Growing up drum corps — my Cavalier years

Each August, a few random photos of me wearing a nerdy polyester band uniform while carrying a large horn pop up on various pages on Facebook. To most people who knew me when I was younger — and by younger, I mean skinnier — the photos make sense. But to those who didn’t know me when I was wearing pants with a 26-inch waistline, they’re just pictures of me wearing a nerdy polyester band uniform and carrying a large horn. But it was much, much more than that. I spent more than a decade marching in the Cavaliers, a drum and bugle corps from nearby Rosemont. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why. This essay was originally posted on on June 20, 2010.

“Happiness is being one of the gang.”

Those words were written on a bed sheet I had as a kid, with Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the rest of the “Peanuts” characters standing around in a permanent state of bliss. I stuffed that same sheet into my sleeping bag while on tour with the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps during the 1980s. I probably didn’t realize it at the time but it pretty much summed up my reasons for spending a large chunk of my youth marching around on a football field.

Drum corps is one of those small world/big world activities. It’s small in that it falls under the radar for most people, but big in and of itself. The top corps spend all summer on tour, riding in buses, practicing on football fields, sleeping on school gym floors and performing in high school and college football stadiums for crowds that can reach 25,000 people.

I remember my marching career as one big blur: a few cold showers, some late-night singing on the bus, an awful practice field here and there and the occasional free day, all merged together in a glowing 12-year chunk of youth.

I first joined the Cavalier Cadets, a feeder corps to the Cavaliers made up of boys 16 years old and younger, as a nine-year-old in the winter of 1977. The cadet corps was something like a cross between summer day camp and a “Bad News Bears” movie. We were obnoxious bundles of energy who sprinkled enough four-letter words into our vocabulary to make a truck driver blush. We rode to rehearsals with our parents a couple of nights a week, where we learned how to blow into the right end of our horns or bang away on a drum. On summer weekends — and if we were lucky, during a week in July or August — we rode school buses to and from cities and states we only read in Major League Baseball standings, always armed with pop, snacks and whatever adult magazines we could steal from our fathers or buy from the Chicago newsstand whose owner apparently didn’t mind selling the latest issue of Hustler to boys who were still years away from puberty.

I moved up to the Cavaliers in November of 1983, which was sort of at the onset of the all-male corps’ upswing, going from potential Drum Corps International finalist to “corps on the move” to the top three. A bit of history: The Cavaliers were formed from a Boy Scout troop in 1948 by Don Warren in Logan Square, a neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago. For years, the mantra was the corps was there to “keep kids off the streets,” but it didn’t take long for the Cavaliers to lay claim to another truism — national champion. The corps began winning the 1950s and were the dominant force in the activity in the 1960s, racking up numerous VFW and American Legion championships. But the 1970s weren’t as good to the Cavaliers. The corps didn’t fare as well in the newly formed Drum Corps International and struggled to maintain an active membership base and competitive success. But they never went away. They clawed through a decade that saw most of their earlier competitors fall to the wayside, and as the 1980s began, the corps began working in new creative teams, new instructors and a new approach to the activity. In 1983, the corps took ninth at the Drum Corps International championships, up from eleventh the previous year. In 1984, we took eighth and began serving notice we were climbing back up the ladder. We had plenty of success in that era — we fought our way up to fifth in 1985, third in 1986 and 1987, and after a quick dip to fifth in 1988, back into the top three in 1989. It was fun to truly compete again with corps the Cavaliers hadn’t beaten in more than 20 years but there were disappointments as well. We didn’t complete the journey to a national championship — that would come in 1992 — and we struggled to attract new members, or at least the talented new members that were auditioning for our direct competitors. Still, out setbacks were never deemed important enough to keep us from coming back the next summer or to dampen our enthusiasm for the real reason we marched: each other.

After a tough placement — drum corps compete in shows adjudicated by a panel of judges in captions covering music, movement and effect — we’d take solace in the upcoming overnight ride on one of our buses, which had been sitting idle for a while, windows shut, air conditioning on high. Eventually, the AC would go out and we’d open the windows to take in the summer air, chatting about the night’s events, our next stop or on some occasions, our lives back home. But that was the thing, our lives back home were insignificant from Memorial Day to the second week of August. We were focused on the corps.

