Jefferson Lines is what it said on the side of the bus in huge letters. It was the name of the charter line that carried my 240 + member high school band to Washington D.C. It was a pilgrimage made every 3 years by our high school, a time honored tradition. A 27 hour bus ride, one way. We worked hard for an entire year leading up to that summer break. Excellence was what we strived for, and it was what we were known for. It was what landed us the honored position, a spot that was held for our band, every three years, the lead band in the Independence Day Parade in D.C.
I have so many wonderful memories of that trip, so many moments that stand out in my mind. I’d always loved the fourth of July, the fireworks, the family gatherings, the national pride, but it was different for me after that trip. Spending our nation’s Birthday in the Capitol, well, it changes a person.
It wasn’t the whirlwind trip through the Smithsonian, or standing in awe at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial that stood out to me, although I remember those things very well. It wasn’t that we got to sit on the White House lawn and watch a fireworks show, completely in sync with the National Symphony Orchestra playing live right there with us, that blew our little Arkansan minds.
It was playing a concert for retired Veterans on the lawn of their facility. It was watching the ones that couldn’t come down to sit on the grass, be wheeled to their balcony windows by nurses to hear us play patriotic tunes. It was seeing hands over hearts, and salutes as sharp as they were 40 years before, respect and duty just as vibrant as it was 40 years before.
It was standing, in our band uniforms because we didn’t have time to go back to the hotel and change, at the very corner of the Vietnam Memorial. Each of us, teenagers, overwhelmed at the sense of loss, and the sense of pride. We stood together, side by side, the reflection of our uniforms staring back at us in the glossy stone and we laid a wreath from us to them. Not missing a single note, flower, beer bottle or joint left at the wall for an old comrade who didn’t make it back by someone who had loved and enjoyed those things with them many years before.
I’ll never forget as we prepared for the parade, lined up, ready to march. The full band was behind me, the flag line behind them. The only thing in front of us was the majorettes, perfectly poised to begin. Our rifles came out of parade rest and we were at attention. The drum beats counted us off and we lined up. We made the turn from the prep area onto Constitution Avenue and marched right underneath a huge United States Flag. There were people, lots of people, but I really didn’t notice them. The rifle line position is head up, not straight ahead, slightly up, looking right into the sun, proud, slightly defiant. Our rifles snapped in unison to the routine. Occasionally the view was obstructed from a toss in the routine, but it didn’t distract us. We knew they’d fall right back into our hands, and pop against our gloves without a wobble. It was what we had worked towards for over a year, for some of us much longer than that.
It was an honor to be there, to represent our state and our town, and to experience Independence Day in the place they do it the biggest. It was more than a band trip, or vacation, or another performance. It was something that changed us, for the better.