The Girl in the Sousaphone Box

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September 1, 2018 · Posted in Commentary 

New London, Missouri, High School band, 1954. Baylis Glascock is in the front row, last on the right. Click to enlarge.

Baylis Glascock

It was the first year our rural school district had a band. The basketball coach had a brand new ’54 Buick and I had a new cornet. The inside of the cornet case was incredibly plush and reeked of pungent newness. The excitement of possessing this splendid thing was almost as overwhelming as the disappointment at not being able to make a musical sound the first time I tried to play it.

The notion of having a school band was a grand and heady one. It had always seemed that other schools had a band but not us, and now we would have one. The Band Mothers was formed to raise money for uniforms. They held bake sales in the front window of Thomas’s Hardware store. They held a chili supper in the Vocational Ag shop space and they asked for donations. And finally, after great effort, they were able to buy some other school’s cast-off used uniforms. The uniforms had the smell of aged wool and evaporated sweat; buttonholes were frayed, and little hooks that held the coats closed at the collar needed repair. But we forgave all imperfections. The uniforms seemed the very essence of splendor and importance.

When the fall festival came the band hadn’t yet learned to march, and we rode seated in folding chairs on a flatbed truck, the cab decorated with crepe paper pompoms and streamers, the bed skirted with bunting. We played badly but everyone cheered. We were the new school band. It was the same fall festival parade that I had been in many times before. With my dog and decorated tricycle when I was four. Later dressed as Little Abner on a float with my friend Zoe as Daisy Mae portraying a shotgun wedding. And once as Uncle Sam on the post office float.

When I was very young I attended a “community sing” at the courthouse, a whole bunch of people from town there together singing. In 1958 there was a Centennial Celebration of the building of the county courthouse. It was a hot August night, and I wore my uncle Rec’s beige double-breasted wool suit to escort Zoe, who wore an elegant lacy dress with a bustle. We marched across the courthouse lawn and up the sandstone steps of the Greek temple courthouse.

There was something about these community events that reverberated in my mind. We were acting out rituals that had ceased to be completely viable, the final gasps of a dying era. I had seen images of Main Street from earlier years when there were more people. There had been a Kroger store, a five-and-ten-cent store, a dry-goods store. These were gone. 1956 saw the last Fall Festival with carnival rides and a livestock show. The movie theater had closed in the summer of 1955. Everybody was content to watch television.

All of this was the background for a time when I was an uncomfortable outsider, a pudgy and lonely adolescent trying to find meaning, companionship, and a place to be comfortable in the world. Sex was something that boys talked about with boys. They didn’t discuss them with parents or with anyone who knew. The mechanics of sex were manifest everywhere in rural life. One animal or other was always in rut somewhere: cows in the barn lot; horses in the pasture. One afternoon, two dogs were humping across the street, visible from the band practice room window, coupled and unable to disconnect. Most everything I knew about sex was anecdotal. It was condemned in church on the one hand and sanctified on the other. Sexiness was glorified in pin-up calendar photos on the walls of various garages. All in all, it added up to making sex very interesting. But I didn’t understand why my friend Larry thought it was sexy to see pictures of naked boys. He had some and wanted to show them to me. I failed to understand the point.

Someone brought an “eight-page bible” to school when I was in the second grade. It showed Olive Oil coupled with Popeye and Wimpy and various other cartoon characters. It was dirty, terrible, exciting, forbidden, and really interesting. I had dreams in those times of having a forest in the schoolyard with all the teachers and all the girls tied to the trees. I could examine and probe the girls to see how they were made. This would take place in the afternoon on a warm, sunny day. No one would speak.

When I was six years old I had dreams about being in a small, dark house with Jolene, who at the time seemed to me incredibly beautiful and unattainable. I kissed her on the cheek after she played a piano solo at church on Children’s Day. At school, in an effort to get her attention, I had put a small and wonderful wind-up toy truck down the back of her dress. The spring mechanism entwined itself in the gorgeous blond wiener curls that tumbled from her head and became firmly attached to the back of her neck. I used up an entire recess period trying to untangle it. In the dream about the small house, I was with Jolean and tried to find out how she was made. Unlike me she did not have one penis, she had two.

It was on the evening of the Band Mothers chili supper that I came upon a sexual discovery that had a bitter taste. The school was small and located in two buildings. The lower contained the band rehearsal room and the agriculture shop room where the supper was being held. The older two-story brick building was dark and empty, but the second-story door was open. The band had played for the chili supper, and kids were outside playing in the schoolyard. Parents were in groups talking. Having noticed Bill German and Lyle Wayne walk up the long flight of wooden stairs to the back entrance of the school auditorium accompanied by one of the clarinet players, I elected to follow. I waited until they were inside and ascended slowly with care to make no sound. The auditorium was actually a study hall with a small stage at one end. I walked very slowly into the large room and determined that the two boys and the girl must have gone into the school library. The room was about twelve by twelve feet and contained some books. But it was also being used as the storage room for the large band instruments, which weren’t taken home: the snare and base drums, the glockenspiel, and the sousaphone. In the corner of the room was the box for the sousaphone, a shipping crate about the size of a small refrigerator resting on its side. Had the girl and two boys gone in there?

From the larger room I heard a girl’s voice whispering, protesting, held in, desperate. There was scuffling and movement. Outside I could hear the sound of children’s voices at play. Inside, the pleading whisper and crying. The crying of stifled tears. I stood just outside the door listening, drawn by the mystery of the forbidden. And dark. When the two boys emerged, they looked at me without speaking and left. Light from the outdoor basketball court projected an angular shape onto the wall and a small section of the ceiling. Slowly I walked into the room and around the box to see for myself some evidence of what might have taken place. Inside was a girl two years older than myself. I had known her since the second grade. In a small town you knew everyone. She was kneeling, huddled against the side of the box and holding the back of her blouse, which was unbuttoned. And she looked at me with tears streaming down her cheek. I said nothing and neither did she. What could I say? I had been drawn to that room by the same curiosity and urges as had been her tormentors. I knew she had been violated in some way, but I wasn’t certain what had taken place. I sensed that she couldn’t cry out. In small towns girls get blamed for what happens to them. She had wanted to be with boys and had sneaked up here with them. She had taken a risk, and her trust had been violated. Always the outsider, I had experienced violated trust, the treachery of brutal boys. I had played with boys, only to have them strike out and hurt me on a whim I simply could not comprehend. They had the compassion of reptiles. But I too lacked compassion. I said nothing to her, I just looked at her, compelled by my curiosity to see what I could. I was stunned by her tears, by the reality of the moment.

She was a plump girl with large breasts. She was lonely and alone, isolated from her younger brother. Her father had a vending machine business, jukeboxes, pinball machines; he was never around. I never knew her mother. This may have been her first humiliation. But there came to be others. The sheriff found her early one evening in the company of a group of several colored men in the small vacant lot across from the courthouse. He drove her to her home, told her father that he should look out for her. Many years later I heard that she had married an older man she had met at a bar in Hannibal, a farmer from over in Illinois, near Hull; that she had a couple of children; that she was happy. I hope all that is true, because small towns can be cruel. Even as a boy I knew that. I knew also that I had been an accomplice in the small-town darkness of that room, in that room with the books and music instruments. In the proximity of all the symbols of art and culture that my hometown possessed, a child had suffered, and I had stood by with eyes to see but no voice to speak. I never spoke of this to anyone. And I never thought of it again, until decades later.

 

Copyright Baylis Glascock 2018

 

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