Even after a bad performance, the horn bus wasn’t a place for silent sulking. There were rarely locker-room speeches from older members or berating from staff or management. Instead, we’d move on, continuing our penchant for various front-of-the-bus vs. back-of-the-bus antics, late-night conversations and all-out sing-a-longs, usually consisting of family-unfriendly songs passed down from Cavaliers before us, along with an occasional testosterone-laced, triple-forte, unintentionally ironic ballad for good measure — usually Debbie Boone’s “You Light Up My Life,” or Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs.”

We were hardly a talented bunch, most of us participating in no other musical activities aside from drum corps. Some, like myself, marched because of our parents — my father marched with the Cavaliers in the corps’ formative years in the 1950s, but we drew strength from each other and worked incredibly well as a team. Most of the guys who cracked Drum Corps International’s top three in 1986 were local, many of us from the feeder corps. And after nearly two decades as a strong yet struggling corps, this was no small task for the Cavaliers, especially considering our talent level and rehearsal time, which paled in comparison to many of our competitors. But thanks to strong management, a talented and creative staff and members who came back year after year, we raised our game and were rewarded for it.

On the road

In a sense, our summer tours were the stuff of youthful literary adventures: various locations that offered similar but differing situations, along with the ever-present opportunities for mischief.

Traveling is one of those things I took for granted when I marched. For the most part, rehearsal and performance dictated your routine, not the need to see the birthplace of Elvis or the sunset that Rand McNally ranks the “Second Most Beautiful in the World.” After a show, we’d leave one city in the dead of night and enter the next when the sun was rising. After some real sleep — if you can get real sleep on a gym floor — most sightseeing consisted of the practice field and wherever the cook truck set up for lunch. If we were lucky, we’d have a minute to cross the street and grab a Gatorade at the nearest gas station.

OK, so most of what I saw in those cities and towns were gym floors, football stadiums and school parking lots, but each location provided a link to the differences that shape North America. After all, these were schools in cities, suburbs, small towns, neighborhoods and subdivisions, And after spending our pre-tour time rehearsing at a junior college football stadium in a non-descript Chicago suburb, practicing on a football field in the red clay of Georgia or the shadow of the Rocky Mountains was a welcome change. At times, we’d put our horns down and just look at the horizon, soaking it in without even realizing how far we were from home.

On late-night bus rides through Texas, Nebraska, Virginia or Wyoming, we’d stare out our open windows in awe of the stars above us, most of us only familiar with stars as occasional bright spots that leaked through the urban skies of our hometowns.

When it comes to the terrain we’ve traveled, most of us gloss over the landscape and remember the schools with sub-zero showers, the gyms with padded floors or the practice fields with holes the size of basketballs. But even those memories fade after a while, leaving us with one large portrait of what the country looks like, even if it is broken up into numerous pieces. But we also came away with a universal truth — America is a nation of made up of many parts. Those places we visited looked different from where we lived. There were hills and mountains and rivers and lakes. There were skyscrapers and strip malls and houses nicer than ours and schools more run down. There was affluence and there was poverty. People spoke with accents and sometimes used jargon we didn’t understand.

Without drum corps, these are facts we might not have learned firsthand until later in life. I’d like to think it broadened my perspective of this country; that it made me aware that not everyone was like me.

Lessons learned

So many of the lessons I learned during that time are relevant today. Lessons as important as perseverance, respect for others and the desire to make the best of a bad situation.

Lessons as unimportant as saving time by brushing my teeth and shaving in the shower, and the ability to sleep while sitting.

Even though my last summer as a member was 1989 — you can only march in the DCI corps circuit until you’re 21 — some habits die hard.

Once you’ve dried yourself off with the same towel 10 days in a row — that same towel that airs out above your seat and has the aroma that can only come from 40 guys riding a bus — I see no need for a fresh towel each day. I take offense when my kids think they have a right to a fresh towel every time when they step out of the shower, especially when I’m using the same towel that’s been hanging on my bedroom door for a week or so.

