Mr. Goff. Not “Tommy Goff” or “Tommy” or some dorky nickname — Mr. Goff didn’t have nicknames. A bandmate once made the mistake of calling him Mr. Goof — nobody ever said that again. No, there was nothing else really conceivable: he was Mr. Goff. He was the best teacher I ever had, and one of the handful of truly extraordinary people I’ve met in life — and a legion of former students scattered over the world would say the same.
Mr. Goff remains as one of the indelible sentries standing guard over the first era of my life — that epoch of the 50s and 60s that’s really beginning to feel like a work of fiction. When I was in the sixth grade the Beatles came out, and I became fascinated with drums. Of truly awe-inspiring phenomena in my life, one would easily be the Auburn High School marching band — that is, the column of drummers playing their cadences as the spruce corps came swaying down the street. Ken Young. Jack Marshall, James Jones (aka “Morticia” — and there was something cadaverous about him). And, above all, the legendary Stonewall Breyer — percussionist extraordinaire, and the first person over whom I was starstruck. My buddy Grady Hawkins and I used to march down Gay Street pretending to be drummers, and I could imagine nothing finer. Ray Havron, Bill Dyas, Joe Herbert, and I formed a rockin’ combo, playing soc hops and twist parties, but the driving ambition of my life was to be a drummer in the AHS band myself.
Seventh grade — after being clawed from my mother’s grasp the first day of kindergarten, the second great transition of my life. Your own locker, with a combination you had to memorize, changing classes, PE, the melding of all the grammar schools into the common pool of junior high and an entire new wrangle over the pecking order — and, for some of us, band tryouts. Half the kids trying out for band wanted to be drummers — no doubt that’s typical, and an aberration quickly corrected by fate and nature. The tryouts consisted of one’s having a go at the various mouthpieces, and then Mr. Goff tapping out a rhythm that one had to repeat — just hands on legs — he would no more have put drumsticks in our hands at that point than you’d put a stick of dynamite in a baby’s. I passed, but so did plenty of others — the nucleus of what would become the drum corps over the next six years, as well as the pretenders: Leigh Cannon, Paula Reynolds, Gloria Liverman, and, unforgettably, Jimmy Posey with his unibrow and high-dollar drumpad. Too many idle thirteen year old drummers tend to be annoying if you’re trying to teach a random collection of village riff-raff who have never held an instrument to make music, and we were forever being punished. Banishment outside (the briar patch). Push-ups. Running laps around the band room. I can still see Paula Reynolds’ head bobbing past the front windows. That cramped building — tucked behind Samford Avenue school, band room on one end, Miss Bright’s music room (more like a closet) on the other, with photographs of the different instruments of the orchestra being held by musicians who all looked like Nazi doctors — has not survived. Except in memory. Seventh period! We began to learn about music, but the drummers had a lot of dangerous down time. Once we climbed up into the attic from the shelves in the instrument room and looked down through a hole in the ceiling at our bandmates playing chorales. Neither that, nor the time we were outside and licked leaves and stuck them to our faces, and cut off twigs and branches and wedged them in our hair, glasses, belts, shoes, and pockets, then walked in, went over big.
Even then, in 1964, Mr. Goff had a nascent sense of legend about him — and it shocks me when I do the math: he was thirty-one years old! Destiny had given him a chance shot at the job in 1956, and he had seized it, done a stint in the Army in the late 50s, then come back and started putting together outstanding bands. He had an air of the military about him. The band had officers, rules, the meritocracy of chair tryouts, demerits. The last were severe, not given out lightly, and if you got one — as I did, several times — you had to play it off. For a drummer, you, a snare drum, a piece of Haskell Harr (another Nazi doctor) music, that little office with the tuning machines that looked like something out of Flash Gordon, and Mr. Goff. I can still get a little tight in the throat when I think about it. In memory I see Stonewall Breyer’s trap set — oyster black pearl Ludwigs, just like Ringo’s — set up on the side of that small room, with strict orders not to touch them. The senior band had a Dixieland group, Stonewall a force of nature on drums, who played “Tiger Rag” at the supper concerts, one of the thrills of my life. One day fellow drummer Bill French and I found ourselves in the band room somehow alone, and I swear the devil made us do it — we each took a turn behind those things, murdering them. What a rush! If Mr. Goff had caught us he would have killed us. He possessed an innate air of command and authority. You didn’t break his rules, you didn’t slack, you didn’t come into his environs with anything that even resembled disrespect. You, and everybody else, tried as hard as you could, and gave him something beyond what was natural. I don’t know how or why. You just did. He was Mr. Goff. People who couldn’t do that didn’t stay in the band.
