Inside the Traveling Circus: Cavaliers 10th Anniversary

Horn Line drum corps rehearsal Cavaliers

2018 Drum Corps Season Kicks Off Tonight!

The big moment has arrived.

Or, is it just the accumulation of a thousand tiny moments, stretching from winter tryouts through the first weekend sectionals on to the weeks that have already been spent rehearsing, developing the base tan, pulling a show together good enough to debut under the lights but nowhere near the freewheeling circus it will be come August and Finals?

And isn’t Finals the big, big moment?

We continue on this throwback Thursday, and on the opening day for 2018 drum corps season, looking back at my introduction to Drum Corps International and its everyday champions through the lens of the Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps and their inimitable founder, Don Warren.

One of my first chances to get really up close and personal with what it takes to put a corps on the road and winning each summer was when I headed out with the Cavaliers for a few days through Iowa and Missouri on their 2005 “My Kind of Town” tour.

I rode the buses, slept on the floors, walked the stadium parking lots, sat in the bleachers… and yeah, got to head home to unlimited AC and fresh laundry and my own bed after a few days, instead of the several weeks these kids commit in the heat of June, July and August.

Still, I gained an appreciation for what they go through like I never had before. And for all the grown-up teachers, cooks, drivers, housing coordinators and other volunteers who dedicate their time to making this one-of-a-kind education possible.

Hard to believe it’s been 13 years since that first tour that fed the 2008 publication of Building the Green Machine. But then, some things don’t change.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in one of the final paperback copies of the book, let me know. Cheers!

drum corps breakfast
2002 by Rick Lunn

2005, Somewhere Near Dubuque, Ia.

It is late morning in Dubuque, Ia., early July. The temperature hovers near ninety and heat shimmers off the tarmac of the regional airport. The few travelers trickling in wander the polished onyx halls to their departure gates, or else take up places around the little bar and dining room, order peanuts, popcorn, sodas, bottled water to take the edge off a day that is already stifling, and getting worse.

It was a long night for Rick Lunn, tour manager of the world-champion Cavaliers, encamped a half hour down the road in Dyersville. The group rolled into Stillwater, Minn. for a competition July 6 and found a cadre of eager inspectors from the department of transportation waving clipboards in greeting. The entire caravan – buses, trucks, trailers – was put on blocks. When one was grounded, Lunn stayed behind to help fetch the part and keep driver Dave Haack awake on the other side of midnight as they sped down the highway to catch the rest of the corps.

When Lunn finally bedded down – in the corps van – it was dawn, and before the sun reached the center of the sky his cell phone was ringing again. Maybe the AC went out in a third bus. Or the cooks’ freezer needed fixing a fourth time. There’s rarely a day when something doesn’t break. “It’s just too much, sometimes,” Lunn says, playing chauffeur at the airport, one hand on the wheel and the other wiping sleep from his eyes. “It has to stop. I have to sacrifice goats or something. The only time I ever get to rest is when I hide.”

Welcome to another glamorous day in the life of Lunn, 2005. A Colorado film producer by trade, he’s hot-footed it to Rosemont every summer since ‘99 to lead the annual 86-day exodus through 13,000 miles and 50-odd cities. You’d think he’d have gotten his fill from 1979-83, when he was among those high-stepping across the field, that in his 40s, he’d be content to warm a bleacher seat and watch the spectacle from a safe distance. But every year there are 135 reasons to bring him back. “My motivation is these guys,” he says. “The experience they get out of it, what I got out of it, that’s why I’m here. I love keeping them at the top of their game.”

Lately the top of the Cavaliers’ game has meant a place at the pinnacle of drum corps. After a succession of inconsistent DCI finals performances from 1996-99, during which they finished 4th, 7th, 4th and 3rd, respectively, the Cavaliers are the corps to beat. Their programs from 2000-02 harnessed the talents of composer/arranger Richard Saucedo and visual designer Michael Gaines, and won three straight championships, a placing reprised in 2004 with a harkening back to the corps’ 1983 winter guard routine. Fielding a James Bond show was first suggested by former percussion instructor Jim Campbell in 1984. Twenty years later, with Campbell’s son Colin in the ranks, the drill won the Cavaliers’ their sixth DCI championship and 19th season-ending title since the days of the VFW and American Legion.