Then there’s the hair. I began shaving my head when I was in the corps, mostly because — well, really for no reason — and I continue the practice today, if only to mask the ever-expanding bald spots.

After sleeping on a gym floor with 127 others, I see no need for a large house. I tell my four kids their close quarters in our three-bedroom house in Chicago will only help them get along with others as they get older. I may not really believe it, but it sounds good.

I travel well. My family actually relishes long car rides to Florida or the occasional drives to Michigan. My kids entertain themselves while my wife — whom I met in 1985 through a guy in the corps — and I talk about all things great and insignificant.

And the travel perks are attractive. I figure if I can load up the family and drag them out to cities like San Diego, Jamestown, N.Y., Arlington, Texas, Murfreesboro, Tenn., or Point Pleasant, N.J., I’ll always have a place to stay, just as I would expect the families of the guys I marched with from the aforementioned cities to crash in Chicago whenever possible.

Of course, not all habits are worth keeping. In partial thanks to the corps, I swear too much, always take the joke too far and usually forget the type of behavior that’s appropriate in public until it’s too late. I also find comfort in bus fumes, Carmex and eating off a tray.

Marching with the Cavaliers taught me a sense of perspective — the whole “Don’t sweat the small stuff” approach to life. We never let winning or losing define our experience. It would’ve cheapened the whole thing. My 12 years in drum corps also taught me to enjoy something while it’s still around. I try to realize the temporary nature of things, which comes in handy when raising children. You want to watch them enjoy their lives because you know adulthood is waiting in the wings, but you want them to learn to enjoy the right things, to embrace the essentials and to put the insignificant trappings of life in perspective.

Most importantly, drum corps taught me to embrace the differences in others. It provided me with countless reasons to cultivate friendships with guys with backgrounds much different than my own, whether those differences were based on upbringing, race, religion or sexual orientation. I grew up in a multi-ethnic but overwhelmingly white and Catholic neighborhood in Chicago. Marching with the Cavaliers provided me with an appreciation of life beyond my personal boundaries. My experiences with others taught me to appreciate diversity, although I probably had no idea what “diversity” meant at the time.

Moving on

There are drum corps for people my age, but I have no desire to do it again. My family is my top priority these days, followed by other plans I have for the rest of my life.

I do miss the performance aspect of the activity. Playing piano while the rest of my family is asleep is rewarding in its own way but nothing like performing with others, making music. Still, that part of my life has a definite period to it, a closing. And while I still follow the Cavaliers by attending local shows or checking on their progress online, I’m not as connected to it as I once was, although I’ll always feel a bond with the guys who wear the uniform, who ride the buses, who get to live a life off the grid for several weeks every summer. As long as they do that, I feel part of me gets to do the same thing.

Relationships that began in 1977 in a gym in Park Ridge, Ill., continue today in poker games, Facebook updates, fantasy football leagues and late-night phone calls. The guys I marched with still get together for an occasional beer, someone’s 40th birthday or a backyard cookout. Sometimes, we even bring our wives.

Our conversations sometimes turn to drum corps, usually reminiscing about a friend or laughing about the mishaps of youth, but we hardly live in the Glory Days of our past. Our lives move too fast for expanded bouts of nostalgia, and it seems that we’re happy right where we’re at. We probably don’t pay homage often enough to the unique way we’ve been brought together, but we don’t need to. We already know.

While it was thrilling to perform in front of thousands of people in Kansas City, Denver or at the Meadowlands, if I could go back in time for a few days, I’d go back for the bus rides and the other incidentals — the sectionals cut short for impromptu basketball games; the downtime before a show when we’d amuse ourselves with whatever or whomever we could find; the post-rehearsal stops at Wally’s for a gyros and cheese fries; the post-show parking lot experiences; the eight-to-a-car races back to Rosemont School; the free time in Montreal; the first rehearsal camp of the year.

It’s no secret that being young had much to do with how much I enjoyed growing up in the Cavaliers but mostly, it was an experience based on a simple concept: the idea that I belonged somewhere. The concept still stands today.

Like those Charlie Brown sheets point out, happiness is being one of the gang.