In fact, as we moved toward ninth grade, plenty of people did fall out — most of the would-be drummers, obviously, but others too, who didn’t practice and didn’t care. I can remember Mr. Goff using the phrase “dead wood.” In need of pruning. Bill French had come from Cary Woods school — I from Wright’s Mill — and in the beginning there had been a bit of rivalry between us — which lasted just long enough for his superiority to be unmistakable, about ten minutes. He was already an exceptional percussionist, as he is today. He made a much better friend than rival and I never envied, always admired, him. Our junior high band, rich in talent, achieved several firsts, including first halftime show, first playing of the national anthem at an assembly, though the latter was marred by a botched opening drum roll; the senior drum major, David Hill, I think, gave the signal, and it was one of those situations where everybody waited a fatal microsecond for the other guy to do it, resulting in an indecisive feeble patter that had to be waved dead for a second try — to that point, one of the most embarrassing moments of my life — superseded a couple of years later when we set up six trap sets on stage for six drum solos on “Watermelon Man” and made the mistake of letting Bill go first, who played something so mind-boggling we lost the time and degenerated into chaotic mush. I crawled to school the following Monday.
Senior band tryouts took stress to a new level. The drummers had to play that Haskell Harr standard, “The Downfall of Paris.” (Maybe he was a Nazi doctor and the piece was triumphant — never occurred to me then.) For some reason I missed my scheduled appointment and — why, I can’t remember — ended up playing it on my Haskell Harr book on the concrete bench under the pecan tree in front of the band room. Me and Mr. Goff. I remember him being in a good mood that day — which, given my less than astonishing playing, probably helped. Anyway, I was in — and as always with achieving a dream, the fleeting gratification gave way almost immediately to the weight of the new responsibilities.
Our class inaugurated the new high school in 1967, but the band room wasn’t finished, so that fall we rehearsed in the old band room, then drove over to the practice field at the new school for marching. The five-minute drive accommodated the smokers perfectly. One afternoon we were driving over with senior drummer Steve Pitts; Bill French had prepared a cigarette for him — Pitts took it, it flopped limply with an obvious firecracker fuse hanging out the end. “Goddam, French,” said Pitts, matter of factly, tossing it and lighting another.
In August we went to Band Camp, over in Pine Mountain. It was here that we laid the foundation for the fall marching campaign, learned a lot of new music, and bonded as a group. We practiced marching twice a day, in the August sun. I don’t remember a drop of rain ever at Band Camp. Our freshman year we were still playing pieces like “The Continental” and “Never on Sunday” in our halftime shows; that quickly graduated to “Alfie,” “The Look of Love,” “Yesterday,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “The Teaberry Shuffle,” with dancing band — all Mr. Goff’s arrangements and a different show every week. The first couple of years, 1967-8, we came on field with “Dixie Entry,” a real crowd pleaser and Mr. Goff original, that succumbed to the sensibility of the era. We worked hard. “Don’t be alarmed by that wet stuff on your skin,” Mr. Goff would say. “It’s called sweat. It won’t hurt you.” And to anyone who considered wimpery in the face of a scolding: “That mean Mr. Goff! But that’s okay, my mama loves me.” A prime candidate for such a scolding would have been Milton Hutchinson, trombone, who just couldn’t seem to get the marching-in-step business right. I can still hear Mr. Goff calling out the steps as we marched: “Left, right, Milton Hutchinson, left, right, Milton Hutchinson.”