Through the 2005 tour’s first 47 days, the Cavaliers have won every contest, with a big, brassy show that salutes their origins – “Chicago, Chicago that toddlin’ town” – and gains a fiendish layer of complexity each week. Just last night they changed the drill’s final minute and a half. The execution wasn’t quite working, so they put in new moves that are “insanity, drill-wise” Lunn says. The show now includes ladders, and kids sprinting up and down them, all while playing from a part more befitting orchestral stage than football field. “It’s like a tornado. You better hit your marker, or you’re going down, and if you go down, it could be a train wreck. Some will say, ‘Well, you aren’t quite doing it.’ Yeah, but look at what they’re trying to do!”

Rick Lunn Cavaliers drum major 1983
Rick Lunn in his Cavaliers drum major days, 1983.

Lunn stops at a shopping center, peeking inside Best Buy for a cell phone holder – for which he comes up empty – then Borders bookstore for coffee. “I can’t handle Folgers,” he explains. The discovery of uncommonly good grounds makes Lunn’s endless “erranding” go down a little smoother. Luckily, he has plenty of company in the network of volunteers who keep the enterprise afloat every summer. Cooks, nurses, drivers, teachers – all buzz about the periphery of the school parking lot where Lunn again eases the van to a halt, each with roles as key to the corps’ success as the trumpet soloist, the flashy color guardsman.

The doors are propped open at Beckman High School. Bags stand scattered on the scorching blacktop. The bus bays yawn, empty. The pit practices in the shade of a leaning tree. Marimba and xylophone runs hang like humidity in the air. Boys saunter in and out, shirtless, for lunch break, gaze up at the TV blaring high in one corner of the brick-walled cafeteria, where news of London terrorist bombings reaches them. Alumnus Craig Rasin bends his body into one of the long tables with attached benches, digs in to a plate of gyros atop the green tray matching his “Splooie” T-shirt, and holds forth on tour life.

Summer began with three weeks of camp in DeKalb, Ill., the boys comfortably housed in dorm rooms, a luxury soon left behind. Rasin helps run the Cavaliers’ home show in Naperville, its second year in the Chicago suburb, a contest still weeks away but very much on his mind. The inaugural show’s success evidently caught North Central College by surprise. Rasin told their hosts early on to expect 4,000, “but I don’t know if they believed us.” By 2 p.m., seven high school buses pulled into the lot at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium just to watch the corps practice, and the hungry youngsters made a run on concessions. When the show sold out – 4,500 attended, including those paying $5 a head to stand field-level – many endured the contest without food or drink. This year, extra bleachers are on order. “It will be a big show,” Rasin predicts, particularly with the defending-champion Cavaliers meeting 2003’s champion Blue Devils. The Cadets are another corps to watch, having closed the gap with the Cavaliers from more than three points in Lisle, Ill. June 19, to less than a point at summer’s halfway mark.

If there’s a sense of urgency among the corps, it’s impossible to tell. This summer is as grueling as any other. Rasin and brother Don have hopped on tour to sell souvenirs out of the rolling CPI trailer, and they’ll hop off again in a few days when the group swings back through Chicago. Meanwhile, chores for folks who stay close to Rosemont – including treasurer Don Heitzman and transportation director Adolph DeGrauwe – take on a steady frenzy once the calendar flips from May to June. “He probably works harder now (than he did as a school principal),” Rasin says of Heitzman. Same with director Jeff Fiedler, who finishes each spring on staff at a Chicago private school only to see his timecard swell to encompass the entire day on the road. “If you notice his posts on the website, they’re all logged after midnight,” Rasin says. “He never gets a moment to himself.”

helen turner drum corps nurse Cavaliers
Nurse Helen Turner tending to the Cavaliers on tour in 2006, by Craig Bales

Keeping the whole traveling band Ace-bandaged is Helen Turner, a retired nurse and part of the group’s rolling, rotating medical contingent since 1981. She perches at the end of one of the long tables, an accordion file of medical data at her fingertips and bright orange medical bag sitting before her, from which she dispenses allergy pills and other medication on schedule, and tends to the boys’ aches and complaints during downtime. Her son Michael was 10 when he first saw the Cavies. “I can still remember his eyes being this big,” Turner says, demonstrating with her own, which dance above a cheery smile. “‘Mom! I wanna do that!’ And then he came home, and announced, ‘Mom, there’s something I volunteered you for.’”

