The Last Notes of El Capitan

John Phillip Sousa

Whenever I got lonely, I used to whistle the last notes of El Capitan. No, not the rock formation in Yosemite or the iOS operating system version named after it—the John Philip Sousa march.

For Grade 10 my parents sent me to Shawnigan Lake, a boarding school about three hours from where we lived. I was originally excited about this plan. Shawnigan was later described to me as the place that parents send their kids if they either A) smart or B) delinquents. As I was in column A and didn’t know about column B yet, I was looking forward to having some other smart people to chat to.

Then, unfortunately, I enjoyed Grade 9. I was in all the bands at Mount Klitsa Junior Secondary (concert, stage, and combo), went on a band trip to Toronto, made some good friends, and danced with my crush at a school dance. Big year for me. I realized at the end of it that I was going to lose a lot by going away.

I asked to not go to Shawnigan. My family had moved fourteen times since I had been born. In addition, I had skipped a grade before going to my middle school which had further upended my social life. I was tired of moving. I was tired of making friends all over again.

This was, of course, not an option. Tuition had no doubt been paid, and my parents were not eager to send me to the local high school with its dropout rate of approximately 50%. So off to boarding school I went, sheltered little lamb that I was.

I did not enjoy the first year: homesickness is a terrible illness. I realize you may not have much sympathy for me, posh boarding school student, but it did not feel like much of a privilege to be sent away from your friends and family to be surrounded by a large number of assholes 24/7. One of them threw batteries at my head during the class camping trip until I started hyperventilating. He was later killed, many years later, in a hail of police gunfire just before he was able to start his murder rampage, but that is a story for another day.

However, I did have band. It was not quite the same as at Mt. Klitsa (Shawnigan lacked the rock star teacher, Mrs. Falls), but we still got to play music and go on the odd trip to Moscow, Idaho. I played the trombone, which is not the most elegant of instruments, and there are not a lot of exciting parts for the trombone. There was only one that stuck in my memory—the ending of El Capitan:

It’s a joy to play, that bit; you get to play it loud and you forget you’re not playing a trumpet. But I was so lonely when I learned it, and that loneliness wrapped around the memory of the tune.

So for a long time after, when I would feel the loneliness seep into me, I would whistle those last notes to myself. My trombone skills later atrophied, but the tune remained in my brain. Suffer some heartbreak? Whistle the last notes of El Capitan. Move again and leave all your friends behind? Whistle the last notes of El Capitan. Feel existential dread? Whistle the last notes of El Capitan. A sad fate for a happy tune.

However, I’ve noticed a strange thing in recent years. Sometimes, I’ll hum those notes for no damn reason, just because they’re catchy. And the next year at my high school was a lot better. Some new people enrolled and some of them became my friends: I still hang out with one of them regularly. My middle school crush—while she did not return my romantic affections—also became a friend, and I still call up one of my Mt. Klitsa bandmates whenever I go back home.

One of the things I like about getting older is the deepening of friendships that comes with time. It’s something I missed out on with my many new beginnings as a child, but twenty years later I’ve begun gather that harvest. I don’t feel lonely much anymore. All those bonds and memories of days past have filled in the holes left in me by that emotion, and now I can happily whistle those last few notes of El Capitan.

Image Credit: John Philip Sousa from National Photo Company Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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