In the drummer cabin, Bill French, Kevin White, Mike Cadenhead, and I for some reason took our cots, folded the legs under them, laid them across the rafters, and slept up there. We always had illicit reading material in Band Camp. One year it was My Secret Life and Naked Lunch, the latter with its immortal sentence: “He grin and fart.” You simply can’t give sixteen year old boys a sentence like that. The book also introduced us to the word “rim” in a new context, and lent some spice to the “rim-tap” we did as the band filed somewhere. Once Mr. Goff counted off, “one-two-three-rim!” and we collapsed.
We also rehearsed in concert set-up under the pavilion — more chorales and more drummers fit for the devil’s workshop. Mr. Goff had an amazing ear. I can picture his bit-into-a-lemon face as he heard something out of tune. He would wave the band dead, usually with an oblivious straggler playing an extra measure, drawing a frown (I learned the phrase “peripheral vision” from Mr. Goff), then point impatiently at the players in whatever section had offended, one by one, until he found the culprit, at which point he would writhe in his chair, grimace in agony, then bend the malefactor back into the natural world. I remember him teaching us about accent with the phrase “What is this thing called love?” What? Is this thing called love? What is this thing called love? What is this thing called love? What is this thing called love? What is this thing called — love? What is this thing called love? Another feature of Band Camp was sectionals — which we of course called sexuals. The drummers went down to an amphitheater by the lake, where we enjoyed the immense good fortune of having the now-graduated Stonewall Breyer as our instructor. He would arrive at Band Camp in his little sports car with his full trap set, which he set up in his cabin. I could have stood there watching him play forever. Our job in sectionals was to learn the cadences, which we did with enormous pride. Some, like “Mambo,” we inherited, others like “Talk, Talk” we made up, or one of us wrote, such as Rob Rainey’s “Rob’s Rim” — what else? — or Stonewall taught us — most memorably “7/8,” which he adapted from Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” into very clever interlocking snare and tenor parts. It’s hard to believe Mr. Goff let us use it; I guess it was just too rich, he couldn’t resist it. He told the band just to block it out and keep marching left/right until it ended and something more sane, in four, returned. When we were freshmen, senior Bob Greenleaf (clarinet in concert season, an excellent musician) played bass drum in our corps; from tenth grade on, it was George Whelchel (stand-up bass in concert season, also an excellent musician), whose approach to playing could only be called boogeying. We had soul. I just attended George’s funeral last month. Shocking — a real loss. A kind and talented man. Everywhere we went we were a million times better than the other drummers — often girls with hair hanging down their backs — scandalous! — a prestige we enjoyed, and it’s easy to see now we owed, at heart, to Mr. Goff.
One year at Band Camp things got a little rowdy one evening — marauding gangs of boys infiltrated the girls’ areas, and I think water balloons may have been involved. When the chaperones finally reined in the chaos, one of them, Mr. Allison, a tall, wiry, generally very pleasant man who probably said two hundred words a year, was moved, given the extreme circumstances, to deliver a scolding that became legend. “I’ve got two daughters,” he seethed. “One of them’s away at school, the other one’s here at Band Camp. Where’s she at? I don’t know where she’s at! Has she been raped?” The number of dramatic performances of that speech, with lowered glasses and imaginary cigarette, is rivaled only by Cats.
