Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Unlikeliest of Heroes

Marvel Studios have managed to produce a string of movies with some really fine moments in them, in the past few years. Over and over again, they’ve offered the movie-going public some story revelations that cause said public to think, “aha! It really has all been leading up to this.” Somehow, these movies about inherently silly characters – the giant green rage monster, the not-really-Norse god, the “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” – have all been deftly intertwined, at least within their Cinematic Universe. (Aficionados of the comic book versions of things may need to cool their jets here, as shhhhhhh! this isn’t really the subject of this piece, but instead, as usual, the author needs a hook and this time your favorite characters are it.) Fun to go back and look at certain scenes again and say, “they really were thinking about six movies down the road, there.”

Other scenes are kinda right up in your face, to the point where one could accuse the filmmakers of being almost ham-handed in their need to make sure you Get The Point.

I’ll admit right away: I’ve got one favorite Firmly Telegraphed scene. (Or at least I did, until “Agent Carter” came along, but that’s for another time.)

The scene came in the first Captain America film, “The First Avenger”. Which I didn’t see in the theaters. I got ambushed by the thing on basic cable. That’s how late to this party I was.

And by the way, I will happily admit: of all the silly Marvel Comics characters, to my way of thinking, ol’ Cap was THE flippin’ silliest of them. I’m all for red and blue costumes (rah rah rah Superman), but honestly, between the little teeny wing things on the sides of his helmet and what I perceived, rightly or not, as the “I can win World War II all by m’ lonesome” vibe …

Um, no and no. Sorry. Silly look; don’t want to wallow in the jingoistic; nice artwork, but I think not.

So the filmmakers wrote a nice little series of scenes that served as a nod to the “classic” Captain America look and a reassurance that, well, we’re going to try to sand down as much of the silly and cheeseball as we possibly can. In fact, we’re going to have Cap react to his own cheesy look, his very own self.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know the comic-book Captain America origin story well enough to know whether the moviemakers’ version was an homage, or just a great new idea to link him to the, um, chemistry-set experiments that produced a giant green rage monster. Either way, they made the point, sometimes rather heavily but at least earnestly, that Captain America used to be a 98-pound weakling but he was the 98-pound weakling who had his priorities straight.

The Firmly Telegraphed scene that I like so much is this one:

First, a montage of scenes depicting the physical trials that the US Army is putting two dozen or so soldiers through – the soldiers who are being considered for participation in the Army’s super-secret super-soldier program. Then the Colonel in charge (played by Tommy Lee Jones with gruff charm, like almost every other gruffly charming character that Tommy Lee Jones has ever gruffly and charmingly played) tosses what appears to be a live grenade into the midst of the soldier-candidates. They scatter – all of them except for one, the 98-pound weakling called Steve Rogers. Instead, he throws himself on top of it and wildly waves everyone else away.

Turns out, it’s a dummy grenade. But Rogers is the only one who volunteers to “take one for the team” – on the grounds of some backwater Army training camp, far from The Front, he’s willing to lay down his life for the rest of the squad. Never mind that amongst that squad is one guy whose personality had already been Firmly Telegraphed as arrogant, smug, and a genuine bully to everyone in general and to Rogers in particular. Rogers is taken seriously by absolutely nobody there – with the exception of the scientist whose technology is driving the whole super-soldier project, who has insisted that Rogers be considered for reasons which no one else in the US military establishment quite understands) – but he’s a good guy.

A few other, earlier Firmly Telegraphed scenes in “The First Avenger” have already done their part to build the story point: Steve Rogers is a decent human being. And after Rogers is selected, the scientist puts it to him this way: “This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man who has known power all his life … [he loses] respect for that power. But a weak man, he values his strength. And loves compassion.” And then, he says, “Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you must stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier. But a good man.”


Shortly I’ll be heading out for my annual summer teaching fortnight with the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. For many reasons, a few of which already have been chronicled hereabouts, I look forward to this experience every year, more than almost any other.

One reason has to do with Captain America, or at least the Cinematic Universe’s incarnation of his origin story.

Stay with me. It’s not nearly as silly as that sounded.

In the years in which I’ve head out to the DMA locations at West Chester University and UMass-Amherst, I’ve had the chance to work with lots of high-school seniors, and juniors, and a few sophomores, who arrive at our clinics having been labeled by their high school band directors as Drum Majors Of Their Bands. Some of them are veterans – they’ve gone on this ride before, and for the most part they have a decent idea of what that job entails, what parts of it they’ve been good at, and what they still need to work out, or what the areas are in which they can refine their performance.

