Drum Corps International
Stories from a faithful drum corps fan

Stories from a faithful drum corps fan

by Michael Boo

Fern D. Downs lives in York, Pa. She sounds like someone we would all love to meet. In celebration of Thanksgiving weekend, she is a fan for which we can be thankful. Here is Fern's story in her own words. My drum corps adventure began in 1967. My oldest—then 12-year-old son—was invited by a friend to go a York White Roses Drum and Bugle Corps practice. This son could not read music or play a musical instrument, let alone march. He arrived home that evening with a prized possession of a contra horn. The instructors worked with him and taught him how to play the music on the horn. These volunteers worked long, hard hours with these kids. The York White Roses was looking for marchers. My oldest daughter then went to a rehearsal and never missed any activity until the corps disbanded several years later. By the way, she met her future husband there. Thus, my days of volunteering started. After working in an office all day, I would come home, eat and then deliver a carload of kids across town to practice. I'd later pick up these same kids and deliver them to their homes. My volunteering days at the corps house began by getting on my hands and knees to scrub a practice floor. For all-day practices, I was helping to prepare meals and attend meetings. When a volunteer was needed for anything, I would try my best to help because it made me feel good just to be of service to the corps. After being in the hot sun all day, the trip back to York was very tiring, but I could hardly wait for the next weekend to go again. It is amazing the many friends I have met through drum corps. My daughter marched in the guard summer and winter. My other two daughters joined when they became old enough to march. They loved every minute of fellowship with other people and practicing for hours and days at a time. They ate, slept and talked drum corps, marching year-round. Some names familiar to this corps were Russ Rineheart (this man was one of the founders of the corps and still enjoys coming to competitions), Barney Toomey, Ron Rudy, Paul Title and Rick Weidner. Barney was guard instructor and his son "Wild Bill" was drum major. His daughter Ann also marched. Barney was strict and you obeyed his orders or were out for good. He would practice the kids until they were ready to go home for rest. In the days of the White Rose Drum and Bugle Corps, my husband was very ill. He had suffered seven major heart attacks, five cerebral hemorrhages, had six holes drilled on each side of temples and had operations on both eyes for cataracts. He was very supportive of all four of my children who at that time were participating in drum corps to keep them busy and out of trouble. Needless to say, I was limited to how far I traveled in those days. The big day was at Allentown, Pa., on a Saturday. What a thrill to see all of the corps perform in all the heat of the day only to return that evening for finals. My morning began about 4:30 a.m. to drive from my home to A-Town, about two-and-a-half hours away. I then arrived back home around 3 a.m. Sunday morning. I remember seeing the Media Fawns and the Defenders. I thought the Media Fawns were the greatest. They were a little corps (York was slightly larger) but had good music. As for the Defenders, an announcement was made at every show that they had spent the night traveling by bus. In those days, the Defenders were not alone traveling by bus all night. Most of the other corps to this day travel all hours to get to a show. But that was how much I knew about drum corps at the time. Every time the kids went on tour, I would go for hours on end to Small's Athletic Field to wait for their return to take them home. Some times I needed to get dressed to get to work after the delivery of them home. In 1969, the corps went to Pittsburgh for a competition. The guard won first place. It was a time for celebration on the bus. When they arrived on the outskirts of York, someone entered the bus and announced they could not enter the City of York until the next morning because the National Guard was protecting the city from rioting. My children spent a restless night waiting to hear all was okay with my family. They were approximately two blocks from their home and could hardly wait to get home. They came in at the crack of dawn to check and everyone was fine. Another time the corps traveled to Boston by bus. It was pouring down rain when it was time to return home. The bus broke down, so funds were pooled together and a U-haul was rented to transport the kids and equipment home. I sat for one whole day waiting for their return, only to have to leave for work minutes after taking them home. They were only too glad to be in York again. As time went on, the corps needed more funds to operate. Russ Rinehart and Gordie Beisel tried with all their might to keep the corps going, but it was to no avail. The White Rose Drum and Bugle corps had to disband. There were a lot of very sorry people when this happened. My husband died in 1976. My oldest daughter Vickie was 18 and driving, so I only attended shows in Hanover, Hershey and Allentown. My youngest son was born in 1970. At the age of three he saw and learned the drill of the Hanover Lancers. They played "Jesus Christ, Superstar." He