Holiday Blues, Half-Off

December 4? Already? Commander Trombone apologizes for not updating this space more frequently. Please stand by for more. While you’re waiting for that precious content to arrive, please use the Amazon link on the main page or below for all your Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanzaa purchases. No, the true meaning of none of these holidays is embodied in material things, and yes, we should probably recycle some of the older things first … But what can I tell you? Christmas is coming, the economy is in trouble, and the goose is getting as lean as a runway model. Importantly, though, you can do your part.

Commander Trombone Classic: WWW Veterans

Wally Kerber and an associate

Wally Kerber and an associate

Today, there are lots of things we take for granted on the internet, but what’s hard for most people to imagine is that back “in the day” things were much different. Below, Wally Kerber remembers the early “fly by the seat of your pants” days of the early World Wide Web.

“Before the powerhouse website we know today as Commander Trombone existed, the internet itself was like an infant left on our collective front porches by the defense department. The defense department knocked and ran away. What did we do with that baby? We cooed at it. We tickled its nose. Fortunately for all of us, a little gentle patting on the back by Tim Berners Lee made that baby burp up the World Wide Web.

an early podcasting device

Promo for an early internet
broadcasting device

Those of us on the “early web,” as we like to call it, were horribly naive, but that naivete led to great creativity. If we needed sound effects, for example, we’d tell our sound man Jack to run a line down to the bathroom. There, he’d use the acoustics of the toilet. Slowly unscrewing the lid from a mason jar inside the bowl would simulate the sound of an alien spacecraft door opening. It frightened people, many of whom lived in New Jersey. We soon realized that the power of the web was truly awesome and we needed to treat that power with a great deal of respect. We treated the web as a public trust. We worked long hours. My lovely wife made us lots of frozen ginger ale salad to keep us going. We smoked lots of cigarettes; we didn’t know they were harmful!

How to view or “browse” the web was an ongoing concern. Several methods involved high voltages. An early “information helmet” or “thinking cap,” that beamed sounds and images directly into the brain proved unfeasible. To make matters worse, squirrels would find their way onto our makeshift power grid and electrocute themselves, blowing the whole system out. When we finally saw NTSA Mosaic, an early web browser, we were stunned by its simplicity, but nonplussed by its 256 nodes of color output.

It’s difficult to say exactly when everything on the web went south, but whatever it was, it was not the “web bubble.” Our team engineered the “web bubble.” It was good work. It cannot burst. It was our bubble, and we worked on it happily even though we never received a dime of royalties for it.

Perhaps trouble arrived in the form of a corporation called Microsoft. Bill Gates tried to convert the web to his own use in the dead of night when no one was looking. Even prior to that, Apple Computer tried to make things user friendly that shouldn’t be made user friendly. You don’t make a fighter jet user friendly, after all. We admired Apple though. We registered and it still points to Apple Computer to this day. By the way, the iPod and podcasting are nothing new, we invented at least seven different internet broadcasting devices, one of which could broadcast on the 19 meter shortwave band in synchronicity with the internet.

Certainly the CSS fanboys, who came later, did not help in the progress of our innovations on the web. There was an army of them: Eric Myers, Jefferey Zeldman, Cameron Moll, Dan Cedarholm and we regarded them as drippy-nosed, self-congratulatory young upstarts who were trying to make a free wheeling web into a fascist mini state. Their ilk just wanted to make the Ruby On Rails run on time. Others, who also claimed to know it all, eventually made the web “scene,” but they could barely converse on a subject other than Chuck Norris.

As time went on, however, we who created the early web realized that change was inevitable and were forced to “get over it,” to use the parlance of our times. For those of us who were present at the creation, it’s certainly sufficient to look back on a solid record of accomplishment. The upstarts may not acknowledge—or even be aware of—how things were back in the summer of 1991 when we first rolled up our sleeves and pinned our hopes on the early web, but nevertheless, it is on the “shoulders” of our accomplishments that the web users of today now stand.”

The Pride of the Southland

A Marching Band Memory

Picture of 1982 World's Fair serving Tray

Yeah…well…you had to be there

In the Fall of 1981, I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. It was an interesting time to be there, with the 1982 World’s Fair just about to break out in the city. Just look at the commemorative serving tray, pictured here. Yes, the future seemed within our collective grasp.

Anyway, fortunately for me, I had a band scholarship. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, as a condition of that scholarship I was obliged to play in the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Marching Band.

