Before I returned to Ole Miss in 2003, I was the band director at a small private college in central North Carolina called Elon University. I had been hired there in the summer of 2000 to start, from scratch, a marching band program. They gave me a budget and a year to recruit, design and purchase uniforms and buy marching horns and drums.
At that time, Elon had an enrollment of just over 4,000, with a yearly tuition of around $28,000. It was no small task to try to cobble together a college marching band with very limited resources.
A year later, the band began rehearsals, fielding 92 members. That may not sound like much, but for a start at a small private school, it was a lot. I was happy. My administration was happy. The kids were happy. We got through band camp and the first two weeks of rehearsals in preparation for our inaugural field performance at our first home football game on September 12, 2001.
A pep rally had been scheduled the morning of the 11th, and we were asked to provide music in full uniform. It would be the band’s premiere. I assembled the band on the back patio of the performing arts complex early that morning to warm up. It was a beautiful fall day, and the sun glimmered off of Lake Mary Nell, a small lagoon situated behind the music building. As I took the band through its paces, I noticed my department chair had appeared to watch. During a break, he approached me and said, “Sounds pretty good, Bill. Well, I’d better get back inside and watch more of the news. Some plane has hit the World Trade Center…” and walked off, nonchalantly.
As I instructed the band to troop to the administration building where the rally was taking place, I thought about what he had said. I blew it off mentally, thinking it had to have been some commuter craft or a piper cub or something. When we got to the administration building, the football coaches had assembled on a platform and were getting ready to speak. I put the band in their concert arc formation and we prepared to play the fight song. Just then, the Provost approached me and asked if I had heard about the plane. “Yeah, Dave mentioned something about it to me before we walked over. Was it a commuter plane or something?” “No,” the Provost said. “It was a Boeing 757. The hawks are sure gonna come out on this one.”
I turned to my band and asked them to gather in. As I told them what had happened, they fell dead silent, save for that of one audible gasp from a color guard girl. I told them to re-form the arc and that we were about to play. “But we’re not playing the fight song,” I said. “Get up the Banner.” “Good call,” said a lead trumpet player. So there, in the main courtyard of Elon University, on September 11, 2001, beneath a flagpole bearing the Stars and Stripes, the Fire of the Carolinas Marching Band played its first song in public- the Star Spangled Banner.
Bill DeJournett is a musician and freelance writer based in Oxford. He may be reached at email@example.com.