The nuclear family does drum corps . . .

by Jud Spena

I love that term, “nuclear family.” But I’m not quite sure what it means. Is it a family consisting of the traditional two parents and their children (three in our case)? Or does it refer to the fact that once the kids reach a certain age, just about any thing they say to each other leads to World War III?

I think it’s the former, but both definitions apply in our case.

A word about our family. We’re musicians. I am a band director, trumpet player and drum corps nut since age 10, when I first joined the Watkins Glen Squires. My wife, Rebecca, plays the cello, teaches orchestra in school and was never involved in any marching activity. Her introduction to drum corps was on one of our early dates. She enjoys it a lot.

Interestingly, her father, who was also a professional trumpet player and band director, often scoffed at the marching activity and drum corps in particular. Well, after we were married a couple of years, much to our amazement, he confessed to belonging to a corps in Utica, NY, when he was growing up in the late 1940s. But I digress.

Our three children — Samantha (13), Lucy (11) and Michael (9) — all play piano and a string instrument. As they reach 5th grade, they start brass instruments.   Their exposure to drum corps began with scratchy albums, a dusty scrapbook, some CDs and videos over the years. And, of course, they have had to listen to my endless stories and descriptions around the dinner table.

In 2003, when the kids were 7, 9 and 11 years old, we decided the time seemed right to take them to a contest. Fortunately, a DCA show, “Sounds on the Susquehanna,” is held less than 20 minutes from our house. So, off we went. Perfect weather, great seats and six great corps            provided us a wonderful evening.

Rebecca and I weren’t exactly sure how things would go, but much to our mild and pleasant surprise, the kids were riveted to each and every corps’ performance. In fact, Michael was so excited, he couldn’t sit down.

The family favorite was the Syracuse Brigadiers and, later that week, the kids sent an e-mail to their drum major via the corps’ Web site. A day or two later, he — Trevor Stoyer — sent a nice reply, a class gesture and a real thrill for the kids.

Rebecca and I were delighted that the kids had so much fun and it was a very reasonably- priced evening out, so much so that two weeks later we repeated the experience at the Syracuse DCA contest, about an hour and 15-minute drive.

For the rest of the summer, the big question was, “Daddy, do you think the Brigadiers will make the finals?” For the record, the Brigadiers finished second at the DCA Championship that September.

Fast-forward to 2004 and we are ready for the next step. We decided to take the family to DCI East in Allentown. Allentown is about two hours from our Binghamton, NY, home, so the drive was reasonable. The question was, how would the kids handle two evenings, each over four hours long, with 12 corps performances and a night in a motel sandwiched in between.

We arrived in Allentown a bit worried about threatening weather and our first task was to buy rain gear. It turned out to be a very good move. We checked into our motel, the Days Inn, as per the DCI Web site. Our room had a funky smell and a lot of wet carpet around the bathroom. We put up with it.

Out to J. Birney Crum Stadium under threatening conditions. First thing was, the kids wanted to see the concession area and maybe buy a souvenir. While we were there, the opening          ceremonies got underway with the playing of the national anthems of Canada, the Netherlands and, of course, the Star Spangled Banner.

In a moment of complete embarrassment, a man near us took a cell phone call. The kids were shocked and puzzled. This fellow not only took the call, but he made absolutely no effort to lower his voice or in any way make himself anything but completely obnoxious. To make matters worse, the fellow’s friend tried to get him to end the call and he created a scene by making some inane political statement, quite loudly, and refused to end the call or be             respectful in any way. This idiotic behavior is hard to explain.

The show got underway with threatening skies. I looked around and quickly realized there were very few kids in the audience. I really didn’t see any families with children in the age range of ours. By the time the Glassmen got started, it was really raining and there was               lightning and thunder. Rain delay. Now I was worried.

We had a long night ahead of us and we were getting wet. Fortunately not too wet because we had new ponchos. And I must say, the kids were very cute in them. But again I digress.
The stadium was cleared and we waited for an hour or so in our van until the show got underway again. Turns out, there was no need to worry. The corps came out totally energized after the rain. The kids loved every one of them, especially the Cavaliers.

I’m starting to believe in a dream come true. My family loves drum corps. Again, I’m thinking there are very few families like ours at drum corps shows. There are a lot of couples, middle age and older. And I see a few young couples with babies. This surprises me because I don’t think a drum corps show is a great place for a baby, not to mention that after two or three hours, holding a child gets quite tiring.

We got back to our musty motel room (which we now referred to affectionately as “the dump”) and surprisingly we got a decent night’s sleep. After an extremely mediocre motel breakfast (at least it was included in the room), we hung out at the pool for the rest of the morning. It was cold, but we’ve learned that kids love to swim in just about any weather.

At noon, we found a laundromat and dried some clothes and popped into a Chinese restaurant for a snack. When all we ordered was a plate of fried rice and three egg rolls, the lady owner looked at us cross-eyed. I tried to explain that we were just having a snack, but she didn’t think it was enough. I don’t blame her.

We then headed out to a mall to kill the afternoon. We had a nice dinner at the local Olive Garden (I wanted to try the Italian place across the street, but the certainty of a chain restaurant overrules my adventurous appetite) and we headed back for the finals.

