Mozzarella’s Band

January 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

During my junior year in high school I became interested in joining the Our Lady of Good Counsel marching band. My Dad and Uncle Dinnio Oliveri were already members, and I had often enjoyed watching them play in local parades and concerts. When I was about ten, Dad tried to get me to learn piano, but I was more interested in playing baseball. Later I took a few snare drum lessons, but they didn’t do a whole lot of good. You have to understand that I was probably the worst musician ever to try out for the band. The Good Counsel members were first-rate musicians, with one notable exception, of course. But I hoped to offset that by being a pretty good marcher. Hey, my playing may have been terrible, but at least I could look sharp doing it.

Now that I think of it, my lack of musical skills is a bit surprising. Almost everyone in my family played at least one instrument. In fact, we even had one of those ancient upright player pianos in our basement along with a good supply of music rolls that resembled old window shades. You could insert one into the big black piano and then sit at the keyboard pretending to play while laughing uproariously as the badly-tuned instrument belted out some sour melody. Maybe that experience had more of an influence on my embarrassing music career than I care to admit.

Anyway, the ranks of the Our Lady of Good Counsel band were dominated by the Mazza family, hence its unofficial secondary name, “Mazza’s Band”. In more humorous moments, we referred to it as “Mozzarella’s Band”. John and Ralph Mazza served as conductors, with Frank Mazza Sr. on trombone, Frank (Butch) Mazza Jr. on trumpet, Mike Mazza on bass drum and a host of additional Mazza family members on various other instruments. My Dad played French horn and Uncle Dinnio was a drummer, which is what I aspired to be.

The band rehearsed every Wednesday night at the American Legion Hall on Wanser Avenue in Inwood, NY. For my first rehearsal, I sat between Uncle Dinnio and Mike Mazza in the percussion section. Uncle Din showed me how to follow the music, and would silently count out the rests for my benefit. I could read a little music, but I relied on him to keep me on track.

We laughed a lot in those days, especially when someone hit a sour note. Uncle Din would start giggling, and before you knew it, the whole band was in an uproar. When the musicians rose to leave at the conclusion of the final number, Uncle Din always shouted, “One more!” Sometimes John or Ralph Mazza would humor him and let us play an additional song.

For parades the band members wore white dress shirts, black slacks, and white hats. Later we switched to tailor-fitted blue uniforms with matching caps. They were actually quite snazzy. My first parade was a firemen’s tournament in Oceanside, NY. As would become our habit, Dad, Uncle Din and I arrived early and found a diner where we had breakfast before forming up at the assembly point.

There were thirty-five musicians that day. The number varied from week to week depending upon who was available, but that was about average. We lined up in seven rows of five. The percussion section made up the last row. I occupied the middle spot between the cymbals player and my godfather, Uncle Din, so he could keep an eye on me. Joe LaRocca was the drummer on the outside. When we were ready to step off, Ralph Mazza, who was in the row ahead of us, called out “On the drums!”

We began belting out a 2/4 beat. Ralph grimaced and covered his ears. The band had never used three snare drummers before, and we were making quite a racket. As we started to move off, Ralph again called out “Roll off!” That was the signal for the band to begin its first number.

Our signature march was “National Emblem” (“Oh, the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole”). When people saw us coming down the street and heard that song, they knew immediately that it was the Good Counsel Band approaching. This morning the crowd lining the street started clapping and cheering before we even came abreast of them. I thought we sounded fantastic. The stirring music sent goosebumps down my spine and made me stand a little taller as we marched along. Even now, writing this so many years later, I still find myself sitting up straighter in my chair at the thought.

But I soon realized that I had made a serious tactical error. Since this was my first parade, I didn’t know that most snare drummers protected themselves from the constant pounding of the drum against their thighs with leg guards. Uncle Din didn’t use one, so it never occurred to me to do so. By the time we got to the end of the line of march, my leg was swollen, red, and sore. The next day I had a bruise the size of a cantaloupe on my thigh. It kind of looked like I had been run over by a horse (which would actually happen years later. See “The Pets from Hell”).

But despite the pain, I couldn’t get enough of parading. The band participated in probably a dozen parades that year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I made every one of them. To make matters even better, we were paid a small stipend for each job, usually between six and ten dollars. The band accrued these payments and issued one check at the conclusion of the season. That was certainly a nice bonus for doing something I enjoyed so much.

One time we had too many drummers, so I borrowed a French horn from Dad and marched the full length of the parade pretending to play it. Naturally, I positioned myself at the end of the row so I could check out the girls along the line of march, and hopefully they would do the same to me. I can’t recall now if that actually worked, but it was fun at the time.

Our last parade that year was the New York State Fire Tournament in Hicksville on Labor Day. That parade was so large we were able to play for three different fire departments, one near the front of the parade, one in the middle and one near the end. After completing our march, we hopped on a bus that transported us back to the beginning where we started off again. By the end of the day we were pretty well spent from traversing the parade route three times. But we were all financially better off as well, with credit for three separate jobs in the books.

