July 28, 2006

Trumpeted taps floated lightly on the chilled wind that afternoon. It was that type of cold wind that can pass through your coat and head straight for your bones. The wind slid the gray clouds sideways over the rural cemetery as the day was painted for the mourners.

Pushed by the wind, brown fallen summer leaves scuttled past my feet on their quest to a tree line. Not that many years ago, a cold like this would have not bothered me. No sir, I would have endured it, stood straight, chest out and faced the crowd at the stadium. It was Friday nite and the green football turf crunched below my white band shoes as we went to parade rest. “Be proud of what you do” he had said. “You WIN first place, you only PLACE everything else” he would scream as we stood as flamingos on one foot enduring the August heat.

The crowd roared as we took the field. Many had come not for just the ballgame, but went early to the snack stand to make it back by the time we took the field. We had ourselves some groupies.

My lips dreaded the first touch of the icy mouthpiece of my horn. I knew they would probably stick to it like a tongue to a frozen ice tray. I knew that I would go 46 steps diagonally, then turn to face the stadium. I knew that if I swung too wide, I’d mess up my diagonal and they’d follow me. I knew that if they followed me, it would be too late and I’d be getting a butt chewing like you’ve never heard before for causing the problem. It’d be my fault. I knew that if I wasn’t 4 steps exactly, not horse-shoe close, exactly 4 steps from Gary, I’d be humiliated in front of the other 50 some odd members.

Linda was inside the funeral home tent. As her young son sat on her lap, she whispered loudly, “ya’ll come in here, it’s outta the wind”. The other pall bearers and I stood there in the fall Tennessee air and looked directly at the silver-gray casket. Despite the wind and the leaves rolling past, despite the bite on my raw middle aged cheeks, we just stood there.

All at once, the cold backs straightened, chests pushed out and we were at attention one final time for the man that helped shape us into men.

“Put the ball of your foot on the line, Bedwell” my band director, Mr. Leeburn Ray Harris yelled at me. Raising my foot up to glare at it as if a newborn, I pondered just exactly where the “ball” of my foot might be located.

It was winter, 1976 and I was learning to march. I was going to be a marching Tiger. I literally dreamed of marching a game, then going to Deanos for pizza after the game with my new friends.

But, I also had lofty dreams about this red headed girl from city school and Jaclyn Smith.

So, there I was, 30 years later, laying to rest the most important leader in my life. He laughed with me. He saw the diamond that was worth shining up into something of worth. He made me do what I didn’t want to do. He made me completely deranged mad at times. He humiliated me, but he made me do it right. Not close, but perfect or not at all. And when it was perfect, as it often was, he’d smile. A broad smile that resonated like a hallelujah chorus that would indicate that you did good. You’d leave the band room and go thru town late at nite, driving around the Sonic, listening to the eight track knowing you’d done something good and right.

Or you’d ride alone and listen to the Bee Gee’s woes of “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” and wonder why the performance didn’t get the praises you thought he’d normally give you.

I had a loaner for a baritone, just to make sure that I could play at all. Many evenings as I was learning to play “The Lonesome Road” outside on the picnic table, I’d break away and play something I “thought” my part might sound like in “The Horse”. My mind would reel as I fingered out the possibilities on my bent up loaner. Once I got into marching band, it was disappointing to find out that my baritone part was strictly backup for the exemplary solos that I imagined I’d be playing center-field one day.

Once Mr. Harris said, “if you can’t play it, WHISTLE it”. Oh my Lord, how on earth would I tell this man, that I couldn’t whistle? Still can’t, to this day. He gave new definition to the skill of whistling. We always made such an incredible mess of the sheet music, he’d have to re-arrange it in the library. Many days, I walked around the bandroom and heard him whistling in the library, rearranging music. Sometimes I’d just sit on the risers alone and listen to him whistle. I still hear it really. It echoed and it trilled. It would rise and fall. It was a confident whistle blown from tight lips that had been trained on a trumpet.

The man made me mad. At the same time, the man made me proud of seeing what I could do because he made me push myself like nobody else ever had. He put something inside of my teenage mind, or woke it up, that I push to be inside of my own teenager’s mind now: don’t ever settle.

I had kept in touch with him over the years. I visited him in the hospital as his health began to decline and occasionally called him on the phone to talk a few. Actually, his phone number is still in my phone and I guess it’ll stay there.

As his days drew near an end, I sent him a letter in the mail thanking him for all that he had done for me in my life. I also explained that the reason that I had gotten off count, caused the entire front row to malfunction was because I was focused on the movements of the rifle girl in front of me in the short red shorts and lost count coming off of the field.

A few weeks later, he called me and asked me to be one of his pall bearers. What an honor that was to be asked, in person. The phone conversation was not that long because the cancer had softened his once powerful voice to a small whisper. But we laughed for awhile.

At the end, I thanked him for all he had done for this one regular ole boy from a county school. I would be eternally grateful and I meant the one last thing I said to him.

I said,

“Mr. Harris, I WILL see you later”….