Time, as many will agree, exists as a fleeting instant, a unit of measurement wherein the seemingly minuscule space between two moments can comprise years and a highly anticipated event can pass before one even has a chance to grasp its long-term importance. This perception can be applied to almost everything, from births to graduations, to weddings and beyond-as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone just as fast.
When I think back to my years as part of the Waukesha North High School Marching Band, from the day of my percussion audition prior to my freshman year in early 1996 to the moment we concluded our performance in the 73rd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 25th, 1999, those same principles can easily be applied to these extraordinary years of my life, an incredible jaunt that ended truly just as fast as it began.
In 1999, I was a senior member of the Northstar band amidst a successful run for the group, having witnessed the state marching band championship captured in the fall of 1996 and 1998 in addition to second place finishes the opposite years. Waukesha North had, for some time, been a force to be reckoned with when it came to its instrumental music programs, with the band falling under the direction of Jim Doepke and Steve Fisher-when the group hit the streets in any number of parades from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, the group was always well-received, but when Waukesha North took to the field with the precision choreography and musicianship of its competitive field show, it became a whole new animal. The competitive marching season lasted from early September to mid-October of every year, with weekends often completely occupied by band-related activities and travel that went as far as Roselle, Illinois and Fort Atkinson to the suburbs of Milwaukee, culminating in the state championship at UW-Whitewater.
Winning state was never anything short of thrilling-I can still recall our 1998 win when heavy rains prevented us from using Whitewater’s football field and our performance was taken inside the nearby field house, where victory was soon handled to us following a performance that I, to this day, still see as flawless. Even our 1999 second place finish wasn’t without its share of emotion, with the knowledge that these were my final moments on the field following a surprise senior tribute by the underclassmen and staff at rehearsal beforehand serving to elevate those feelings to unexpected heights. However, the excursions that took us across the country were a true highlight, having marched in the 1997 Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C. and two years later, just a month and a half following our annual trip out to Whitewater, a trip to Macy’s. Certainly, the awareness that we’d be taking part in such a time-honored American tradition helped to soften the blow of our runner-up finish at state, and the shift from field show focus to parade rehearsals happened seemingly overnight, with the band entering an intense nose-to-the-grindstone period of time where the end result would be something unforgettable.
The trip officially began two days before our November 25th performance-leaving Milwaukee for New York City was as straightforward an experience as one can expect with a crowd of high schoolers, parents and band staff in tow. After our departure from Mitchell Airport and subsequent arrival on the east coast, buses arrived to ship us off to our first destination, the Newark Airport Sheraton Hotel, where we found our assigned rooms and settled in. The remainder of the day consisted of dinner, as well as a quick bus tour around the city to see such sights as the Metropolitan Opera House and, for us ‘90s kids, a view of Total Request Live, before depositing us back at the hotel where a good night’s sleep was encouraged in advance of a busy day ahead.
Day two was sightseeing-a rainy start to our November 24th activities preceded a trip to Ellis/Liberty Island where I not only ran into my parents and brother but also decided to capitalize on my 6’7” frame by sporting some Lady Liberty glasses and visor, to the amusement and polite chuckles of two or three of my friends. This was followed by a ferry ride over to Pier 17 and the South Street Seaport where the unique sight of New York City shrouded in fog spread out before us-luckily, the clouds began to part enough for us to take in a striking view of the Brooklyn Bridge. A visit to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center occurred shortly thereafter, wherein a walk around the observation deck revealed an escalator of which I had previously been unaware, one that took us right out into the open air upon the roof-two years before 9/11, having the opportunity to stand atop these iconic structures on the outside observation deck was an unforgettable experience, even for someone with a fear of heights like yours truly. We eventually made our way back to the hotel for a parking lot practice, dinner and an attempt at sleep despite knowing that our wake-up call was scheduled for a time earlier than any of us were normally comfortable.
As was expected, the morning of Thanksgiving arrived seemingly seconds after we turned in for the night to greet a bleary-eyed group of high school students and parent volunteers at the ripe hour of 2:00am, with some individuals having foregone sleep altogether either out of sheer excitement or an attempt to ensure that alarm clocks weren’t ignored. I myself recall a mixture of loopy emotions and sour moods amongst the crowd as people walked about in a haze trying to make sure uniforms were in tow and the long underwear we’d been issued in the event of potentially frigid temperatures wouldn’t go unused. Following the loading of instruments, hat boxes and exhausted teenagers onto our fleet of buses, the trip into New York City for our 4:00am pre-parade rehearsal at the NBC taping area revealed another wet, dreary morning, and as we disembarked near Macy’s while darkness still hung above the ever-present lights of the Big Apple, the gravity of what we were about to undertake still had yet to set in for many of us.