Some of them are new to the game. Of these, some put on a good game face at the start of the week, some acquire that game face by the week’s end, and some of them probably clutch the certificate of completion-of-studies on the way home still wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into. Or, more accurately, knowing what they’ve gotten themselves into and hoping for a little divine inspiration that will help them through it.

It’s been fun to see some of the evidence that some of those figured it out. Blessed are the meek, for when they become not meek anymore, their boldness means so much more than that of the People With Good Game Faces.

There was one particular example of this which I wrote about a couple of years ago in this space, in a post called “New Rachel”. And at the end of last summer, I experienced a relative torrent of Facebook friend requests from DMA students (as I wrote then, instead of the usual one or two, there were fifteen or twenty). It was neat to see the “on the bus to our first game” selfies … and by season’s end, it was fun to read the brief anecdotes about “best season ever” and see the photos from band banquets and such.

 

And then, not long ago, I spotted a Facebook status post authored by one of the students who was in one of my “video rooms”. S/He was not the strongest conductor; s/he was not the strongest caller of commands; s/he was desperately trying to keep up with all the material being thrown at him/her; but s/he seemed a genuinely decent person. I saw her/him again at the final presentation (for parents and family and friends) and wondered actively to myself how s/he would fare.

And while I always keep in mind the old “can’t judge a book by its cover” adage … still, by no means did that student fit the standard typical average normal median Drum Major Look. I even wondered if s/he had been one of those kids who had spent a lot of his/her life being on the receiving end of the pranks, or the jokes, or the out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye looks, or even the overt bullying, that can happen when adolescents interact unsupervised.

I wondered if s/he was chosen by his/her director in spite of the skepticism of the rest of the band, deserved or not. I hoped s/he’d do well, of course … but didn’t know.

(An aside: S/He wasn’t even one of the DMA students who had Friend-requested me … but I saw the Facebook post because it was “liked” by several of the DMA students who had. Which was a hallmark of last summer’s group … all season long, they continually urged each other on. It was very cute, and also more than a little reassuring.)

The post went on at great length (or as long as Facebook allowed), as I recall, about things like “greatest year of my life” and “love my band so much” and “grew so much as a person”.

Well. All right then.

By hook or by crook … without necessarily becoming the second coming of Frederick Fennell or of the commander of the US Marine Silent Drill Team (although perhaps something clicked after DMA week was done) … somehow, some way, s/he made it work, and it indeed worked, and s/he came out the other side victorious.

Maybe something happened that was perhaps not quite as dire as throwing him-/herself on top of what could have been a live grenade … but that had a very similar effect on the people around him/her.

Maybe s/he managed to be his/her band’s unlikeliest of heroes.

Maybe what s/he was really meant more, ultimately, than what s/he was able to do.

That’s what makes DMA so much of a big deal to me, I think.

We’ll find out what this summer reveals. See you on the other side…

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July 25, 2015 - Posted by | band, DMA, drum major, Facebook, heroes, marching band, movies, social media | , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Comments »

  1. I think you’ve summed up this week perfectly (and through a superhero analogy, awesome). I felt a bit like this when I was named drum major. By sum stroke of inspiration or act of God, it dawned on me that, ‘who could do this job in the band better than me? No one? Alright then. You know what to do.’ All well and good, the problem was that, I had spent the last few years in band as being a quiet, reserved bass/third clarinet player. The band wasn’t expecting me to be able to shout, let alone ‘Rah, rah, siss boom bah’. I didn’t expect to get the job. I thought I had done well in the audition, maybe things would change for me next year, but the job would probably go to someone else. And then my name went up on the wall. Senior year, first clarinet, drum major. I was probably the most surprised and the most estatic.
    DMA was a learning experience, but not just in terms of commands and conducting. I built up my confidence and found that gosh darn it I could get people to like me. I hope that this year I can become perhaps not the drum major my band wanted, but the drum major they deserve.

    I had a great time in the tv conducting class. The staff really made the academy a great place to be.

    Comment by Meghan | July 30, 2015 | Reply

    • Meghan, … So glad to read your micro-essay! 🙂 Always good to hear that the DMA thing is still having an effect. From one quiet/reserved woodwind player to another (yeah, I’m a Shy Person): thanks for your thoughts, and knock ’em dead this year!

      Comment by rhammerton1 | August 6, 2015 | Reply


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