"You can always get warm, but it's hard to stay
cool." My mother's words, muttered every summer since I can remember, rang like
a mantra in my head as I stood in the uncut grass of a football field (the
20-yard line, to be precise), knees locked and eyes forward, arms akimbo, to
balance a 28-inch-long metal stick at a 45-degree angle, just so. Perspiration
trickled down my temples and collected under my jaw, but I held still. Since
reaching my teens, I'd come to dread the wasteland of summer vacation -- heat
and more heat, the sodden press of humidity that could force my painfully coifed
pageboy to retract its hooks, sun that turned my caramel complexion to burnt
umber if I forgot to wear a hat.
It was the 19th of August, 1968, four days until
the Soap Box Derby Parade and nine days before my 16th birthday, and I still
hadn't figured out how to keep my minimalist emergency 'do (French twist with
bangs pinned to the side) from shrinking to that fine corona of frizz usually
found in the National Geographic photographs of ostrich heads. Why, oh why was I
standing here at attention like a tin soldier, ankle-deep in crabgrass in the
middle of a sweltering Midwestern summer, sweating out all the good sense Mom
had pressed into the curls on my head?
Four months earlier, in April, a week or so after
Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder, I was packing up my cello one afternoon after
orchestra practice when Rhonda bounded up, flute propped on her shoulder like a
baseball bat, and clapped me on the back. Rhonda was always doing things like
that; copper-skinned and confident (even in glasses!) to the point of being
uncomfortably gung-ho, she was what my grandmother would call, wrinkling her
nose, sturdy. I started to straighten up, but she couldn't wait. "Rita," she
whispered, "I've got a terrific idea. Let's try out for the majorette
Funny thing is, even though I gulped and felt my
heart pound into my throat, I thought it was a great idea, too. In the Byzantine
hierarchy of high school, majorettes and cheerleaders were the Cream.
Cheerleaders enjoyed a noisy devotion from the masses, but majorettes were the
serene wizards, the silvery circumferences of their batons humming before them
like horizontal pirouettes. If I said yes, if I tried out and actually made the
squad, maybe I could finally be . . . I closed my eyes to savor the possibility
Just thinking the word sent a shiver of longing
through me. What was it like? Ever since junior high, I'd been called
"brainiac." I thought I was used to it, but sometimes, on pale green spring
mornings or glimpsing the tentative expression on my face reflected in a store
window, I'd wonder. Although I'd never been exactly reviled, had never borne the
brunt of schoolyard taunts or classroom pranks, I'd also never been pursued by a
boy, at least not ardently. I could not imagine attaining the courtly cool of
Carla, every hair in perfect alignment against her cocoa profile. Nor could I
ever hope for the effervescent cuteness of Quinita, barely 5 feet tall, with
wide-spaced, tilted almond eyes large enough to bring any basketball player down
to her size. I just wanted . . . well, not to be regarded with dread or, worse,
utter indifference. But how to accomplish that, skinny-Minnie me with my
Catwoman glasses and hair that frizzled in the rain because I was not allowed to
put a relaxer in it? How could someone who attended all AP classes and played
cello in the school orchestra become popular?
I picked up my bow from the music stand and
loosened it, slowly. "Why not?" I replied, utterly cool.
We figured the only way to break the barrier of
the all-white majorette squad was to make it impossibly hard for them to refuse
us. Rhonda had taken twirling lessons before and volunteered to coach me during
the open training session offered by the senior majorettes during the last weeks
of the school year.
We joined the other supplicants after school in
the incandescent gloom of the band room for a crash course in twirls --
verticals and frontals, figure eights, around the worlds -- which Rhonda
supplemented later in her basement, enthusiastically breaking down each sleight
of hand into its elemental actions: wrist down then wrist up, clockwise then
For the second week, we broke into groups to
learn a routine of our choice, which we were expected to perform for auditions
that Friday. Rhonda made for Donna's corner. I followed, reluctantly; Donna was
a senior and the best twirler on the team, and I found the gleaming blond waves
capping her stocky frame rather frightening. But when she announced, "This
routine is hard, you'll have to work," looking each of us in the eye without
much hope or even sympathy, I began to like her: Fair was fair. By audition
time, I knew the routine as well as Rhonda; we had even invented a few moves of
our own. We were careful not to show our cards, though; we never stood next to
each other during practice or laughed at each other's jokes. An old survival
trick: Don't give them a chance to cry disrespect; if they're going to dismiss
you, at least make them scramble for their excuses.
