Saved by the Bell

Sep 5, 2017

Memory can play funny tricks.          

This year, for instance, is the centennial of my high school in Parkersburg, West Virginia. There were celebrations over Labor Day weekend, featuring, among other events, a concert by past and present members of the Parkersburg High School marching band.

I wasn’t able to attend the celebration, though I would have liked to, since the band loomed large in my history there. The Big Red Military Marching Band, as it is officially known, had already won a couple of national championships, and marching in the band had as much cachet as playing on the football team. Moreover, several of my best friends were band members, and I sorely wanted to join them.

Unfortunately, the only instrument I played was the piano—not a good fit for a marching band. So one day, shortly after summer vacation began, I went to Frank Schroder, the band director, and asked him if there was any instrument I could learn to play before band practice began in August.  He pointed to a large dented Sousaphone in the corner of the band room. A Sousaphone is a kind of portable version of a tuba with a large, front-facing bell and coils of tubing that wrap around the player’s torso. “Try that,” he said. “You don’t even need an embouchure. Just flap you lips and blow.”

He was right. By the time August came around I had mastered the Sousaphone enough to play its relatively simple parts. Now for our actual performances at football games we had to memorize our music, but because I was new, I was allowed to use sheet music during practice, while at the same time attempting to learn the often complicated marching maneuvers.

The band rehearsed on the large lawn in front of the school. One day in early August we were practicing a maneuver where the band split and each half marched down the edge of the lawn. Directly in our line of march, there was a manhole that, for some reason, had been left open. As each band member approached the manhole, he did a quick sidestep around it and resumed his march without losing a beat.  Everyone, that is, except me. With my eyes still glued on the sheet music in front of me, I was completely oblivious to the open manhole.

Then, suddenly, I had a sinking feeling—and everything went black. As it happened, I was literally saved by the bell, the bell of the Sousaphone, which was slightly larger than the manhole. It caught and left me dangling in the coil of the instrument rather than plunging into the darkness below, where I could have been seriously injured.

At least, that’s the story I’ve told for nearly six decades now, but at some point I began to wonder if I had just made it all up. So on a trip back to Parkersburg several years ago, I revisited the high school. There, indeed, was the manhole at the edge of the campus lawn, just as I had remembered it. It had obviously not been opened for years, but with my pocket knife I cut away the sod and managed to pry the cover up. There was the hole I had fallen into so many years ago – except that it was only about 18” deep. No, I had not imagined the story about falling into the manhole, but I had, it seems, unconsciously enlarged or embellished it for the sake of a better story. I guess even then I knew I wanted to be a writer.