Ten and a half years ago, I was nearing the end of my senior season of high school marching band. Competition had played a big role in my band experience, and for a long time I’d held the belief that being in a competitive band was the most important thing to me. I’d planned to seek a university with a prestigious, high-precision marching band – one that would capture that adrenaline rush of competition despite the fact that college bands don’t generally go in for that sort of thing.
As a senior, though, I began to recognize that there was a more important purpose for a marching band. The competitions were something that had been dreamed up as a way to feather schools’ and directors’ caps. A marching band truly existed to entertain people, and the most entertaining band I knew was right there in my own backyard: the “pride of Idaho,” Boise State’s Blue Thunder Marching Band.
I applied for Blue Thunder no less than three times, each carefully handwritten packet disappearing into David A. Well’s bottomless black attache never to be seen again, before wising up and mailing a fourth application directly to the offices. That one made it to Catherine’s desk, and I was a member of Blue Thunder – a nameless, nervous little kid of a member in a thirteen-person saxophone section that all seemed much worldlier than I’d ever be. Band camp was an all-new brand of brutality as the temperature rose past 110 degrees on the stadium asphalt. In high school, they’d been careful not to have any kids get too hot and tired during camp. Here, we were expected to be adults and suck it up. I loved it.
And then it was the first game, the first performance on the weird cerulean plastic-lei turf rolling across the field. What words are there to describe the first time you hurtle out of the tunnel onto the track, praying not to trip on a cord or at the uneven place between lanes 2 and 3? What words to quantify the roar of the crowd, the pounding in your chest that might be your heart or might be a line of twenty percussionists beating out the cadence to “Russian Christmas Music”? What words to capture that weightless feeling in your gut, the fear that you’ll mess up, the exhilaration that you are a part of something this big, this loud?
Blue Thunder was and is an unlikely beast, a dead program resurrected by a beer-philanthropist’s money and a director’s dream. Dave Wells was 48 years old when his new marching band first took the field in Bronco Stadium. When I met him, he was almost sixty; he claimed eight or nine wives, depending on when you asked, and was legendary as a “dirty old man” that scared the freshmen to the point that most wouldn’t ask him a question. I’ve always had problems with naivete, but it didn’t take me too long to realize that he’d really only had the one wife and that he wasn’t quite as scary or as dirty as he seemed. Dave was just a guy who enjoyed what he was doing far too much to worry about what other people thought.
I fell hard for Blue Thunder, and I fell hard for Dave. These often felt like unrequited affairs, to be honest. Blue Thunder could be a cruel mistress – after all, it was made up of young adults at the height of their self-interested years – and anyone who depended upon clear signs of affection from Dave was doomed to disappointment. My affection for him gave him enormous power to cut me, and there were times when I couldn’t honestly say whether I liked him at all. This was exacerbated when I joined his staff – if Dave was a challenge as a director, he was a terror as a boss. Still, he inspired the same loyalty that he had when I’d been eighteen and clueless. (And I’m grateful, in a perverse sort of way, for the armadillo-thick skin I grew in his employ. It has come in handy.)
Twice, we all realized what we stood to lose: once, when he had his heart rebuilt, and later, in the chaotic moments after the Fiesta Bowl. We joked that Dave was indestructible, like Twinkies or cockroaches, but deep down we knew that things were changing. Then came the 2008 season, half of which he spent in the hospital with a feeding tube and a tumor clinching his esophagus. He returned, and set the band to playing that gut-wrenching jazz funeral march. The first time I heard it, like really heard it, I was in the stands collapsing the drum stands. I froze, looking down at the band as they paraded toward the band building, and heard Dave’s voice from years before: “When I die, they’re gonna have to bury me right there on the fifty, playing ‘Americans We'” – the name of the march changed from year to year, depending on which we were playing that season. I knew what the band was playing.
On those rare days after church when I’d catch up with Dave before he hurried out the door, we’d all stand or sit in the walkway and he’d ask about our jobs, offering some classic-Dave sentiment of encouragement. I wish I’d thought to ask him about his spirituality, about what he really believed after all those years as a demigod on the blue turf. He came to the Methodist church only when his preferred pastor was preaching, watched evangelical ministers on television, married band couples with his online ordination, and taught his “children” with a hodgepodge, Lombardi-esque philosophy peppered with ideas he pulled from self-help audiobooks. After the fact, someone told me that he’d made his peace with God and had been ready. This, from a man who never seemed to be at peace, who was never content to sit back and relax… what led him to readiness? What helped him realize, mid-dream, that he’d done enough? And why, now that he is at rest, do I feel like a wall has been erected between me and my sense of God?
This is a grief that hasn’t yet settled into its tidy compartment in my brain. I’ve felt broken since the day I learned that Dave was abruptly gone. It’s like getting in a car accident, the kind that ruins your car but doesn’t send you to the hospital. You look okay on the surface, sometimes you even feel okay, but then you realize that your whole body aches in ways you didn’t know were possible. I’ll be blithely moving along, living my life, and then BAM! Out of nowhere, the pain hits. It’s an angry sort of pain, which makes it worse, not the least because I don’t entirely understand why I’m angry. There’s a lot of regret mixed up in it, a lot of mourning – not only for Dave, but for moments I’d imagined that will never take place. I’d pictured introducing him to my child, inviting him to see me hooded. I’d envisioned a day down the road when I might become an extraordinary teacher, win some award, and have him sit at the awards table with my family because after all, it’s really his fault I’m a teacher.
