Born in 1984

by David Welch

This article originally appeared in the April 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 1). David has occasionally written for Drum Corps World. He is now dealing with serious health issues involving a brain tumor. He is one of the most courageous people I know and I am pleased that he re-published his book in 2006 (“Middle Horn Leader 1984”) using original artwork that Don Daber produced years ago to appear in my newspaper that illustrated much of the book when it was first released. David is now undergoing additional treatments. Recently the Holy Name Cadets Alumni held a mass at Holy Name Church in Garfield, NJ, as a demonstration of support for his fight against cancer.

Steve Vickers, Publisher

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Tom Aungst. Michael Cesario. Thom Hannum. George Hopkins. Jim Prime, Jr. Marc Sylvester. Peggy Twiggs. Donnie VanDoren. George Zingali. All these people have something in common.

If you guessed that they are all in the DCI Hall of Fame, you are correct. But they were also on staff with the 1984 Garfield Cadets — with the exception of Tom Aungst, who was the drum line captain in his age-out year.

Nine legends in the DCI activity and somehow they got mixed into the same blender for an entire year. Dear, Lord. As George Zingali would say, “You’ve got to be f&%*’ kidding me.” (Said loudly and with a thick Boston accent.)

At my first camp ever in December 1983, I did not know that all this was an abnormal circumstance. I just thought that this is exactly what happened in drum corps and was completely normal.

In hindsight, I can see that it was happenstance luck to be part of this particular corps at this unique juncture in drum corps history, when radical leaps in innovation were almost fatalistically inevitable.

Coming out of the 1983 “Mass” production, George Zingali had visual concepts he wanted to build upon. He was an explosion of ideas. This forced the alteration of marching techniques and show concepts, and a whole new language was created — a language that is now standard repertoire across almost every drum corps.

Being in the middle of it all

This was before the time of digital mass media. This was before cell phones. This was before tour videos that captured summer highlights. In short, this was some serious old-school drum corps, often remembered more in folklore than in fact.

There was an occasional camera crew from a local television station, but inevitably, photos were the most popular form of recording such moments. Net it out, though, and there is not much historical record of what happened that summer. Heck, there isn’t even an official corps photo from 1984! The performance at the DCI Finals is the main document of record for this corps.

Is this lack of specificity what lends “cult status” to the 1984 Garfield Cadets? To a degree, perhaps. But because history has treated this corps so kindly, it feels all the more human to wonder what things were really like.

What questions were being asked? What was daily life like? What did the horn line do? What was the food like? What conversations and issues dominated the corps that summer? Were there any bus breakdowns? (Over 40, record be told.)

There are many alumni who can share their accounts from ’84. For me, though, there is nothing like a personal, handwritten account as things unfolded. Specific details can so easily get lost with time, but when they are captured in the very moment, they cannot be rewritten.

Tour journal from 1984

The 1984 season was the cusp of change for many things in drum corps. It makes me thankful that I kept a handwritten journal that summer. Each day, from the first show to the last and without fail, I kept a detailed journal about where we were and what was happening.

I’m not sure why I decided to do this starting in the summer of 1984. While I have been a journal writer ever since, this was the first time I used narrative format for capturing (and reflecting upon) the elements of each day. Looking back, stories that seemed innocuous in the moment are now precious with the test of time.

After tour, I tucked away this journal and kept it with me as I went to Virginia Tech to study engineering. The journal was safely at home when I marched until my age-out year in 1987. It followed me wherever I happened to live during my college years, quietly gaining value as each year passed.

1984 journal gets published

In the early ’90s, I learned about The Middle Horn Leader magazine that was published by Robert “Scooter” Pirtle. This underground publication still exists today (, but at that time it was sent out via USPS and focused upon mellophone players, both in drum corps and in Stan Kenton orchestras.

As the 10-year anniversary of the 1984 Garfield Cadets approached, I reached out to Scooter and told him I kept a daily journal from the ’84 season. I thought he might be interested in featuring excerpts in an upcoming edition of The Middle Horn Leader.