The run-through was brief, with NBC only requiring a few takes of our routine so as to make sure marks were hit and cameras knew exactly where to position-immediately following what would amount to our final true practice, we headed off to Beefsteak Charlie’s, a nearby restaurant where breakfast was encouraged to but most of the group took this opportunity to pass out whilst seated at various tables, no doubt enhanced by the buffet in which most of us drowsily partook. After our much-needed, all-too-short respite, the assembled group donned raincoats and took to the staging area where we ran through warmups and watched as balloons, floats and the inclusion of late ‘90s pop maestro Lou Bega right behind our section of the parade all took their places as more waiting occurred.
After what seemed like an eternity, at long last it was time to start. With an announcement of “Waukesha North, please join the parade!”, we took our first steps.
Immediately following Waukesha North’s kickoff began something of a blur, as the band weaved its way through the streets of NYC alongside crowds bigger than most of us had ever witnessed previously. Their faces mixed with the buildings in a manner to which the band had grown used following countless parades over the years, all seemingly having led up to this moment. Luckily, the razor focus Waukesha North maintained helped to distract from the ever-present rain, though the scattered delays as acts in front of us entered the live broadcast section caused the band to have to stop on more than one occasion, only then allowing us the ability to take in the sights around us-at long last, here we were. From Times Square to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the parade continued onward, before finally arriving at the taping site.
This was it. 90 seconds of immense preparation was about to pay off. I took a deep breath, glanced over at my tenor drum comrade Kyle Good, and shifted my attention to what was about to happen next.
As we surged in around cameramen and the bleeding, rain-drenched Macy’s logo adorning the ground, Waukesha North performed our routine with all the prowess and ability that made the band champions, with the TV coverage allowing every section of the band their own moment in the spotlight. Flags waved, precision movements were executed and with a final flourish of NBC’s cameras, Waukesha North gracefully spelled out the letters of the network that was, at the moment, taking a band from a small suburban town onto One Times Square’s legendary Astrovision, as well as into millions of households from coast to coast.
It was perfect.
As is always the case with such an event, just as quickly as it began, Waukesha North exited the taping area, as the Today Show hosts made their closing remarks about the band on television while we walked towards the nearby assembled buses amidst a mix of exhaustion and sentimentality. For us seniors, our time as marching band members was now over-as I glanced down at the white pants of my uniform, I noticed two black marks where the carrier for my tenor drums had made contact. For a moment, I worried about how such a stain might be removed before sadly reminding myself that it, ultimately, no longer mattered. Who am I kidding-I still took them in for dry cleaning the following week.
Following our return to the hotel, where we changed out of said uniforms and into something more appropriate for the Thanksgiving dinner that awaited us in one of the ballrooms, speeches by our bandleaders and principal Dr. Champeau served as reminders of all we’d accomplished, as well as an announcement that Waukesha North would be receiving a full endorsement by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to take part in the 2002 Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena for the first time since 1995-a bittersweet moment for us upperclassmen who wouldn’t be taking part, but nonetheless exciting for those who would. From there, it was off to Radio City Music Hall for their annual Christmas Spectacular, after which a group of us found ourselves accosted by scores of street vendors peddling their knockoff Oakleys and Rolexes. I won’t lie-I happily purchased one of each. The watch stopped working shortly thereafter.
The remainder of our trip was an uneventful as it gets-one more night’s rest followed by our flight back home the next day. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, just like that, it was over.
To capture all this band accomplished in the time leading up to one morning in the fall of 1999 continues to be an immeasurable amount to take in, a memory that still remains easy to once again place myself in the white uniform shoes of a high school student ready to take part in one of our country’s most memorable annual traditions. Of all the moments I experienced during my time as a marching band member, I consider Macy’s an unequivocal triumph, something I still proudly reflect on to this day. While all those involved have long since moved on-to families, careers, new homes and new adventures-I’ll always find myself watching the parade the morning of Thanksgiving, thinking back to our time as participants, and remembering how, for one remarkable instant, Waukesha North was the star.