Big Bertha: A Love Story

The World’s Biggest Drummer Busts Up the World’s Biggest Drum” was 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.

That year, I was a freshman in the Longhorn Band. I was in the flag brigade, 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 deafening body of the band worked the halftime fans into a frenzied pitch by blasting out everything from military marches to pop chart-toppers.

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. 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, and three more bandsmen at her ample derriere. Bertha’s huge leather drumheads were sewn from the seamless hide of a Longhorn steer.

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 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.

A Dallas Times Herald reporter opined in his column that the reason we always won that season 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 . The network cameras always focused close up on my antics during our halftime shows. While I beat the Old Girl, not one team ever beat us.

One day, Big Bertha was outfitted with a new drumhead. Our percussion captain asked me if she was all tuned up and ready to play. I frankly replied, “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 tightened the new heads. Before he was out of sight, I gave a few tentative whacks with the giant drumstick. Satisfied with the crisp new rumble, I drew back, wound up my best arm, and put all my heft into a 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. My pushers were shocked speechless. 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 30-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 8-foot stepladder from the sideline of the practice field. As I sheepishly mumbled the shameful news, Mr. D glared in disbelief from his perch and yelled, “You WHAT???”

For the rest of the season, we concealed Bertha’s gaping, splintered face with old plywood covers. 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, Bertha?

A photo of Ritch Brinkley (with drumstick) and bandmates in front of Big Bertha.


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