Everybody has their own 9/11 story. They are all important in their own way. This one is mine.
I’m back in Champaign this week for the first time of any significance since I graduated with my masters here at Illinois. Aside from a half day for a marching competition at Memorial Stadium and dropping in on a party at 1004 one night, I’ve not been back. Being here has brought back a lot of memories and reminded me how awesome so many of the people I met during my short time here truly are. It also reminded me of that one particular Tuesday morning.
It’s no secret that I’m a night owl. I do most of my work late into the evening, sometimes into the sunrise of the next day. For some reason, I was up relatively early that day. Had not turned on the TV, nor had I done anything online more than check my email. I saw a friend of mine on AIM who was normally not around, so I left some snarky sarcastic (and likely forgettable) comment and walked away. When I came back, his reply was astonishingly out of character. “Have you turned on the TV?” I replied I hadn’t. “Turn it on.”
The exchange was so out of place that it didn’t occur to me to ask what channel. So I turned on the TV. And that’s about 5 minutes before the second tower was hit.
For the next hour or so I was pretty much transfixed with the TV, watching as the 2 towers would fall as well as hearing about the Pentagon and the 4th crash in the field. Thinking back on it now, the two words that keep springing to mind are “numb” and “surreal”. At this point, the internet had come to something of a complete and screeching halt. So many people were trying to get information or get in touch with people that almost nothing online was accessible. Long distance calls were nearly impossible to make, and at this point in time, only a couple people I knew had cell phones. Realistically, in the center of the country, we were somewhat isolated, and our only real method of getting information was the national news.
In my own little world, we were just starting to set the drill with the Marching Illini for a short one week show. I had written the music and the drill. Everybody showed up to rehearsal a little dumbstruck that afternoon. We had no idea what was going to happen that weekend. The idea of having a football game seemed so insane at the time, but we had no idea. This was only a few hours old, so until we were told otherwise, we had a job to do. That afternoon, we learned the opener drill. To say that it was a strange rehearsal was an understatement. Everybody was focused on doing something that felt “normal” while being completely unable to focus on anything. How can you when your heart and your fear is somewhere else?
We broke for dinner, and as a staff, we went out to dinner together to talk about what comes next. Doing a Barenaked Ladies show seemed like a bad idea, especially when the closer I had written included the song “Falling for the First Time.” We decided that we needed to figure out a new plan. We went to the music library and started digging out some new songs. By the time the hornline was back for the evening music rehearsal, we had a general idea of what to do. We pulled out an Armed Forces salute that had all the themes to the military divisions in it. Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American”. A decent version of Amazing Grace. We would cap it off with Stars and Stripes Forever, an easy choice since it’s part of the traditional music here at Illinois. We rehearsed the music, and after rehearsal was done, we stayed up to rewrite the drill. We were tired, but it felt right.
The next day, most classes were cancelled, and the ones that met were optional. I remember walking through the student union that afternoon around lunch. A couple TVs had been set up in a lounge area. A couple hundred students were there watching. Aside from the sound of CNN, it was silent.
We soon found out that the college football schedule would be altered. Everything was going to get shoved back a week. Aside from the emotional toll from the attacks, there was the very real logistical issue of the teams traveling. Planes were still grounded. The band continued to rehearse. My Barenaked Ladies show would happen sometime later in the season. I didn’t care. Football games were even lower on my list of priorities than normal.
The band would later hold a candlelight vigil on our practice field outside Memorial Stadium. We didn’t know what to do, but we felt like we should do something, and it felt right. We gathered on the field together and held hands in a circle with our little candles. At a certain point, somebody started to hum Amazing Grace, and the rest of us joined in. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
The next week came along. We taught our hastily thrown together patriotic show. We also found out that we were going to be the featured game on ESPN. Conveniently enough, part of our pregame is a substantial patriotic medley complete with the band standing in a massive formation of the continental United States. In a rare moment of intelligent thought, ESPN broadcast pregame that day. Still, something was off.
Memorial Stadium was sold out. The people were there, but their hearts were not. I know I felt wrong being there. It still felt like playing something as trivial as a college football game seemed so unimportant at the time. We were all there, but we really were not.
All of the flags of the Big Ten schools around the stadium had been removed and replaced with the US flag. There were a lot of red, white, and blue decorations that you would normally save for the 4th of July. They also handed out 50,000 red, white, and blue poms to the spectators. Nobody really used them much.
Halftime finally came. We went out and did our thing. It was good. It was better than good. It was a release. Hearing the anthems of the military brought people to their feet. Amazing Grace and Proud to Be an American received strong ovations. But the thing that I will never forget was the reaction to Stars and Stripes Forever. Just thinking about it now gives me the chills. After the piccolo feature, when the full band hit the last strain, the crowd absolutely lost their shit. Never in my life before or after have I heard a reaction to a march like that. The 50,000 poms got a workout. At a certain point I just stopped directing and looked at the crowd in awe. I took a picture of it, and when I get back home, I’ll post it. It doesn’t do justice to the moment, but it was amazing.
It was at that precise moment that I knew it would be okay. All the speeches, all the news coverage, all the photo ops by all the politicians… It was all garbage. It didn’t amount to anything. This was different. It took the marching band and a Sousa march to drive home the fact that we needed get on with our lives, dust ourselves off, and shake off the numb paralysis we were still suffering from. The second half of the game was decidedly more energetic. It was like we had given ourselves permission to feel joy again. The marching band made that possible.
All we needed was a Sousa march.