Thursday, October 11, 2018

Three Beautiful Things 10/09/18: Driving to Billings, The Concert, Post-Concert Discussions

1. I sprang out of bed around five o'clock this morning, finished packing my suitcase, drank a cup of coffee, revved up the Sube and got my 470 mile drive to Billings, MT underway to hear Hiram play with the President's Own United States Marine Band.  I didn't enjoy the first hour or so of the drive. It was dark. I had trouble seeing. But as the morning sun slowly illuminated the sky, the golden and burnt orange trees on the Montana hillsides came into view and I began to enjoy the Montana scenery and the drive became more pleasant. Nearing Butte, snow began to fall and the drive over Homestake Pass was slow. I slid slightly on occasion, but kept the Sube under control. Beyond Homestake, the snow subsided and the rest of my drive was easy. I helped myself enjoy it by taking a short nap at a rest area along the way.

I arrived in Billings over an hour ahead of my check-in time at the Airbnb room I'd booked. While approaching Billings, a billboard advertising Buffalo Wild Wings caught my eye and I decided eating lunch there would be easy. I ordered a side garden salad and their smallest order of wings. I was a little bit surprised to discover that I like the wings I make at home better.

My Airbnb room was perfect. My hosts rent out two basement rooms, each with Dish television, a private bathroom, a queen-sized bed, and a combination soaking tub and shower. Outside each room is a common area to sit and a fully equipped kitchen for guests to share.  After being on the road for about eight hours or so, I just wanted to lie down for a while, then take a shower before getting ready to walk the ten blocks or so up to the 1400 seat Alberta Bair Theater to hear the concert.

2. I found a seat about five rows up from the front of the loge and texted back and forth with Hiram to let him know I arrived, got seated, and would see him at the intermission.

The concert moved me. The program blended several styles of music, ranging from Sousa marches to show and movie compositions by Leonard Bernstein and John Williams to selections from Prokofiev's ballet based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to an aria from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to a couple of pieces written since the year 2000 to rousing versions of  "The Star Spangled Banner", "America the Beautiful", and "Stars and Stripes Forever", a salute to the U.S. armed forces songs, and an encore, "God Bless America".

The music inspired my memories, my thinking, and my emotions. Hearing the Sousa marches transported me back to our living room here at 516 W. Cameron.  I think what happened in this memory took place when I was in junior high after Carol had started going to school. Once in a while, I had the house to myself in the morning and I put this recording we had of Sousa marches on our record player. I stood in front of the living room mirror and pretended to conduct the band, paying special attention to the trombone, euphonium, and tuba/sousaphone sections because I loved the low brass parts of these arrangements. So, while I listened to the President's own play "Sabre and Spurs", "Semper Fidelis", and "Stars and Stripes Forever", I suddenly realized my right hand was conducting the music (in my own untrained way) and I hid it under my jacket in the seat next to me in case I was distracting anyone. I also thrilled at hearing those stirring low brass parts and how much I loved playing them when I was in band.

The concert triggered another memory. Back in 1970, our high school band played a composition that included "Puff, the Magic Dragon". The piece featured a short solo for the baritone horn (euphonium) and my section mate, Wayne Denlinger, had been assigned to play the solo. When we performed the piece in concert, Wayne had something he had to do during a long rest for the baritone during this composition, but he had it timed so that he'd be back in time for his solo. Well, as fortune would have it, Wayne didn't make it back and suddenly I realized I'd have to step up and play the solo. Our band director, Mr. Exum, heard the melody of  "Puff, the Magic Dragon" come lilting out of my baritone horn and he scowled at me -- in fact, he looked like he had just bit into a lemon. You might say that I didn't play the short solo as beautifully as Wayne could. I remember thinking I played it all right, but, clearly, Mr. Exum was not pleased -- but, the song went on, the concert went on, the audience left happy, and no one else really knew the humiliation I had suffered.

3. After the concert, I joined Hiram and a table of his friends from the President's Own for drinks and a variety of small plates of awesome food at a place called Walker's. It turned out to be an invigorating time. I sat across the table from Cecilia Buettgens, a French horn player, and she initiated some conversation about teaching at the college level. She works as an adjunct at Frostburg State University in western Maryland and loves to teach. It had been years since anyone asked me about how I taught writing. The fact that I approached teaching writing (and literature) with philosophical questions connected with other discussions Hiram and Cecilia and others had been having about philosophy and religion and I got to join in some discussion about a range of topics including the meaning and value of greatness, the nature of God and world religions, and whether, in the course of human history, humans are moving toward progressive improvement.

It was cold in Billings. I didn't want to walk back to my Airbnb, so I booked a ride with Uber. When I settled into my bed, I couldn't get to sleep for about an hour. My mind was so stimulated by the beauty of the concert, all that I'd been thinking and feeling during the concert, and by the invigorating discussion at Walker's that it took me over an hour to get to sleep and, even once I did fall asleep, my night was interrupted by waking up to racing thoughts about Shakespeare, my many years of teaching, and the timeless questions of what it means to be human.

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