She’s treated sore thumbs, respiratory infections, blisters, fractures, rotten teeth, ankle sprains and muscle strains. There was the chicken bone lodged in a boy’s throat that didn’t come out with the Heimlich maneuver. They ended up using endoscopy to retrieve it. “It’s like being a camp nurse on wheels,” Turner says. But she loves every minute of it, has signed on this summer for all but two weeks. It’s the corps’ reputation for courtesy – learned from the top down – that entices her to spend three months crawling in and out of sleeping bags with a table for a mattress. “It’s like traveling with 135 young gentlemen, every year.”

The gentlemen benefit from a medical corps organized by physicians Craig Bales and Fred Olin, an alumnus. Two nurses travel, and each boy undergoes a thorough physical before summer begins. Cavaliers doctors have discovered chronic heart conditions, epilepsy. One boy’s heart was deemed unfit for the rigors of the drill, so the corps made him a sideline conductor instead. “We work with them,” Turner says. “Some corps wouldn’t take ‘em. But Jeff and (assistant director) Bruno (Zuccala) are willing to learn about the kids, find out what they need and see that they have it.”

When things go awry, the corps relies on a network of doctors, dentists and other professionals, many of them alumni, in nearly every town through which they travel. Turner is continually impressed with the brotherhood, credits the Cavaliers with helping her son learn responsibility and discipline. Michael, former color guard member, went on to serve as a paramedic with the Rosemont Fire Department. He helps the corps with CPR training, equips them with an automatic external defibrillator. And of course, gathers with other “old-timers” at contests, huddles to sing the Corps Song. Turner delights at seeing the men her boys grow into. It doesn’t matter how long ago she applied a bandage, or mended a sprain. They introduce her to their wives, their children. “There are some kids who just stick with you,” she explains. And she with them.

Today the boys are setting their usual frenetic pace. Their schedule marches along in blue marker on the whiteboard pinned to the cook truck: “Performance time tonight is 9:26 p.m. 9 breakfast, 10 rehearsal, 12:30 lunch, 1:45 rehearsal, 4:30 dinner/shower, 6:30 depart for show, 7 arrive & warm up, 9:10 gate.” Keeping the corps fueled is the cooking crew, for whom the trailer is workstation several hours each day, where the temperature sometimes hits 100, but the mood is nearly always light.

Cavaliers kitchen crew 2005
The Cavaliers kitchen crew rolls along on the next tour stop, Michigan City, Ind. in 2005, by Bob Nehmer.

For two seasons Geoff O’Donnell has planned the summer menu, ordered all the food. He’s not sure yet which is more demanding – playing contrabass from 1993-95 and in ‘98, or dealing with vendors who misplace faxed orders, and substitute items he doesn’t want or can’t use to feed 175 mouths three to four times a day. “It can be – um – fun sometimes,” he says. Each summer the corps goes through 48 gallons of milk and 300-350 cases of food, plates, silverware and napkins. One sloppy Joe dinner requires 50-60 lbs. of ground beef, a couple gallons of barbecue sauce, 5 lbs. of onions, 45 lbs. of French fries and 360 buns. Juice for the drink system is stored in a 65-gallon stainless steel tank, which is refilled 9 times during tour. The corps hauls so much related to “good eats” it takes a half-hour to 45 minutes just to unload it, and then it’s time to start cooking.

Lack of sleep is hardest, says Eric Beastrom, kitchen fixture since 1992. Cooks rise to the alarm bell two hours before the corps rubs sleep from its eyes – if they’re fortunate to see a pillow at all. The caravan arrived in Stillwater yesterday about 7:15 a.m. following an overnight drive from DeKalb. Breakfast was due off the griddle by 8:30. Cooks cheer for drivers gifted with lead right feet – less time on the road means more time “on their backs,” as the corps saying goes. “Why haven’t I left?” Beastrom asks. “Because I’m stupid.”

