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People in Hell Want a Drink of Water

I went to college in the 1980s, which had to be the best decade to be a college student. The turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s had ended and the country just seemed like it was in the mood for odd music and great parties. In the early part of the decade, I found myself majoring in music education at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “Nac” is a beautiful, east Texas town, full of old growth trees and lots of interesting history, such as its name. Stephen F. Austin was the father of Texas and our beloved school was named after him. We felt a lot of pride about that and we still do.

San Antonio and Nacogdoches argue about which city is older. How you arrive at your particular opinion often depends on how you define what a city is, or where you are at the moment. Just so it’s clear, though, Nacogdoches is the older city.

“The boldest sound from the oldest town,” was announced over the speakers as our Lumberjack band took the field at halftime. All 200 members were dressed in purple uniforms and marched to a medley of Latin songs, a medley of classical songs, or a medley of other classical and Latin songs. Beautiful girls in sparkly one-piece swimsuit-looking uniforms twirled in front while flags performed in back. As a piccolo player in squad one, I could be found near the goal line, marking time for long stretches that were broken up with four to eight steps in a different direction, where I marked time again. In front, the brass wailed, moved, played awesome solos, and captured the attention of the crowd. In the middle, the always impressive percussion section drummed with precision and flair. Flashing cymbals, multiple bass drums, snare drummers twirling their sticks, all created quite the show. In the back, just in front of the flags, the woodwind section tried to look interesting. Altogether the band was quite a loud spectacle. We loved it and the crowd did, too.

The band was tight. It’s great to have 200 people working on a common cause. The Lumberjack band was full of school spirit. Each section was loud and proud, except for the horns, who took pleasure in being bored. The rest of us fought hard for the spirit stick, inventing section cheers, running back to our places during practice, and lots of nonsense. I once wore a green badge fashioned to look like a pickle with a big “O” on it. Get it, pickle-o? Piccolos? Spirit! I loved being surrounded by so many people that I liked and hung out with. They were like some weird, extended family delineated by sections instead of last names and familial relationships. I felt as at home in the band hall as I ever had anywhere else. Plus, the parties were epic. One word: Toga.

Bands have equipment, lots and lots and lots of equipment: drums, large brass instruments, uniforms, music, and lyres. There are gargantuan amounts of inventory that need storage, care, transport, repair, and replacement. Big bands have big needs and the Lumberjack band had two band managers to take care of all of them. One of those guys was named Howard Lewis. He and his cohorts were responsible for lots of big items. For one, they had to make certain all 200 of us had a uniform that fit, no small task.

When band members went to Howard for things we needed, our requests seemed petty in comparison to all their responsibilities. Howard had a unique way of assessing how great our need was or was not. The first part of the assessment went as follows.

“Howard, I need help.”

Howard would reply, "People in hell want a drink of water."

I hated it. It was Howard’s way of communicating the following choices:

  • So what?
  • Really?
  • This is not as big a deal as you think.
  • Please leave me alone.
  • I don’t get paid enough to listen to your whining.

A modern day translation of this phrase is “sucks to be you.”

It is fair to say, and Howard will tell you, that he is ornery. During college, Howard could be downright cantankerous. For instance, he prided himself on making bad coffee. You were always welcome to enjoy a cup, if you could stomach it, and that was the point. The band managers’ office was a “get your stuff and go” kind of operation.

After Howard’s initial assessment over whether or not your problem was his problem, which involved a slightly religious conversation if you think about it, band members would plead their case about why what they needed was important and possibly urgent. Howard would grumble, insult us a bit, and then help us with our locker, a plume, or a piece of music. Howard annoyed the hell out of me, which perhaps made Jesus happy. But, I don’t want to accuse Howard of doing the Lord’s work. One thing I knew about the afterlife by the time I graduated is that people in hell want a drink of water.

I can’t say that incorporating this particular phrase into my parenting lexicon was a good idea; however, I did. I gave up on winning the mother-of-the-year award and it simplified my life considerably. Don’t worry, my children are in therapy. Telling my children about people in hell being thirsty was a fun way to say, “This better be important,” to yet another request. They, in a “turnabout is fair play” move, adopted this phrase quickly: it had a curse word in it, after all. The shortened version became, “People in hell..."

The oldest kid had long moved out, but was visiting one night when I said to the youngest, “I want you to go sweep and mop the bathroom.” This was neither a request nor an invitation, but a polite way to assign a chore. A snarky, brave teenager replied to me, "People in hell want a drink of water." I did a mom thing, not a mother-of-the-year thing, but a mom thing and said, "People in hell don't live here." Without missing a beat, my oldest quietly said, “Oh, yes they do."

You'll be pleased to know that both of my progeny are still alive and the bathroom got cleaned that evening.

Epilogue: Howard Lewis graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University and followed his dream to become a beloved band director. He is pictured above. On the left is a picture of Howard from his SFA days. You will notice that he has a coffee cup which was typical of his life then. On the right is a picture of Howard from his last year of teaching. He has retired from being a band director, but not from being ornery.