Fergus Falls band braves cold, exhaustion, sickness to play for president
They marched on through frostbite and exhaustion. They ignored the flu and the scrutiny of television cameras as they belted out their peppy version of the "Yankee Doodle." And they summoned their sharpest sound for President Barack Obama - even though he had his back turned.
The members of the Fergus Falls High School Marching Band and their directors want to remember their taxing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., exactly as it was. They savored every bitterly cold, adrenaline-packed second of it.
The 120-member band was one of about 90 musical acts from across the country to land a spot in the parade, out of a record 1,380 applicants.
"It was the coldest, most grueling, most exciting parade in my life," said color guard captain Megan Rasmussen, a senior.
The day started at 5 a.m. in Carlisle, Pa., a roughly two-hour drive away from the Washington, D.C., and the closest place the band had found accommodations. The group had had a string of sightseeing-packed days and late nights - and a stint on the CBS "Morning Show" along with singer Stevie Wonder - but the energy level was high as band members boarded the buses.
By mid-morning, the band was at the Pentagon for its security check. Then, the band was shuttled in a massive motorcade to a staging area in the Ellipse, a grassy circle between the National Mall and the White House. There, the band embarked on a pre-parade warm-up - and a desperate campaign to keep warm against the freezing wind.
The young musicians sang their pep tunes, huddled together in warming communal hugs and ran quick dashes across the grass. Just as they were raring to go, they got word the parade would start an hour and a half late.
Finally, the band headed out on Constitution Avenue, where shivering spectators dotted the sidewalks.
By then, the group was all windblown faces, fingers numb from cold under thin gloves and lips hugging freezing mouthpieces. Several band members were battling a bad case of the flu, and a drummer persevered through a debilitating migraine.
"At that point, some of the kids were hurting, they were so cold," said band director Scott Kummrow. "They really needed to be energized."
That's when band members caught a glimpse of their parents and chaperones, exploding in cheers behind the barricades and yelling they were proud of them.
"We greeted them, and they greeted us back by cranking up the music," said Tom Kummrow, a former school board member and Scott's dad. "It was really special."
The band headed onto a bustling, loud Pennsylvania Avenue in an upbeat formation. Then, the group took a right onto 15th Street, the no-play zone right before musical acts stepped in front of the president's stand. Band Director Jim Iverson walked among the students, giving them one final pep talk.
"Our kids were tough and determined," Iverson said. "There was no way they would not finish the parade."
Back on Pennsylvania, they approached the review stand and were suddenly caught in a flood of blinding lights. They could see Obama in the stand. By then, they had played their minute-long "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as many as 20 times on the parade, but they brought forth another fresh, sharp version.
Their white uniforms setting them off against the darkness, the students marched in a neat rectangle by the president. At that point, Obama and the new First Lady were shaking hands and visiting with guests to the review stand - something the players couldn't help noticing.
Most students put the episode in perspective.
"We understood he had been there for a long time," said senior Sarah Lyngdy. "And we knew he could hear us the whole time."
As the exhausted group moved on, they faced their biggest, rowdiest, most spirited crowd yet about 100 yards farther down on Pennsylvania. The students rallied once more. The crowd joined in song.
Before the parade, the directors had instructed the students to drop out if they were feeling unwell. Other groups shed stragglers all along the route, but all Fergus Falls performers made it to the end. Kummrow offered to carry the drum of a student with severe flu the 10 blocks to the buses, but he refused.
Back on the bus, a couple of moms who are nurses attended to frostbite on fingers and toes. Then, everybody swapped memories from the trip.
"Everything went perfectly," Kummrow said. "I couldn't be prouder of those kids. All the hard work really paid off."