loved their music and would stand in the row of seats and perform the drill as Hanover was on the field performing. He was a crowd pleaser. My first real vacation came when I decided to take my three sons and go to Birmingham, Ala., to see finals. My three daughters remained at home. My oldest daughter, Vickie, mapped out the routes for me to travel on two-lane highways to and from Birmingham. You see, I never drove in three or four-lane traffic before. On the way, I had to use Route 95 at one point to get into Atlanta to see the ballgame on the way to Birmingham. I learned in a hurry to step on the gas and go over the 40-mile-per-hour speed limit. On the first night away from home, I drove as far as Virginia and decided to stop at a rest area and then proceed to Birmingham at daybreak. It was stifling hot and the humidity was terrible. My two sons decided to sleep on the park bench near the car. After a short time, a Virginia State Police pulled up beside my car and told the two boys to get into the automobile. We were to wind the windows up halfway and lock the car doors because someone had escaped the prison and was last seen in the territory where we were. Believe me, I did not wait for daybreak to leave the area. For several years I only attended shows around the Pennsylvania area since my daughter took her brother and sisters to the shows with her as she was now driving. Then one summer my son, a Madison Scouts fan since 1967, wanted to go to the DCI World Championships in Madison. He watches Jerry Lewis' Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon show just to hear the Scouts' song, "You'll Never Walk Alone" and has tears in his eyes every time. His friend backed out of the deal, so I decided he and I could go there. Chuck was afraid of flying and so we went by train from Lancaster. When we arrived in Pittsburgh, we sat on the tracks for quite a long time because a severe thunderstorm had knocked out the power. After 17 hours, we arrived in Chicago amongst sweaty, smelly travelers. Then we had to go by Greyhound into Madison. After seeing the show in Madison, we then had to go by train back into Lancaster. After arriving home that summer, Chuck decided from now on we would travel by air. My one happy recollection of Madison is watching the college kids move from one apartment to another. It truly was a sight to behold to see someone pulling a sofa on wheels with objects down the main street. You can't beat that for cheap moving day. I hold these memories dear to my heart. This was a happy time in my life. My five children were teenagers and my youngest son attended everywhere I traveled. He was told in school he was eligible to learn to play an instrument. To his dismay, he had to play a violin the first year. The next year he got to play trumpet. His big desire was to become a member of a drum and bugle corps. He would listen to Chuck Mangione's music and then practice this until he could play it just as Mangione had recorded. His favorite melody was "Feels So Good," which he practiced for many, many hours. At this time the Westshoremen Senior Corps was looking for members. We went to practices up around Harrisburg and then they disbanded. Then we traveled to Hanover because the Lancers were looking for members before they too disbanded. After attending a show in Hershey, an announcement was made that the Reading Buccaneers were looking for marching and playing members. Roger decided he wanted to try out, but he was only 13-years-old. I knew for sure he would not be accepted, but he went to the audition in Reading, anyhow. Reading is about two hours traveling time from York. That Wednesday, we traveled for the audition. Ron Gerris asked Roger to bring his trumpet and music to the other side of the field. Much to my surprise, when Roger came back to my car he was carrying his trumpet case and a bugle. He practiced with the corps for the evening. Upon having to return on Friday the same week, Ron Gerris asked him to bring his bugle and music again to the field. Roger had learned all the music he had practiced that Wednesday evening. Ron later told me he could not believe his ears when Roger played "Feels So Good." He could play from memory all the music he heard. This field was in the back of the airport in Reading and that is where we spent many, many hours. We slept in the car Friday and Saturday nights. Practice was Friday evening, Saturday all day and Sunday until about 5 p.m. Eventually, I got to meet George Parks, Matt Kapensi, Gary, Robert Thomas and the three young men from the Marines. There was a soloist bugler, cymbal player and drummer who were in the Marines, stationed at Washington, D.C. They were in the band and could be with the corps when the band was not on assignment. It was quite a thrill to see these same Marines perform at special occasions for the President of the United States. When Buccaneers went to competitions, I sometimes I traveled with the corps on the bus if there was room. Other times I went by car to the show. One time Roger had to be in Danville, Pa., at 7 a.m. for practice and then be at the competition that night. My daughter told me this area gets flooded after rains, so I decided to leave York about 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning. My daughter checked with me to be sure I knew where I was going