And so it happened that in Akron, Ohio, for the
1968-69 school year, two Negroes joined the Buchtel High School majorettes: a
Historic First. The neighborhood buzzed, my mother beamed, the president of the
local NAACP chapter came up after church to shake my hand; even my father,
usually dismissive of nonintellectual pursuits, pulled out his camera as I
struck a few poses in the driveway.
The first item on the outgoing majorettes' agenda
was to form the new Line. We were ranked by height, then shuffled among the
returning twirlers with adjustments for body build, hair color and style -- and
complexion. No one mentioned race, but it was on everyone's mind that year, and
it hung in the meeting room until Rhonda blurted out: "What are we, a handful of
M&M's?" We all laughed, and that was that. There were too many other things
demanding our attention: marching techniques and stand-alone routines, halftime
formations and pep rally drills. We practiced every afternoon after school in
the deserted hallways. The seniors stood apart, arms crossed, forbearing and
aloof. Beth, Cindy, Toni: veterans on the Line, proprietors of all Knowledge,
purveyors of Secret Remedies (Vaseline on bare legs in winter, Band-Aids on
heels to prevent blisters), our shepherds through the Valley of the Shadow of
Football Seasons Past. It was heady but confusing: Flash a smile but maintain
synchronicity, switch your hips while lifting your knees, high step and sashay.
The amount of paraphernalia was staggering -- two uniforms (cotton for summer
parades, corduroy for the fall), regulation boots with pompoms, kid gloves for
November games. When Donna offered to sell me her gear, I hesitated, sniffing
condescension (All Blacks are poor, live in the ghetto, etc.), until she pointed
out that we were about the same height and it was silly to waste money on a
vaguely militaristic outfit I'd wear for four months out of the year. So I
walked with her to the white neighborhood two blocks the other way from school
and sat on a chenille bedspread eerily similar to my own as she rummaged through
her closet. Two grocery bags full: She even threw in the corduroy
"Hey, you finally got one!" I ducked my head to
hide my irritation, but the pigtailed little girl squatting in the grass would
not be deterred. "That's good!" she said. "Aren't you glad?" I stole a glance at
Rhonda throwing aerials at the far end of the yard to the oohs and aahs of a
pack of neighborhood kids. Big deal. After snatching at air for a half-hour, it
was about time I caught the thing.
My champion twitched her fat braids -- now she was
irritated, too -- and called out, "Hey, she caught it!"
Rhonda trotted over. "I told you it'd work itself
out! You just have to plug away until your arm remembers by
Rhonda was the technique guru, while I thrived on
artistic expression; we pushed each other. Every weekend that spring found us in
my side yard, polishing the routines and trying out new tricks. The secret to
retrieving a baton tossed into the air -- as I was to learn that afternoon of
miss upon near-miss, the kids squealing in delight as they rippled to a safe
orbit -- is not to try too hard to catch it. Once you send the baton spinning
skyward, calmly released from the upturned palm, all you have to do is wait,
gauging the instant when it will return to waist level, then reach and pluck it
out of the air, like a flower. Easy enough, once you know.
The school year ended in the usual flurry of
exams and social events; band and majorette practice would resume three weeks
before Derby Day in August, when kids from all over the world descended upon
Akron to race their motorless wooden cars in the All American Soap Box Derby. I
took a vacation from twirling to spend a few weeks curled on the couch reading
before growing restless -- in the wake of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, with
the accelerating madness of Vietnam in plain television view, it seemed the
entire country was growing more and more restless. But while the streets seethed
with angry, disheartened protesters, I checked out library books on Eastern
philosophies and sat cross-legged on the floor of my room, shades drawn and
incense burning, hip sockets screeching in agony as I intoned "Om" to a
recording of Buddhist monks. Nirvana escaped me, but it didn't matter: August
neared, with the promise of being allowed onto our Half-Time Stage: the
Beth's whistle pumped out the beat: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Hard to stay cool, indeed: I was delirious with heat, my temples throbbing in
march tempo while we advanced on burning feet up the ragged field, my fingers
thick and slick as sausages -- which meant slippage, a slower baton, more wrist
action, more effort, more sweat. Wait till winter, the freshly risen seniors
warned with a chuckle, it'll freeze to your fingers. Then try catching an
aerial! They loved scaring us, it was part of the ritual. Rhonda and I vowed we
would show them.
