My Old Flame, and Why I Stopped Beating Her

“The World’s Biggest Drummer Busts Up the World’s Biggest Drum” was definitely not the headline I had anticipated on the front page of my humdrum small town Texas newspaper. But on a fall morning in 1964 inside Memorial Stadium, the likelihood of that caption forced the frog in my 20-year-old throat to swell like a snakebit squirrel.

The course of events leading up to that humiliating day began in the late ’50s, when my Kermit High School band director, the stuttering but beloved G. T. Gilligan, convinced me to undertake the saxophone. “B-boys and girls, if you’re a-a-afraid you cain’t m-m-manage an in-in-instrument, you cain’t go f-far wrong with the sax.”

The folksy fellow did not stammer on “sax”, and neither did I, having often observed the black and blue bruises covering my older sister’s battered thighs. The wounds were the result of her snare drum’s bouncing as she marched in the ranks of our town’s pride and joy-the mighty “K” band. And I had been such a washout playing the Tonette (a small plastic recorder) in Mrs. Rucker’s fourth grade rhythm band that I leaped at the opportunity to redeem myself on the reputedly simple sax.

Besides, rock and roll was beginning to resonate with the raspy honks of virtuosos like Jimmy Seals of nearby Rankin, Texas. His famed flutter tonguing in The Champs’ wildly popular hit “Tequila” endures a half-century down the road, long past the heyday of his latter duo “Seals and Croft.”

So, seven years after taking up the alto sax I landed almost on my duck wide feet as an excited freshman in the Texas Longhorns’ famed “Showband of the Southwest.” In a few semesters I quickly advanced from an “A” student and my high school’s “Most Likely to Succeed” to the infamous ranks of the least desirable fraternity “Scho Beta Pro”, i.e., a flunkout.

During the hickory stick decline I was also quietly moved from the tail end of the college band’s saxophone section to the luster-lacking platoon of the flag brigade. This was a squad of a dozen or so “greenhorns” who marched in conjunction with the three hundred more adept musicians who honked out spirited marches in ever changing geometric formations. The flag carriers held 12-foot wooden flagpoles topped off by colored pendants reflecting the name of our various southwest conference rivals, such as Oklahoma University or TCU. The deafening body of the band worked the halftime fans into a frenzied pitch by blasting out military marches, modified Broadway and pop tunes, and the occasional Cecil B. Demille fanfare usually heard underscoring a Christian-chomping lions’ picnic in Emperor Nero’s Roman coliseum.

The mascot of this quickstepping pep club was Big Bertha, the world’s biggest bass drum (unless you’re a Purdue grad) purchased in 1955 for a buck from The University of Chicago’s radioactive storage area. It was here that the robust Ramborine named after the German howitzer cannon had slept soundlessly since the ’30s. The booming queen measured over 8 feet tall and her unmentionable waistline was a zaftig 54 inches.

The visually stunning Lady Goliath rolled on a custom steel carriage manhandled by two beefy student “wranglers” in the front, three more bandsmen at her ample derriere. Bertha’s huge leather drumheads were sewn from the seamless hide of a Longhorn steer, one for each side. The vast crawlspace between was spacious enough to conceal the miked Mike Wallace when we filmed a television special with “The Music Man” Meredith Wilson.

My Big Bertha was made to be stroked by a yard long aluminum shaft topped by a beater fashioned from the tightly wound fleece of a sizable Edwards Plateau Dall ram. Since the revered showgirl was capable of only some extraordinarily deep and barely audible rumbling resembling distant prairie thunder, my complete lack of any prior percussion experience was of little consequence to our legendary director Vincent R. DiNino.

Mr. “D” had shrewdly noted my great propensity for exhibitionistic dramatic flair, and created a match made in pigskin heaven for the 70,000+ football fanatics who assembled each autumnal Saturday for the gladiatorial combat. This was the era when legendary Head Coach Darrell Royal swept the unstoppable Longhorns from one national championship to another.