In 1983, Beastrom marched in the Wausau Story, which folded the next season. But he couldn’t get drum corps out of his blood. After landing a job in Chicago, he flipped through TV stations one night in 1990 and paused on PBS’ broadcast of DCI finals, unable to switch away. The following summer he attended the Cavaliers’ show at Maine West High School and met old-timer Warren Alm, who talked him into three weeks driving. When Beastrom ran into Don Warren, counting money at a Bingo fundraiser, “I knew he was somebody important, but no one really introduced me. ‘So,’ I said, ‘what’s your involvement with the corps?’ He stopped counting, glared at me over his glasses. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘I founded this corps.’”

Warren talked Beastrom into a tour in the kitchen. Soon, he was indoctrinated in the domain of the Peters brothers – Tim, Craig and Bruce – adjusting to their Marine Corps sense of order and camaraderie that made the cook truck click. Kitchen snafus try even the coolest chefs, but there’s usually a humorous aspect. Like the time O’Donnell ordered breakfast sausage and opened the box to find the meat wrapped in flapjacks with sticks poking out the ends. “The guys called ‘em breakfast corndogs,” and the corps ended up with enough to work them into the lunch menu two days later. Little things make the job gratifying, Beastrom says. When guys come through the line and say Wow about a dish they didn’t expect. Or, when they make special requests, wonder when a menu item will pop up again. “So, obviously, it must have been good.”   “Or when they’re like, ‘Dude, this is my favorite,’” O’Donnell adds.

What brings back Beastrom, and O’Donnell, and now, Rachel, O’Donnell’s wife – a Blue Stars alumna – is a sense of community, friendships built each summer. O’Donnell serves one week halfway through tour, plus a few days during Finals week, when the knot of people traveling with the corps is thickest, and tempers, at times, are frayed. He’s learned to read faces, gestures, and remember, no matter how stressful it gets, his role in the whole traveling circus. “They need me,” he says, “and I want to be here.”

 

By 2 p.m. the cafeteria is deserted, the afternoon’s rhythms giving way to the flow of rehearsal outside. Down one hallway are scattered sleeping mats, aero beds, inflatable mattresses. Corps jackets and towels hang from locker handles. Duffle bags belch contents – shower shoes, Texas T-shirts, college textbooks. Instructors not engaged outdoors lounge in a classroom, door shut. Some nap, others check e-mail. The TV endlessly cycles through news of the day: London bombings, Dow is down, baseball.

Drums echo everywhere, the chirp of the electronic metronome marking time. Brass huddle in their customary circle, blowing rising scales at one another. The color guard gathers in the grassy V intersection of building wings, clad in shorts, sneakers and their suntans, nothing else. They perform leaping toe-touches as warm up. Atop the hill above them, under a tree, two girls watch them prance and gyrate, sprint from set to set. Lindsey McKinley and Courtney Stufflebeam drove an hour and a half from Waterloo, Ia. to spy on high school chum William Martin, with whom they graduated in 2004. “How can you get 40, 50 people to move like that?” Stufflebeam says. “It just blows my mind. That’s what separates the Cavaliers from other corps, what’s under the surface – the uniforms, the changes, all the stuff going on in the show.”

Martin has turned Stufflebeam into a certified drum corps nut. She wears a Cavaliers wristband and boasts of a stash of other merchandise back home. She will attend the show with McKinley tonight. One of the day’s highlights for the guys is witnessing three carloads of Waterloo girls joining Stufflebeam and McKinley as cheerleaders. Twelve car doors open in turn, dispensing girls clad in black T-shirts proclaiming them members of the Will Fan Club, “We Heart William” and “He’s bomb.com” written across their chests and backs. The guys stare as they assemble on the main field about 3 p.m., lining up for a full-corps run-through. The girls stroll by, giggle. “Oh my God, don’t mind us,” one says. “We’re just watching.”

David Bertman Cavaliers 2005
David Bertman leads Cavaliers rehearsal in 2005.

