The morning was not a cheerful one. The sky over Tulsa, Oklahoma, was solid with clouds of a uniform, dreary gray that held little promise of better weather. The clouds hung low, casting a misty drizzle like a thick shadow, saturating the already humid air. I was swishing down the damp pavement in my little Toyota, heading toward the freeway. It was a Saturday. It had been a busy week, and I was going to work. My mood matched the grayness that colored everything under the overcast spring sky.
As I drove along, slumped in my seat, a strong, sweet, smoky scent made its way through the car vents. I sat up straight, opened my eyes all the way, and started looking around for the first time. It was a smell that was easy to recognize: the smell of barbeque. Its presence was remarkable and strange, though, so early in the morning. Barbecue is really a noontime or afternoon smell, a smell of picnics in the summer, of burgers and dogs under brown wooden shelters in parks, of my dad at the grill with a bowl of barbecue sauce, his own recipe, which he would not reveal even to his sons. It is not a morning smell.
But I did not sit up in my seat thinking, “how odd that someone would be out with a grill at this hour.” Instead, I was thinking of how good that barbecue smelled right then. Barbecue at sunrise seemed to me perfectly appropriate after four years of football Saturdays in South Bend.
On those football Saturdays, the vendors would be up early, cooking ribs and sausages and burgers, getting ready for the rush. White smoke poured from their trailers, seeming all the more heavy for the cold and empty air into which it climbed. I was seeing it and smelling it at an early hour because I, like the other 300-odd marching band members, had to be up for the Saturday morning pre-game march-out and practice. We made our treks across the silent campus under the pall of that smoke every week.
Sometimes it was overpowering, even nauseating, and sometimes it was barely a wisp, like a hint of wind on a quiet night, but it was always there.
Smelling it again, in my car a thousand miles and three years away from South Bend, I was barraged by a host of images that were suddenly more real than the rain and the road outside my windshield. From where I marched in the bass section, I could see the long lines ahead of me snaking past the Joyce Center, legs moving together mostly, weaving slightly, on the way to the indoor field at Loftus for Saturday morning practice.
Taking that same route every week, we always marched past one particular barbecue trailer, and the trumpets always chanted its name in time with the cadence: “Pooooooorrrt….. Aaaaaaahh …. Piiiiiiiiit …… Port-A-Pit!” Its own white cloud drifted across our ranks, strong and thick.
Still in my car, I smiled and waded more deeply into the scenes of Saturdays past. It was easy to conjure up the very beginning of my first football Saturday, a day that did not start auspiciously. Getting up before the sun on a Saturday is not something that comes naturally to college students. Not trusting our alarms to wake us, the band appointed “dorm reps,” one band member in every dorm whose job it was to make sure their fellow resident band members would be up for practice.
The usual method was to go around and knock on doors, waiting at each to see that the person in question was actually on his feet, and then moving on. My “dorm rep” arrived at some incredibly early hour, knocked on my door and let himself in. He greeted me warmly.
“Get up,” he said.
I opened my eyes and looked at him. Silhouetted in the door, he was a dark, menacing shadow. “Ummmhumgh,” I responded and buried my head in my pillow.
“Get up,” he said again, a little more forcefully. I was only a freshman and didn’t want to offend, so I started to struggle against my sheets and blankets. I was trapped. I didn’t want to keep the dorm rep all morning, so I stopped struggling, rolled over and looked up. “OK, I’m awake.” I did my best to appear alert.
“Put your feet on the floor,” the voice responded. I later learned that my dorm rep, Justin Taylor, was one of the nicest guys around, but I can’t remember that morning without hearing a voice that sounded like Darth Vader in a bad mood.
I struggled in vain for another moment, hoping that I looked earnest if not graceful, and then said, “Uh, I’m stuck. It’s OK, I’m up.”
“Put your feet on the floor!” the voice thundered. Mustering myself for one last try, I kicked as hard as I could at the blankets and sat up. As my feet touched the floor, the shadow was gone. I dressed quickly and in something of a daze, and then it was out the door, down the hall, up the stairs and out onto the God quad to start the walk over to the band building.
