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This Land

A Source of Sustenance
When the Band Plays On

Monday, July 28, 2008


Dan Barry

BRUNSWICK, Me. -- Another summer evening, another village green, another sustaining gig for the Bath Municipal Band. Its members step onto the portable stage and use clasps and clothespins to keep their sheets of musical exuberance from taking flight. They live for this.

Here is Jerry Hix, 79, clarinet, taking the honored first chair that he assumed years ago, after the death of a band mate who set the standard for nice guys. Here is Bill Bodwell, 82, bass drum, helped up the steps by his wife and now flashing a half-smile that says bring it on.

And here is Norma Spinney, 67, bass and percussion. Having just pulled up on her cherry-red customized trike, small American flag flapping and cane in tow, she yearns to make some noise, the kind that scares bad thoughts right out of your head.

The spent July sun rests for a while over the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street, as dozens of people stake claims in this Brunswick park with blankets and lawn chairs. They come almost out of duty, as if the open-air patronage of a community band will prevent spring from sliding directly into fall — as if there is no summer without Sousa.

The band’s director, Kathy Downing, 57, a slight music teacher who also raises goats, suddenly grows in stature, and not only because she has just stepped onto a small rise at the front of the stage. She holds the baton; the wand.

Awaiting her instruction are students and professors, engineers and accountants, a doctor, a nurse, a car dealer, a carpenter, residents of various southern Maine towns, volunteers all. In another setting they might bicker about the state of the country; a few of them already have. But now, as audience members stand with right hands over their chests, these musicians join to summon the national anthem from brass and reed and drum.

Next, some Sousa: “The Liberty Bell” march, written in 1893 when the composer must have been in especially high spirits. Although the march now tends to conjure the antics of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the band wrests it from those dog-mad Englishmen and returns it to its proper place: a New England village green, where 35 musicians serenade the encroaching dusk.

Bands like these go way back, their music sheets and even their musicians passed on from one to another. This particular band, formed in 1961 and based in the small shipbuilding city of Bath, about 10 miles east of here, traces its roots to the early 20th century, to long-gone ensembles, and continues the tradition of playing at ship launchings and Christmas concerts, clam festivals and the changes of commands at military posts — occasionally on this cumbersome, 40-year-old, portable stage.

“You can go 37, 38 miles an hour with this trailer,” Mr. Hix says before the concert. “But don’t try 39.”

The Bath Municipal Band also maintains the time-honored tradition of flux within the ranks. Gifted musicians move into town to steal the limelight from lesser players, who leave in a huff. Old-timers who are comfortable with playing the music of, say, R. B. Hall, the pride of Maine, chafe at an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. A woman takes over as director, unheard of a generation ago, and let’s just say some are more comfortable with her than others. People grow old or fall ill; the steps to the stage get steeper.

But the band continues, its music a life force. A trombone player lost part of a lung to cancer; he played for another year and a half. A trumpet player developed respiratory problems; an oxygen tank joined the band, giving him the breath to blow. A clarinetist slipped slowly into dementia; unable to play, unable to remember the names of loved ones; still, she often sat in the audience, singing the words to every song.

They’re gone now, but their band continues.

Ms. Downing announces the next selection, an “Armed Forces Salute,” and invites veterans in the audience to stand when they hear their song. At the sound of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” three white-haired Army vets shyly rise from their lawn chairs and look around, as if searching for lost comrades. The crowd applauds, as it does for veterans of other military branches who slowly stand — including a few in the band, among them a Women’s Army Corps alumna.

The tangerine sun descends. Cars and motorcycles rumble up, down and out of rhythm along Maine Street. Two small children whirl about in free-form dance. A black Labrador baptizes a lamppost. This corner of Brunswick has a fever, and the only prescription is — more Sousa.

“The Free Lance” march of Sousa parades into a George M. Cohan medley, the “Beer Barrel Polka” and a collection of home front songs from World War II. Mr. Hix, the reed-thin musician in first chair, plays his clarinet and taps his foot, as unspoken lyrics come to mind, of thanks for the memories, and don’t sit under the apple tree, and kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again.

He played some of these same orchestrations back in his hometown of Findlay, Ohio, during his high school years in the early 1940s — decades before the heart attack, the prostate cancer and other intimations. For 50 years he didn’t play the clarinet, and then one day he started again, summoning memories, like the time he and a girl named Saralu — a great, great saxophonist — went on a double date to a Harry James concert, and the ’39 Hudson he borrowed from her father broke down, and, well.

The other boy’s date? A girl named Patricia, married to Mr. Hix now for 58 years.
The sun surrenders in its daily battle, vanishing behind the Dunkin’ Donuts, now aglow. The concert reaches its finale. Sousa, of course.

The band begins “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Mr. Bodwell, who needed help getting onto the stage, is standing now, pounding away on his big bass drum. But the eye is drawn to the woman playing the cymbals beside him, her body rocking back and forth, her gray-blond ponytail swaying like a metronome’s pendulum. It’s Norma Spinney.

Here are some of the things Ms. Spinney is not thinking about at this moment: The lupus that for years forced her to use a wheelchair; the death in 2002 of her husband, David, which prompted her to find distraction in drum lessons and that cherry-red trike parked a few yards away; her breast cancer.

In 2006, when doctors told her she would need a double mastectomy, Ms. Spinney demanded that the operation be on Sept. 1, because that was the first day of the band’s month long break, and she wanted to be back for rehearsals in October. She was.

But she’s not thinking now about the cancer, or the surgery, or her return. And she’s not thinking about the joys of percussion, or the way that a mere combination of sounds can make you want to stand up and march. No. Playing the cymbal, she’s just keeping time.

Dan Barry's column, "This Land," takes readers beneath news stories
and into obscure and well-known corners of the United States every Monday.

Copyright (C) 2008

Reprinted with Permission