Flags fly. Ladders rise. Turner and Virginia “Virge” Balcerek, another nurse, roll a cart loaded with Gatorade to offer relief. The grass is baked brown and white. Head brass instructor David Bertman stands high atop a podium, clad in blue shorts and Panama hat. “I apologize, mellophones, for starting in movement two,” he says, referring to the breakneck, ladder-climbing number. The boys obligingly collapse the ten-foot implements, preparing to set up anew. Head guard instructor Bruno Zuccala strides over, brown as coffee. “Hey Kaijali,” he shouts. “If you’d stop looking at the crowd your ladders would be set!” The sun reemerges from a bank of clouds, but blessedly there is a breeze. Bertman’s amplified voice directs the corps to set, reset, correct this, fix that. He says it matter-of-factly, not yelling. “Reset, gentlemen, please. Fifty-four to seventy-two, got it?” They get it, measures flowing out of them like clockwork, again and again. This is the way the afternoon passes.

In the cool of a hallway inside, the corps’ drivers laze about like bears emerging from hibernation, rapping about the route, talking wistfully of another nap. A trek to Wal-Mart yields the usual cases of Red Bull, enough to keep them awake through 500-mile nights, during which they’ll crank the AC to 50 and play “who said that movie line” over the CB to stay alert. Ken Krienke, with his booming voice straight out of Texas, keeps signing on for longer and longer stints as son Preston, a mellophone, adds to his corps tenure. He’s got his routine down so he can roll in at 9, 10 in the morning and succumb to slumber’s tidal pull within 20 minutes. Wake up to eat, then back to sleep; once more for lunch, then another 2-, 3-hour siesta. Everybody’s always asking, “Where are we? What time is it?” Krienke flips his cell phone open to check. “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t love it, though,” he says.

Krienke is drawn by “the goose bump factor,” watching the boys wow another crowd, and the opportunity to share time with a group he’d love to call neighbors. Drivers Jesse Dungy, Rudy Waldukat, Bruce Miller and Dave Haack spend downtime talking politics and history; “who saw it?” is another game they play, tracking wind generators along the route, classic cars, you name it. Krienke talks wistfully of home, “the highlight of tour,” where the corps gorges on Texas barbecue and a considerable home-state contingent soaks up T.L.C. from friends and family. The rest settle for the royal treatment. “San Antonio’s groupie city,” Krienke says, recalling the crush of consumers at the CPI trailer, the carload of girls pulling alongside the bus in a convertible, one top down, the rest up. “This wasn’t flashing – you could count moles!”

Miller proudly points out his Cavaliers belt buckle. He’s a horn player from way back, marched with the Kilties in the 1950s when he first saw the Cavaliers and wondered if he’d joined the wrong corps. He finally found his way into the ranks in ’99, and wields his bugle in parking lots after competitions, showing off his Australian “Jackaroo” hat. He’s an idea man, lending his talents as amateur electrician and constructing a dowel-rod rack to hold Styrofoam bowls the corps spent years chasing down the street. He speaks of “giving anything to have studied with Bertman at the University of Houston” and refers to Fiedler – easily 15 years his junior – as a brother, a role model. “I look forward to it every year, ya know? I don’t have anybody I can really call close. So when I’m with this corps it’s an excellent situation for me.”

As the clock hands sweep toward dinnertime, corps parent Sondra Devany sets up in the cafeteria, a stack of pristine white gloves at one hand, box full of cash at the other. Devany followed son Kevin into the corps in 2000 and quickly enlisted as one of the corps’ talented seamstresses. When Kevin aged out after 2003, she stuck around. Tonight she dispenses replacement gloves to guys who need them as they come in to change for the show following hard-earned showers. The gloves last three performances if they’re lucky, she says.

Many of Devany’s friends fail to understand her devotion. She tells them, “‘Well, we sleep on the floor, when we don’t sleep on the bus.’ They look at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I tell them I must be. ‘Keep me in your prayers this week.’” But the secret is she doesn’t mind any of it. She’s happy to do it. She’s made so many friends, invited them to her house to dine. She calls the Cavaliers a class organization, where even the most entrenched offer daily examples of how things ought to be done. “Jeff Fiedler carried my sewing machine back to the bus for me. And when I need some of the kids to help me out, I don’t need to ask.”

