Military musician Beth Ely Torres recently finished out her Army career in the National Guard in both New York and Maryland, retiring from the band program after 32 years total service.
Read her full bio at the Conversations page.
Steve: What was your first baseball game and what do you remember about it? Also, what was the first election you voted in? How have both things changed since then?
Beth: The first game I attended must have been in about 1969. My mother took me out to Connie Mack Stadium to see the Phillies. I think they may have been playing the Reds. Mom grew up as a Philadelphia A’s fan. Dad was always a Phillies fan. I think that mom taking me to my first baseball game was impactful in showing that girls could be sports fans, too. We sat behind third base, and to this day, I still prefer my seats along the third base line.
The Ely side of my family were always big baseball fans. My cousin, a lifelong Orioles fan, used to play golf with Brooks Robinson. Another cousin went to umpire school. My uncle often sang the National Anthem for the Phillies minor league teams.
But my latest treasure is a ball that I acquired last month. When my father died, his wife said to me, “Do you want the ball?” My reply was, “Ball?” She then handed me a signed baseball. When I got home, I jotted down all the names on the ball only to discover that it was signed by 22 players on the 1947 Phillies team. I never knew it existed. My dad would have gotten this signed the first baseball season that he was back in Philadelphia following his Army service in WWII. It will now be an important part of my baseball items.
I was raised in an ultra-right-wing family. My parents held John Birch Society meetings in our living room when I was a child in the 1960s. It took decades for me to realize that they were what I now consider extremists. I was aware, though, that they had some ideas that were strange to me even as a child (rock and roll was a communist plot to take over the minds of the youth of America, for example).
I think they truly believed that white people were inherently more intelligent than non-whites. That said, my parents also raised me to think for myself and to always look for the good in people. From early on, I found racism repugnant. These movement conservative views did affect my political thoughts until I was in my 20s. The first election I voted in was the 1980 presidential election. I proudly voted for Ronald Reagan, and did so again four years later.
My political views have changed much more drastically than my baseball views. I’m still a Phillies fan, and probably always will be. My cousin grew up in Bowie, MD, and was an Orioles superfan. I always thought well of the Orioles, probably because of Dave. We all had a common hatred for NY baseball teams that continues to this day – something that hasn’t diminished despite living and working in NY for a number of years.
My evolution on the baseball front came from living in Maryland since 1999. The Orioles really started to grow on me, and I took my boys to the occasional game when they were in grade school. I think when I transferred to the Maryland National Guard in 2011 that I had people around me that enjoyed talking baseball. I started to go to more games, and bought my first Orioles season plan in 2013.
Politically, I’ve pretty much done a 180. I don’t know if I even realized that I was changing at the time. As a music student in my undergrad and first graduate degree, I found myself listening and paying attention to people with far different views and experiences to mine. The open mind that my parents somehow created served me well.
I think my biggest transformation came when I joined the Army. Contrary to popular perception, the military made me much more liberal than I ever realized. It was definitely an expansion through working with and learning from people with much different life experiences. I visited my boyfriend’s (now former husband) family in Brownsville, TX and learned so much about the Latino culture. I also saw great poverty a short walk away over the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico.
I soon found myself stationed at Camp Casey, Tongduchon, South Korea. This was a whole new culture to experience. I also saw abject poverty there, and knew in my bones that I needed someday to try to make a difference for people who didn’t have the privileges that I had. My move to Bolton Hill here in Baltimore cemented the views I had been cultivating for decades and I feel like I have finally found where I belong. I now long for the day when I can retire from my day job so that I can be more of a community activist. I’m making baby steps.
In the past year, I started volunteering every Friday afternoon working in a warehouse for Baltimore Community Food. I rearranged my work schedule to free up time each week for this. I love the mission of this organization. If we can help solve the pervasive problem of hunger in our community, then people can concentrate on other things to make their lives better. I only wish I had more time to devote to work like this.
Steve: The two big themes in your life have been music and military service. Do you consider yourself a musician first and a soldier second?
Beth: This is an age-old conundrum for military musicians. While in college and in the years before I joined the Army, I never imagined that I would ever be in the military. There is no doubt that I would never have joined the military if I wasn’t guaranteed a job as a full-time musician. I loved being an Army musician, and have met life-long friends that I really treasure.
I love that I am still in regular contact with my Army friends. It always amazes me that people I know from other parts of my life know some of my Army friends. I treasure the biennial reunion we have with the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Band (otherwise known as the Continental Army Band). COVID put our schedule off a year, but we had a great time this summer coming together for a week and rehearsing and performing a concert at Fort Eustis in Virginia. While some folks are no longer playing, others are still excellent musicians, and I am always honored to perform with them again.
I also took my commitment to the military and the constitution of our great country seriously. I am proud to be a Veteran. I would not be the person that I am without my time in the service. I endeavoured to be the best Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) that I could possibly be and to look out for my soldiers to the best of my ability. It’s really a hard call, but I guess I would have to say that I am, and always will be, a musician first.