as she always mapped out my journeys for me since I could not read maps. I went to Cumberland Valley School, which is on Route 11/15, so I thought, "Not a worry. I know where I am going." It was an especially nice breezy morning and after traveling for quite some time, I was going down Route 11/15 and Roger was sleeping. After a while I came to a sign that said "State Line." I thought, "What an unusual name for a town." Roger sat up and asked, "Mom, how did you get into Maryland?" I had to back track the whole back into Harrisburg at the split and go up Route 15 to get to Danville. We arrived at 12:30 and everyone was wondering where Roger could be. All day long they teased me and wanted to know if I was going to Maryland before I went to York. On another occasion, Roger went with the corps to Stamford, Conn., and my son and I traveled in my car to the field. We crossed the George Washington Bridge in New York City and that was scary enough. It was a very busy hectic Friday, July 3. Upon arriving in Connecticut, we spent the night sleeping in a truck rest, and then early morning went on to Stamford's field. It started to rain, so my son and I waited for the buses from Reading to arrive. After several hours, we saw someone from Reading and asked if he knew where the corps might be. He said they were on their way since practice was held back in Reading. It poured rain, so the competition was cancelled. My son and I decided to leave the area since we did not see the buses come to the field. We drove to Reading and spent the night. On Sunday morning about 9 a.m., my son called home and asked if they had heard where Roger was so we could pick him up for the return home. We got the answer he had come home midnight Saturday and was in his bed sleeping. We later found out the same person that told us the buses were on their way to Connecticut was the same person that hailed the bus and told them the show was cancelled, so they returned home. They had CB radios, but we did not. It was quite a thrill for me to see my 14-year-old son marching with the Reading Buccaneers. He was the youngest member ever to have marched with them. He had the long blue coat, black trousers, black shoes and hat with white plume and gauntlets on his arms. I am almost positive this year Reading won the competition but the judges announced Hawthorne Caballeros as the winners. My favorite music was "Come In From the Rain" and "Georgia On My Mind." Whenever the Skyliners would be at the same competition as Reading, Roger would break ranks and go watch Skyliners on the field. When it was time for George Herrman's solo, Roger would yell, "Go get them George." George was his favorite bugler and after the solo he would join rank with Reading once again. Roger got his big dream of marching in Madison. He often spoke how it felt to be on that field with all the people. That summer came and went very quickly. The next summer Roger decided to join the Crossmen. He tried out and got a position with the corps. I knew right from the start that Scott Litzenberg would have his hands full. Finally, Roger was marching with kids his own age. Practice was every week. In bad weather it was indoors at West Chester and then outdoors at the Boeing Airplane factory parking lot. It was called Boeing Beach. When Roger was on tour, we would take clean clothing and money to him. My sons and I would go to every show on a Saturday evening to meet up later with Roger. My one son would wait until he knew the Crossmen were at the field and then he would shout, "S'up Bud?," so Roger would know we were at the show. At every competition that I attended, I would go the field to see all the corps perform. No matter how big or small, I never put a corps down for their performance. The small corps must practice just as hard and long as the bigger corps. They are inconvenienced by not having sponsors to handle their finances for them. None of these participants are paid to perform and they are doing their best to present a program. No matter how big or small the corps, they all must practice long, hard hours and I envy any marching member. I traveled to shows near York and went to the DCI World Championships throughout the U.S.—Birmingham, Kansas City, Dallas, Buffalo, Jackson and Madison. My son and I met John Laskowski and got the package deal for travel to Championships with him. He was an honest and caring individual. As things got harder for me to travel, John did his best to make things easier for me to get around. It amazing how far drum corps has come from the good old days where the rifles and flagpoles were quite clumsy and heavy to manage. Their uniforms are so unique. I remember many times I had to patch and sew uniforms so some of these kids could march that day. Yes, that does bring back pleasant memories for me. I wish I had the ability to do it over again. I have many memories of Troopers, 27th Lancers, Bridgemen, Spirit of Atlanta, Dutch Boy, Empire Statesmen, Star of Indiana and Velvet Knights. What a great bunch they were. My favorite corps is Phantom Regiment, especially in their white uniforms and playing "Rhapsody in Blue" in 2005. Now, because of my health and being handicapped, I am homebound but have memories of years gone by. If I had the opportunity, would I do it again? You bet! Until next time, I remain a faithful drum corps fan.