My old friend, Brad Barnes is living the dream. He may duck out of that dream too soon, but he refreshed a memory so strong it remains vivid even 24 years later. Just with a hint of that mentioned on Facebook, it flushed back the what was the hardest, most complicated, most difficult, and thereby becoming the greatest summer of my life. The summer of 1992.
Bearfeeders should know by now that I marched in drum corps – but if you don’t, the best way to describe it is the most advanced level of the competitive marching band activity. I fell in love with drum corps after watching the ’87 world championships on PBS and becoming infatuated with a group out of New Jersey at that time called the Garfield Cadets (previously and later named the Holy Name Cadets, then for my time the Cadets of Bergen County, and now known simply as The Cadets). Five years, and a hundred times begging my parents, later I spent two glorious summers as a member of that Corps. The first of which was the infamous 1992 group.
To understand why 1992 is so special you have to understand more than you probably want to know. Drum Corps was under some major changes. What was once a ‘local kid’ activity shifted in the late ’80s to one where recruiting happened more national. The best way to recruit is to .. well … not suck the year before. The Cadets, based in New Jersey, didn’t excactly have a strong pool of talent like the Midwest or West Coast had. The Cadets in ’91 were extremely talented & reaching their age limits, but they had a show that wasn’t exactly accessible to the standard 18-20 year old band geek. So the ’92 corps before the year began was relatively … well .. we kinda sucked. Seriously. I mean, I assumed that for most of the pre-season, if they could find someone who wanted to march to replace me, they would have. I remember seeing others brought into camp that smelt like reasons to cut me. Somehow I made the corps, and when spring training began, it seemed like the same could be said for half the group. We couldn’t fill all our spots, and even went as far as recruiting kids right out of stands in the parking lots (one of those people that we snatched from a parking lot ended up marching the corps for 7 years).
The 1992 Cadets, though, weren’t just ‘undertalented’, we were cursed. Spring Training was where it began. Three weeks in a remote camp at Camp Greeley, Pennsylvania seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn our program. Instead, it became toilet. Some flu bug struck in the first week, and at the time we felt it was strange that a couple of people got the same ‘puking’ problem that laid them up after a couple of tough days. Then a few more people got it. Then … EVERYONE got it. We aren’t just talking about, you feel bad so you have to lie down for a day. No … this is the explosive puking and diarrhea kind. It approached so fast on unsuspecting people that the practice fields became war zones of mess. Members, staff, volunteers, everyone got it at some point (except for two … and I was one of the lucky ones … leading to a short period of time where I was sure I was ‘typhoid Biscuit’). That spring training was stuff of legend, and stuff of disgusting. By the time we broke camp we were so far behind we had to spend the first couple shows of the year in exhibition. That wasn’t the end of the bad luck either. Buses broke down like they were going out of business. The corps was sized that the members could get around in 3 buses, but we spent half the summer it seamed with one of them not with us. They brought in a forth, then a fifth. One classic day, we were heading to a show site and we started for what was expected to be the rest of the summer with 5 buses … the 30 minute drive to the show, three of them got left on the side of the road. There were tougher things to talk about happening too, as if something was determined for us to fail, but it just kept piling on, over and over again like the doomed group we seemed to be.
We weren’t just ‘undertalented’ or ‘doomed’ either, we were asked to do things that arguably we couldn’t do. We did a show that year based on modern flight called “To Tame the Perilous Skies” based on music by David Hollsiner, and included visual images and dance reminiscent of birds, fighter pilots, areal dog fights, and the beauty of flying. Our program was clearly written for a far better group of people than we were, but would have still challenged the hell out those people. Musically, it was complex. Visually, it was a nightmare. Tempos were high. We were spread out like noone’s business. There was innovated and crazy things being tried that seemed destine to fail. At one point, our drill writer was setting up a portion of the show, and asked me: “Go as far as you can in 20 counts.” I did that and he said “Good, now do that (distance) in 12 counts.” If that wasn’t enough, he pulled the same stunt again, except he made our visual tech who was 6 feet 19 inches tall stretch it out, then made me do that crazy. Early on in the season, we were a hot mess. The difficulty was killing us. There was suggestions we needed to stop mid show for water breaks. Our group, which was world champions just 2 years before was barely beating groups that would be in 8th or 9th place by the end of the year.
The 1992 Cadets of Bergen Country could be listed down as just some other group that was nothing of nothing. Maybe remember for the rumors of a rough spring training. Maybe remembered because they made an airplane on the field.
I remember it for 2 weeks … The Best Two Weeks of My Life. Or … THE period BEST period TWO WEEKS period OF MY LIFE!!!!
The rumblings of it all started actually 3 weeks out. We walked into a mid-season championship against every group in the Top 25, and we placed 6th. Now, Drum Corps is not like some sports where any given day you can change things around. Come From Behinds take weeks and weeks. 6th at mid-season, means the best you can hope for is around 5th.
We didn’t take 5th that year.