Something else I remember about Band Camp — an important lesson learned. Wisely, we were granted plenty of recreation time, and toward the end of our stay we always had a skit night. In our skit one year a Nazi commander, sitting behind a desk, is waiting for the “important papers.” People keep bringing the wrong thing and keep getting executed — by me, wearing somebody’s purple plastic Nazi helmet, and gunning them down with a machine gun stick — sound effect provided by Bill French on a snare drum off-stage. Eventually somebody brings the “right” papers — toilet paper, and the commander rises in skivvies for a trip to the john. I achieved some celebrity as “Johnny Kraut,” and I liked it so much I decided to reprise the character in a later, extemporized skit where it was no longer funny. The next year I remember Mr. Goff explaining to the new band members the desiderata of a good skit. He counseled against the ill-prepared and, yes, referenced a skit from the previous year which had gone on too long, with too little direction, and “just stunk.” My face got hot. Mr. Goff richly appreciated creative humor, and was richly aware when those two qualities did not appear. When he said something stunk, you could pretty much go to the bank with it. No one ever had better taste or timing. (Bill remembers him tapping his foot in 4/4 while clapping a retarding pace with his hands. “It still mystifies me.”) Important lesson: when something works, nail it, then leave it for good.
You can find pages of testimonials to Mr. Goff’s greatness on Caring Bridge and elsewhere. I enjoy the communal gratification of reading those, but often feel something is left out. Most mention his character and influence and so forth, but few emphasize his personality. In other words, now that he’s gone — and you have to endure the same thing at most funerals — the human being has been supplanted by his significance. In Mr. Goff’s case, what gets left out is his defining trait: he was funny. Smart funny. He was never undignified, but he had a clownish side. Not that he laughed easily — you had to impress him, which was possible only if you were pulling your weight. There wasn’t anything cheap about any of it. One of the great accomplishments of my life is that I could make Mr. Goff laugh. I’ve always been grateful that I have lived in a period of civilization where you didn’t have to slay foes but could survive by being funny. Or die trying. I guess this has always been true for court fools, and I knew from a very early age that’s basically what I was. If they don’t laugh, I’m a goner — and all my life nothing has held more terror than the concept of being not funny. A couple of job interviews where my attempted jokes were met by Mt. Rushmore academics. Mrs. Taylor, English teacher, saying that’s enough, you’ve gone too far, you’re not funny, get out in the hall — and me going, okay, I’ll be good — but too late. Mr. Elliot, assistant principal, calling me into his office to tell me in case I was wondering I was really just a pathetic weenie and not funny. Screw him. Making Mr. Goff laugh was worth something. Making anybody laugh, making me laugh, is worth something — and it’s easy to see now that’s what kept us going in those absurd adolescent years — or any years, come to think of it. I say “us” because the people who got me through high school, and that I helped get through high school, are easy to list now, and mostly still my friends. When I look back at the friendships of my life, the self-selected groups of kindred spirits, the obvious common denominator is laughter. If you want to understand people, follow the laughter. The point is, you could say Mr. Goff was exacting, demanding, an extremely effective teacher, with natural authority, and all the rest, and you wouldn’t have him at all. That could be a lot of people. Mr. Goff was part of the laughter. Which gave you the sense that though he labored under some merciless genetic imperative, somewhere deeper he was wise to the grand comedy of it all. Mr. Goff had soul.
Which is why being on his bad side was just all-around not good, and a place you really didn’t want to be.
I was a few times. A couple stand out.
One of Mr. Goff’s rules was that when practice was done and you were walking from the field back to the band room, you could not play your instrument. This rule was very simple and very clear. The real point I’m after here concerns the mystery of the adolescent mind. One day I left practice pounding away on my drum. Don’t ask me why — I can’t tell you. Later, I was told that Mr. Goff had yelled at me to stop, several times, but I had just pounded obliviously away. The demerit I got was nothing compared to the cringing mental picture I subsequently had to entertain of Mr. Goff yelling at me, and me ignoring him. Then there was a memorable State Contest. The concert band went every spring to Tuscaloosa for State Contest. Three judges rated the band’s performance, and another rated its ability in sightreading. The scores were 1 — superior, 2 — excellent, 3 — good, 4 — fair, 5 — poor, and you ended up with four numbers, one from each judge. Needless to say, for our band, four 1’s was the only acceptable score. Somewhere in the recent past a “2” lurked, like a shameful family secret, but otherwise it was all four 1’s. Stories conflict slightly, but Mr. Goff’s overall record in his thirty-two years at Auburn High School was all 1’s with, I’m pretty sure, two 2’s. Anyway, this particular year, I have a mental picture of Mr. Goff running across the parking lot by the coliseum holding up four fingers. The ecstasy that accompanied this, regrettably, spilled over that evening, while he was out enjoying a celebratory dinner, into some skirmishes at the hotel with water balloons that rapidly escalated into a full-scale war with trash cans full of water being dumped on people in their rooms and that sort of thing. Mr. Goff was called away from his dinner, and I’ll spare the hyperbole and just say he was not happy. I think the school had to pay the hotel damages. And we all got five demerits. But here’s what my tired and mature mind can’t fathom: how could I have been so stupid? And I’m not proud when I say there are a number of instances from that period of my life that demand an answer to that same question. Seems like I read somewhere that the synapses aren’t fully formed yet or something in the adolescent brain. Must not be. I will say, I deal with adolescents myself today, and I cut them a lot of slack. They are different from you and me.
