A while back, I asked if drum corps had changed anyone's life. Two former marching members of the Cavaliers replied strongly in the affirmative.
Gordon Valentine is known to this day as "Sluggo," a nickname he picked up in the corps in November of 1990. He says that drum corps has been a huge part of his life since 1987, when he first saw a videotape of the DCI World Championship finals in the band room of James Wood High School in Winchester, Va., his school and home to one of the top band programs in the state. Immediately, he became a drum corps fan, and went to see the 1990 DCI East Championship in Allentown, Pa., which featured Garfield Cadets and Blue Devils. That show set things in motion for what was to come next. As he remembers, "One night after a competition in October, 1990, I went to the front of the bus to talk to our guard instructor, who happened to be wearing his corps jacket. He had marched the previous year with the Cavaliers. During the ride back home, he persuaded me to audition the following month with the corps. Back then, there were only about 40 to 60 members auditioning for the horn line. Little did I know that that weekend was going to change my life forever. "Flying from Virginia to Chicago was not a cheap task. While my instructor and I were walking to our departing flight, a gracious gentleman, Bob Cannon, spotted my instructor's corps jacket, and stopped us to talk about the Cavaliers. The man told us that if we wanted, he would be willing to be my sponsor. This would prove to be a vital point for my ability to march. He helped me save literally thousands of dollars in airfare costs the next two years. "While in the Rosemont Elementary School library, Rob Weiss, the new drum major for the 1991 season, walked passed me and stopped to talk to me. He said that I looked like 'Sluggo,' from the cartoon 'Nancy and Sluggo.' Since then, everyone has been calling me 'Sluggo.' "I continued to march with the corps through my second year and was initiated. The same band instructor I first talked with about the corps came and gave me my initiate gears. It had meant so much to me to know I was part of a tradition that has been around since 1948 -- a tradition that is nearly 55 years old. For the 1992 annual Cavalier Banquet, I invited my sponsor to be my guest, so that I could try to give something back to him that he gave me -- being a part of the Green Machine, always. "In 2000, while in Chicago, I caught up with the Cavaliers at the corps' home show. My sponsor was actually sponsoring two more young men. One was 'aging-out' and the other one still had another year left. I was able to meet them and this inspired me to help sponsor an individual in the guard. I wasn't able to help much, but every little bit helps! "For 2001, I was able to help both my sponsors' Cavalier and my Cavalier with some dues, which made me feel great. This has prompted me to continue my support for 2002 and beyond. "The 2002 DCI World Finals was a HUGE event that I did not want to miss. I was off from flying that weekend, so I was able to drive up to Madison and meet Bob Cannon, who was there to see his current sponsored marcher, T.J. Darst, give the performance of a lifetime. After the presentation, Bob Cannon, T.J. and myself were able to take a picture together, allowing Bob to have a photo of his first sponsored marcher from the corps first DCI Championship alongside his sponsored marcher from the corps' fifth DCI title. "Back in 1998, I started a small Web site that highlighted my time with the Cavaliers and what it was like to be in a world-class drum corps. Then, the site generated maybe 10 to 30 people a year, usually people that I would tell about my site. Today, I have expanded my site to talk about the history of drum corps, how to possibly obtain sponsorships, and have links to other great sites about drum corps, plus an extensive photo gallery borrowed from many different people. I now bring in 20 to 50 people a day to view my site (www.slu2ggo.org). Sometimes those people even send me an e-mail trying to ask me information on how to audition with a corps. I also am a forum support team member for drumcorpsplanet.org and its two related sites for percussion and color guard. "I am now a flight attendant with American Airlines. My nickname 'Sluggo' is on the apron I wear. Many people ask me about my nickname, and I tell them the whole story of marching with the Cavaliers and how I got my nickname. I have run into many people who have marched drum corps, or who enjoy going to shows, or know about me due to my Web site. I cannot stop talking about drum corps, and when I get the chance, I listen to drum corps CDs or watch videos/DVDs. "I am glad that I have become a brother with my Cavaliers brothers, and have become a part of a great organization that allows the youth of today to express themselves through musical art on a football field. Because of drum corps, I have made numerous friends throughout the country, and I've been able to fly to where many of them live. Someday, I will meet all of my newfound friends, and hope to sit down and talk about our life experiences that drum corps has created for us all. "Once, I was on a sunny, 20-hour layover in Phoenix during the winter. For me, living in Chicago and going someplace warm for a trip is a nice perk. When I get in, I immediately go to the pool and lay out. However, the day goes too fast and I must get back in to sleep