I saw my first drum corps competition when I was less than a month old. Well, technically I’m not sure if I saw it, but I’m pretty certain that I heard it. According to my Mom I was sound asleep in my buggy down on the field as the kettle drums rolled, and the horns blasted. Being the tag along in the family by 7 years I was carted everywhere my older siblings went, and summer time was parade and drum corps season. All three of my siblings were marching with the Little St. Joe’s feeder corps, and my folks were heavily involved in the kiddie corps, yet whenever the big corps was in town for a competition, we were always there.
Drum corps music was the soundtrack of my early life. Whether it was practices in the school cafeteria in the winter, or at William’s Park in the spring, we were always around it. Summer weekends were spent at parades as my siblings marched in stifling heat, and the summer nights watching the big corps compete as june bugs swarmed the stadium lights.
The fact that I can remember it at all is amazing. I was only four when the drum corps folded. Which means that my memories of watching Mighty St. Joe’s compete at Woodward field, against the Kilties, and Rochester Crusaders must date from when I was three years old. Yet I can remember that night clearly, as St. Joe’s took the field in their resplendent green, and black uniforms, with white sashes, and feathered plumes on their hats. They were an amazing sight for a three year old. They looked so military, and regimental, like toy soldiers come to life as they marched past, hats down low over their eyes, chinstraps tight against their chins, steely looks on the faces of the drum line as the snare drums rattled, and snapped, like gunfire. The stadium lights glinted off of the silver bell fronts of the horns, and the shining gold of the cymbals. Best of all were the copper gold kettle drums, carried by boys that seemed like giants, their drum sticks pounding off of the skins in a thunderous rumble and roar. The spectacle of it all was forever burned into my memory.
It was 80 years ago this year that Father Kelly founded the St. Joseph’s Drum and Bugle Corps at our parish, as a way to engage the local youth and give them something constructive to do during the depression.The corps grew from a choir, to a fife and drum corps, to a parade corps, and finally reached it’s zenith as a nationally competitive field corps in the 1960′s. Two generations of Batavia kids grew up wearing the verdent green of Mighty St. Joe’s. My memories are from the very last days of their existence. The corp folded in 1971, unable to maintain the expense needed to compete in a changing landscape. The big national corps were forming Drum Corps International, transforming the classic rules into the broadway-esque show that it is today, and demanding appearance money. The days of American Legion, and Church Sponsored drum corps were over. Perhaps it was inevitable. America in the 1970′s was a far different place than the 1930′s, and youth had a lot more activities to choose from, both licit and illicit, than drum corps.
1968 Nationa Champion Drumline practing in SJS cafeteria. I remember those lights!
My big bruddah was just becoming old enough to join the big corps at the time. He would practice the snare drum on drum pads in our house, and would sometimes even let me pick up the drum sticks with the candy striped green and black eletrical tape wound around them, and give them a try. But he would never get the chance to play with the big corps, and spend the summer traveling the Northeast, and Midwest, competing in high school stadiums, and old minor league ball parks. Those days had come to an end and there would be no going back. When Monsignor built the gymnasium onto the grade school they knocked the back wall out of the instrument room, and turned it into a hallway. The old silver band bus sat idle behind the convent, parked beside the old Richmond Mansion garage that the parish rented for storage.
As the years passed, the relics of the drum corps became harder and harder to find. Buttons with the Corps logo, floating amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the junk drawer at 20 Prospect; a battered old silver horn in the basement, mildewed drum pads, and sticks that felt as brittle as old bones. When my folks would have their old drum corps friends over for coffee they would recount their stories, of a night chaperoning the kids in a motel in St. Chatherines, Ontario, of wrong turns, and bad directions, and kids passing out from the heat. I would sit on the floor in the kitchen as they ate Dunkin’ Donuts, and drank pots of coffee, listening, and imagining what it must have been like. Is it any wonder I grew up feeling like I lived among the ruins of Pompey?
These memories I carried with me, until it became hard to know which ones were my own, or which were their’s. They were collective memories I guess, like all families share. But among my peers no one had ever heard of the drum corps, or had siblings old enough to have been in it. It was as if Mighty St. Joe’s only existed to me and my family. On lazy afternoons I would sit on the floor in our front living room, in front of our console stereo, and play the drum corps records that my brother had once bought at the competitions. Then I would close my eyes, and imagine what ot must have been like to march out onto that field in those brilliant, satin uniforms, carrying a kettle drum, and sending out waves of sounds crashing over the audience.
In 1991 some alumni of the corps got together and started practicing. Calls went out, and friendships were renewed, and within a few years they were playing again. Older, grayer, and a little wider than they were back in their heyday, but they could still belt it out. The last visit I made to 20 Prospect before my Dad died, we walked up to Van Detta stadium on a Saturday morning to watch the alumni corps perform. Sitting in the stands with a handful of the old friends that they had served with, we watched the sun glint off of the silver horns, and listened to the music echoing across the field. When they started the intro into their signature “Big Spender” I felt chills down my back. I blinked my eyes, and looked around, trying to reconcile a dream from my youth, materializing right in front of my eyes in the bright morning sun.
I’m glad I got to see them play with Dad before he died. Living here in Minnesota, I haven’t seen them play since. One saturday morning about 4 years ago, I woke to the sound of horns carried in on the morning air. I sat up in bed. There was no mistaking it, this was not a marching band playing at the high school, it was a drum corps. Even after 30 years I could tell the difference in the horns. I looked around, and tried to figure out where it could be coming from. Getting dressed I rode my bike around the block to discover a drum corps set up in the parking lot of the high school practicing. Their equipment trucks, and buses confirmed my suspicion, this was a national corps. The Santa Clara Vanguard were almost in my very own backyard! I scoured the paper and discovered that they were competing in town that evening, along with 7 other corps. I tried to explain the significance to Mrs. 20 Prospect and the kids, but I must have sounded like a madman. I took them to the competition that night, but it meant nothing to them. Just a bunch of music and some kids marching on a field. We haven’t been to one since.
So Mighty St. Joe’s still lives in my mind, and while I never see them, I find comfort in knowing that the alumni back in Batavia are still keeping the dream alive. Maybe next year I will volunteer at the big DCI show at TCF Bank Stadium, just so I can spend the day in there reliving my childhood. And someday when I die, my dying wish will be to have them come and perform at my funeral. I can’t think of any better way to enter the pearly gates, than to the full brass sound of “Hey Big Spender”.