Steve: Your son has followed your lead in one, but not the other – how different is the military he has joined to how it was when you signed up in 1989? Is the image Americans have of the military as an institution still what it was, and how much does that matter?
Beth: Believe it or not, the military is often on the forefront of change in this country. The military is still a revered institution and we’re still dedicated to protecting our democracy from enemies foreign and domestic.
Between my time on active duty and my time in the National Guard, I watched things change – mostly for the better – over 32 years. Since I only retired 17 months ago, I’m not so far removed from it to see a stark contrast yet. I think that today’s Army cares more about individuals than they did in 1989. To this day, I still have panic attacks when asked to run in formation due to the verbal abuse heaped on me by the company commander in my basic training company (I broke out in a cold sweat just thinking about that!). Today’s Army is much more aware of the permanent damage they do to young people in an attempt to make them tough.
The Army that I enlisted in in 1989 was still recovering from the stigma of the Vietnam war, and they were trying lots of things. There was no national emergency or war/conflict going on. When the first Gulf War broke out about a year into my service, we were not ready. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq provided valuable lessons learned. My son is now a very well-trained technician who understands the world. I have every confidence that he will be successful in his military career. My perception is that Americans now have a greater appreciation for the military than they did when I was growing up. It matters.
Steve: What are your thoughts on what recently happened with the PACT Act (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) in Congress? Why do you think it took the intervention of someone like Jon Stewart to help make the case for veterans’ rights?
Beth: The PACT Act was a long time coming and the right thing to do. I was dumbfounded that the GOP tried to stop this bill in a fit of petulance. How petty can you get?
There is no doubt that this will add to the backlog of claims at VA, as it makes something like 3.5 million Veterans and Service Members eligible for healthcare and/or compensation. It will take a great deal of patience on behalf of those Veterans who are eligible. Just as the Agent Orange bill expanded presumptive conditions, this will also do the same.
These are people who willingly stepped up to the plate, and if the end result of that patriotism is that they are left with long term effects of breathing in toxins, we need to take care of them. It’s just the right thing to do. So kudos to Congress for – eventually – passing this bill.
Steve: You were on duty in Washington DC in the aftermath of January 6th. What was that like and how strange was it protecting the Capitol from your fellow citizens?
Beth: I laugh that the “deployment” to DC to protect the Capitol was my capstone event of my long military career. I somehow managed to not get deployed over my career (my time in Korea was an unaccompanied overseas assignment, not a deployment), so some of the things that we had to do were new to me.
I was 9 weeks short of my 60th birthday (and mandatory retirement) when we got the call. I had never worn body armour for any extended period, nor carried live rounds outside the range. There is no doubt I was nervous. I watched the events of January 6 with horror. I also felt that now was the time I needed to stand up for our country, our democracy, our constitution. I probably could have declined to go. But I felt strongly that this was something I needed to do, and went willingly.
We worked 8pm – 8am guarding the Senate. It was cold. It was boring. I was hungry (I had to fend for myself for food due to my celiac disease). But we also had individual hotel rooms that were quite comfortable, so there was balance.
As a Federal employee whose focus is often on policy and legislation, I have made dozens of trips to the various Congressional buildings and the Capitol. I never in my wildest imagination dreamed that one day I would need to visit those same buildings as an armed protector. My disappointment in my fellow citizens that put one man above the country was palpable. I sincerely hope that all involved are held accountable. I would do it again in a heartbeat if it means saving our country.
Steve: You said earlier you grew up in a traditional Republican household: I’m guessing since we’re the same age that Ronald Reagan became a benchmark for how people thought about Presidents – and it’s interesting how Maryland’s current Governor Larry Hogan has been trying to embrace that Reagan image recently. How do you think national politics, our presidents and parties have changed since then?
Beth: it was more than just a traditional Republican household – my parents thought Nixon was way too liberal. My brother drank the Kool Aid, and ended up becoming one of the most obnoxious MAGA people I’ve ever met. I voted for Reagan. I believed in trickle-down economics (until I studied economics in my MBA) and I did think that he was a benchmark.
It wasn’t until I really started understanding the world stage that I realized that Reagan did more harm to this country than nearly every Republican president since Ike (with the notable exception of the orange disaster). When I was younger, most people that I knew never discussed politics, or probably even thought about politics. I am flabbergasted every time I find that one of my formerly close friends has become an ugly Trump acolyte. I’m sad that a cult of personality has driven us to this.
As a fan of studying history, I know that conflict has always existed in our political parties. I find it amazing to see how the once proud liberal Republican party has become the party of hate and ugliness. They want to take credit for Lincoln without acknowledging that he was a very liberal politician. I’d love to see another Eisenhower as president. Although he was president before I was born, I feel like he was able to get the sides to recognize that we all have the best interests of our country and fellow citizens in mind, even if they had very different thoughts on how to go about it. I’d love to see that kind of discourse again where real issues could be debated civilly for the betterment of all. We need opposing views on issues to come to the best outcome for all. The Democrats don’t have all the answers.
