhere the Moose would swear and the Eagles would yell. And then we were right at ground zero, the reviewing stand to our right, the assembled multitude cheering the national champions on to greater heights. Waldo spun and faced us with Ins old familiar stare, and suddenly the cold was forgotten. We were on! Two sharp rips of the whistle, a sustained, long, rising note, baton at port, two quick flips of the wrist, and our great fanfare boomed out. The parade had conic alive. The champs were on the scene! The American Legion Junior Fife and Drum Corps faded into oblivion. Waldo Grebb was in command! Ray Janowski's beat was never sharper, leading his drum section to heights that rivaled our best performances. Grebb about-faced and went into action, his great jet-black shako reaching up like a giant shaving brush into the sullen gray sky. A magnificent figure, his gold epaulets glinting as we wove at half tempo over the hard caked ice, little realizing we were about to participate in a historic moment that has since become part of the folk songs and fireside legends of northern Indiana. The Thunderer echoed down that narrow street like a cannon volley being fired in a mammoth cave. Blowing a sousaphone at such a moment gives one a sense of power that is only rivaled perhaps by the feel of a Ferrari cockpit at Le Mans. Spitzer, our bass drummer, six feet, nine inches caught fire. His sticks spinning into the air, his drum quivering, the worn gold and purple lettering on its head: NATIONAL PRECISION MARCHING CHAMPIONS - CLASS A, subduing the crowd inn) a kind of tense silence. They were viewing greatness, the panoply of pomp and tradition, and they knew it. Those who toil in the 14-inch merchant mill and the cold-strip pickling department at the steel mill rarely see such glory. Children stopped crying; noses ceased to run, eyes sparkled and blue plumes of exhaled breath hung like smoke wreaths in the air as we slammed into the coda. Already I was beginning to wonder Whether Grebb would dare try his capper on such a dangerously cold day as this, with those sneaky November crosswinds and numbed fingers. His ramrod back gave no hint. One thing was sure, and everybody in the band knew it: had never been sharper, cleaner, more dynamic. By now he was three quarters through his act. His figure eight and double eagle had been spectacular. The trombones just ahead of me, usually a lethargic section, were blowing clean and hard. Waldo's twin scepters were alive. His timing was spectacular. We arrived at dead center of the intersection precisely as the last note of The Thunderer echoed from the plate-glass windows of the big department store and against the dirty gray facade of the drugstore on the opposite corner. For a moment the air rang with the kind of explosive silence that follows a train wreck. And then it began. Janowski "tied" his solitary beat, We marched forward almost marking time in place. The crowd sensed that something was about to happen. Waldo towered ahead of us, weaving slightly left, right, left, right, as his twin batons in uncanny synchronization began to spin faster and faster and faster. The sound carried in the cuttingly cold air, and even the mayor up on the reviewing stand could hear the "zzzsssssst zzzzsssssssss zzzzzzzzzssssss" of those spinning chromium slivers. He held it longer than any of us had ever seen him do before, stretching the dramatic tension to the breaking point and beyond. Beside me, Dunker muttered: "What the hell's he doing?" Waldo spun on. Janowski tied off the rhythm: "tic tic tic tic tic tic tic." We marched imperceptibly, advancing like some great glacier, across the intersection. And then, like two interlocked birds of prey, Waldo's batons rose majestically in the hard November gloom. Higher and higher they spun, faster and higher than even on the day that Waldo had won the national championship. It was unquestionably his supreme effort. He was a senior, and knew that this was his last full-scale public appearance before the home-town rabble. His last majestic capper. Every eye save his followed the arcs of those two beautiful interleaved disks as they climbed smartly higher and higher above the street. True to his style, Waldo stared coldly ahead, knees snapping upward like pistons. He knew his trade and was at the peak of his powers. And then it happened. Instinctively every member of the brass section scrunched lower in his sousaphone at the awesome sight. Running parallel with our path and directly above Waldo's shako, high over the street, hung a thin, curving copper band of the streetcar high-tension power line. Slightly below it and to the left was another thin wire of some nondescript origin. The two disks magically, in a single synchronous action, passed cleanly between the wires and rose 20, 25 feet above the high-tension wires, reached their apex and, in a style more spectacular than any of us ever had suspected was in Waldo, slowed and began their downward swoop. We watched, the crowd gaped. Waldo marched on, eyes straight ahead. My