Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Friends on Earth, and Friends Above

I’ve been thinking a lot about friends lately.

Twenty-five years and a few days and a few hours ago … as much as it pains me to consider this … I was taking my first steps onto the field as a senior and a drum major in my college marching band.

Twenty-five years. Zoiks.

A few times during that fall season of cowboy tunes and Latin jazz chopbusters (not that I used my actual chops that fall – but someone did use my sax, so maybe that counts?), I mused that I had friends that I could imagine still being friends with, a few years after I graduated. Seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen – they really were that much fun, that trustworthy, that good. Five years out? Yeah, I bet.

Because I was lucky enough to hang out with that band for a few more years in various capacities (not least of which was my role as “oh, you’re Kristin’s brother!”), I managed to make a few more friends, whom I also thought were pretty swell.

As tends to happen, a great many of these people stayed on my mind quite frequently, although we only saw each other infrequently (Homecoming or other alma mater football games, usually). And, as also tends to happen, although we only saw each other infrequently – or traded letters or occasionally picked up the phone and spoke – whenever we did see each other, the years fell away and we were just exactly as silly as we had been in, or near, band.

And now, twenty-five years have passed, and I’m struck by just how many of those friends from the late ’80s and early ’90s are still “with me” … and to my eyes and ears, they haven’t changed a bit. The years fall away.


Funny … or actually not funny at all … how sad circumstances seem to do the best job of getting friends together, and reminding them – us – how much we mean to each other.

Bad news, says an online post. Didn’t get that job. Hang in there, says a comment, they didn’t deserve you anyway, and let’s go get lunch and commiserate. Or, as is going to become more and more common for me, parents of college friends pass away, and we offer sympathy and support. This weekend I drove across state lines to shake my friend’s hand and give him one of those manly hugs, the ones that have a little impact. Thanks for coming? That was so thoughtful? No, no assignment of super extra credit called for – this is what friends do.


My little corner of the online world is gently exploding again today. Today is the second anniversary of one particular sad circumstance, and friends are paying tribute … and re-connecting.

I imagine that there are those who are worried that with each passing year, the impact of the anniversary of George Parks’ passing will fade, and somehow there will be less and less recognition of just how much of an effect that gentleman had on so many people’s lives.

And I can also imagine that there are those who are worried that the impact won’t fade – and who worry about the people who may be caught in a spiral of mourning that will simply never let them look up and realize that in spite of events that can’t be controlled, they can honor that gentleman’s memory by living life the way he taught us to do.

I was in that second group today – except for the moment when a not-quite-random tune came up quite randomly on my computer, and I had to pause briefly. Deep breath, short walk, head-shake … and back to the task at hand with (mostly) fresh vigor. Otherwise, I was indeed one of those people.

A particularly wise friend of mine – of, yes, twenty-five years, and then some – made an online suggestion this week on this smaller facet of this larger topic. It was a suggestion that was characteristically up-front, and I imagined some readers misinterpreting it – or thinking it perhaps too blunt for this weekend, the anniversary of a very (and for certain people, a very very very) traumatic event. It’s worth taking a look for yourself, here, so you can make up your own mind. I took some time with it and tonight I see exactly where she is; and I think I’m there too.

To summarize, the thing that may have caused some heads to snap back was her assertion that “we have not moved on.”

Thereafter, she and her thought process concluded that “grief is a process – but when the year of mourning has has concluded Judaism teaches us that our primary obligation is not to the dead. It is to our self, to our community and to life. We are obligated to live.”

Some have moved on. Some surely haven’t. Some are on a tightrope somewhere in the middle and couldn’t tell you how far they actually are from one circus-tent ladder to the other. It may not be of any use to compare where I am to where you are. Every person deals with this in their own way, or doesn’t.

So here’s how I deal with it: I consider that most of my friends from college … and a good many of them from after college but connected with that college … and more friends since, from the ranks of the Drum Major Academy teaching staff … collectively form a community of friends that I treasure, and which has been assembled and nurtured by the presence, and the influence, and now the memory, of a remarkable college band director.

A month after that frightening weekend in 2010, of course, there was a rather loud and enthusiastic scene that illustrated the scope of that community: the Homecoming halftime featuring a performance by 925 band alumni. While the whole day (morning rehearsal, Mullins Center event, and every moment of the football game aside from halftime!) offered opportunities for friends to re-connect, the enormous scale of the day probably made conversations and reunions brief and basic.


For me, the day that began my journey from dumbfounded shock to that sense of being perhaps able to “move on” was during the weekend after The Weekend. Plans were developed, pretty swiftly, for Drum Major Academy staff past and present to gather in Amherst. Not everyone was able to get there, but I imagine we were pretty close to comprehensive – people came from all over the United States, and from a number of places outside the US, and oh, did we gather. That Saturday morning was spent communing, swapping stories, and laughing (a lot) at a diner near campus … and to this day I wonder what it was like to go to that diner, walk in, and unexpectedly find that herd of boisterous people there. At midday, we paid our collective respects to Mr. Parks at an informal graveside ceremony that was, by turns, solemn and humorous, wrenching and comforting. Late in the afternoon and well into the evening, we sat on the lawn next to Old Chapel, the longtime home of the Minuteman Marching Band – communing, swapping stories, and laughing. A lot.

Sitting near Chapel, I thought about how remarkable a collection of friends it was. When I saw all the photos from the day, posted on Facebook, I continued to think the same thing. When I chance to see any of the photos, even two years later, I still marvel at that assembly, that community of friends. As I briefly stood near Chapel this weekend, I looked down at the patch of lawn where we all had sat and shared precious time, and I could almost see all the people, on lawn chairs, on blankets, on the bare grass, all together. I expect that the way I feel about that day now … will be the way I feel about it until whenever I’m done here: “it was a wrenching and wonderful day that I would never ever want to go through again,” as I wrote to a great friend of mine, “–except oh yes I would.”  With those people, those friends?  Sign me up.


Mr. Parks himself is gone, and regrettably so. His impact is lasting, and impressively so. The people he brought together – UMass band, DMA staff, and all the “extended family” that are linked to those people – are a community, and a lasting one. Thankfully so.

Everyone deals with this in their own way. I consider what monumentally great friends I’ve made, all because Mr. Parks got us all together. And I consider what my alternate-universe life might have been like, had he not. And I think I’m comfortable with dealing with it this way. Not a bad way to move forward – by building upon the work of the past.

A lifetime’s not too long…


September 16, 2012 - Posted by | band, DMA, Facebook, GNP, marching band, social media, teachers, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Ta-da.

    Comment by sarv | September 17, 2012 | Reply

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