The boys are taught that striving for their personal best is far more important than first place. Devany remembers the Cavaliers’ long winning streak, stretching from before their 2001 championship and finally being broken in Indianapolis in 2003 by the Blue Devils. There was no moping, resentment or tears. “It was just like, OK. That wasn’t what it was about to them.” That dedication and self-control amazes Devany, who notes its effect on Kevin, newly hired as band director for Centralia (Ill.) High School. “What they do is world class.”

In the hour after dinner, the guys are quiet, focused. They pack belongings and carry them out in an orderly shuffle, clad in black T-shirts, green and black gym shorts. It’s too early, and too hot, to muss the uniform by climbing into it three hours before show time. Even that ritual has been perfected, scripted. Instead, they sit in the cafeteria, write letters home. Drum major Aaron Brizuela reads. Others pore over drill books. They buy gloves from Devany, polish horns. They’re taking a breather, getting in character. Finally, Brizuela stands. “Five minutes, guys.”

Cavaliers tour bus 2004
Drum corps tour buses are rolling sleeping quarters, pep rally point and after-performance lounge all in one. 2004 pic by Rick Lunn

The buses cough to life and roll out a moment later. Aboard the staff bus, the mood is loose. They’re showered, comfortable, not worried about donning uniforms, or screwing on their game faces. In the absence of their protégés, they act the part of the corps kids nearly all used to be. “Ooooh, sweet bitter death,” someone murmurs.

“Who farted?” is the demand a moment later.

“Who shit?” someone else chimes in.

“John! Don’t shit on the bus!”

A hissing fills the air with a chemical, citrus pungency. “Oh! Got anymore of that bug spray?” Yes, is the answer. And it works.

The Finale music software guys dropped by earlier and much of the staff is like kids at Christmas, passing around boxes and rifling through them, some booting the new program onto laptops and giving it a look. Percussion instructors huddle in back, seats turned toward one another, flipping cards on a fold-out table. In the middle are the brass staff, whose leader, Bertman, browses RVs in a catalog, dreaming up ways to bring his beloved dog Murphy on tour. Sly Sabilski, bouncing among seats in the guard section up front, announces, to no one in particular, “Don Warren tells me to go to church and be charitable.” The guys nod, or chuckle, or draw into themselves.

The bus is a regular icebox rolling down the sun-soaked highway. Guys stretch out in their seats, sprawl in the aisle, mummify themselves in blankets. They read from Ayn Rand – Atlas Shrugged, Tom Brokaw – The Greatest Generation, Dan Brown – take your pick. The bucolic countryside slides by. The CB crackles, “Left on Iowa 32.” Books dip, fold across chests, drop in the aisle, merely tonic for sleep, which descends like a curtain. Idle chatter from insomniacs whispers, and cards endlessly shuffle.

“Where do we see Blue Devils the first time?”

“You mean when do the Blue Devils see us.”

“Pittsburg, Kansas.”

“No! That’s a made-up town.”

“Who you talking to?”

“My mother. What’s your beef?”

“You better watch it, you, with your jewel glasses.”

Andy Waldukat, son of driver Rudy and head cook Mary, counts birthdays he’s celebrated on the road. In 2003 it was Murfreesboro, Tenn.; 2001 in Arkansas – “damn hot,” he says. On his 18th, in 2000, they beat Blue Devils the first time. This year, July 23 falls on the San Antonio regional, a big show for the corps and its Texas contingent, and window on how competition will shake out heading into DCI finals. Waldukat has already scored big this summer thanks to Cavaliers connections. Five seasons as baritone helped him land an interview with a Mission Viejo, Calif. high school a few weeks after graduating from Roosevelt University. But dropping Sly’s name earned recognition from his interviewer. Three others were up for the job; Waldukat got the call at 10 p.m., another Cavalier turned band director.

Now, as the bus bumps to a halt outside the stone façade of Dubuque Senior High School and its stadium, Waldukat shifts into contest focus. Guys stand up, peer out at other buses crowding the parking lot. “The Troop!” someone shouts, announcing competitors from Casper, Wyo. Memphis Sound’s trailer is on the premises, Southwind. “Oh, my God!” someone says. “Troopers have a female drum major! She’s wearing a skirt!” Boy, is she wearing it, since the reply comes, “Wow! Holy shit!”