Boy, was I opening a can of worms. Scooter and I (as well as a team of editors) spent an entire year putting together The Middle Horn Leader 14 (MHL14). This ended up being the 14th edition of this publication, thus the name.

It took an entire year to put together what turned out to be a magazine. Scooter added footnotes so that drum corps lingo could be understood by all readers. As well, photos were added, some of which were secured from DCI. Other photos were from marching members.

Underground circulation

When this publication was done, I got several hundred extra copies, secured mailing addresses from 1984 alumni and sent copies to everyone I could find. (Ah, if only e-mail proliferated and existed back then.) Many people in drum corps may understand the sentiment. I missed my family and this was a gesture of outreach.

I kept getting more of these magazines published each year so I could circulate them to new members of the mellophone line with The Cadets. It was a great way to keep meeting new members of the corps.

Whenever I would come to a show, the mellophone section would know who I was just because of this publication. Barriers for meeting one another were substantially lowered. We could jump right into conversation, as if we were marching together — a very beautiful thing.

Sharing the MHL14 since 1994 has allowed me to always know someone who is marching on the field at DCI Finals — something I love and which helps to create meaningful connections and new friendships.

Don Daber’s art

In 1998, I sent a copy of the MHL14 to artist Don Daber. I was familiar with Don’s work since he had been drawing for Drum Corps World for decades. I thought he would find the subject matter of interest, especially since he focused on so many drum corps events from the past, serving as a visual historian of sorts.

I didn’t hear from Don for several months, so I figured the MHL14 was not of visual interest to him. Then, I unexpectedly got a letter, and he was enthralled by this journal. He saw all sorts of visual elements — vignettes that could be told using his signature cartoon-style format.

Don and I ended up working together for over a year on a series of his works that were published throughout the summer of 1999 in Drum Corps World. The thing that was unusual about this series was that Don and I went back and forth on all the pieces.

Don would do a first draft and then I would mark them up, making factual corrections and sending relevant data intended to add visual impact. We would iterate each piece about four or five times (all via USPS) before each was ready for production. In all, well over a dozen works were completed.

Republishing the MHL14?

At the 20-year anniversary of the 1984 season, I was hoping to republish the MHL14. However, I was swamped with work in my professional life. There was no time to undertake this effort.

The irony of my workload is that I was busy co-founding a thriving software company with two lifetime friends from drum corps, Doug Rutherford (84-88 Garfield Cadets, Drum Major 87-88) and Kevin Dunetz (86-87 Garfield Cadets). We were all slammed. Precious time for anything else — just like on tour.

Still, the MHL14 publication continued to float underground with The Cadets. By this time, it had become “mandatory” reading for all rookies in the corps, much as The Cavaliers have traditions of rookies memorizing the names of drum majors and certain members of the corps from generations prior.

Each corps has a mantra that helps connect generations. Somehow, the MHL14 had woven itself into this fabric with The Cadets — something that was more humbling than anything else to me personally.

A screeching halt

Then, in December 2004, the meaning of this book and the meaning of drum corps got a true test. Doug Rutherford called me out in a management meeting at Rivermine (our software company) and said that I did not seem my normal self.

Doug essentially pushed me to a local hospital in Virginia to get an MRI. That is when I learned I had a tumor the size of a lemon in an inoperable part of my brain. I had brain cancer.

Doug dropped everything and reached out to the many members of the drum corps community who could help direct me to the right medical resources. Everyone from Bill Cook (Star of Indiana, “BLAST!”) to George Hopkins was leveraged. Drum corps connections were tapped within hours.

It was Brian Wilkie (82-84 Garfield Cadets, soprano soloist in 1983) who pointed me to the neurosurgeon who ultimately performed my brain surgery in 2005, even though most considered my tumor inoperable.

As it happened, Brian lived next door to a young boy who had his brain surgery done by this neurosurgeon, Dr. Patrick J. Kelly. Brian correctly told me that I did not have to contact anyone else. Dr. Kelly was the guy. Period.

He was right.

In short, the drum corps community — across drum corps — acted like the family we are by helping during crisis. When push comes to shove, healthy rivalries are set aside and we all pitch in to help, simply because we love each other.