We knew that in most other places being in the band was pansy, but at Auburn High School being in the band was cool. One reason for that: Mr. Goff. He gave us the gift of prestige — but the real gift he gave all of us, of course, was music. Music is the greatest of the arts — it lives more fully apart from its notation — it shapes the mind like hands shape clay — it awakens vast and rich acreage of neural connections — it pierces the soul — it embodies memory. It doesn’t indicate — it is emotion. You don’t need any research to know that an engagement with the rhythm and melody and harmony of music leads to better brain function and a richer spiritual life. And they want to take it out of the schools? This is the fundamental problem of society: the poor in spirit make the rules. Enough. When I think of the music of my high school years, a number of memories flood in. I can still feel the auditorium on a balmy April supper concert night, filled with the lush strains of Leonard Bernstein — West Side Story overture, or the overture to Candide, the latter a blitzkrieg piece of music that should have been too much for us, but wasn’t — still hear the call of the horns in the overture to Lohengrin. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, Dvorak’s From the New World, which (though composed by a little Czech man who loved trains) is itself about hope and promise and something already plaintive in the young soul of America, and was my doorway into the palace of romantic music. Jubilee march — I can still see Mr. Goff rocking back on the trio, for those few moments not conducting, but riding. The pride in his face. American Overture — in which I had a gong solo. Only one note, as gong solos tend to be. The gong doesn’t exactly lend itself to paradiddles. But a very well-placed note. Incantation and Dance — a percussion orgy, requiring a homemade slapstick made out of 1×4’s. And a ton more. It seems as though music is the one thing that time can’t erase. The people, the places, the eras fade — and what’s left? — the music — the only way, except for certain smells, you can access the past anymore, which has been reduced to a series of musical stepping stones through the dissipating vapor trail of time. Clearly, the entire human story will resolve itself, when this world is an ember, to our particular symphony — which you will catch strains of as you cruise past this vacant lot of the galaxy. I didn’t come from a particularly musical family — I wouldn’t have had any of this without Mr. Goff. Everything I know about music, which admittedly isn’t much, I owe to him. That I, a moderately talented small-town nobody, could be a part of something like this was, after all my parents gave me, probably the greatest gift of my life. And then there were the genuinely talented. I think what Mr. Goff was proudest of was the best among us (he always found them, or they him) who went on to be real musicians after high school — and there were many.