But my personal ascension into the international game day limelight came after an enterprising journalist from the respected Dallas Times Herald buttonholed me for a quick interview following a victory in the Cotton Bowl. Just as it continues today, every Longhorn worth his salt would readily flash the “Hook ’em Horns” hand signal made by extending the first and little finger while the thumb clamped down the middle two fingers. This “hex” sign was actually borrowed from an ancient Italian one signifying a cuckolded husband.

Noting my frequent use of our popular school gesture, this astute reporter opined in his “color” column that the reason our rivals remained winless was due to the “curse of the World’s Biggest Drummer beating the World’s Biggest Drum.” Thus my 250-pound girth was indubitably married to my bountiful Bertha’s. The story quickly catapulted to newspapers from California to London and made a sudden sort of celebrity out of my hamfisted grandstanding. Many a news agency kept the ball rolling, and the network cameras always focused close up on my shameless antics during our televised halftime shows. Ironically, while I beat the Old Girl, not one team ever beat us.

In those days of collegiate pranksters, overly enthusiastic fans were always on the lookout for a humiliating prank to “punk” their arch rivals. An example of this was when “Bevo,” the huge Longhorn steer waltzed around the gridiron by the UT Cowboys, was irreverently butchered and served up as hamburger by unfeeling foes.

Another prank much closer to my heart was pulled off “one dark and stormy night” preceding the annual clash between my alma mater and the University of Arkansas. One or more stealthy Razorbacks sneaked into Bertha’s dank boudoir beneath Memorial stadium and callously slashed her huge leather drumheads into useless tatters. This ghastly act of defiance rendered the basso profundo voice of my forte amore into a whimpering, breathless sigh.

For the weeks until the new custom fiberglass drumheads ordered from the faraway west coast were finished, I simply pretended to pound away on a pair of folded, plywood protective coverings concealing the dastardly gashes on milady’s cheeks. Then, when the new fiberglass drumheads finally arrived, they were promptly mounted on the disfigured lady.

Having but one day to rehearse before the debut of the face lifted Bertha, my five wranglers merrily rolled the elephantine enchantress out from her now heavily guarded under-stadium lair. Our capable percussion captain had come across the street from where the mainstream band was rehearsing the halftime show. He asked: “Is she tuned up and ready to sing?”

I frankly replied, “I’m a half-assed saxist, man. What do I know about tuning a drum?”

“Not to worry, Big Boy,” he said. “With this drum wrench I will make magic.” And he proceeded to tighten the new heads. Before he was long out of sight, I gave the massive instrument a few tentative whacks with the sheep headed giant drumstick. Satisfied with the crisp new rumble, I drew back, wound up my best arm, and put all my heft into a truly respectable blow smack dab in the middle of her brand spanking new head.

A huge BA-ROOM filled the air and the virgin, ivory-colored drumhead exploded into a tattered mess of slivery fiberglass strips resembling a gigantic white sunflower. My pushers were aghast, shocked into speechlessness by the surprise as well as the abject horror of the sight now before them. And nowhere was the horror more greatly felt than in my beet-red, saucer-eyed kisser. No single incident could top this for utter humiliation-not even the time we rolled the drum over an ungainly dog-faced wrangler, who lay spread-eagled under a wheel while his appalled family watched from the thirty-yard line bleachers.

But today was far worse. I had no choice but to slink across the street and confess my hideous blunder to Mr. DiNino, who stood directing the blaring showband atop an eight -foot stepladder from the sideline of the practice field. As I sheepishly mumbled the shameful news of my transgression, Mr. “D” glared in disbelief from his perch and yelled “You WHAT???”

For the rest of the season, we concealed Bertha’s gaping, splintered sunflower face with the same old plywood covers used earlier. Meanwhile I feigned the sound each time I reared back and let fly a crowd-pleasing whomp on the useless hinged mask. And the cheering hordes little noted nor long remembered my charade.

I didn’t return to the band for another season, lying to myself that the time had come to batten down the study hatches and get serious about my degree.

But to this day, some 45 years later, when I hear the haunting cadence of a spirited drum corps in the distance, blood rushes to my timeworn grey visage and my angioplasted heart skips a beat. Et tu, Berta?

Photo: Ritch Brinkley (with drumstick) and bandmates in front of Big Bertha. Photo courtesy Ritch Brinkley.


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