That year there was a band competition after the parade to determine who played the best music. Our biggest rival back then was Bill Dayton’s Freeport Fire Department band. We considered them the strongest challengers to our chances. As luck would have it, we were the first to perform, followed by Dayton’s group.

The competition took place in a large field, with the judges in the stands at one end. We had to march to the middle of the field, swing around toward the judges, play our one number, and then march off. When Ralph Mazza gave us the signal, the drummers set a brisk beat and we moved out into the open grass. We paused there briefly before beginning our presentation of, naturally, “National Emblem March”. As we finished and marched off to loud applause, I felt we had done quite well. But we had to wait for another dozen groups to compete before we learned the final results.

I thought Bill Dayton’s red-clad band, immediately after us, did very well also. None of the other participants seemed to be in our class, but you never knew what the judges were looking for. When they finally announced their decision, we were named the winners, with the Freeport Fire Department placing second. We received a big trophy and a collective feather in our caps to end the marching season.

While the parades may have concluded for the year, rehearsals continued throughout the winter. Sometimes the drummers would goof around after concluding a number by continuing to play a march beat until the rest of the band joined in, ad libbing whatever music they felt like playing. We had much fun doing that.

We engaged in a lot of practical joking back then, much of it instigated by me. One time I bought a smoke bomb that you could hook up to the spark plugs on a car’s engine. When the driver turned the ignition on, the bomb would let out a piercing whistle and a huge cloud of smoke. I made a point of arriving late that night so I could wire the device to Frank Mazza’s car before going inside.

Well, after rehearsal, Dad, Uncle Din, and I rushed out to our car to wait. Frank came through the door several minutes later with three or four of the younger kids who needed a ride home. We chuckled expectantly as they all piled into the car. When Frank turned the key, the whistle went off with a deafening screech, and smoke poured from under the hood. All the car doors flew open, and kids scattered frantically in every direction. Frank stepped out of the car, glanced around, and saw us sitting there laughing hysterically. He glared at Dad and growled, “I know you did it, Augie!”

This was great! Here I had pulled off the stunt of the year, and I wasn’t even getting blamed for it! Hilarious!

Every summer, the parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church would parade the saint through the streets of Inwood during the Santa Marina Feast. Our band always preceded them, playing march music and Italian songs as we moved slowly along while people pinned money to the statue. One year Uncle Din couldn’t make it for some reason, and I had to play alone. My drumming was so bad that Ralph Mazza put his fingers in his ears and just shook his head. I laugh about it now, but I was pretty upset at the time that I wasn’t capable of doing better. The Good Counsel members were genuinely first-rate musicians… except for me, of course. It amazes me how one incompetent hack can sometimes make an entire band seem like a drum and bungle corps.

In September of 1963, I put my civilian marching program on hold to take up the military version at Fort Dix, NJ. It would be two years before I again donned the uniform of the Good Counsel band.

On the day I returned from Vietnam, Uncle Dinnio came by the house to see me. Now, Dad and I used to laugh at a story he often told about meeting a little old Italian man at a funeral. This gentlemen squinted up at him with one eye closed and muttered, “Don’j I know you?” The way Uncle Din told it with emphatic gestures and uncontrollable laughter never failed to break us up. But now when I answered the door and exclaimed, “Don’j I know you?” he immediately burst into tears. I guess I inherited some of his emotion, and I make no apologies for that.

My first band job after returning from overseas took place on Memorial Day, 1965, in the Lawrence/Cedarhurst parade while I was home on leave. The band was supposed to form up at the Lawrence railroad station. I was dating an attractive girl then who owned a convertible. Being the “skootch” that I was, I had her drive me to the spot where the band members were assembling, arriving fashionably late, of course, with the top down. As we pulled up right next to them, I could see eyes popping and jaws dropping at the sight of my buxom date in her low-cut blouse and Hollywood sunglasses.

I took my sweet time climbing out of the car, smoothing the wrinkles from my uniform, putting on my hat and removing the drum from the back seat while my fellow band members watched jealously. Someone started playing “Hail to the Chief” on his trumpet, and others quickly joined in until the entire band was blaring away. I strolled casually around to the driver’s side with a smug grin on my face and kissed my date good-bye as the perverts in the band hooted and whistled. I caught an awful lot of grief over that escapade, I can tell you, but, man, it was worth it!

Several years passed, and Dad and Uncle Din decided that the rigors of marching were becoming too much for them, so they stopped parading. Playing in the band didn’t seem quite as much fun anymore without them. Besides, I was married to Maureen by then, and we had two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Kenneth, to keep us busy. My days of playing in “Mazza’s Band” came to an abrupt end.

