This article is kind of a prequel to my article “For the love of the activity,” that previously appeared in this paper. We have all taken our own unique road to the activity. Some more deliberate than others. Some a right of passage. For many of us, it was out of sheer boredom.
I’d like to think my path was one of genetic disposition, but that would be quite an exaggeration. No one in my family, including myself, had any musical talent or leanings, so I’m not sure how it all started. Thus, I decided to (30 years later) get the “rest of the story” ($1 to Paul Harvey). To do this, I am relying on the memory of my mom and dad, long since retired from the activity.
So now you’re all thinking, “Has this guy turned into Fay and Francis O’Donnell? Does anyone really care (what time it is?)” ($1 to Chicago). I’m gonna go broke if I keep this up. For you “youngsters” out there, Fay and Francis were reporters on the drum corps scene in Western Pennsylvania during the 1960s and 1970s. They didn’t just report on shows during the summer season, they had a propensity to write about things other than an actual competition.
For example, “The Sharpsburg Cadets recently held their annual hoagie sale.” Now, why was that important? It wasn’t, but that is what they did, the story behind the corps, no matter how mundane.
So, to make a long story even longer, a little family history. I was born in the backwoods of Western Pennsylvania. WRONG!
If any of you have the infamous “Drum Corps Book of World Records,” my family is in it for having all six siblings AND dad, marching in corps. That is our singular claim to fame. Pretty sad, don’t ya think? That pretty much summed up life in Western Pennsylvania! Well, now that you have some background, we’ll move on to the meat of the interview.
DCW: Did anyone in either of your families have some form of musical talent that was a link to drum corps?
M&D: Yes, my Grandfather played the violin and your moms dad played the drums in a local marching band.
DCW: Prior to drum and bugle corps, had any one of us expressed a musical desire of any kind?
DCW: Was getting involved in drum and bugle corps something you sought out or did it just happen?
M&D: It just happened. I took your brother Frank to a Pittsburgh Rockets practice in response to a newspaper ad. After standing on the sidelines for a couple of shows and a lot of practices, I thought, “Hey, I can do that.” So I joined the Rockets in the color guard. I caught on right away.
DCW: Prior to your involvement in drum corps, had either of you ever heard of the activity or seen a drum and bugle corps competition?
DCW: So, you delivered mail and now you marched during your time off. Isn’t that a little crazy?
M&D: Why would it be crazy? I walked about eight to 10 miles a day on my mail route, so I was in very good shape for a similar-type activity, marching!
DCW: Mom, did you think he was crazy? What did you think when this idea was brought to your attention?
M&D: Didn’t bother me at all. I thought it was great!
DCW: Now dad’s in drum corps. Why get any of my older brothers involved? Did they want to do it?
DCW: What are some of your recollections from your eight or so years in the activity that are suitable for publication?
M&D: Traveling to Chicago for the American Legion Convention. Marching in the gigantic American Legion Parades, especially the Washington, D.C. parade. I remember one show in particular where as we were lined up for the kickoff and someone remembered that being as this was an American Legion show, all corps had to carry an American Legion flag, which we were not doing. Big mistake! So guess what? They get the flag and asked me to carry it for the show. Did you ever try to spin one of those heavy monsters? It must have weighed a ton!
My worst show so far as work was concerned. Best show was when we were playing the music from the movie “Patton” and, toward the end of the show as the whole corps was pushing forward, a storm came up. Fantastic music from “Patton.” Big corps push, lightning and thunder as an accompaniment. Sure made for a fantastic sight and sound. As soon as we hit the sidelines, we were directed right off the field and out of the stadium. Carrying all that metal was a bit dangerous with the lightning all around us.
DCW: After the Rockets folded, did you give any thought to marching elsewhere?
M&D: I did consider it at the time, but I was promoted to supervisor in the post office and as such could not take off of work as much as before.
DCW: Where would you have liked to march?
M&D: Probably Reading Buccaneers because they played decent music. Being from New York, I would like to have considered the Skyliners, but that was too far to travel.
DCW: Now, do you wish you had continued marching somewhere?
DCW: How would you compare the experience of the Rockets to that of following the Cadets (Sharpsburg)?
M&D: A different world as far as discipline and dedication was concerned. Leadership was too slipshod and too many egos in the junior corps.
DCW: When I told you I wanted to march with Phantom Regiment, what was your first reaction?
