I was sitting on my front porch in Millerton, New York, a village two hours north of the city but light years removed from it, when I heard the sounds of a concert band whose brassy notes drifted over my neighbors’ trees and lured me, like a siren-song, down to the center of town. As I walked down the hill, the music grew louder. It was an astounding piece of music: an emotional, evocative tone poem that changed keys, changed tempos, changed moods, the brass pulling me into depths, the woodwinds pulling me out, the tympani accenting each musical emotion. It was a killer. It was clearly being performed by a world-class concert band.
When I reached the lawn of the Simmons Way Inn, with its bright yellow façade restored to nineteenth century perfection, I saw that the musicians were not wearing tuxedos and dresses, or jackets and boaters. They were wearing the gray and white fatigues of the 42nd Infantry Division Band, The Rainbow Division of the National Guard, based in Camp Smith, over in Cortland Manor. They were playing modern composer Steven Reineke’s Pilatus: Mountain of the Dragons, beneath a soaring pine tree, the shadows dappling the grass, sun glinting off the bells of the trombones. They were surrounded by people on lawnchairs, people on blankets, people standing under trees for the shade.
Across the street, shopkeepers were poking their heads out of doors to listen to the music. Up on the porch of the inn, people had set up chairs. On Main Street, wandering couples out for a Sunday village stroll with their babies were pulled in like moths to a musical flame. It was all like some Technicolor dream of the way things used to be in small-town America, only better. I glanced around at the crowd. I saw a Middle Eastern woman in a white headscarf. I saw tee-shirted vets. I saw a woman in a white linen dress and straw hat dressed like the matron of a country manse. I saw young couples whose dress and hair spoke clearly of New York weekenders who’d just bought their farmhouse in Columbia County, or in Colebrook, or Stanfordville, sitting next to a Millertonian couple whose ancestors founded my railroad town. I saw two little giggling girls running around with balloon animals, One was white. One was black.
And there was concert music being played by soldiers who, a few years ago, were stationed in the Iraq city of Tikhrit, the battle at the height of the ugliest fighting. They were the first national guard unit to be deployed overseas since the Korean War. But on this day, politics played no role in the proceedings. Pride did.
The band took a break, and a half-dozen of them broke into a new incarnation, their Latin group known as Combo Libertad. That group gave way to the 42d Division’s rock band, Three Day Pass, who broke into, of all things, a faithful version of a Green Day song, with Sergeant John Lastella, a trombonist, seizing the vocals: Army playing punk! And not badly at all. They followed it with a faithful rendition of Come On Eileen, a great hit for Dexy’s Midnight Runners in the eighties.
To my left, a couple started dancing. The woman was young and pretty, wearing, tight black leggings. The man was in his seventies at least, and handsome. He looked a little like Burt Lancaster. He was white-haired, white-mustached, with a purple shirt, shorts and black ankle socks, and he was grinning as he danced.
When the rock band finished their set, I took a break to wander the village. The shops and streets were deserted. All of Millerton had assembled at the bucolic center of town for the music. I got back to my spot just in time for the second half of the show: the patriotic-themed selections. Sergeant Jennifer Lucas took the microphone, her stomach bulging beneath her uniform; she was seven and a half months pregnant.
She sang a medley called “The Ultimate Patriotic Sing-Along:” The U.S. Air Force song, the Navy song, the army song, and the marine anthem, With each song, various members of the audience rose, in accordance with their particular affiliation or sympathy. I rose for the Marine anthem. My dad was in the Marines’ First Division in the Second World War. I myself would have dodged the draft if my lottery number had been draftable. It wasn’t.
But then I grew up, and wrote a book about him that took me back to all his South Pacific battlefields, the jungles still littered with rusting hulks of amphibious vehicles and bullet casings, and my feeling about military uniforms changed. When I got a letter from an old marine who’d read my book who told me I could now officially call myself a marine, and signed it Semper Fi, it was one of the highlights of my life.
After the concert, I spoke to some of the musicians. Sergeant Lastella, the vocalist of the rock band, told me that Three Day Pass worked on the rock stuff “after hours.” I remarked that the 42nd infantry band had a lot of offshoots, music-wise: “Whatever the mission calls for,” he said, laughing.
In the case of the 42nd, it called for two things back in Tikhrit. The first was security. But they had a secondary duty, Sergeant Lucas told me. The band played to entertain the rest of the soldiers. They played as troops shipped out to go home, and new troops came in. And they played whenever an Iraqi national security guard class graduated into combat level efficiency. And now they were playing for my hometown.
Then I asked her about the patch on all of their shoulder: only half a rainbow, but with no colors. The Rainbow Division had initially gotten its name from Douglas MacArthur, who had observed that its members came from cities and town all across the land, stretching across the United States like a rainbow. It was the first division in its corps to enter Germany. It seized 6,000 square miles of Nazi Germany.
Sergeant Lucas told me that the rainbow symbol on her shoulder was cut in half, and drained of color, because the division had lost so many soldiers in Europe.
As the band packed up its instruments, and my friends and neighbors folded their blankets, I lingered on the lawn, savoring the moment, and thinking about how lucky we’d been in my little village, to have been reminded by 40 extraordinary men and women of the uniting power of music, and pride. We may not have a gazebo or a bandstand or a carousel, like those cinematic depictions of Everytown USA, but we have something realer: a village of neighbors, and friends. Of merchants. Of migrants. Of shopkeepers and city folk, who bonded one afternoon to celebrate American sacrifice — and American rebirth: Sergeant Lucas’ husband and her father were in that band, too. She’ll be having that first baby in a few weeks, and I have no doubt it will someday wear the uniform of the 42nd.
The last soldier I talked to was the man who had wielded the baton, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Kimes. I thanked him.
“No, thank _you_,” he said, with a very wide smile. “It was a great crowd, and it was a great setting. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Then the band packed into its bus and traveled a half-mile down the road, to the Legion Hall where, I imagine, a few of them tipped a few elbows at the hall’s bar. I even thought of going in – after all, unofficially, I was a marine. But no. I’m not military. That’s sacred ground. But I am from Millerton, and on this day, that felt pretty good.