Right now, though, this slithery silver wand was
not behaving. I cast a surreptitious look down the Line: Ruthie, shortest and
terminally cute, was the veteran among us juniors, having already marched in her
sophomore year. Elaine's brown hair curled gently around her roses-and-cream
complexion; she constantly had to be told not to slump. Jackie was tall, too,
and dark in a Mediterranean way, with a nose that jutted out like Cher's --
Rhonda and I agreed it looked sexy.
Caught up in my own deficiencies, I couldn't
understand that each girl had her secret shortcomings -- Jackie wanted Ruthie's
pert nose, Ruthie covertly envied Beth's narrow one; Cindy deplored her skinny
legs, which Elaine coveted. Christine despaired over her hair, fine and blond,
which she claimed was unmanageable. How could I ever fit into this group that
laughed so easily and seemed not to mind the heat? But it was more than that:
They possessed the power of assumption; they'd grown up assuming the world was
theirs to grow up into. Every little detail of their daily lives -- flesh-toned
Band-Aids and nude-colored brassieres, the shades of face powder available at
Woolworth's cosmetic counter and, yes, the hair products lining the shelves --
was buoyed by the mainstream they floated in.
As we ran through the roster for Derby Day (which
would be our first gig, replete with real celebrities -- Trini Lopez! -- in the
grandstand and tens of thousands of spectators), the seniors doled out anecdotes
and advice in equally sadistic measures. Take salt tablets to counteract the
fluids you lose, so you don't faint. Sweat? You haven't seen sweat yet . . .
it'll blind you, pool in your boots. Apropos boots -- wear at least two pairs of
bobby socks. Better your feet burn up than getting blisters! You'll forget your
feet, anyway -- too much noise and bright lights. Then, after you've marched
past Polsky's department store, after you can't hear the horns anymore because
those guys' lips are blown and all you can do is try to find the bass drum beat
in that racket (refrain from licking your sweat, let it drip gracefully) . . .
after you've given up trying to smile at the crowds lining the curb and you just
want to sit down and pull off those ridiculous pom-pommed boots that weigh a ton
by now and make you feel like a Clydesdale while looking like a Lipizzaner --
then comes Derby Hill.
Oh, it's a mean hill, they exclaimed, steep and
single-minded! You march your weary thighs to the starting line, wait for the
trumpet fanfare, then step over the precipice. Pure perpendicular, braking with
your heels, your calf muscles screaming as they contract. You don't know pain
until you do the Hill.
"C'mon, Rita, it's easy!" Jackie pushed her way
through the gaggle of girls, her smooth, locket-shaped face thrust forward,
laughing. Now the world would know. Come one, come all: Behold the asphalt
flower in her reinforced tennis shoes!
I scanned the circle: barefoot, every one of
them. How could these white girls have this over me, too? Every summer I tried,
but my tender soles kept me from going any farther than our gravel driveway.
Wasn't I supposed to have come from the jungle to these shores, in chains and
certainly barefoot? What had happened to my gene pool?
"It's all grass. Padded -- just like your carpet
Who said that? Had to be a senior. I peered over
Jackie's shoulder and caught sight of Rhonda, hanging back at the fringe,
"You'll be much cooler. And you won't run a
blister," said Christine, whose nose was beginning to peel despite the floppy
cotton hat she'd screwed on over her limp hair.
It was the perspiration sheen across Christine's cheeks
that convinced me. If she could suffer, so could I. I wriggled out of my
sneakers, wavered on damp, puckery feet. Hoots and whistles, Rhonda's clomping
applause. We fell in at the 50-yard line and waited for the whistle's count
before peeling into the "Colonel Bogey March," with its easy reverse vertical
twirls low to one side, then the swooping back-bending strut that looked so hard
but was breezingly simple -- perfect for the end of a long parade and the
approach to Derby Hill, where leaning backward would counterbalance the pitch of
the racetrack slope.
The grass was cool, the ground deliciously warm
underneath. After a few measures I got used to the feathery pokes between my
toes, an occasional flicker tickling my ankles. My knees snapped to my chest as
I high-stepped, switching my hips. How tantalizing it was after all these years,
to feel the earth under the soft skin of my feet!
