The situation looked grim. Russian forces, in full uniform, were massing just behind an invisible line. Opposite them, British, French, and American forces braced.
Someone behind me muttered: ''Looks like a test of the NATO tripwire.''
''Nah,'' his companion replied, ''it's 'two minutes to World War III - places , everyone.' ''
Wait. Don't touch that hot line.
We were merely watching the marching bands of the four Allied powers preparing to do their stuff on the anniversary of Austria's 1955 peace treaty - still one of the most successful Soviet-Western deals of the postwar era.
The four bands had gathered at a great parade ground in Vienna. There they would perform their ritual salute to the only place where both sides had retreated from the Iron Curtain and enjoyed the retreat. Since the signing of the treaty, the four great-power foreign ministers have dutifully come together every five years to commemorate the event with lunch or dinner. Their meeting tends to be pleasant and insignificant in times of thaw; correct and more significant in times of tension.
This was one of the latter. But the bands were uneasy, not for political reasons, but because they were on international display and wanted to put - literally - their best foot forward.
First came the British. Resplendent in crimson uniforms, with plumed brass helmets. The drum major in a towering bearskin hat. Everything else understated. A thin, reedy sound from the band. The major's baton directing the show with scarcely more motion than a metronome. The whole ensemble slow-marching, with a hesitation step purposely contrasting with the exuberant bounce most bands muster.
Dignified applause from the Austrian chancellor and relaxed enthusiasm from the Viennese audience.
Exit John Bull. Enter Marianne.
The French bands - there were two of them - marched together with elan, if slightly ragged lines. Crisp kepis, flowing capes. The ''Marseillaise'' set Viennese feet to tapping.
Exit France. Enter USA.
So far each band had been a pleasant caricature of national stereotypes. British understatement. French elan. And the American Air Force band that whirled on scene was no disappointment in this respect. It was big - bigger in fact than the double French contingent. And it poured out brassy, ebullient Sousa. And the drill routines! After doing one of those countermarches that look like turning one's sweater sleeves inside out, the dark blue ranks suddenly burst into some football halftime razzle-dazzle. Units peeled off into elaborate , writhing spirals which suddenly jelled back into square formation. The audience gave a big burst of applause, as audiences always do for skaters who spin fast, or gymnasts who do a double somersault.
Exit Yanks. Enter Slavs.
More of the pleasant national caricature.The Soviet army band was massive. A huge bloc that couldn't move very far in any one direction without colliding with the sidelines. Goose-step precision that made ranks more than 100 feet long move like Rockettes. Suddenly, with a click of heels, the square phalanx came to a halt in absolute silence. Out from the sideline strode a hefty blond nightclub singer in black-sequined dress, trailing a long microphone cord. Slowly, soulfully, the band struck up the ballad ''Moscow Nights'' and the mezzo belted out the words with mike so close the high notes fragmented on the audience's ears. After a last flourish of Volga voltage, singer and regiment stepped to the sidelines amid rhythmic applause.
Then, a magical thing happened. Or, to be more precise, a carefully planned symbolic event turned into a magical moment.
The three Western units returned to the floor, lining up beside the Russians in a vast rectangular formation clothed in four colors. A podium was set up facing the massed brasses. One by one, the directors of each band took the stand to conduct this detente philharmonic.
The first two selections were merely massive. The third, a Strauss waltz, revved up the audience. But it was the fourth, conducted by the American, that brought the house down: ''The Stars and Stripes Forever.''
That march is always stirring. Audiences nod chins. And whistle. And there are invariably a few who like to conduct, with right fists beating time - thumbs uppermost, pressing down on invisible batons. But this rendition was more spectacular than usual. There are a lot of trombones in four big bands. And tubas. And by the time they arrived at the passage where the brasses go ta-da-da-da-ta-da-da-da-da-da-dum-dum at full blast, the audience was in orbit. Then, the final chorus. Spotlights were weaving slowly over the four bands. Just as they came to the passage where the piccolos take off into the stratosphere and deliver a triumphant staccato counterpoint to the crescendoing brasses below , the spotlights converged on the American and Russian piccolo players.
It's hard to smile, when your lower lip is curled down over a piccolo. But the Americans and Russians were smiling exultantly as they whipped into the ethereal, peppery notes. The audience broke into a huge ovation. The piccolo group couldn't smile any more broadly, but they began to nod their heads in unison. Another ovation rolled right into the final climax.
Sousa can't end anything as deep-seated and complex as the cold war. But it might not be a bad idea to have at least a pair of piccolo players on hand to set the tone when the next summit meeting takes place. One from each nation.