for my flight out the next morning. "The summer before, I had purchased the small Cavalier lanyard ID holder, and was using it to carry my airline ID. I went down to the lobby for my van pickup to the airport and I saw two waiting pilots. I asked if they were going to Chicago, they said 'no,' that they were going to Dallas. The first officer (co-pilot) saw my lanyard and asked if I liked the Cavaliers. I thought, 'Oh boy, another person who doesn't really know anything. He's probably thinking it's the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Virginia Cavaliers.' To my surprise, he reached down and picked up his manuals bag, and I saw his 'I Love the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps' sticker. "I asked him if he was a fan, and he said that not only was he a fan, but he also marched with the Cavaliers. I told him that I too marched with the Cavaliers in 1991 and 1992 and that I played baritone. He proceeded to tell me that he marched snare from 1974 through 1976 and that his name was Joe Balzer. His van pickup was about 10 minutes earlier than mine, and he told the captain he was going to ride with me to the airport so we could talk about the corps. "We ended up spending the next 30 minutes talking about drum corps and what it has meant to the both of us, and how exciting it is to run into other people in the air. He told me that in 2001, he was working a trip from Buffalo, N.Y. to Dallas, and saw a few Blue Devils jackets come onto the plane. He then realized that DCI World Championship finals had just happened, and when they got to their destination, he got on the public address system and congratulated all the corps members for their achievement for the summer. "We ran into each other again at the 2002 DCI finals for the corps' gathering of the corps song. "In December, I flew to a Tulsa, Okla., and when we got in, I saw a guy with a Blue Devils shirt on. I asked him where he was from, and learned he march BD in 1990, one of my favorite Blue Devils' shows. "Another time, I was on the plane, flying from Chicago to Rochester, N.Y. A passenger in the back of the plane saw my 'Sluggo' and asked if I was the same 'Sluggo' from my Web site. I told him that I was, and he continued to tell me that he was a huge fan of drum corps. I found out that he too works for American Airlines. "In January, I worked a flight from Chicago that was carrying a large group of church group kids home to Minnesota from Nicaragua. We talked and joked throughout the flight, and one girl asked me to sign her diary that she had made of the trip. I signed both my real name and 'Sluggo,' and she asked how I got that name. When I told her about drum corps, I learned that another kid in the same group was a veteran of Madison Scouts, whom I believe is marching his second year. It is really amazing how small the world is starting to look as time marches on! "A few other flight attendants I have run into while working just love to hear me talk about my corps days. Some of them are familiar, others are not, but it truly makes the time go by faster because I can really get into some good stories about marching!" [Incidentally, after this column was scheduled, it was learned that March 22 is Sluggo's 31st birthday. Happy Birthday, Sluggo.] Mitch Skowronski marched in the Cavalier Cadets from 1973 through 1975, and the Cavaliers from 1976 through 1979, his first two years lining up with my last two. He responded, "At first, I didn't think that my life changed that much. But then I had a 'It's a Wonderful Life Moment.' I sat down and thought about what my life would have been like without the Cavaliers, the people I met and the experiences that the corps and activity gave me. Quite honestly, I would probably be in jail. "I grew up in a tough inner city neighborhood in Chicago, and it would have been VERY easy to get caught up in drugs and gangs, things the city is known for. Luckily, I joined the band in my small local Catholic grammar school and sat next to the 'first trumpet' player. I later found out he marched in something called the Cavalier Cadets. As I got better, he asked if I was interested in joining a drum corps. I said, 'maybe.' "Within two days I was measured for a uniform and was marching down State Street in Chicago for the Polish Day Parade. "Through the next seven years, I met many great people. Several of the guys I marched with are still my best friends, and always will be. "After we aged out we became even better friends. We have traveled around the world together, I have stood up in numerous weddings (sometimes two times for the same friend), and we have helped each other through the tough times life has thrown at us. But, we have also celebrated all the GREAT times life has to offer. I quite honestly cannot imagine my life without these guys. "Every year, we go to DCI World Championships with three goals; have a good time, support the Cavaliers, and more importantly, cheer on all corps on the field because (I know it's a clich?©) we have been there. We know what those kids go through to do what they do on the field and we continue to look on in amazement as all the corps get better and better year after year. "You ask, 'has drum corps changed my life?' I respond with a resounding 'YOU BETCHA,' and I thank the activity every day for keeping me off the streets and on the field. Drum corps has truly enhanced my life beyond words."
Bob Cannon, T.J. Darst and Sluggo