God, what a moment! The mayor leaned, or perhaps lurched, forward slightly on the reviewing stand. Even the children sensed that history was about to be made. There are times when words arc totally inadequate to the events visited upon Inen. For a fleeting instant it appeared as though the two batons would repeat their remarkable interleaving passage between the lethal wires on their way clown. In fact, the one on the right did, and Waldo caught it flawlessly. But the left baton, spinning slower and slower above the copper band, with a metallic "ting" just ticked, barely kissed and caught on the current carrier with its chrome-silver ball. The blunt end fell gently across the other, nondescript wire - and the baton hung there, unbelievably, suspended between them. For a split second nothing happened. Janowski "tic tic tied" steadily, doggedly on, The cadence never varied as our feet sounded as one on the spiteful, filthy granite ice. And then an eerie, transparent, cerulean-blue nimbus, a kind of expanding halo rippled outward from the suspended baton :and from sortie far-off distant place, beyond the freight yards, past the Grasselli Chemical plant, an inhuman, quickening shudder grew closer and closer, as though a tidal wave were about to break over all of us. And then: BOOM! BOOMl BOOM! Hanging over the intersection was a gigantic, unimaginably immense Fourth-of-July sparkler that threw a Vesuvius, a hissing shower of flame in a giant pin wheel chosen to the street and into the sky, Over the crowd and onto the band. The air was alive with ozone. It seemed to flash with great thunderbolts, on and on. It just hung up there and burned and burned, ionizing before our eyes. Janowski tied on. A few muffled screams came from the crowd. Fuses were blowing out over the entire county, as far away as Gary. High-tension poles were toppling somewhere miles away, The steel mills stopped; boats sank Out on the river. Three streetcars burst into flames. It was as though sonic ancient, thunderbolt-hurling God had laid one right down on the middle of Hammond on Thanksgiving Day. The ground shuddered. Generators as far south as Indianapolis screamed and stilled. Waldo Grebb had hit the main fuse, the ultimate jackpot. It was the greatest capper of all timel But without so much as art upward glance, he had caught the first baton neatly and spun on. The drum section picked up the cadence and we marched smartly through the intersection, leaving behind a scene of devastation that forms the core of several epic poems relating die incident. Waldo immediately signaled for El Capitan, and as we attacked the intro, the crowd burst into a great roar of applause and surging emotion. The heady aroma of burnt rubber, scorched copper, ionized chrome and frozen Ozone trailed us up the street. Santa Claus in the window sat with mouth agape. Sneezy's hammer was held stiffly at half-mast. The Christmas trees had flickered out. "the MERRY XMAS neon signs were (lark. We knew that the baton that had gone up in smoke had been one of Waldo's prized awards - from his presentation set of matched wands, won at the state championships. The other, the survivor, he held lightly in his right hand, his arm shooting it high over his head and down diagonally across his body, up and down, up and down. Lie spun as we finished El Capitan, and gave three quick blasts on the whistle, his signal for Under die Double. Engle, his eyes as steely as ever, his jaw grim and square. From all sides we could hear the sound of sirens approaching the scene we were leaving behind, over the swelling strains of the Double Engle, with its massive crescendos, its unmatched sousaphone obbligato. As we played this great classic and Waldo led us on into the twilight, every sousaphone player, every baritone man, die trombones, the clarinets, the piccolos and flutes, the snare drummers, Dunker and Janowski, all of us thought one thing: "Did he plan it?" You can never tell about drum majors. This was not the sort of mistake Waldo Grebb would make. Had he calculated this? Practiced, worked for this moment for four long years? Was this gigantic, this unparalleled capper his final statement to Hammond, Indiana, to the steel mills, the refineries and the Sheet & Tube Works, to those gray oyster eyes, and to the Croatian Ladies Aid Society? Up ahead his arched back, taut as spring steel, gave no sign. His shako reached for the sky, his great plume waved on. He blew a long, shrill echoing blast, holding his remaining baton high above his head. Two shorts followed and he smartly commanded a column right. The drums thundered as we marched into a side street out of the line of march and headed back toward school in perfect formation. The wind was rising and it seemed to be getting colder. A touch of snow was in the air, and Christmas was on its way.
This story was reprinted under the new title "Wilbur Duckworth and His Magic Baton" in the book "In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash"
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