As one of 12 student-journalist finalists for the 2010 Tom Keating Feature Writing Contest in Indianapolis, I spent a few hours at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday, Nov. 13, searching for a story — any story. I wanted it to capture the atmosphere of the competition but also give a new perspective on the annual event occurring there.
I may not have received the top honors, but I’m really excited to have produced the third-place story. Reporting and writing at the Bands of America Grand National Championships was one of the most exciting projects I’ve completed as a journalist, and I hope I can have more experiences like this in my career.
What follows is the product of five hours roaming the stadium, interviewing, writing, rewriting and editing.
Parents, volunteers complete marching band ensemble
By Christine DiGangi
Nov. 13, 2010
They march in uniform, the many parts of one production. Wearing matching shirts and shoes, gloves and school colors, they embody the sense of a team.
Their identical outfits say different things: field crew, equipment team, band coordinators, but everyone calls them “pit dads.” There are a few pit moms, too. Most add flair to their band attire: buttons that say “band parent” or bear a picture of their sons or daughters holding drumsticks, a flute, a clarinet. In these uniforms, they execute their duties to perfection, always alert and eager to help.
After all, this is it: the best marching bands in the country come to the Bands of America Grand National Championships in Indianapolis. Saturday morning and afternoon, 34 schools competed in the semifinals at Lucas Oil Stadium. Champions in four classes, A through AAAA based on school enrollment, were crowned Saturday evening. In these paramount moments, everything revolves around precision.
Working behind the music
Ask Jim Flynn what it takes to be a pit dad. He’s spent four years as the father of a drummer at Center Grove High School, perfecting the early morning loading and unloading routine, waking up before the sun rises in Greenwood, Ind.
It’s 11:37 a.m., and he sits on the commander stand from which a student conductor will lead the group. Flynn watches, waiting to move it to the field. He’s been up since 6 a.m. preparing for just that.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” Flynn says, pulling the stand to its wheels and walking it to another portion of the warm-up. “All four years we’ve made it to semifinals.”
You can tell he’s been here before. He wears a black Center Grove polo shirt with his name on it. Embroidered below “Jim,” the words “Senior Tour” distinguish his seniority as a four-year pit dad. Like his son Joshua, a section leader, he earned it after four years of dedication to the program.
As he moves to set the stand down, he pats the drum major on the back, saying “Go get ’em, buddy,” explaining the details and importance of the band’s pre-performance routine like he’s an expert. Flynn never got into music himself, but he marvels at his son Joshua’s ability as a percussionist. Flynn says Joshua wants to pursue music composition as a career.
The 59-year-old never gets tired of his pit-dad duties. He’ll miss it when the school year ends.
And he’s not alone.
Tamara Johnson, 42, leads a herd of pit dads as the band booster chair for Bourbon County High School in Paris, Ky. — the reigning Class A national champions.
A seven-year veteran of the Marching Colonels, Johnson has two years left in her tenure as a pit mom. Her daughter Caitlyn’s involvement sucked Johnson into band parenthood in 2004, and she continues to support her son Tucker, a sophomore, while he plays the baritone horn, like his sister.
“We’re helping the kids. We’re the props,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing what they do.”
Just like the students, the parents love the band camaraderie. Johnson and her crew wear “Hale’s Pack Mules” shirts, joking that they’re the work horses for band conductor Eric Hale.
Sitting on the sets before show time, Johnson exchanges jokes and memories with her fellow parents, all of whom look tired but boast huge smiles. The lanyards accessorized with “official band parent” and “baritone mom” pins identify the ones who have been around long enough to collect decorations.
Full-time parents. Full-time providers. And they still spend hours a week with the band. Johnson smiles when asked how she does it.
“I don’t even know how to answer that question,” she says, throwing her head back in laughter. But like Flynn, she’ll miss it, too, even though it means more sleep on the weekends.
Some band families won’t have to bid their band days farewell at graduation. Emma Alkire, a 66-year-old volunteer at the competition, evolved from band mom to band grandmother.
Her uniform is different — no thick gloves and heavy lifting for her — but she’s part of the magic all the same. In such a meticulous production, someone has to make sure everyone moves from warm-up to the stage on time. With three grandsons in band, she wants to look out for these kids she knows work so hard.
“You have a whole production,” Alkire said, outlining how intense marching band has become since her children were in high school. “You have props. You have a story you’re telling.”
Five years ago, when her husband Clark passed away from pancreatic cancer, Alkire needed to keep busy. She and her husband always loved supporting their children and grandchildren at performances, contests and sporting events. After 44 years of marriage and a life with Clark on Alkire Acres, a berry farm, she decided to devote herself to something else.
Alkire looked to the familiar world of marching band. When her grandson Robby entered high school two years ago, she had another reason to love her volunteer work. Robby and his band from Monrovia High School (Ind.) competed Thursday but went home after their first performance.
“You know they don’t call this a sport?” she says, watching Center Grove complete its physical warm-up. “It’s exercise all the time! They love to perform. They’re dedicated.”
Standing on the sidelines
Hours after that 6 a.m. alarm clock went off, Center Grove takes the turf at 12:15 p.m. for their semifinal appearance. Flynn stands on the edge of the field at the 35-yard line.
The performance starts, but 17-year-old Joshua remains at the back of the field, cloaked, disguised by face paint and anticipating his role in the eerie “Something Wicked This Way Comes” routine. A few minutes in, he turns, marching toward his father, giving a pulse to the performance with his multi-tenor drums. Joshua never looks down, his black-painted eyes barely blinking.
Off the field, the father mirrors his son, standing erect in a line of men intently staring straight ahead, wearing their matching uniforms. Both parties exude deep focus, like that of professionals.
“Isn’t that cool?” Flynn asks, pointing out the fake trees and props he built weeks before. His gray-blue eyes crinkle into a smile behind his glasses, clapping for his son, his son’s friends and, lastly, his hard work.
When Center Grove runs off the field, Flynn and the crew run to clear the props. Once everyone exits the field, Joshua talks with his fellow drummers, his dad walking by to give him a few pats on the back.
“It’s always nice to see him right before the show,” Joshua says, beaming beneath the post-performance sweat streaking his face paint. “Without my parents, I never would have started practicing.”
Joshua notes the incredible commitment his dad shows — Flynn completes 10 hours of pit-dad duties a week in addition to his information technology job at an insurance company. And then there’s his dad’s presence on the field. Joshua can always hear Flynn’s whistling above the crescendo of music.
With rain setting in on Indianapolis, Joshua, Flynn and the rest of the Center Grove team hurry to load their semi trucks in the parking lot — hopefully, not for the last time. A 14-time finalist in the 27 years they’ve appeared at Grand Nationals, the band has a long and respectable history at the 35-year-old competition. Generations of parents and volunteers helped the school get this far.
And as the team awaits the semifinal results, the pit dads close the trucks. On the inside of one of the semi’s back doors, there reads a saying, “It’s all for the kids.” A picture accompanies the quote.
It’s one of a father, hugging his son.