One of the cool things about being in band — bear with me, I know that’s not a promising opening line — is you get to compete.
If band was nothing more than what most people generally know it to be, of course it would be lame. People see bands at halftime and parades, and that’s pretty much it. Well hell, if that’s all we did, I’m not sure anyone would do it. What kept us coming back every year was the competitive nature of what we did.
Competition in the band world happened in a lot of ways: Entire bands competed against each other, school versus school. But there were also a lot of one-on-one battles where we got to compete individually against other musicians in the area. We would spend a month or so learning a piece of music, then perform it in front of a panel of judges. We’d get to see how we stacked up against our peers. There was a real gunslinger mentality to it all. And if you came out on top, it was a pretty unbeatable feeling.
There was this one competition in our area when I was growing up called IUP Honors Band. It was a pretty big deal. I tried out for it when I was a senior. I don’t remember much about the music, I’m pretty sure I tanked the audition. But that’s not why this one matters. This one matters because at auditions, I got to spend a whole day with a girl named Cathy. Some of you may know her; we’re married.
Cathy was a sophomore at the time. We had become close over the previous year or two. She was one of the sweetest, smartest, and funniest people I knew. There aren’t a lot of Cathys in a town like Lock Haven. She was a talented musician, and an incredible artist. But even more than that, she had amazing taste. She knew about songs and movies and all the good stuff that 16-year-olds in small towns (without the internet) aren’t generally privy to.
Fortunately for me, she was also trying out for IUP Honors Band that year. We piled into one of those Mennonite vans — the kind you can squeeze 14 people into if you put your back into it — and off we drove to Indiana, Pennsylvania with Tribble and all the other Lock Haven kids who were auditioning that year.
Now, I don’t know if I knew it at the time, but Cathy kinda had a thing for me. Though I should probably mention here that if you were a girl (or perhaps a boy) in the Lock Haven music program around that time, you probably shared her sentiment. I was kind of a big deal. It was a brief window, to be sure. But I was one of those guys that girls look at the way guys look at girls. It was weird, and a lot of people acted weird around me because of it. But not Cathy. She was actually willing to engage me in conversation, and I liked her for it. That, and she was genuinely amazing. I loved talking to her, but I loved listening to her more.
So we got to the school, unloaded, warmed up, and everyone had their audition. We auditioned rather early in the day so we had the rest of the day to ourselves while our scores were tallied. Cathy and I spent the afternoon walking around the campus together, just the two of us. It was so easy, so comfortable. And so, so fun. I remember there was an art exhibit in the lobby of one of the performance halls. We spent at least an hour there. She walked me through all of the paintings and talked to me about lines and color. I was listening, kind of, but more than once I found myself marveling at her instead of retaining anything about depth and shading. I kept thinking to myself “Who is this girl?” I mean, I knew who she was, I knew she was cool. But I don’t think I ever really knew how special she was until that afternoon.
We piled in the van at the end of the day. It was late, Cathy and I were sitting in the way back. We talked a little but then we both got sleepy and the conversation grew sparse. And then, as we were both kind of nodding off a little, she put her head on my shoulder. And all at once, I had the strangest feeling. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I felt this enormous responsibility, like I was charged with protecting her. From what, I don’t know. But it hit me like a ton. And I realized that I had to take this responsibility very seriously.
I’m sure she doesn’t remember this moment, and if she does, I’m sure she doesn’t remember it the same way I do. It was just a little gesture, a little move. Putting her head on my shoulder and falling asleep. She felt safe with me, and it made me stronger. It’s the first time I ever really remember feeling like a man.
That’s the day I fell in love with her. It was a different kind of love, certainly nothing I was used to. I didn’t realize it at the time, and it took me three years of bizarre and unfortunate moves to close the deal. But that’s a story for another time. This is just about that one time I spent that one day with that one girl, and how it pretty much changed my life forever.