Into the freeze
Although I could only remember being ordered out of bed that one time, that dark, quiet walk across empty quads was repeated time and again. Most of the mornings were cold, but it was slightly daring, and in some sections required, to wear shorts on even the coldest days. Sometimes the moon would still be bright in the sky, other times the sun would be rising, burning off fog. The barbecue would be there, of course, mixed in with smell of fallen leaves as I swooshed through them.
I would feel the air, crisp, sharp and clear, poking through a thick sweatshirt, icing over lungs and then coming out as steam. My mind slowed by sleepiness, I usually felt like a dark old fuzzy blanket lay between my brain and the world, though it was usually lifted by anticipation of the game, by the feel of a tennis shoe’s spring on asphalt, or by the voices of friends raised in greeting or kept low in consideration of a late night.
The memory of one morning during my senior year came back strongly. It was the game day when my two roommates and I, all band members, decided that our non-band colleagues in the dorm would appreciate their own early morning rendition of the “Victory March,” played on three trumpets. I don’t remember all of the things they yelled at us. I also recalled an instance, I think later on that same morning, when an old alum took a look at the shorts I wore to practice in the freezing weather and yelled, “your mother ought to take a board to you, boy!”
That weekly walk across campus finished up at the band building, where, on the cold mornings, my glasses would invariably steam up from the warmer temperature inside. Stepping though the doors, I’d be immediately surrounded by people, clarinet and piccolo players sitting on the floor, eating cereal and talking. Walking past them, I’d pick up my own cereal, usually Cap’n Crunch as per tradition. I’d carry the cereal, floating in skim milk in a little Styrofoam bowl, and balance it in two hands along with a plastic spoon and a copy of the band’s weekly newspaper.
If that paper had ever contained any news in its history, it had long since ceased to do so, becoming instead a creative way for sections to mock their own members as well as members of other sections. It was the kind of paper you wanted to be in and didn’t want to be in, all at once. Sitting on the carpet in the hall where the basses were kept, I would eat, talk, and read, then close my eyes for a minute, listening to conversation in morning tones and the clank and slam of instrument locker doors and horn cases.
Not long after, I’d end up outside again, this time with a sousaphone on my shoulder. There’d be cold all around; a cold breeze, a cold heavy horn chilling the left side of my neck, a cold mouthpiece freezing my lips and condensing the moisture in my breath. The voices were much louder outside, the energy building, the brittle honks and tones of unwarmed horns played by unwarmed lips and the crack and boom of drums all cutting through the morning air, sharp like no other time of day.
The drum majors’ whistles would sound — long to line up and get ready, short to get us going. We’d give a yell, sometimes a groan, and we were marching, blood coursing through cold and unstretched muscles, hats coming off as the sweat started. The drum sounds bounced and echoed as we passed the library, where the cadence changed and accelerated. We’d get another long whistle, and then we’d pour out the thump and crash of the “Fight Song” as we crossed the top of north quad.
Next we’d be swinging past LaFortune, and into the “Hike Song,” playing with a passion that comes from being awake before your fellow students and knowing that, if your are loud enough, dorm walls won’t keep the sleepers safe from your musical efforts. Then, it was the Port-A-Pit, and finally, Loftus.
As the band marked time outside of Loftus, waiting for the halt whistles, I sighed, back again in my little car. The sky was still gray, the rain still misting, but I found myself sitting up straight, grinning, rapping out a cadence on my steering wheel, thankful for the little trip I was granted when that barbecue smell tickled my nose.
Back I went to game days, long and intense, hugely exciting though at times boring, but more unique than I knew then. These images passed through my memory in an instant, leaving a fleeting trace of exhilaration and connection. It was enough. When I was in the band, I never left the ranks to buy a rib sandwich, as some joked they would. I never even bought one on the way to breakfast or after a game. But I still took that barbecue with me, and the memories that wafted in its thick, white smoke.
(This article was originally posted in 2001.)