My career as a musician is spotty at best. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I did take flute lessons from the principal flautist of the National Symphony Orchestra, who was the husband of our church’s organist. That venture came to a sudden end when the police knocked on the door informing me that there had been a complaint from a neighbor about the “saxophone.” If that is how my flute sounded, I concluded it was time to give it up. But a few years later I was part of the marching band at a major university.
During the first quarter of the 20th century, the most feared football empire in the nation was “The Monsters of the Midway.” Alonzo Stagg had developed the football team at the University of Chicago into an unbeatable powerhouse, winning Big 10 championships year after year. But in 1939 Robert Hutchins, the university’s new president, declared that football had to go: “The life of the mind should not be sidetracked by the straining of muscles. Instead of football, colleges should focus on sports useful later in life, like handball, skating and golf.”
That ended the football program, or at least resulted in an extended pause. So there was no football at the University of Chicago until 1963 when a group of students organized a football club that played a handful of sandlot teams in the Chicago area. In 1969 the university rejoined the NCAA, competing in the modest Division III.
When I arrived at University Church in 1967, the football club was a going student concern complete with uniforms, cheerleaders and a brass ensemble that sat in the stands and entertained the intellectual crowd with music of the Baroque composer, Gabrieli. There was also a marching band made up of students, staff and members of the community — and that included me. Every Saturday afternoon during the football season we would gather at halftime and march around the field. About 200 of us followed the band’s mascot, a kayak remodeled to look like a giant kazoo. Those who showed up to march brought kazoos with us, the only instrument allowed. So when I claimed that I was a member of a halftime musical aggregation, it was as part of the great Marching Kazoo Maroons.
What brought this to the surface of my fading memory was an event at our community’s annual “Comedy Night” a couple of weeks ago. At the door we were all supplied with plastic kazoos, and about 120 of us marched around the room as we hummed a few familiar choruses into the kazoo — humming is what you do to make that obnoxious buzzing sound.
What’s my point? I have two.
First: Hutchins may not have been totally wrong. The retired sports editor of the Los Angeles Times said he pleaded with his grandsons to avoid football. Each year, he suggested, there are too many serious injuries inflicted on young kids from which they might never fully recover. In addition, there are the well-documented permanent brain traumas among college and professional players. My super-athletic grandchildren, boys and girls, enjoy baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, cross-country and soccer. Happily, none of them play football. My TV football watching is confined to the annual Super Bowl, and I’m not sure why I even watch that.
Second: I enjoyed playing my flute, even if it may have sounded like a saxophone, and I never should have abandoned it for the reasons I did. So here is my other point: There are lots of things worth doing even when they cannot be done particularly well.