On the March — Again

A bratwurst-laden, trombone-playing NUMB alum proves he can still cut the mustard at Ryan Field.

by Thomas C. Willadsen

Purple Prose trombone player

I decided at the last minute to attend Homecoming last fall. I had ignored all the mailings and e-mails I'd received, so it took an off-hand comment from a classmate to prod me to look at my calendar and find that I really could get away for a day and a half to relive and re-examine my college days.

As a member of the Northwestern University Marching and Band Alumni group I knew I would find people to catch up with. The only questions were: "Whose couch would I sleep on?" and "Should I bring cheese, beer or sausage as a house gift?" (I live in Wisconsin; the border police do not let us leave the state without a goodly supply of at least one of these commodities.)

My return to campus included a visit to University Hall, where another NUMB alum now teaches, and the Humanities Residential College that was our home in our callow youth. (Well, my youth was callow; his, not so much.) I also popped for a Carmen's pizza, thus endearing myself to another chum from the Reagan years and her family. We discussed which words are the funniest in the English language. Thwart, paprika and gargoyle were favorites. I prefer nuptials because it sounds dirty but isn't.

At 7:45 Saturday morning I found myself playing the concert B-flat scale with the rest of the NUMB alums. I was thrilled that my B-flat was lost among the rest of the notes that we were playing. I was shocked that most of the NUMB alums were younger than I. We tore through "Go U Northwestern"; muscle memory took over. I am not a musician; I am a trombone player.

Muscle memory really saw me through my return to NUMB. I could not tell you one single note I played, but I played the whole thing, even getting the horn swing down after the break strain. I was completely winded at the end. The NUMB alum on my left, also winded by the workout, muttered, " ... or notes to that effect," when we finished.

As we prepared to take the field for our alleged pregame show, I gathered the NUMB alum trombone section and explained an ancient Bonehead ritual: Back in the day, the whole trombone section would throw our mouthpieces into the air and shout, "Fly! Be free!" Our mouthpieces would fall to the artificial turf and bounce more erratically than any wind-blown punt. We would then scramble to find a mouthpiece, any mouthpiece, with which to finish the halftime show. The neophyte NUMB alums played along, too kind to point out that "Fly! Be free!" might be a bad idea on natural grass. Our mouthpieces were covered with slimy bits of turf, and one was completely blocked with dirt! No erratic bounces, no mayhem, just mouthpieces rendered disgusting (OK, more disgusting, these are trombone mouthpieces!) by the long-forgotten ritual of a simpler time. Sigh.

When Indiana broke its first play from scrimmage for a 70-yard touchdown, I immediately started chanting, "Same as it ever was," and making the arm motions from "Once in a Lifetime." None of the current Boneheads got the reference. I realized that Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads' magnum opus, my college-era soundtrack, was older than they are! Suddenly I wanted to protect these young, vulnerable spawn.

"You won't pay off your student loans. Think of it as outliving them," I advised.

When I said unto them, "The truth will make you bitter," they smiled weakly and turned away from the old-timer.

That was about the time the game got exciting. What's up with that? In my day we lost spectacularly! Remember the jokes? Polysorbate 80, Northwestern 0. Interstate 294, Northwestern 6. It was strange watching the 'Cats stage a successful comeback. I could get used to it, maybe.

After the game and the postgame band rituals, I trudged off the field, tired but elated. It was good to revisit the culture of NUMB. I think I'll come back next year.

"Ooh, I'm gonna be sore tomorrow," I commented to another weary NUMB alum.

"I don't think I'll have to wait that long," he answered.

Muscle memory indeed.

Thomas "the T" Willadsen (WCAS86) was Grinder, an appointed leader of the marching band, in 1984 and 1985. In 1985, with the band's support, he was elected Big Man on Campus following a runoff election involving three dogs and a piece of drug paraphernalia. Willadsen is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wis.