The seating was crowded and the kids, being small, are getting scrunched in. A man behind us with a gut the size of a bowling ball eating a snow cone about the same size managed to spill some of it on Lucy and we were off to a bad start.

After some cleaning up and some shuffling of seats (no apology, of course) we calmed down. Once again, the show was great. The kids enjoyed it. Folks to our right (New Englanders/ North Star alumni) took a shine to Michael. We had a real nice time. We opted out of the smelly Days Inn, leaving Allentown at about midnight, got home about 2:00 AM and everything worked out great. Our first DCI adventure was a complete success.

The 2005 season was dawning. DCI was going to be in Boston and we decided to take the ultimate step. The Spena family is going to DCI! After all, it is a golden opportunity — drum corps’ finest and a beautiful and historic city. My first shock was ordering tickets.

I’ve been paying for tickets to DCI events for years, but hadn’t given it much thought until multiplying the cost by a factor of five. We went ahead with the arrangements. A very nice,
reasonably-priced hotel in Dedham, five tickets to the semis and finals ($625.00 plus handling fees!) and side events including something called a Duck Tour, the New England Aquarium and Old Ironsides.

We headed out on Thursday and the drive to Boston wasn’t bad. We were there in about four hours. We checked in to our hotel and then headed into the city for our Duck Tour.

MISTAKE! Everyone knows about driving in Boston (except me) and we took about triple the amount of time our faulty Mapquest directions told us it would take. We flew along the highway guessing at just about every turn and ended up on the far side of the Charles River before we knew it. We got some directions and as luck would have it, we made the tour at the last second and truly enjoyed it. I recommend it.

In this case, the “Duck” is a World War II-vintage amphibious motor vehicle. You go on land and in the water. Once in the water, the kids got to steer the duck. And you see a lot of Boston. After the tour, we hiked into the city and took a look around. Folks, noting we were tourists, were very helpful and we saw some neat stuff including Fanueil Hall, Paul Revere’s house and some sidewalk entertainment. An underground fire closed down most of the restaurants on the North End, but we had pizza and soda and everybody was happy as clams.

Friday was another odyssey as we headed for the New England Aquarium. We got there at noon, although it was only 12 miles from our hotel. Early on, I suspected we were a little off track when we were approaching Rhode Island.

Parking in large cities is always a problem. Add the frustration of being lost for three hours, I pulled into the first parking garage I could find. It was nice — air-conditioned and very clean and a short walk to the Aquarium. Only later, when we got back from our sightseeing, did I discover it would cost us $38.00 for the two-and-a-half hours we left our mini-van there.

The Aquarium, however, was great. We had a nice late lunch at a park downtown (I believe it’s called Post Office Park) and got back to our hotel just in time to clean up and head for the                stadium. When we arrived at Gillette Stadium, the kids are in awe and, although it was hot, we were all excited to see the corps. I was depressed that we had to pay $25.00 to park the van.

Our semi finals seats were in the center of the nosebleed section. We tried to get enough food into everybody to avoid the exorbitant cost of stadium food, but that never works. After a couple of hours, everybody was hungry, including me, and I headed for the concession stand. I remember paying $3.50 for water bottles (but you couldn’t keep the caps) and my mind has since executed a massive Freudian event by forgetting the cost of everything else.

Suffice to say, the cost of feeding five people adds up pretty fast. I was quite sure we would still be able to send the kids to college when the time comes. They might just have to settle for the local community college. The kids, of course, have no concept of the expense we were incurring, so they continued to enjoy the entire experience. Let’s face it. You can’t beat high fat, high sodium, high sugar junk food and fabulous drum corps. I took a look around to see if there were any young families in the crowd. I didn’t see any.

We had no problem getting back to our hotel after the semifinals. Not willing to waste another three or four hours driving around the city, we decided to spend Saturday relaxing at the hotel pool. This was another very good move. Late in the afternoon, we get some supper and headed for the stadium. It was hot!

Michael, who has an affinity for numbers, noticed the thermometer in the van indicated the outside temperature was 100 degrees. His wise father explained: “The van, being exposed to the direct sun, is giving a faulty reading. Heat is building up artificially and causing an inflated reading. It’s not really 100 degrees. The temperature will go down once we get on the road and some of that heat under the hood dissipates.” Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Gillette Stadium and the thermometer still read . . . 100 degrees.

I was once again quite happy for the privilege to shell out another $25.00 to park our van. We perused the souvenir area and the kids each picked out something. We headed for the gate and were stopped by one of the stadium employees. Rebecca was carrying a styrofoam cup with about two ounces of water and maybe a chip of ice remaining. The fellow at the gate, who obviously had a very inflated idea of his self-importance, proclaimed, in a very             authoritative voice, “You can’t take that in, ma’am.”

Now remember, it’s 100 degrees. We have just invested almost $700.00 in tickets and parking, not to mention what we have spent and are about to spend on over-priced food, and we couldn’t take a cup into the stadium. I managed to keep myself from committing a violent and unnatural act with the cup. We threw it out and headed in.