And I regret, in a small way, not being able to do as others did and speak directly to Dave at the funeral. I knew I’d fall apart, and I’ve never been good at crying in public. I couldn’t say that I loved him. Instead, I did what I thought he would have wanted: I picked up his torch and did my best to pass it down the line. Say what you will about Dave, but he was inspirational – and I meant every word I said, including the streaked underpants reference I edited out at the last minute. It was important to me to say it, and after I’m done rambling here I’ll say it again.
I feel like I have lost a grandfather – an often infuriating, distant grandfather with too many grandkids to pay any one of us much attention, who nevertheless made you feel like the Only Most Specialest One when he tuned in to you. And maybe I was special to him. The last time I spoke to him, although I didn’t know it at the time, he told me good-bye. He was getting up to leave, and must have noticed my reluctance to see him go, because he squeezed my hand and said, “I’ll see you again. We’re too good of family to not see each other again.”
Today would have been David A. Wells’s 70th birthday, and I’m crying – for him, for my grammy, for Dr. Ryder and Mr. Fout and the other people who meant something and are gone. It hurts. There’s a little kid inside me who doesn’t think this is fair, who doesn’t understand any of this. And on the outside there’s a woman who knows that I can’t give Dave a gift for his birthday, who knows that I can’t have him back so that I can tell him that I inexplicably loved him, so that the next generation of kids could experience the craziness and charisma he brought to the field. That woman figures she became a teacher and a writer for a reason, and that maybe she needs to suck it up and stop crying for a past that she can’t reclaim but may be able to share.
At others’ request, I’ll end this, and begin, with what I said before:
I’ve done graduate work in English, and I can tell you that this is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write. I could go on for an awful long time about the impact this man had on my life, but then again, so could all of you, and then we’d be here ‘til band camp.
This man was a teacher, a coach, a mentor, and a friend. Moreover, David A. Wells was a force of nature. I guess it’s only fitting that he slipped away from us on an afternoon filled with crazy weather. Thunder, tornadoes, cloudbursts, double rainbows – yep, sounds like a Blue Thunder halftime.
Dave made his own way and he made his own rules. I can’t imagine that he ever let anyone in this world tell him what to think – with the exception, fortunately, of the extraordinarily good woman he was lucky enough to marry. He carved canyons through convention and built mountains out of nothing.
Dave taught us that 100% is just the starting point.
He taught us to have a big dream.
He taught us that if you really want something, it won’t be impossible.
He taught us that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
He taught us that there are some things in life worth standing up for – and most of them are people.
No one here will deny that he made his share of mistakes, but I can’t think of one of them that wasn’t made out of a surplus of love.
No; once Hurricane Dave came through our lives, we were never the same.
There’s a saying about great teachers. There are several variations, one of which has to do with ripples in a pond – that you can never see where the impact of a great teacher will end, because it keeps rippling out forever. I started to hunt down the exact quote to use today, but then I realized that it wasn’t really an appropriate metaphor. David was many things, but subtle? He wasn’t a ripples-in-the-pond sort of guy…
Then I was thinking about my earliest days in Blue Thunder, and I remembered the band standing in the bowels of the stadium trying to come up with enough dynamic contrast to satisfy Dave. He wanted us to master something he was calling a Wellzando. Now, if you’re a musician but aren’t familiar with the Wellzando, I can explain. A Wellzando is what happens when a sforzando and a forte-piano fall in love and do many things they’ll later regret. The band slams into the note with everything it’s got, abruptly drops away to nothing at all, and then builds and builds and builds until this massive wall of sound rattles the concrete and probably registers on the seismograph across campus. The Wellzando was designed to deafen the people in the nosebleed seats, so you can imagine how powerful and sometimes gut-wrenching it was from within the band itself. It’s a simple enough concept, but some afternoons I thought we’d never get it just right.
I believe that we’re in the middle of the perfect Wellzando right now.
David A. lived his life at full bore. He gave it absolutely everything he had, and then he gave some more. Just this past month, he was planning a reunion tour of the Idaho All-Star Band, determined not to let a little thing like cancer and retirement stand in the way of giving kids another opportunity. His whole life was played at fortissimo – feet apart, chest out, eyes brimming over with pride.
And then, out of nowhere – silence.
Or not quite silence, because as soon as the roar that was David’s life dropped away, there was a rumbling. One person learned the news. Then another. Phones rang. Email inboxes flooded. Facebook went nuts. Dozens, then hundreds, of people coming together in person or over the wires to share their thoughts and memories of this man, this force of nature. The music built.
And out of the chaos, I think we can all hear a single rich chord swelling and growing. Dave was the spark that lit a thousand fires. We – all of us – are the crescendo. We are the second part of the Wellzando, growing stronger without any cut-off in sight. This is the gift that Dave left each of us, and that we will continue giving. We are stronger and better people because of the hard road he set us on. We are an impassioned people because he made us believe. And because he shared his spark with us, and because that spark is too bright to keep to ourselves, David A. never has to die. We can keep his legacy alive for all eternity.
There are no words to express the gratitude we all feel for having shared the road with David A., but then again, he was always more of a man of action. Our God blessed us with you, Dave, and we’ll give ’em hell for you. We always did, and we always will.
Happy Birthday, David A.