The Great Bermuda Short Scandal
In today’s society a person would have to appear in public almost as uncovered as a new-born babe to get arrested on a charge of indecent exposure. That was not the case as the 20th Century rolled past the halfway mark on its road to another millennium. “Bikinis,” mini-skirts, and “Short shorts” for women may have been lurking in the back of some fashion designer’s mind but you still couldn’t find them in stores. As for men, well, at that point in time not only would no “real man” eat quiche, he would also never be caught in public anywhere other than at the ol’ swimming hole wearing anything that exposed any skin below his knees. Not, at least, in “Middle America.” When “Bermuda Shorts” finally appeared in the men’s clothing departments, only geeks and those suspected of having atypical gender preferences bought them. As the `50’s slogged toward the `60’s, although it was still considered “avant garde” and maybe a little naughty, men were occasionally seen in public with their knee caps exposed for all to see. If, though, a guy wanted to appear “dressed up” while wearing Bermuda shorts he wore over-the-calf stockings.
And that was the way life was in the fall of 1957 when I signed on to be the band director in Altamont, a small, rural town in Central Illinois. (As a sort of “footnote remark” my salary for 11 months service, including a summer weekly concert series on the town “square,” which was actually a triangle, was $4,300.00.) Like most farmland areas of the time, Altamont and its school patrons were conservative by nature. They were solid, God-fearing, primarily German-Lutherans with a sprinkling of Catholics as leaven; a huge majority sported surnames such as Kuhl, Quandt, Wendt, Gieseking, Wendling, Wolff, and Grobengeiser.
The traditional way a school band director in those days enticed new students to join, and existing ones to stay in the band until they graduated, was to find “fun and exciting” things for the high school band to do. So as I neared the end of my first year and the “season” to recruit new band members and entice the existing ones to sign up for band the following year, I began thinking of ways to make “being in the band” attractive.
Since I had spent three years near Chicago as a member of The Fifth Army Band, I knew that every August the Chicago Tribune newspaper sponsored an extravaganza in “Soldier Field” called “The Chicagoland Music Festival.” They brought in some big names in musical entertainment as “headliners” but they also invited a number of high school bands be a part of the show. A trip to Chicago would certainly motivate my high school band kids. Not only would they participate in a huge musical production, they would also spend a night in a hotel in Chicago’s “Loop. I talked the school superintendent into springing for a couple of school buses to make the 500 mile round trip and sold the idea of the trip to the Band Boosters Club. They agreed to pay a good part of other expenses. This was shaping up to be the most exciting thing the Altamont High School Band had ever done.
Like most high schools, the AHS Band had nice uniforms; but they were designed for the cool nights of football games, parades and durability. Chicago in August can be a humid, stifling place. Not a place where the kids would be comfortable in heavy winter uniforms. But I had another motive: I wanted to maximize the “shock and awe” of this experience. I wanted to make a big, positive impression on kids and parents alike. I took an idea to the Executive Committee of the Band Boosters Club and persuaded them to agree to have the band adopt a “different” uniform for this trip and for its annual appearance at the county fair. My idea was to have them wear black Bermuda shorts topped off by white short-sleeved shirts. To make this uniform even more spectacular those shorts would have orange letters one inch tall sewn in line down the right seam. The letters would be made of felt and spell out the word “ALTAMONT.”
I was told many times over the course of my career that I made myself a “lightning rod” by introducing and promoting what some considered radical innovations of various kinds. (Such as forbidding the winning team of our basketball tournament to cut off the “net” at the end of the tournament because I believed it was a form of “gloating” over the loser and encouraged poor sportsmanship.) If it was true that I did bring lightning down upon myself, I know when the first “bolt” struck. It was right after our weekly newspaper printed a picture of a couple of band kids in their “new” summer uniforms. I had not reckoned with the fundamental conservatism that formed the bedrock beliefs of some of Altamont’s citizens.
Soon after that picture was published, a wave of righteous indignation washed over the Band Boosters Club and the band director. Words such as “vulgar,” “indecent” and “scandalous” were used to describe the new look that club and I had adopted. The Band Boosters’ president and I were the primary targets of scorn and displeasure. Thanks to the influence of a strong-willed lady who presided over the club, a supportive school superintendent, and a meeting between the protesters and the Band Booster Club, the wave receded. The “new look” was grudgingly accepted. Sadly I have no pictures of the band in that “shocking” uniform. However our appearance at the county fair preceded the big trip to Chicago and the overall consensus of those who saw the band on parade at the fair was positive.
The trip itself came off without incident. The Altamont band appeared on the football field in Chicago’s Soldier Field. There was an afternoon rehearsal followed by the actual show under the stadium lights. Had it not been for our distinctive uniforms the Altamont band, especially since it was one of the smaller ones there, would have been lost in the sea of other high school bands. They weren’t. The band kids came away proud and thrilled that they had been a part of such a spectacle.
Following the nighttime performance, our school busses took us to our hotel in “The Loop” and the kids presumably bedded down for the night. The following morning, according to plans we had made at home, the kids were formed into groups of 3 or 4 and “turned loose” in downtown Chicago, with no chaperones, for a few hours to do as they pleased.
Sitting here today, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, I think back in wonder as I poignantly contemplate the changes in our society. Any teacher who would turn several dozen high school kids “loose” in the downtown section of ANY major American city today would soon find himself in court facing charges of, at least, child endangerment. In August of 1958 the only incident that marred this grand adventure was “The Great Bermuda Short Scandal. “
I love this Don. What a great picture of those times. You depict the way it was to perfection and unreal clarity. I wish I had that kind of recall ability but grateful you do. I'm now headed to read the follow up chapters of this one. Something is waiting I just know it.