Steve: Locally, we’ve recently had primary elections with some interesting outcomes. Like many states, Maryland seems increasingly divided between urban and rural voters who have very different agendas. What do you think about the power of local politics to solve big issues, or is it just about treading water and keeping the boat afloat? Do you think we have a good quality of local politicians?
Beth: I’ve lived in urban and suburban areas for most of my life (more suburban than urban). I lived in northern Carroll County for 16 years. It seemed idyllic when I first moved there. However, I never felt like I was a part of the community. That was exacerbated when my husband left us, and I became a single mother of Latino children. Their true colors came out then. I see vast differences between rural and urban voters based on my experience.
I think local politics are more important than people realize. And I firmly believe that primary elections are far more important than general elections. I spent 30 years identifying as unaffiliated in terms of party, as I felt that there was corruption in both parties.
I think it was when I was in the Army War College that I realized that it was the most radical supporters vote in large numbers in the primaries, leaving us with extremists that don’t represent the vast majority of the population. As soon as I moved to Baltimore, I declared a political affiliation solely to be able to vote in the primary elections, with the hoped-for outcome of reason.
Local politics may not be able to solve the big issues, but they can certainly feel the pulse of what constituents need. But local politics can also hurt the country. Like primaries, many people don’t see the importance in voting in the local elections. We often get left with radicals on both sides that care more about their personal agenda than what is good for their constituents. In the long run, this shapes how people view the larger areas and creates a larger divide.
I had high hopes for our current mayor when he was elected. He wasn’t my first choice in the primary, but I voted for him in the general election. I now believe he is in over his head. Baltimore is a great city, but there are so many problems that it seems City Hall doesn’t know how to address them. A smart leader knows to surround themselves with smarter people and I don’t necessarily see that happening.
Steve: One of the most prominent local issues is probably still the extent to which things have – or haven’t – changed since the death of Freddie Gray and the fallout from that. You were in town for the Orioles’ closed-doors game in April 2015. How traumatic was that whole week for the city, and what progress do you think has been made since?
Beth: I was actually living in Manchester, MD at the time. I normally went to Sunday games, but my friend was playing his graduate recital at Peabody on that Sunday, so I switched my tickets to the Saturday night game. I was rather shocked that they locked the gates with the stadium full (the Orioles were still playing great baseball that year). The game went into extra innings (we won), and by the time the game was over, calm was mostly restored. I had parked my car at the 5th Regiment Armory, so we took the light rail back up. The damage was evident in the shops all the way up Howard St. It was midnight by the time we got to the 5th. The security guard was just getting off his shift, and admitted to being scared to get on the bus to go home. I worried about him all night that he got home safely.
The next day was my friend’s recital so I drove down into Baltimore. Everything was eerily calm. It was a magnificently beautiful day. At the time, I thought it was over. Until the next day. I watched the unrest unfold on TV. Some of my friends volunteered to support the National Guard, but I was at the Army War College at the time and couldn’t.
I really hope that there were lessons learned from the Freddie Gray situation, but our African-American neighbors still experience poor treatment. I think that all folks in the city are starting to recognize that not all of them are treated equally, and are looking for ways to help. More needs to be done. I was happy to participate in peaceful BLM protests in 2020. I liked seeing our neighbors support each other. It’s still not enough, but it’s a start. Let’s keep at it.
Steve: Finally, back to baseball – one of the constant things about the game is watching its ebbs and flows, and how teams rise and fall. The Orioles now seem to be on the verge of building a team that won’t be a perpetual basement-dweller. How much of a key part was getting Adley Rutschman, and how do you see the next couple of years unfolding?
Beth: My favorite baseball memory is Game 2 of the 2014 ALDS against Detroit. The Orioles seemed like they were going to go all the way. Those years when we won the most games over a 5-year period are fond memories. When the bottom dropped out at the end of 2017 and disaster struck in 2018, I still stuck with my team, but often it was difficult to watch. It was tough to be the laughing stock of MLB. I really loved Buck Showalter, and was devastated when they didn’t renew his contract. I still stuck with them and attended around 20 games a year.
The last 5 years have been tough, but I still had hope. Now this year is definitely different. I am absolutely amazed at the difference that Rutschman has made. But one guy can’t carry a team (look at the Angels, where even two guys can’t carry them). There is definitely some Orioles magic going on this year. I watch all games with the expectation that we’re going to win. I think the team does, too.
Looking at the farm system that GM Mike Elias has built makes me think the future is bright for our team. Baltimore needs this. We all need this. The crowds are back and the atmosphere at the park is great. I’m not sure we will make a wild card berth this year, but almost all the games have been exciting. It’s so nice to see them compete in every game. No more turning off the TV by the 5th inning.
There is so much talent in the pipeline that I truly believe that this team will be relevant for years to come. I can’t wait to go to a World Series game here soon.
Beth attends Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill. Its Pastor is Grey Maggiano, who was this project’s first interviewee, on the opening day of this season. You can read Grey’s Q&A here.
“There were things I didn’t expect [about Baltimore]. Like how incomplete the story The Wire is telling actually is. But if people think that you want to be part of their community and part of that family, they will listen to you and trust in a way that I don’t think you’d find everywhere.”