With 2 weeks to go, we did a show in Allentown, PA. After fighting a show that was way bigger than we thought we could swallow, we were starting to get the hang of it … some would argue, getting to be a bit comfortable. That show, we proved it. We put on a soft, uninspired program that was basically going through the motions. After a bit of chewing out, and a bit of introspection, an attitude change was in order. While those of you reading this knows that the context had nothing to do with what I am about to say, the most direct way of saying what changed happened when the defacto head of our brass line, Rob Pechoda, stood up in the back of the bus and stated:
“Everything before this was Game A. From now on, it’s Game B.”
It was 14 days until the end of the season. We realized everything we did in rehearsal was essentially the last time we could be doing it. So the attitude became “we get this right, or it will never get right”. Everything became faster. We ran everywhere. We worked on everything. If there was a hour left for a lunch or dinner, we would spend 30 minutes of it practicing. Laundry Day, a day beloved by all drum corps members as a few hours off, we agreed to give up for practice. We dug our heals in, and we worked. That monster that beat us for half the summer, we started beating back, and it became our Bitch.
It immediately started showing up in our results. In two days, we tied the 5th place corps. In a week, we passed the 5th place corps. Crowds were reacting more and more. People were jumping up to see what was happening with our show. We were sniffing at higher placements, our scores were skyrocking upwards, and rumors were going on that something special was happening. The one moment etched in my head happened when we finished a warm-up, and were marching to the field to put on a show. The 3rd & 2nd place corps were warming-up and were literally looking over their shoulder at us as we were going by … the look in their eyes was something out of awe and inspiration.
It seemed the only break we took was a night spent with Scotty (God help me, that is the only know I know him by). He was/is the corps historian. He brought out all these old photos about who the Cadets were, what our history was, and how we shaped so much of the activity over the 80 plus years (now) we have been around. I touched old uniforms like they were artifacts. I studied old pictures and dreamed of what it was like back then. A few days later, Scotty introduced me to a drum major who was there some forty years before and he told me that when he saw us in uniform the night before that “you looked just like we did.” In the moment, with all we were trying to accomplish that last two weeks, it actually made me start to tear up, to try to make those Cadets who came before me proud of what we were doing.
So that’s what we did, we made them proud.
Quarterfinals, after being way out of the competition two weeks before, we tied for 3rd place. Semifinals night, we took 3rd outright. But on Finals Nights … holy cow … finals night!!!
The Finals were held at Camp Randell Stadium in Madison, WI. I had played in a football state finals there, I had watched college games there, I had even marched there previously – never had I been under such lights at such a time. 40,000 people who looked like a wall staring back at me were flashing camera lights, throwing streamers, releasing balloons. The buzz was in the air. They all were there to see us, to see what we could do.
There was a T-shirt we had that summer that said:
“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded.
“Come to the edge,” he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.
That night … we flew.
We really didn’t care what the scores or the placing was that night, honestly. It’s easy to judge me if I were to tell you the outcome to suggest I am just downplaying what the result was, but I do mean it. When you are in a competition where you can’t control what other groups do, all you can do is make the best of what you got. We could have been better, but that night, we were the best we could ever hope we could be.
I mean it … we flew!!
For those of you who weren’t there, for those of you who don’t know the activity … for those of you who weren’t a part of the ’92 Cadets, it’s so hard to explain what that summer was about. You do your best to explain the adversity, the troubles, the highs, the lows, the uglys, the beautifuls – but you just can’t. It’s just hard to let you see what that opened up, what that made all of us who were a part of it.
That night, we placed 2nd, the margin of victory was at the time considerable enough to accept that the victors were deserving. A year later, I won that world championship but the tightest of margins with a far more talented corps and a brilliant show (though not as challenging). Many of the people who marched in ’92 with me either won the championship with me that next year, or had done so previously. All of us seem to agree – 1992 was the best year we marched. ’92 was the stuff of legend. It’s not just because we overcame so much adversity, or we achieved so much despite our undertalented line, or that we were asked to do so much beyond what anyone could be expected; but we did so not because we were asked to do it … but because we chose to do it. That last two weeks was about us making the conscious decision that we would not go quietly into that good night. That last two weeks was about choosing to write our own destiny. That destiny was … we would be at our best!
Did we win? No.
But you know what? I Am A Cadet. Not because I won a championship in ’93. Because I Became a Cadet in ’92. Now, every time I see that corps reach the field, every kid I see go out there I think “They are a Cadet … They look just like us. They too can fly.”
On my wall of my condo, as it was on my wall in my Alaskan house, as the Wichita house, as the ten different apartments going back to the early 90s, hangs my Bucks … my white uniform shoes, initially hung to remind me that I hung them up and can no longer march again. They now reminder me of who I am. I accomplished magic in 1992. I was a part of a group that did things that are the stuff of legend. I know what I am capable of, because in 1992, I was able to do something spectacular. The spirit of ’92 lives on.