In The Writer's World

I have been thinking all of this New Year’s morning about New Year’s Day 1964.

That day 52 years ago, the Nyssa High School marching band, nearly 100 of us including chaperones, were lodged in dormitories on the UCLA campus. We had marched in the New Year’s Eve parade at Disneyland the night before. We then had gone on all the rides for free and seen the fireworks. That same day I saw my first Jaguar XKE. I was 16 years old and it was magical!

And now it was pre-dawn New Year’s Day. Our alarms went off at 5 a.m. We dressed in our beautiful blue and white uniforms and were hustled onto school buses and driven to the staging area for the 1964 Tournament of Roses Parade that led up to the Rose Bowl. Our former band director, Mr. Smith, had secured us a spot in the parade the year before. Then in fall of 1963, Nyssa High School found itself with a new band director–the young, hip Frank Turner who hailed from southern California and was a UCLA alum.

Mr. Turner knew all about Tournament of Roses parades. They were not for sissies. In the months leading up to the parade, we practiced relentlessly and marched even more relentlessly. Each week culminated with a Saturday morning march on the country roads outside Nyssa. As the weather became colder, those of us in the brass sections held our silver mouthpieces in our hands, hands in pockets, so we wouldn’t freeze our lips when it came time to play a piece. By the end of the season, our Saturday marches were 12 miles in sub-freezing weather.

So there we were in Pasadena, all freshly fallen from the turnip truck. Fresh from Nyssa, Oregon, population 2500. After months of preparation, we found ourselves in Westwood rubbing elbows with the good and the great, on streets lined with mansions, queuing up for the big event. It was barely dawn, as bands and floats and clowns and horses were organized into what was to be the 1964 Rose Parade. It took hours plus a couple miles of marching just to get to where the parade began.

By 10 a.m. the sun was beating down. By noon, mid-parade for the NHS marching band, temperatures were in the high 80s. We marched at a fast clip, very up-tempo from the other bands I had observed, whose paces were more akin to strolling. The heat and the wool uniforms were killing us. By now, chaperones had escorted a handful of band members off the scene, and Mr. Turner was clearly concerned for our safety. Our major domo, Karen, was ready to drop, but she kept marching and twirling and flashing her smile at the crowds like the superstar she was. If she could keep up the act, so could we.

And then we had a stop. We were marching in place in front of bleachers filled with African-Americans. Sweat poured down our faces. I felt ready to faint. A man from the bleachers handed me a glass bottle filled with water. (This was in the days before plastic water bottles!) I blinked in disbelief, thanked him, and took a big swig of water. I held it in my mouth for a few seconds. I let it trickle down my throat. A small gesture, but so big. I thought seriously before I passed it down the row of trombones to my right. More bottles appeared; other sections were given water. It was like the Loaves and Fishes. The people in the bleachers applauded us as we stood wilting before them. I was practically in tears. That water had saved me–saved me and others from the perceived disgrace of dropping out of the parade! Indeed, most of the rest of us made it to the end.

Happy New Year all!

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  • Joanie Quinn says:

    I love this story!

  • Margie Hurle says:

    Wow. I’d never heard the full story of that event. I was in the band two years later when we played at Disneyland and were given a book of free tickets which we used up on the Matterhorn bobsled, and then performed our precision marching at the football game. Sounds like that was an easy gig compared with the Parade.

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