Then I stopped mid-step, howling: A pain suffused
me, immediate and pure, almost sweet in its ferocity. It seemed to shoot out of
the earth, straight up from Hell's flame pits. I dropped and rolled, clutching
my right foot. Instinct, it seemed, knew right away where it hurt, while my
overactive brain went nova. Jackie was the first one over, but Elaine made the
pronouncement: "You've been stung!" She gently unfolded my clenched toes to
expose the dull red stinger, still lodged in the crevice of my little toe.
Stung? By what? I was incredulous. A bee sting hurts this much? Somewhere behind
the throbbing and a sympathetic headache, I was ashamed of my ignorance. Ruthie
ran for the first-aid kit and pulled the stinger out.
I insisted on walking the few blocks home. When I
stumbled into the kitchen, Mom lit into action, popping ice cubes into a pail of
water. My brother, dangerously allergic to bee stings, took one look, panicked,
and began pacing, so Mom sent him upstairs for iodine just as 10-year-old Robin,
sensing family drama, rushed in from play. "Ooh, that's nasty!" she shrieked,
plainly delighted. "How ya gonna march now?"
Although Mom applied crushed aspirin directly to
the puncture, by dinnertime not even a sandal fit over my swollen foot. Yet I
remained calm. One thing was certain: I would march on Derby Day, even if I had
to hop on one boot.
I spent the next day on the couch, foot propped
up, but demanded to attend practice the last afternoon before the parade. Mom
dropped me off at the edge of the field and I limped to the bleachers to watch.
That night, a dry run with gauze and one sock instead of two: Tears shot into my
eyes when we maneuvered the boot on. By the time we'd jimmied it off and I had
taken my clump foot and ice pack to bed, I was too wrung out to
Derby Day dawned clear and hot. By rush hour,
downtown was thick with enflamed smog from the tire factories. Stir in the kind
of mugginess the Midwest does best, and by 7 in the evening we'd be slogging
through warm pudding.
A funny thing: Pain endured in service of desire,
even one as trivial as marching in a parade, doesn't stay still. It may hide a
bit at first so you think you've got the upper hand, but then it crescendos --
threatening, testing. And if you don't panic, if you accept and even invite that
pain to become a part of yourself (I thought of the Buddhist monks and chanted
silently with them), then you can turn the corner and go on forever. I remember
every minute of that parade -- the grit flying in our faces when we turned off
Main Street, the weird way buildings amplified or swallowed the music, how I
quenched my thirst with my own sweat and how the taste changed from salty to
bitter, the wink Rhonda threw me in the middle of our high school's fight song,
just before the right turn. And there it was: the Hill.
We paused on the crest, hands on our hips in
identical chevrons, our black-and-white uniforms looking crisp despite the heat.
A faint wind teased, a cool sigh sweeping up the torched asphalt; at the bottom
of the incline autumn waited with the promise of football sweaters, frosty
nights and hot chocolate. Suddenly Beth's whistle blew, more a shriek than a
call to arms; the band lurched into the perky opening measures of the "Colonel
Bogey March," and we stepped off.
Why did marching down the Hill feel so good that
August evening? It was the last hurdle, of course, in a transition I had hoped
to negotiate with some measure of grace. But it was more physical and
metaphysical than that. As the ground under my feet gave way, I trusted the laws
of gravity and physics, and they did not let me down; instead, I lay back, and
they held me on a cushion of air plumped by the throbbing of the band behind me,
pulsing in time with my swollen toe way down there nestled in gauze and one
cotton sock, safe in my spanking-white boot. The Hill was beneath me and we were
all moving down at the same time, the I gloriously aware that as long as she was
part of the We there would be no slipping -- just lay back and let the ground
tug you along.
And in that instant of buoyant locomotion I knew,
suddenly and very clearly, that being a majorette wasn't going to make me
popular. Maybe even the opposite -- boys would be scared of Little Miss
Overachiever more than ever. I no longer cared. I'd be sunburnt red as a brick,
wind-chapped and rusty-shinned, and oh, what a mess my hair would be; but it all
would be over too soon, like the summer I'd left at the top of the
Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove is
Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of
(Ray A. Dove)