A few years ago, I took my granddaughter Alexandria and grandson Giovanni to see a firemen’s parade in Baldwin, NY. Glancing up the street, I saw a familiar-looking band approaching. When they broke into a rousing rendition of “National Emblem”, I knew right away that it was the Our Lady of Good Counsel Band. I began to applaud. The group was only about half the size of the earlier version I had played in, and I didn’t recognize a single face. But the sound was eerily similar to what I had known. The sharp rattle of the snares and boom of the bass drum in the heavy evening air combined to bring back many fond memories.

As I clapped in appreciation, I thought about Dad, Uncle Din, the Mazzas and so many other band members I had been privileged to share such great times with who were now gone. “Look, kids,” I said in a voice husky with emotion. “Here comes ‘Mozzarella’s Band!’”

They thought I was joking at first and began to laugh. Then as the band passed by, my very perceptive granddaughter peered up at me and asked, “Poppy, why do you have tears in your eyes?”

I brushed away some dampness from my cheek. “Just remembering some old friends, sweetheart,” I replied softly. “Just remembering some old friends.”

Alexandria put her hand gently in mine, and together we watched “Mozzarella’s Band” march briskly off down the road into the gathering dusk.


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The Futile Feud

January 19, 2012 at 1:26 am (Uncategorized)

As I was scrubbing down the bathroom in our master bedroom recently (my punishment for leaving a dish in the sink), I was struck by the sheer volume of bottles, jars, tubes, cans, grooming aids, and other paraphernalia to be found therein. Hardly any of this belonged to me, mind you. I could claim ownership of just 6 things: a razor, a can of shaving cream, toothbrush and toothpaste, a deodorant stick and a hairbrush. And the way things are going, I probably won’t need the brush too much longer.

My wife, Maureen, on the other hand, had 411 items by actual count, only 9 of which I could positively identify. Truth be told, the place is starting to look like Fibber McGee’s closet. I can hardly squeeze into the shower these days with all the baskets, racks, medieval torture devices, and something resembling the fuel tank from an intercontinental ballistic missile jammed in there. I’m not exactly a ballerina, you understand, who can pirouette gracefully through this bizarre obstacle course in order to reach the barely-visible showerhead. Believe me when I tell you that I have recurring nightmares about the bulging walls of that bathroom suddenly exploding outward during the wee hours and washing me down the stairs and out onto the street in a tidal wave of creams, lotions, sprays, and fluorescent goo.

We have an oversized walk-in closet in that bathroom as well. Or, more accurately, SHE has one. That thing is packed to the rafters with skirts, dresses, slacks, blouses, and shoes of all styles and colors. There’s no possible way Maureen can cram another piece of clothing in there without borrowing my crow-bar, which, come to think of it, I haven’t seen lately. And what really blows my mind is that she buys more hangers almost every month!

Conversely, my extensive wardrobe of four shirts and three pairs of slacks has been relegated to a small corner of my office closet behind the excess Christmas decorations. I was flabbergasted recently when my wife suggested with a straight face that I should donate some of my old clothes to Goodwill in order to open up a little space in there. Hey, I’ve already moved my suits, ties, dress shirts, and oxfords from a previous life into a box in the garage. I even threw out a “golf” sweater (it had 18 holes in it) that she hated. How much more can I give up and still comply with the public decency laws? Is the neighborhood really ready for a revival of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Meanwhile her wardrobe could outfit half the population of Kazakhstan. Where is the justice in all this?

And somebody please explain to me why a woman has to use FIVE towels when she showers. Meanwhile, environmentalists adore me because I usually just grab one of the slightly damp ones she left behind, dry off with it and then hang it up to be recycled the next day. In fact, my towels were the original inspiration for the term “going green”! Now, I understand that we men can be somewhat insensitive Neanderthals at times and often fail to appreciate some of the more subtle nuances of feminine behavior. I’ve never been particularly adept at reading female signals, which has gotten me into lots of trouble through the years. It usually takes something more overt, like a 2X4 upside the head, to create my “AHAH!” moment with women. But does she REALLY need four vases of artificial flowers and seven candles on the bathroom counter? With a little organ music piped in we could hold a funeral in there, for cryin’ out loud.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but I’ll wager that many long-suffering husbands out there are nodding vigorously in agreement with me. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s unlikely we men can come out ahead in this battle. In fact, I may very well be one of the first casualties in the War of the Water Closet. Oh well, I suppose if I wasn’t so pig-headed I could always use the guest bathroom. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to Maureen’s daily admonitions about my failure to put down the toilet seat. What fun would that be? However, I found a solution to that problem: I no longer lift up the toilet seat! So to get back at her, devil that I am, I now squeeze the toothpaste tube in the MIDDLE! Take that! Heh-heh.

Yes, there may very well be some advantages to boasting of a few Neanderthals in the family tree, but having control of the facilities probably isn’t one of them. I’m afraid that I’D be the one clubbed over the head and dragged out the door by the hair, if I had enough. Unfortunately, just as with the GEICO caveman, I simply can’t win.

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