How does a small town, still licking its economic wounds, celebrate 100 years of existence?
Community boosters in my hometown of Kellogg, Ida., called for an all-class reunion of high school alumni--and they struck up a band.
The first hint that Kellogg was in a celebratory mood came with the Christmas mail last December. The silver and red stickers on greeting card envelopes proclaimed 1986 as the centennial of the once thriving mining and smelting center in the state's panhandle. (Kellogg had fallen on hard times largely because of rising energy costs, falling metal prices and environmental protection demands.) A couple of months later my sister in Spokane, Wash., 75 miles west of Kellogg, advised me of the reunion and said she had made motel reservations for my wife and me.
Brochures were forthcoming announcing that an all-class band would perform in a parade and in concert. That did it: We scrapped our existing vacation schedule and made plans to go to Kellogg.
Some of my enduring memories of high school were of the daily 8 a.m. band practices, the trips, the competitions and parades, the camaraderie and the remarkable instructor, Glenn Exum. Errol-Flynn handsome, he was a dashing figure, demanding excellence of his students and brooking no nonsense. During summers, he conducted his mountaineering school in the Teton Range of Wyoming.
Exum was to be parade marshal during the reunion and conduct part of the concert. High school band director for 37 years before retiring in 1971, he had touched many lives, including that of the man who was organizing the all-class band, Wayne Benson.
Since I had not seen or heard of Benson for nearly 40 years, he had been locked in time as Sonny Benson, whose pre-adolescent singing voice was likened to the voice of Kate Smith and who was the shortest member of the Stairstep Trumpet Trio. I shot off a letter to him sending greetings and pleading for the music so I could practice. Sight-reading would be out of the question.
I dug my trumpet out of a corner of the closet: the once bright finish was pitted, and the valves were frozen. Getting the horn in shape was one thing, the easy thing. It had been seven or eight years since I had tried to play. Now it was difficult even to get a tone. And finally achieving this, I had difficulty getting my tongue, lips and fingering in sync. I was not all that diligent in starting my practice--until the months dissolved into a few weeks before the reunion.
Panic set in.
Benson had sent the music, both the first and second trumpet parts, for school fight songs and alma mater, "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Beer Barrel Polka," "B-flat Blues," "Ebb Tide," "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "MacArthur Park." I wanted desperately to do well, and my ego kept prompting me to play the first trumpet part. My lips said otherwise, especially on "Stars and Stripes Forever" and "MacArthur Park." They instantly turned to flab if I tried to hit any note above the treble clef. In addition to my other problems, I had trouble with the changing tempos in "MacArthur Park," especially where the score demanded a change to a "driving rock beat," whatever that is.
We arrived in Kellogg on a Friday, the day before the parade. To my dismay, the one and only rehearsal had been conducted Thursday night. But there was some good news: "MacArthur Park" had been removed from the program. ("They couldn't get together," Benson was to tell me later, regretfully.)
On a bright, warm Saturday morning the all-class band assembled at the junior high school. I got an idea of the talent that Benson had assembled--several trumpet players were executing cadenzas, hitting high Cs and higher without batting an eye. I was pleased--but intimidated. Indeed, there were several professional musicians (one had flown in from a gig in Las Vegas, another from one in Seattle), music educators, student musicians and a concert soprano (but a clarinetist in the band).
There were 195 of us: doctors, lawyers, machinists, educators, students, homemakers, shop owners, engineers, journalists; at least one family had three generations represented; there were several two-generation combinations. We renewed acquaintances, got our marching orders, then were bused to the parade starting point, next to the site where the old Kellogg High School had stood, but which had long since been razed. Exum and his wife, Beth, were in a convertible with its "Grand Marshal" banner. They were still under siege from well-wishers.