As instructors file off the bus, someone chides Bertman, “Are you just going to sleep? We’re trying to win a championship!” It’s a familiar refrain around staff, applicable to almost any situation: “Aren’t you going to clean your plate? We’re trying to win a championship!” Or: “No time to shave? We’re trying to win a championship!” But Bertman is awake, and up to the task. “You’ll have the horn line with you,” he shoots back.

The horns gather in the grassy bowl at the bottom of the hill. Above them, the drum line pounds away in metronomic precision by a baseball backstop, drawing a crowd as they trade beats, back and forth like a tennis match. The guard practices in the outfield. Bertman stands at the open front of the half-circle. Uniform hats rest atop folded green coats; their instruments are a level line of silver bells as they begin runs, scales, the tall, grassy berm shielding the warm bounce of melody from drifting near the stadium, which rings with the efforts of rivals. Other corps file past, silent, gazing straight ahead.

Bertman is stocky, not too tall or heavy, with a sun-reddened face and southern lilt to his voice. His reputation as director of bands at the University of Houston draws the top brass players in the country to his side, in school and with the Cavaliers. He seems itching to get at it. The guys play a chord, hold it three counts. “I want you to do the same volume, but articulate,” he instructs. “A lot more articulation, air spaced more versus fast. And I want it soft – not that fake softness. Concert F.” His hands barely move as he conducts them, resting on pinpoints, emphasizing control. “There’s a little too much fa fa fa in the mellophones,” he says. “You can’t lose articulation.”

They blow through a chorale bearing similarity to A Mighty Fortress is Our God, but jangly in its stops. Bertman’s arms expand in a bear hug, palms up, before falling to his sides, hushing them. “You’re very smart,” he says, liltingly. “See where you can go when you start to transfer that to the music?” The Star Spangled Banner comes next in the warm up, and Bertman, too, changes his tune. “It’s not la la-laaa,” he tells them. “It’s ta ta-ta. Think of the words – it’s not like a lullaby. No one was asleep when this was going on, trust me. I must have it. I’ll produce this – more!” Drum majors Brizuela and Chris Lugo walk down, lay their hats to the left of Bertman, wait. He’s still working. A minute blends into ten until he relents. “OK. Fine. We’ll work on that in the morning.”

By 8:55 they’re pulling on their coats, sashes, pinning gauntlets to their arms. The horns assemble on the school’s front steps, wait for the drum line, pit and guard to join them. Jeff Fiedler materializes and leads them inside for a special treat he’s saved for just before they take the field – a look at the original Heisman trophy. Then it’s back down the steps. “Guys, grab the plumbing,” Fiedler calls, referring not to a restroom break, but their instruments. “Let’s go.”

The sky blushes purple overhead, white stadium lights casting long shadows on the track as the Cavaliers file past, huddle before the stadium gate. A group from Capital Sound, a division III corps, eyes them. Sure, they’re impressed by what they see, snare drummer Lee Plummer says. He acknowledges his emulation of the boys in green, his ownership of the Cavaliers’ 2001 DVD, the “bitching” dissonant chord in that performance, something he only remembers attempting in concert band.  But they’re focused on their own group, their own division. Second bass Mike Joers racks his brain for jokes to make it through rookie bus hazing. Lizzy O’Brien, a mellophone, soaks up the thrill of walking off to applause after a good show. Courtney Doucet, from Ontario, praises the openness of co-ed corps. “You know, we could have that big of sound if we had eight-second intervals,” she says, noting the spread formation of the 135-strong Cavaliers. Cap Sound numbers about 60. “A lot of what separates the upper-level corps from the lower-division groups is attitude,” Plummer contends. “Like the Blue Devils. They can be the coolest guys off the field, but when they put on the drums, watch out. Oh man, it’s like night and day. You don’t want to be standing in front of them, because if you do, you’ll fall.” They’ll walk right over you.

Cavaliers My kinda Town 2005 home run rehearsal
One of the high points in the 2005 show was the home run simulated during the baseball sequence. Photo by Bob Nehmer.