We got to our seats, which were better than the previous nights’, and settled in. After the usual   seemingly interminable but necessary formalities, the contest got underway and, once again, the corps were just fabulous. There was a weather delay, but it had no effect on our morale.

However, there was a major annoyance to our left. Elevator bells were ringing incessantly. What a distraction! I talked to someone about it, but it never got taken care of. As the night went on, we got to know our neighbors. To our left, Lucy got to know two ladies from Hershey, PA. They were Cadet fans. I shamelessly coaxed her into to giving them my business card, hoping they might buy the book I wrote. (This being me taking blatant advantage of an opportunity to plug my book.) In front of us were two nice folks from Illinois rooting for the Cavaliers. Behind us was a small group of kids from the Blue Stars and I made the acquaintance of a very nice young couple on my right. They were locals who had never been directly involved in drum corps, but were Boston Crusaders fans.

The finals, as expected, were fantastic. We moved to lower seats for the encore performance by the Cadets. Their show was even more mesmerizing up relatively close. The kids, even though it was getting quite late, were once again completely taken by the performance.

Unwilling to give up on Boston just yet, we traveled into the city on Sunday morning and took the ferry from the Aquarium to see Old Ironsides. This was very cool because it cost next to nothing and we got a beautiful view of the city from the harbor. Throw in a little lightning and thunder and it got real exciting.

Old Ironsides, the USS Constitution, is a thing of beauty and history. I’m glad we didn’t blow it off. We left Boston late in the afternoon. There was a lot of rain and traffic really got bogged down on the Massachusetts Turnpike. It took us about eight hours to get home, but we didn’t mind. We stopped for dinner in a small town in western Massachusetts and drove a fair distance on two-lane road to enjoy the countryside. All-in-all, it was a very nice four-day vacation, combining a little bit of history and culture and lots of drum corps — what I call a well-balanced vacation.

With the end of summer approaching, we took the family to Scranton for DCA. Scranton is less than an hour from home, so traveling to the show was no big deal. A leisurely drive and we were there in a very timely fashion. We parked for $3.00 . . . real cheap. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I always wonder about where all that money goes.

The attendants do not give you a parking ticket or any type of receipt for your $3.00. Don’t get me wrong, after paying $25.00 to park at DCI, I was not going to complain about $3.00. I just wondered.

We had absolutely perfect seats in the upper deck. The weather was perfect.

We hit the food vendors early and ended up paying about $30.00 to feed the five of us. In fact, that included ice cream and the food was definitely well above average stadium fare. And how can you beat high fat, high sodium, high sugar food and the anticipation of a great night of drum corps?

The show got a very exciting start with the three class A corps — Alliance, Govenaires and Chops, Inc. These corps can really communicate with their audience. I can see the look on the kids’ faces and they’re really enjoying this. The one problem we had was a fellow in front of us. He looked to be about 45 and was wearing his hat backwards. Of course, neither of these things is a problem, but he had a mouth that would make a sailor blush and he was definitely old enough to know better.

On top of that, he kept taking out a hip flask and drinking from it. I don’t know for sure what he was drinking, but I believe it was safe to say he was probably not keeping his electrolytes up with Gatorade.

It finally reached the point where I approached him in the most passive, unthreatening manner I could muster and I asked him if he could watch his language. He gave me a look as though I just insulted his manhood. His female companion was immediately begging him to not make a scene and I was anticipating some trouble. I explained that I had my family with me. After a moment of puzzlement, he noticed 9-year-old Michael next to me and then the girls to our left and he lightened up. Now we’re best friends. Confrontation averted.

The open class portion of the show got underway and it just got better and better. If you’ve ever been to Scranton, you’ll know what I mean when I say the corps, even if you’re sitting in the upper deck, are very close to the audience. If you’re sitting in the upper deck, you have that feeling that you’re right on top of the corps. It’s an opportunity to experience the corps on a level that’s almost visceral. And by Labor Day Weekend, these corps were prepared to give their audience everything they wanted.

The night went on. The competition intensified. We sat absolutely enthralled with the entire affair. DCA has a lot to offer and you get a lot of variety. I won’t mention every corps, but Minnesota Brass had a sound that bathed our ears. The Renegades were out to blow you away and they did. The Bushwackers took a different approach and gave a complex program that also entertained. Personally, I loved the sound of the Brigadiers’ brass. The Statesmen had the high note men that everybody loved. And the Buccaneers had a total package that we’ve known since early season would to take them to the top.

We had a great time. DCA is the best bargain in drum corps. I could go on, but I won’t. Is drum corps family-friendly? Yes and no. Maybe we should ask if it needs to be. You can draw your own conclusions. All I know for sure is that, as we left Scranton, Samantha said it most succinctly, “That was the best drum corps show I have ever seen!”

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Jud Spena is author of the book “Echoes in the Valley,” a 226-page history of the Watkins Glen Squires and the 50-year drum corps activity in Schuyler County in upstate New York.
When not thinking or writing about drum corps (or mediating World War III) he is band director and music department chair at the Chenango Valley Central Schools near Binghamton, NY. He is also a member of the trumpet section of the Binghamton Philharmonic.