There must have been some aspect of marching that I enjoyed, and maybe I thought that membership in the marching band provided a kind of continuity from high school. In retrospect especially, this notion is crazy. As a naive freshman, I was simply not prepared for the gargantuan priority shift that was occurring all around me. Inebriating liquids would play a huge role. On campus, the Pride of the Southland Marching Band was no exception to this college drinking trend, and probably was its true standard-bearer.

The marching style, too, was very different from what I was used to. In contrast to the wannabe-drum-and-bugle-corps style of high school, the “Pride of the Southland” style of marching was a military style, involving circles, diamonds and straight lines up and down the field. While the pre-game show — featuring Rocky Top — was relatively fixed in execution, each half-time show was freshly envisioned for each game. To accomplish these new marching drills, each band member was issued a printed chart telling him or her where and when to move. Negotiating the formations could be tricky.

Many of the marching drills were charted by the long-suffering assistant band director, Walter McDaniel. During rehearsals on the field, McDaniel did his best to be civil, but not surprisingly, the half-crazed-college-kid-marchers could drive him to a level of exasperation that would be difficult for any sane man to handle. On one occasion, in a conflicted fit he famously uttered, “Damn it…Please…Damn it…Please…” It became a band catchphrase.

Then there was the band’s leader, Dr. W.J. Julian, who was simultaneously reviled and loved by those in the band. Although Dr. Julian, then the president of the American Bandmaster’s Association, had his genteel moments in which he spoke about sipping cognac by the fire, he was on the other hand a man who truly understood what it meant to be hell-bent. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for W.J’s disposition was something that happened many years earlier: three years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ship he was on as a young man — LSM318 — was sunk by a Kamikaze pilot in the Philippines.

During parts of a show, Julian would conduct atop a ladder on the sidelines. His conducting style was deliberate and jerky, and often seemed to be an expression of his own frustrations with trying to get the band to perform as he wanted. During show run-throughs, he’d take to the field, run through the formations, and deliver in-face, generally non-positive reviews of how you were doing. These displays were almost always issued with the true histrionic furor common to tyrants and some who try to motivate those in post-secondary education. A favorite gesture was one in which Dr. Julian, his angry, beet-red face already apparent, would rip off his sunglasses, revealing furious eyes. After a dramatic pause, there would come the smack-down utterance, the coup de gras. Once, when I made a misstep during rehearsal, Julian got up in my face, performed the glasses rip, and quietly growled in my ear, “You don’t know shit about this show.”

After rehearsals on field, the whole band would get their notes on how we did. Dr. Julian would ascend his ladder, Douglas-MacArthur-like. We’d all gather around. He’d look out at the horizon, the sun gleaming off of his aviator sunglasses. Eventually, he’d say, “That was better, but it was still horrible.” Expanding a bit further, he’d say, “Some of you…” — his voice would trail off, then — “MOST OF YOU! — are INSOLENT and COMPLACENT!”

On one occasion, the band was handed a reprieve from learning a new and complicated halftime show: a tribute to the United Way. The band would forego its usual repertoire of constantly moving circles and diamonds. Instead, we’d simply form the United Way symbol, face the press box, and play a touching song meant to pull at the heartstrings of the assembled fans.

When halftime arrived, everything seemed to go well. On a crisp and clear Fall day, the Pride of the Southland Marching Band formed the United Way symbol in the middle of the field. We were almost ready to play “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” First, though, the sound of the announcer’s voice boomed through the PA and slapped around the stadium in that bigger-than-life-college-football way:

“Ladies and Gentlemen!…The United Way!…Thanks to you it’s working!…Listen as the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland band plays…You’ll Never Walk Again.”

China’s Gunpowder Finally Does the Trick

Chinese Astrounauts Hereos' welcome

What follows is a first-person transcription of trash-talk directed at China. It was spoken snarkily by someone at the head office. Don’t worry, it’s not like anyone in China is ever going to read it. Also, everyone at the front office knows that most of things in the front office were Made In China.

“So, the Chinese spacemen just returned to earth. It’s amazing. In the late sixties, the United States got astronauts to The Moon using calculations done on slide-rules. Forty years later, China went for their own space-jaunt with their own technological handicaps: the rocket they used to escape earth’s gravity was apparently dipped in lead paint, and the astronaut’s energy drinks were spiked with melamine. Maybe later they can get an under-age gymnast to break her record without any gravity at all?”