Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You are the woodwind beneath my wings

(This was Sunday's column in the Times and The News Star. I can't remember the last time I didn't write my own headline -- until now. Craig Durrett wrote this one a couple of weeks ago when I told him what i was writing about -- a parachutist accidentally falling onto a marching band's flute player, and he immediately said this headline, and I immediately started laughing...)

She left this message when returning my call.

"Hello! This is Rachael Drella, the flute/piccolo player of Louisiana Tech's Band of Pride? I was the one you were asking about, the one who was 'attacked' by the parachute during our pregame performance. I would be glad to talk to you about it. What an interesting night that was!"

You can see why I couldn't talk to her fast enough.

It happened before Tech's Bulldogs pounded Nicholls State during the team's home opener at Joe Aillet Stadium in Ruston. The hardest hit of the night might have been the parachuter's landing, loose and panicky and nearly atop poor, innocent Rachael, on about the 35-yard line. Such barnyard tactics in a pregame show, I have never seen.

But the football gods were good to me on this day. I was locked in.The band, post-national anthem, was marching and playing — the game was less than 10 minutes from starting — when here came the first of four skydivers, dodging the band and landing awkwardly on the sideline, sending cheerleaders and pepsters scrambling.

No one pieced this together until later, but one reason this seemed odd was because in the past, these regular pregame skydivers would time their drops into the stadium for AFTER the band had stopped marching and were standing at attention on the north half of the field, leaving skydivers more than 50 yards of clear landing space.

But the timing was off on this day. The anthem ran long. So the divers dove too soon. All four of them.

Tech band director Jim Robken was standing proudly on the sidelines, watching his team's pregame performance, enjoying the weather, when the guy beside him said, "They're out."

"Who's out?" Robken said.

"The skydivers," he said, looking up at four, little midair dots and a passing plane.

"But they're not supposed to be out."

"But they are," the guy said.

"How long before they hit the ground," Robken asked.

"Thirty seconds."

"Oh no," Robken said. "We're not going to be out of the way."

The die had been cast.

"Once guys jump out of a plane, there's a certain degree of inevitability there," Robken would say later. "You've got yourself a pretty predictable chain of events after that."

Hello Mr. Gravity!

"It was the weirdest thing," said Rachael, a Tech senior and Band of Pride section leader who'd never experienced such an air attack while marching for Airline High in Bossier City. "Halfway through our march, I saw the first parachuter land pretty hard on the sideline and people scattering. I thought, 'Gosh, I'm glad he didn't hit me.' We were in a shadow so there was nothing to warn me when ..." she starts laughing, though it wasn't funny right then.

The strings of the next skydiver's parachute hit her, wrapped her, caused her to stumble. From the stands, we saw the parachute guy land, trying like a cartoon character to skid to a stop but quickly approaching Rachael, who was marching away and suddenly enveloped, like by The Blob.

The chutist attacks the flutist. (I'd like to see the skydivers try that sort of thing with bass drummers or, worse, the tuba guys; I'd bet on the tuba corp, every time.)

"I didn't fall down, but I stumbled quite a bit," said Rachael, who is on scholarship and this night deserved even combat pay. "I got tangled, untangled, and kept marching."

"She was so cool," Robken said. "She maintained her poise in an unbelievable way."

Impressive. Like a running back breaking a tackle, she and her flute suddenly re-appeared out of the chute and, on the run, caught up to her bandmates and fell into step. The next parachutist landed harmlessly downfield as the band had continued marching upfield and had by then turned around so as to face the skydivers head on and have a fighting chance. The final skydiver hit the field's center, right on the Tech logo, as planned.

"After the game I called my parents like I always do and said, 'We won, this happened, that happened, and oh, by the way, I got hit by a parachute,'" Rachel said.

"We've viewed the video during rehearsal several times since then," Robken said. "What a hoot. It's funny now. As we say in the band, 'We're makin' memories!'"