Perhaps the crowning achievement of each high school class is the “big trip.” That is, if you participated in an activity that took a big trip. For me, that’s marching band. We took a trip to a college football bowl game every three years. And so my junior year, we traveled to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Imagine the small conflicts of the bell choir tours. Multiply it by ten and change the setting to New Year’s Eve in the French Quarter. The trip consisted of one antisocial episode after another.
Traveling to New Orleans required an overnight trip on six sleeper-buses. Somehow I ended up in the back, in the non-reclining seats, right next to the bathroom. The offensive odor never disappeared. But we did have a small fridge (probably not meant for us) that we used liberally. We hit Jackson, Mississippi, for breakfast at 5:30 in the morning. All two hundred of us descended on a Hardee’s restaurant that had two people on staff at the time. You can guess the chaos that ensued.
We crossed Lake Pontchartrain over one of the world’s longest bridges and entered New Orleans later that day. Getting to our hotel room was a grueling process. The hotel tucked our band on the 16th floor. With only a few elevators and four bands checking in, I decided to inspect the quickness of the stairs. They definitely proved efficient, though, quite tiring after two trips. Others found the stairs reliable too. For example, there was the guy who came barreling down after stealing items from a room. He at least said “excuse me” as he passed. Two officers didn’t exhibit similar polite behavior as they descended with their “weapons.” I believe they carried some sort of plastic item, or maybe a shower rod or something. Neither looked like batons. I yelled, and recommended they try wiffle bats next time.
The other three bands that would play with us at halftime (after the college bands) came from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. We became quick friends with the Florida band. Unknowingly, I would become a fast friend with a small Hispanic-looking girl named Sara. Originally my friend Geoff had been flirting with her. This was not the only time a girl he wanted would choose me instead. She confessed a deep attraction for me eventually. But being so far away from each other, there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing really happened between us while we were there anyway. Besides, my friends and I had the whole French Quarter ahead of us.
A bowl game and the New Year holiday brought a large number of people to the area. It also brought out more criminals, and not the quick and dirty kind that pilfer hotel rooms. Among the first things we saw was the police beating on a suspect they had pulled over. We also encountered a game of three card monty. Unfortunately, the rigged nature of this game makes it impossible to win. Equally unfortunate, one of our band members thought she could win, and lost $80. There’s no shortage of people trying to sell you things in the French Quarter. We encountered a market overflowing with cheap shirts, hats and incense. Yes, we had some late-night incense sessions back in the hotel. Others had some late-night alcohol sessions as the local merchants welcomed the business, no matter how young the buyer. Our bus driver, on bus number six, drove manically around the city, often running red lights, and frequently jamming to 1970s-era funk and disco.
We did not achieve much sleep over the course of the trip. But when I tried to sleep, around 3:00 a.m., Geoff, who was on the floor that night, started to grab my sheets. This freaked me out, as Geoff had been asleep for some time. He had that blank look in his eyes as if his body worked independently of his mind. Davis and Matt, the others in my room, felt equally disturbed. We determined Geoff was sleepwalking as he tried to grab my sheets. He claims he doesn’t remember any such event.
Betwixt the shopping and band practices, the organizers did hold a New Year’s party for us. This is where I met Sara, or rather, this is where Geoff met Sara and made the mistake of introducing her to me. But the whole reason we went was to march at the Sugar Bowl-- January 1st, 1994. West Virginia took on Florida in that game, or at least they tried. Florida won the game 41-7. We got to practice the mass-band routine on the field beforehand, but with a filled stadium, it’s quite different. The Superdome is a pretty nice facility. During the second half, we did try to take some souvenirs (like the ABC Sugar Bowl banners), but the people who swiped them chickened out. We thought about going for the only Saints playoff banner, or Pete Maravich’s banner, but the stadium security would’ve considered that a crime worthy of the electric chair.
We rode the same sleeper buses back to Lawrence. We got back in time for school, but I didn’t go. No one did. I went back to sleep and woke up around 4:00 p.m.