Stromsoe was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son. The boy's name was Mike Tavarez. Tavarez was shy and curly haired and he stared as Stromsoe lay the mace on the cafeteria table. A mace is a stylized baton brandished by a drum major, which is what Matt Stromsoe had decided to become. Tavarez held his rented clarinet, which he hoped to play in the same marching band that Stromsoe hoped to lead, and which had prompted this conversation.
"Sweet," said Tavarez. He had a dimple and fawn eyes. He could play all of the woodwinds, cornet and sax, and pretty much any percussion instrument. He had joined the marching band to meet girls. He was impressed by Stromsoe's bold decision to try out for drum major now, in only his freshman year. But this was 1980 in Southern California, where drum majoring had long ago slipped down the list of high school cool.
A little crowd of students had stopped to look at the mace. It was not quite five-feet long, black-handled, with a chrome chain winding down its length. At one end was an eagle ornament and at the other a black rubber tip.
"How much did it cost?" asked Tavarez.
"Ninety-nine dollars," said Stromsoe. "It's the All American model, the best one they had."
"May I help you?" asked Stromsoe, regarding him with a level gaze. Though he was only a freshman and a drum major hopeful, Stromsoe was big at fourteen and there was something incontrovertible about him. He had expressive blue eyes and a chubby, rosy-cheeked face that looked as if he would soon outgrow it.
"Whatever," said the football player.
"Then move along."
Tavarez looked from the athlete to the drum major-in-making. The football player shrugged and shuffled off, a red-and-leather Santa Ana Saints varsity jacket over baggy sweat pants, and outsized athletic shoes with the laces gone. Tavarez thought that guy might take Stromsoe in a fight, but he had also seen Stromsoe's lookwhat the boys in Delhi F Troop called ojos de piedroseyes of stone. Delhi F Troop turf included the Tavarez family's small stucco home on Flora Street, and though Tavarez avoided the gangs he liked their solidarity and colorful language. Tavarez figured that the football player must have seen the look too.
That Saturday Matt Stromsoe won the drum major tryouts. He was the only candidate. But his natural sense of rhythm was good and his summer months of solitary practice paid off. He had been accepted for summer clinics at the venerable Smith Walbridge Drum Major Camp in Illinois, but had not been able to come up with the money. His parents had thought it all would pass.
On Friday, one day before Stromsoe won the job of drum major, Mike Tavarez nailed the third b-flat clarinet spot, easily outplaying the other chairs and doing his best to seem humble for the band instructor and other musicians. He played his pieces then spent most of the day quietly loitering around the music rooms, smiling at the female musicians but failing to catch an eye. He was slender and angelic but showed no force of personality.
Stromsoe watched those Friday tryouts, noting the cool satisfaction on Tavarez's face as he played an animated version of "When the Saints Come Marching In." The song was a Santa Ana High School staple. By the time Stromsoe retired his mace four years later he had heard the song, blaring behind him as he led the march, well over five hundred times.
He always liked the reckless joy of it. When his band was playing it aggressively it sounded like the whole happy melody was about to blow into chaos. Marching across the emerald grass of Santa Ana stadium on a warm fall night, his shako hat down low over his eyes and his eagle-headed All American mace flashing in the bright lights, Stromsoe had sometimes imagined the notes of the song bursting like fireworks into the night behind him.
The song was running through his mind twenty-one years later when the bomb went off.
© T. Jefferson Parker