Band Accident

I did not play any formal, organized sports in high school; I was scrawny and would joke that my muscles were just barely strong enough to pick up and move the chess pieces, let alone swing a bat or throw a basketball.  This is not entirely true, of course; I did play in community soccer and baseball leagues.  But it is true that I could not throw a basketball high enough to get it above the rim until about the time I was in the tenth grade.  When you factor in the fact that I was generally not comfortable around other students – I felt that their topics of conversation were often times most improper, especially in locker room settings – it is no wonder that my time spent on the football field was in the marching band rather than on the football squad.

This is not to say that being in the marching band was neither physically demanding nor dangerous.  Often times during band practice the football field was occupied by the football team, so we marched in the parking lot, where football yard lines had been painted onto the asphalt.  The reflected heat from that asphalt was oppressive, particularly in late August during band camp.  Our uniforms were heavy wool, and while they were nice late in the football season, by the time late May rolled around and we had to march in the local Memorial Day parade – and stand for a memorial service in the local cemetery – we all were ready to ditch those uniforms for cooler garb.  There were several students who fainted each year during that cemetery service, although I was not one of them.

I do recall one year we marched in the Magic Music Days at Walt Disney World as our band trip for the year.  Our band also had a special performance that year, in that we were the band on hand to celebrate the opening of 24 new villas at the Give Kids The World resort, a cooperative endeavour between the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Walt Disney World.  That performance was in a nice, shaded area.  But the Magic Music Days parade itself was very hot and humid, and we were marching in full wool uniform.  When our band was marching to the cadence (not actively playing), we would swing our instruments in time to the steps.  (We had convulsions, as my wife says; her high school band did not do this.)  Left, right, up, down went the instruments.  Left, right, up, down.  In the heat.  I wore glasses, and the heat and humidity and wool uniform were making me sweat so much that my glasses wouldn’t stay on my nose.  I hadn’t thought to take them off before we marched and didn’t have a place to quickly put them, so I marched with them dropping to the end of my nose.  Left, right, up, down went the instruments.  Left, right, push my glasses up, arm back down.  Left, right, push my glasses up, arm back down.  This was perhaps the most exhausting parade I marched in during my high school band career, and it had nothing to do with the distance we marched.  To be clear, it was the heat that made it exhausting, not having to push my glasses up on my nose every step.

Accidents were also a hazard of marching band.  One day early in my freshman year, we were rehearsing a halftime routine (on the asphalt parking lot), and the choreography called for us to march clockwise around a square, turn halfway around, and march counterclockwise back to where we started.  My squad consisted of me (a saxophone player), a mellophone player, and a trombonist.  We marched clockwise, with the trombonist leading the way, followed by the mellophone player and then me.  We reached the point where we were to turn around, except the trombonist did it a beat too early.  Trombones are not small instruments, and the mellophone player caught the shaft of the trombone upside the head fairly hard.  I believe she was sidelined for the rest of the rehearsal.

My own band accident was more spectacular, unfortunately.  It was late in the fall; the football team had qualified for the playoffs and the first playoff game was upcoming.  Members of the band always had lunch just before band class, so we could leave lunch early and head down to the band room to get instruments ready and head outside to practice if needed.

The band room was built with tiers in the floor, as if they were risers on a stage.  This is a common construction for a band room (or even a choir room), so most anybody who has seen one can picture this one.  The cabinets where the instruments were kept were along the wall at the back of the room.  The chairs that were in the room had hard plastic seats and backs, with metal supports and slightly splayed legs.

I left the cafeteria early and went to the band room.  I headed up to the back of the room to get my sax and somehow tripped over one of the chairs.  I fell forward, and my left forearm landed on a seat of a chair on the next riser up.  I continued to the floor; my left forearm did not.

As I was getting back up to my knees, I noticed that my watch had come off my arm.  I saw it on the ground, reached over with my right hand, and picked it up.  I noticed that one of the little spring-loaded pins that holds the band on to the main body of the watch had come out, and I thought, My watch is broken.  I went to put it on my wrist, thinking I could work the pin back in place, and noticed that my arm was shaped like a dinner fork.  My arm is broken, I thought.

As I have since learned through the Boy Scouts, there are many things you should do to treat a broken arm.  Move the arm as little as possible.  Put ice on it to control the swelling.  Use a splint.  Treat for shock.  My response was a textbook example of what not to do in the situation.

I picked myself up off the floor, holding my left hand and lower forearm cradled in my right hand.  I went to the band director’s office and told him that I was going to the nurse.  He took a look at my arm and said, “Go.”  Two other students who were in the office at the time said, “We’ll go with him.”  I believe one was the band director’s son.

By this time, the lunch period was over and the halls were starting to fill with students.  The nurse’s office was as far away from the band room as you could get in the school, and I was having to navigate through the now-crowded halls.  Even with the two other students flanking me, it was being difficult.

Our school had a permanent substitute teacher on staff.  He was not a substitute for any teacher in particular, but if a teacher had to miss a period during the day for some reason, he could fill in during that time.  We came across him outside the school gymnasium, just down the hall from the band room, and he saw my arm and immediately took a point position in front of us.  So there I was, headed through the crowded halls to the nurse, with a teacher in front at point and two students as wingmen.

When we got to the nurse’s office, there was a gaggle of students crowding the doorway with day-to-day high school student complaints:  headache, tired, stomachache, those kind of things.  With a single primal sound (I’m not even sure what he said, but it was effective), the teacher cleared the students out of the way as Moses parted the Red Sea.  He got me in to see the nurse as a priority case.

The story doesn’t end there.  That particular day, my father’s truck was in the garage for repairs of one sort or another, and he had taken my mother’s car to work that day.  “Don’t get sick,” she had told us boys as we left for school that morning, “I can’t come get you.”  And so, when I talked to my mother, I had to at least point out to her that I didn’t actually get sick, per se.

After being called by the school, my mother called my grandmother, who did have an available car.  Before leaving to come get me, my grandmother made an appointment with her primary care doctor for me.  By the time all the logistics had been worked out, it was two hours after I had broken my arm before somebody was there to get me.  I don’t recall how I spent the time, other than sitting there with my arm splinted and resting on a desk, but I do recall the school nurse commenting on how large the little half-moon areas at the base of my fingernails was.

I spent about fifteen minutes in the waiting room at the  primary care doctor.  He took one look at the arm and basically said, “Yes, it’s broken,” and referred me to an orthopaedist a couple of floors above him in the medical building.  After going and getting x-rays from that doctor, I was finally able to understand just how much damage I had done to myself.

The skin was unbroken, so it was not a compound fracture.  But I had broken both the tibia and the fibula in my left forearm at an angle.  If you put your forearm out horizontally in front of your face, the break was from the upper right to the lower left.  And the bones had slipped so that the bottom of the bone on the distal side of the break was above the top of the bone on the proximal side of the break – this was what made my arm look like a dinner fork.

In order to set the arm, the orthopaedist had to pull my hand away from my body so that he could get the bones properly aligned.  This was the only time that I felt pain during the whole day.

I was in a full-arm cast with my elbow at a right angle for six weeks.  By the third day, I was in considerable pain from not being able to straighten my arm.  After that cast came off, I was in a forearm cast for another two weeks, and then a splint as needed.  And I can tell when a storm is coming, because the low pressure front will trigger pain in my arm.

And I missed marching in the playoff game.  A shame, as it was the only playoff game that the football team was in while I was in high school.