M&D: Fantastic. At last, getting into a viable and top corps, even though, at the time, both the Royal Crusaders and Vagabonds were having their most successful seasons, we thought it was great. You needed to get away. We believe that your development was accelerated by the relationships made in Rockford; relationships that to this day remain. Essentially, you found another set of parents in Rockford that guided you through the age of 21 and to them we remain extremely grateful.
DCW: Did you actually believe that I would go through with it?
M&D: Sure. We could just tell. A parent knows these things. I think we would have been more surprised if you didn’t go.
DCW: Did you know my second corps of choice was Blue Devils? Would your reaction have been different if I said I wanted to march there?
M&D: We did not know that. It made no difference where you wanted to march. We would have supported you no matter where you marched, though one has to wonder how things might have been different. Would it have been the Blue Devils that took second three out of four years? Not that you were a jinx or anything. You just never know.
DCW: Thanks, I think. Anyway, during the time I marched with Regiment, Bill (my younger brother) was marching Royal Crusaders. Did you perceive any animosity from corps members toward him because of my decision?
M&D: We did get the feeling from some parents and management. They pretty much gave him a hard time because you decided to march with the Regiment. Back then, traveling halfway across the country just wasn’t as common as it is today.
I guess it was hard for them to accept that you would rather march with a corps that they (Royal Crusaders) had beaten most of the previous season (1975). Prior to any head-to-head competitions, it was pretty much people telling him how RC was going to beat the Regiment. Well, we all know how that turned out. It was really a shame because the activity should have been above that type of nonsense. How do they think we felt? We had kids in competing corps. Did we cheer for one to beat the other? Of course not.
At the time, Bill was about 14 and, considering what he went through, we were very proud of how he handled himself. He never let it get to him. It didn’t help his cause that he got stuck in Toledo after prelims and had to go with you until you brought him back for finals.
DCW: Yeah, I remember that. We had to get to the show early, hoping RC hadn’t gone on yet so he could march. I can’t remember if he made it in time, but he had a great time with us in his t-shirt and uniform pants. Makes me wonder if they left him on purpose! I know at one time he wanted to march with North Star. What ever happened with that? Would you have let him go?
M&D: For some unknown reason, the idea just faded away. We were a bit reluctant because he did not have the experience and maturity to be away from home for any length of time.
DCW: Which was a bigger surprise, my marching Regiment or Rick (my youngest brother 1982-1983) wanting to march there?
M&D: No surprise in either case. The junior scene in Western Pennsylvania had pretty much been depleted, so options here were limited.
DCW: So, why did he march Regiment? It’s not as if they were known for their drums at the time.
M&D: Don’t know. After marching with the Vagabonds, he probably wanted a bigger challenge. He wasn’t going to find it locally.
DCW: With all the changes the activity has gone through, if you had a marching-age child today, would you still encourage them to march if they were interested?
M&D: Definitely. All that they can learn from the experience of marching in corps is well worth the time. It can teach them so much. How to get along with other people, working together for a common goal, traveling and the thrill of performing in front of an audience.
DCW: Since you have seen the so-called “evolution” of drum corps from the 1960s into the new century, what could corps today do to “reach out” to the diehard fans from yesteryear?
M&D: I assume you mean us old folks when you say diehard fans of yesteryear. My first 10 to 15 years in the activity were very exciting. I started in 1966 and most of the corps played music that was familiar to most people. My favorite corps was Phantom Regiment, not because my sons were marching in it, but because of the music they played and their style. All class, plus the music they played was well-known.
Over the years, most of the corps have gone to obscure music and it’s not as entertaining. As for the color guard, why do they have to wander all over the field trying all sorts of gymnastics? This is not the Olympics! Years ago, the guard was integrated within the corps with just flags and rifles as a background to the corps proper. Not any more. Too much stuff on the field. I also think some of the guards costumes are terrible.
DCW: Do you think you’ll ever go to another DCI Championship?
M&D: Yes. We have talked about it. It is getting kind of tough to travel anymore. We just aren’t as young as we used to be. We would like to, of course. We always enjoyed most of the music and some of the routines, plus a chance to see old friends is a highlight for us.
DCW: Well folks, there you have it. Across the generations, drum corps is an activity that lives on no matter how some try to change it.
Publisher’s note: This article originally appeared in the May 2005 edition of Drum Corps World, Volume 34, Number 2, mailed to subscribers on Thursday, April 28.