The Middle Horn Leader 2006

During recovery from brain surgery and prior to the start of chemo, I was determined to do things that were therapeutic and cognitively challenging. I needed to exercise my brain and find areas of focus other than my 24×7 job of dealing with brain cancer. That is when I chose to finally republish the MHL14.

Again, the drum corps community reached out to help with this effort. Rachel Anderson (1998 Cadet and member of “BLAST!” for many years following) transcribed all the text, and Steve Vickers (publisher of Drum Corps World) agreed to allow all of Don Daber’s MHL14 art to be shared in one collection.

As well, generations of mellophone players from The Cadets — from the ’80s and ’90s and present — agreed to write about what drum corps has meant to them. This collection of essays, with accompanying photos, is included in what is called The Middle Horn Leader 2006 (MHL06).

Leveraging technology, the MHL06 is now available on In fact, it is also available in the Library of Congress since it is registered there for posterity. This publication took over a year to publish and it can be obtained in black and white or color, the latter being my personal bias.

The nice aspect of this publication is that 100% of proceeds go to 38 Lemon (, a non-profit organization I founded to promote brain cancer awareness — from a patient’s perspective. (The name comes from the fact that I was 38 when diagnosed and my tumor was the size of a lemon.) So, fun and supporting a cause come together once again, just like in drum corps.

Remembering Steve Brubaker

Perhaps the most fitting way to round out this feature of The Middle Horn Leader 2006 is to note that brain cancer is a surprisingly important medical issue in the drum corps community.

Brain cancer is the # 1 form of killing cancer for kids from infancy to 19 years of age. It is the # 2 form of killing cancer for men from 20-39. These are the demographics of performers at DCI Finals each year, which is a bit startling.

Bob Wall, former executive director of the Madison Scouts (who also helped teach my high marching school band), was diagnosed with a brain tumor this past year. And this was after he had been cheering me on since my brain cancer diagnosis in 2004!

And most tragic of all, we lost Steve Brubaker to brain cancer in 1992. Having the most aggressive form of brain cancer there is, a glioblastoma (GBM), Steve was diagnosed in the fall of 1991 and passed away in January 1992. A GBM can be a wicked and unforgiving diagnosis, although treatments today are exponentially advanced compared to 1991.

Steve Brubaker was the visual designer with The Cavaliers (1978-1992) whose innovation in complex, mathematical, wildly-impossible drill still influences creative minds in the drum corps community. His drill is unmistakable and brain cancer is the disease that converted his genius to cancer and took him from us far too early.

A coming of age story

This republication happened in 2006. The people who aged out with The Cadets in 2006 were born in 1984. Think of that. They were born the very year that this journal was being written. I love the poetry.

I like the way that Doug Rutherford summed up this book — in a way that legitimizes why this book is worth a read, not only by members of The Cadets, but by fans across the drum corps community:

“If you have ever been a part of a group beyond your family that so significantly defines your very being, then you will be consumed by this. A real coming-of-age story.”

In the end, we all share much in drum corps. Regardless of corps membership, each corps has self-selected young men and women with very high standards for what they want to achieve in life. There are talented staff members. There are generous volunteers throughout the summer. There are patrons and parents who support it all. The list goes on. That makes us family, even though we ostensibly compete at DCI Finals.

That’s why I jump when I meet someone who has a connection to drum corps. If we once competed against one another, none of that matters when connecting personally. (Heck, it does not even matter in the stands of finals, either, even when primal loyalty to “Garfield” creeps up on me.)

Final thoughts

The MHL06 is an insider’s view of the 1984 Garfield Cadets and it is also a metaphoric journal for our collective experiences in drum corps. The more specific the details, the more universal the story, which is one of the things intentionally conveyed in this publication. The incorporation of perspectives from current Cadets gives an active voice as energy is shared from generation to generation.

My one regret about this publication is that George Zingali is no longer with us and is not able to read it. I would really have loved to hear him say something like, “You’ve got to be f&%*’ kidding me.”