There’s a muted respect from rivals who await the Cavaliers’ performance tonight. A grudging admiration for a record that boasts no finishes lower than second for more than four years, and more than 110 victories in that span. But though Racine Scouts leader Bruce Chaffee may give a few feet as the corps breaks its huddle with a shouted “splooie!” and lines up to take the field – “I won’t cut through their ranks,” he explains as he heads inside to watch the show. “It’s disrespectful” – Chaffee doesn’t give an inch when it comes to pride or competitiveness. “A lot of people think bigger is always better,” he says. “It’s not.” Chaffee joined the Scouts in 1969, and has seen a lot of changes since – good and bad. The military model gave way to the DCI model, which fostered competition, he says, but essentially put orchestras on the field, and to him, they’ve all begun to sound the same. It’s disheartening, he says, watching the guys and gals he trains in Racine – whose history dates to 1927 – move up to elite groups. “If they would stay, we could be that big,” he says, and he ticks off smaller units that have folded – Maumee Ohio, Kinsmen, Valley Knights – unable to keep up with the giants.

His daughter, Amy, lead soprano, derides DCI as big business, a semi-pro league catering to older kids. It shouldn’t matter if you’re looking to be a professional, Amy says, it’s the experience that counts. Shuttling the lower-division kids up and up works against tradition, creates a schism akin to junior high versus high school, a junior college against a four-year institution. But on this night, as she watches the Cavaliers storm the field, blow back the stands with brass wails and swinging drum thunder, she gives them her blessing. “It was good,” she says, then adds, “we’re just as good, and because we’re not as big, when you screw up, it’s more noticeable.”

The verdict tonight within the corps’ ranks is getting better, but not nearly good enough. Their 85.3 tops all competitors, but they’ll need to gain ground before the big regional show in Columbia, Mo. two nights from now. Instructors dismiss their charges to change and participate in the night’s final ritual, an hour and a half or so of downtime in the parking lot, where guys play instruments on the side, wander among various corps camps, swigging punch and munching cookies. One Cavalier walks off into the night with a girl on each arm. Others give an impromptu clinic bus-side with a mom holding the music for a junior-high trumpeter. “Just blow,” they counsel, “it’s all about air.”

Kyle Adelmann lingers by the field. He’s a fifth-year mellophone from Joliet, Ill., all lanky smirk and sweat-spiked brown hair. Tonight was tough, he says, because whoever lined the field didn’t do it both ways – one way you turned it was all green, the other way, white. “Oh cool,” Adelmann thought during the show, “yard lines!” He’s majoring in music ed. at the University of Illinois, will age out after this summer and hopes to teach high school or junior high band, maybe attend grad school if nothing materializes. He knows it’s time to get a job – “the old man wants me to” – and that soon he’ll be done with gym floors and buses and eating out of the truck. He swears he won’t be like other alumni, that when he’s gone he’ll stay gone – at least five years, he says, get back to the “real world.” But he hopes, at least, to carry forth some corps discipline. “I see guys from last year and they’re all pale and fat,” Adelmann cackles. “What happened?”

Adelmann’s parents wait at the edge of the parking lot. It’s a comparatively short drive from Chicago’s southwest suburbs to catch one more show in this, his final summer. George and Bev Adelmann wouldn’t trade their son’s experience for summers lazing around the house or cruising with friends. “If our job as parents is to prepare him for life,” George says, “I think five years with the Cavaliers and a degree from U of I, that’s a pretty nice package.” But George cracks wise about it being time for Kyle to leave the fraternity behind. Secret handshakes, slogans, songs – “it’s cultish,” he says. “I want him back.” He calls the journey from junior high band to DCI going from “single A to the big leagues.” They know the routine – life on marching music’s biggest stage means a few more weeks on the road, a chance at another championship. They drift together beneath the buggy parking lot lights, a familial trio, and murmur among themselves as the place slowly empties out, the diesel engines thrum to life, the air conditioning dips into deep freeze and headphones cover ears, seatbacks are reclined: another day done, many miles to Keokuk, Ia. and only a few hours until tomorrow.

Copyright 2008 by Colt Foutz. All rights reserved.

 

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