The Washington Post

Sunday, July 10, 2005; Page W12
Major Steps
(Ray A. Dove)

Major Steps

In 1968 she was ready to march in a new direction

Memoir by Rita Dove

Sunday, July 10, 2005; Page W12

"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 squad!"

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 -- popular.

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 counter.

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 underwear.

"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 itself!"

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 Gridiron.

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 at home!"

Who said that? Had to be a senior. I peered over Jackie's shoulder and caught sight of Rhonda, hanging back at the fringe, grinning.

"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 despair.

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 hill.

Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove is Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Major Steps

(Ray A. Dove)