Marching to the beat of a different drummer

Most people’s lives don’t move forward in a straight line. I know mine has had the usual zigs and zags, ups and downs, even an occasional U-turn. But recently my life circled back, in a way I never anticipated.

From 1971 to1976, I was a member of the U.S. Army’s premier musical organization—TUSAB, THE U.S. Army Band (Pershing’s Own). Those were the days of the draft and the Vietnam War. The military was the last place most of the band members wanted to be. It was an unusual time for us and for the Band.

My army career was distinguished mostly by my inability to grasp the concept of being in the military. I never quite accepted that I was a soldier first and a musician second. When my second enlistment period came to an end (yes, I actually re-enlisted once), both the Army Band and I were happy to end that chapter of my life.

With an irony usually reserved for novels, my son became a member of the same Army Band, and an era I would just as soon have forgotten suddenly was back. Seeing him, in the same uniform and performing with some of the same people I had, released memories and emotions I had buried for 25 years.

And then it happened.

I was invited to speak to the men and women of TUSAB. About music? No way! I was invited back because I write this column, because I changed from a fat bass-trombone player to a marathoner, and because they were as astonished as I was that a military malcontent could find happiness as a runner.

For some of the “lifers” my age who were still in the Band, it was like seeing a ghost. As I began speaking, I could see their faces and feel their stares. “Where was the rest of me?” they seemed to be asking. Where were the other 80 pounds? Where was the anger?  Where were the mean spirit and the damaged soul they’d known?

As best I could, I explained that the anger was lying beside the road somewhere, lost along the thousands of miles I’d run since leaving the Band. The mean spirit had been replaced by a runner’s understanding of the unique and universal struggle we all face every day, and the hope that running brings to that struggle. And the damaged soul had been healed by the therapy of truth and acceptance I’d found between the start and finish lines of hundreds of road races.

Those who didn’t believe my words were convinced when I put on my running shoes. As we headed out for a run, some of them expected me to move quickly to the front of the pack. It didn’t happen, of course. I settled into a comfortable pace at the back and savored the moment. A quarter century after I left, I was once again a member of the Band.

At the end of our run, the Enlisted Band leader—Sergeant Major Gordon Slaymaker, the same soldier who sat next to me in the trombone section years ago—presented me with the TUSAB coin, an honor usually reserved for honored guests and dignitaries.  I clutched it in my hand, holding back both laughter and tears. There we were—two middle-aged men who had made music together as young men, shared hopes and dreams with each other, and then parted company—now reunited by the simple act of running.

It may be that you can never go back and recapture a time in your life. But, if you’re lucky, you can go back and bring closure to a time of turmoil, disappointment, and failure. And if you’re very lucky, you may find that running with old friends and old memories is much more satisfying than running away from them.

Waddle on, friends.

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