He was a much more complicated man than I understood at the time. One of the feelings I remember most vividly about being in the band was the seriousness that came over us as we neared District or State Contest. The levity shriveled, replaced by a universal concentration of body mind and soul no longer just on the pieces themselves, but on nuance, dynamics, finesse. Polish. You could see it in everybody’s face. Every ounce of everyone’s energy was concentrated on the performance. If you were given a choice between committing hari kari and letting Mr. Goff down — go ahead and get the sword. We entered the Zone, where the whole was so much greater than the sum of the parts, what came over us was and still is a mystery. Mr. Goff’s personality combined musicianship, discipline, humor, passion, and class — amazingly, this also describes the band. How he infused himself into our corps, I have no idea, but something tells me it is the secret of greatness. And it was only later that I understood what it cost him. Another key part of Mr. Goff’s make-up, which he did not infuse into the band, was a close to debilitating anxiety which I learned about later — but I do know that, difficult as it is to achieve excellence, it is far more difficult to keep it. Yes, everyone’s expectations become unsparingly distorted — but that’s nothing compared to your own. The pressure on him, within him, was immense. I guess the surprise in all this was the revelation that Mr. Goff had his own life. Apart from us, Mr. Goff’s instrument was the trumpet — I can still see it standing alone at his funeral in October 2008 — and we vaguely knew he played jazz gigs — also string bass — somewhere occasionally on weekends — he loved Count Basie! — and had been a part of the Auburn Knights, the fabled AU dance band — but all of that was peripheral when we knew him. I don’t remember ever hearing him play the trumpet, except for training purposes, which he could do on any instrument, if a little spastic on drums. Bill French did hear him play once, and tells this story: “Once after school I had to go back to the band room. He was in the room with the electronic tuners playing trumpet. It was stunning. He stopped playing as if I had walked in on something. Since that afternoon I think of him as a refugee from big bands, no place to play and mouths to feed. I heard Ira Sullivan in a Fort Lauderdale club last year — his tone was the same as Mr. Goff.” That story, which I only recently heard, suggests another dimension to the man — the musician who might have been in some hot orchestra, a stand-out, composer, arranger, conductor, perhaps, but who became a high school band director (the reasons his business), and knew that his salvation lay in doing it superlatively. Talk about stress. I look back through my memories and I don’t really see that. A private thing, that you couldn’t really know. I just see a funny, extremely effective man. That appearance now too seems a herculean effort of his. It was his humor, or his soul, however you want to phrase it. And then there was Mrs. Goff — a beautiful lady just out of the spotlight. She died a year and a half before him, which basically finished him. I had not realized at the time the depth of their bond.
He never made much money. They lived in a small house, he drove a crummy car. After their children got older, Mrs. Goff was able to work and contribute. Funny, I saw him only three or four times after high school. You think things will stay the same — I’ll come visit, we’ll stay in touch, etc. — but time doesn’t really permit this. My own students today say this — after I’ve come to know them for four years, and the end comes — they’ll stay in touch, they’ll write, they’ll visit — but I know better. When an era passes, it’s gone. That’s what makes it an era. For three years the last gig of the year was playing Pomp and Circumstance at Graduation — then, weirdly enough, they’re playing it for you. Mr. Goff suffered a serious stroke in 1989, and retired. He recovered so well he later said he had walked away too soon. He went on to direct the band at a private school, and give private lessons. But, sadly — beyond sadly — the stroke had robbed him of his ability to play. In the 90s he and Mrs. Goff came to one of mine and Ken Clark’s musical comedies in Columbus, and I’ve never been more nervous in my life. He was still funny (not sure if we were), with white hair. It was the last time I ever saw him.
I think the success of a society depends on people like Mr. Goff — identifying them and making sure they’re in position to do what they do unsabotaged by the moronic rules of people not like Mr. Goff. When I think of the billions of dollars wasted trying to cram the circle of education into the square of bureaucratic control, I’m sad, knowing it will always be so — but encouraged, knowing that the Mr. Goffs of this world will always transcend that crap. Mr. Goff, motivated by something within himself, took the sons and daughters of the professors and tradesmen of a small college town and fashioned them into a great band, allowing them to experience the process, at a young age, of achieving something excellent. The paradigm became imprinted. I see a reflection of the same experience in the eyes and hear it in the voices of some of my own students sometimes, who played on a sports team, perhaps, that won a state championship — that experience of having lost themselves in a team, of having risen above their own egos, and accomplished something extraordinary. What better than this can you give a young person?
Ego, along with muscle tone and short term memory, melts anyway. You cease being yourself and become what you have created and loved. As Auden said of Yeats — “he became his admirers” — so Mr. Goff has become the self he gave away.