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COLUMN: Memories of JFK and 1961’s parade

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By PHIL WITTMER, Guest Columnist

Editor’s Note: Phil Wittmer penned this recollection of the 1961 inaugural parade he and other members of the Tell City High School Marching Marksmen took part in as John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the nation’s president. Other band members who would like to share their memories or personal stories of the experience can send them to Editor Vince Luecke at editor@perrycountynews.com.

The whole project began with an initiative by Mr. Paul Silke, our band director then, to put us in the running for being selected to participate in the parade. Because of our band’s reputation as a “snappy” show band, and because we had won top honors in the prestigious Nut Club parade in Evansville, we were given an invitation by the inaugural parade organizers to be one of the bands representing Indiana, provided that we could raise sufficient money on our own.

That meant, of course, many fundraisers such as band candy sales and so on. I imagine parents and local citizens kicked in assistance also. When it became apparent that we were going to make the money threshold, everyone was quite excited.

We began early on with “training parades,” marching around town to condition ourselves for the long haul down Pennsylvania Avenue. We were accustomed to marching in parades, but most of them were eight or 10 blocks long, not the nearly six miles the parade encompassed. Here it is worthy to mention that the parade organizers virtually drilled Mr. Silke to impress upon him that this parade was going to run by the book. That meant, among other things, that all units were to be precisely – and closely – spaced, that all units would begin on time, and that the speed of the parade would be controlled to match bands marching exactly at a military cadence, which was 120 beats, or steps, per minute.

As I said, our band was quite showy and impressive, and our normal cadence was in the 140 to 160 beats per minute range, and we even had field performances where we could manage a 180 beats per minute cadence for a short time. So, to further condition ourselves to this slower pace, we practiced using the 120 bpm pace in our training parades around town. Further, Mr. Silke and the drum rank devised or designed a new street-beat that lended itself well to the slower pace. The drums normally alternated between our two snappy street-beats, and they just melded the new one in so we could have the third one in there to control our pace.

The train trip to Washington, D.C. was an experience in itself, but I won’t go into details. Suffice to say that not many of us really got any sleep.

When time for the parade came, as you probably would expect with the federal government involved, things did not go according to plan or the book. I have to emphasize that our band only had one set of uniforms. They were wool, but not overly heavy. We wore them in summer parades, as we did once in Saint Meinrad when the temperature was about 100 degrees and band members were passing out from the heat; and we wore them for all the football games where it would sleet and snow on us while we were sitting in the grandstands.

So that is all we were wearing for the parade. The temperature early in the morning when we lined up was in the single digits. We could keep our overcoats on until we took our official spot in the line. Our unit was delayed for more than an hour – some say it was almost two hours – and we had to stand there unable to move about all that time.

When we finally started, the temperature was probably in the low teens and we were all frozen. When it came time for the drum roll to signal us to play, the only sound heard were the lyras. I played trumpet, and as I snapped it up to play, I thought that I had lost my mouthpiece. Actually, I had banged myself in the face with it, but had no feeling in my lips. My trumpet valves also froze all the way down, as did all valves in all the brass instruments. All the reed instruments were frozen up.

The woodwind flute keys probably froze, and none of the players could feel their lips, and anyway, no one wanted to place that metal flute mouthpiece to their frozen lips. I’m not sure how the Lyra players managed to hold onto those metal bells and sticks.

Another thing going wrong was that the parade unit spacing was getting longer and longer, despite all the “by-the-book” warnings given to Mr. Silke. There were some automobiles immediately in front of us, and a troop of mules in front of them, so we also had to step in mule dung along the way. Finally, when the unit in front of us was almost out of sight, Mr. Silke, who was pacing alongside of us just to the right of the first rank, signaled our drum major to speed up.

Our normal drum major was senior Bob Kessner. However, Bob was a starting forward on our basketball team (that would go to state finals that year), and coach Gunner Wyman would not let him go on the trip. So our senior trombone player who marched A-1, Craig Glen, (right guide on the first rank) took his place and was drum major for the parade. Our band was basically a field band, so we were programmed to march strictly eight steps per five yards, or 8-to-5. It was just impossible for us to lengthen our stride, particularly because at that time we raised our knees highly as part of our showmanship.

So to increase speed we could only increase cadence. Drum Major Glen gave or whistled the command, and the drum rank responded, as they always did, with precision. We increased cadence up to about 160 bpm. Our drum rank had among its members such local notables as highly regarded local attorney John Werner, Superintendent of Schools Ron Etienne, and retired Jasper school Principal Jack Yaggi. Mr. Yaggi related to me one of his memories last night, and that was during playing one of the street-beats, Jack looked down and discovered that he no longer had drumsticks in his hands, although he was still moving them to the beat. His fingers had gone numb to the point that he had no sense of touch. All the drummers carried spare sticks in their tunics.

Although we did not know it at the time, very shortly after we increased cadence, we passed the official parade timer, who clocked us at the higher cadence, and we were disqualified and not eligible for awards. If we were actually making our 160 bpm cadence, we were covering exactly 100 yards – the length of a football field - every minute, so we were really moving. Even had we known about the disqualification, it would not have mattered to any of us who were marching that day. The higher cadence helped warm us up a bit, although it was tiring, and it must have been very fatiguing for the drummers.

When we returned to the hotel, everyone was in hypothermia, and there was much crying among the girls and moaning from the guys. A great trumpet player in my rank who spent his adult career in the U.S. Marine Corps band, Eddie Ludwig, said that his toes froze, then cracked and bled. He remarked how good it felt to have that warm blood in his socks.
Later a number of others said the same thing. I felt very sorry for the girls in front of the band who wore short skirts with exposed legs.

My sister, Karen Wittmer was a majorette, and covered her legs with heavy face makeup, and then wore skin-colored tights, but it still must have been incredibly difficult. I also had great empathy for the tuba players, who had to hold onto that big brass instrument, and have it draped around their shoulders.

In the fall of that year, 1961, I was appointed drum major. I always lamented that I did not have the opportunity to lead the band in that parade. Another lament, perhaps, was that some of the band members of the TCHS class of 1960 were not able to attend, as that class had some of the most outstanding bandsmen that I ever met in high school or college.

I’m sure all of us who marched in the 1961 inaugural parade are glad that we had the chance to march for President Kennedy, and feel fortunate for the experience. I’m also sure everyone has their own tales to tell about that day, and I’m equally sure that we all hope to never have to endure those conditions again.