Tale of a drum line: The 1986 Garfield Cadets (an excerpt)

by Lee Rudnicki, DCW staff

Music: Something about you by Level 42 — Fairleigh Dickinson College, NJ, week one: Before tour, I move into the Fairleigh Dickinson College dorms in New Jersey with the rest of the members of the Garfield Cadets. Although I’m excited to start another summer of drum corps, I cannot stop thinking about Wendy, a girl who I met back at Westchester a few months ago.

I didn’t realize college was going to be so much fun. I actually miss being there. Hopefully, this summer with a new drum corps will compare well. Last summer certainly didn’t, especially considering the tour I was on featured at least one bus crash, Hostess-cupcake uniforms, a nonsensical show and a spectacular 17th-place finish at DCI.

Tom Aungst, the Cadets’ snare tech and an elementary school teacher, has two more weeks before his summer vacation begins. Since Tom can only make rehearsal on the weekends right now, he writes out a comprehensive drum line rehearsal plan for each week.

Basically, the drum line will be its own during the weekdays. But, we have a ton of experience and we got “The Plan,” so we should be okay.

Our first week of self-supervised rehearsal goes well. We stick with The Plan and, by the end of the week, we are drumming considerably better than when we were on Monday. When Tom arrives for the weekend, he is happy with our progress.

Unfortunately, monsoon rains pour down on us throughout the entire weekend. Despite the rain, the marching staff keeps us in a parking lot throughout the day on Saturday to learn drill.

Since we had a few winter camps canceled due to snow, we don’t have time to stop rehearsal for a torrential downpour. We are way, way behind in learning drill and we absolutely must rehearse this weekend to even have a prayer to get On the Waterfront on the field by the first show.

Most of us put on brown garbage bags to try to protect ourselves from the incessant rain, but a homemade, rag-tag, blue-light-special garbage bag rainsuit will only protect you so much in a monsoon of Biblical proportions.

Drill sheets and the chalk lines on the cement literally dissolve in the rain. The rawhide “guts” of our beautiful new “disco-ball” snare drums have not been waterproofed yet and the garbage bags don’t stop the torrential rain from soaking them either.

We are a New Jersey drum corps of miserable wet rats . . . and the drill is not even close to being complete. Not good.

Fairleigh Dickinson, week two — On Monday morning, we wearily trudge across the Fairleigh Dickinson campus to start our second week of self-monitored drum line rehearsals. Unfortunately, the monsoon made most of our snares fall apart and individual snare strands hang down from the bottom of our drums like spaghetti.

We are demoralized and a few of us have even caught a cold from standing around in the       monsoon. We are all playing on horrible-sounding “tenor drums” that have ridiculous-looking snares sticking out of the bottom in all directions.

Despite the bad drums, we try to stick to the rehearsal plan. Unfortunately, things fall apart quickly and The Plan stays in place for approximately eight hours.

On Tuesday, Plan B. Frustrated from pointless hours spent practicing on crummy-sounding drums, we decide to go check out the local mall. None of us have money to buy anything more than a slice of pizza, of course, but we have fun anyway.

Over the course of the week, we rehearse less and less. By Thursday, we don’t rehearse at all. Most of the drum line hangs out at the mall or runs amok near the dorms playing basketball. Occasionally, someone will pick up a practice pad to play through the show, but that is about it.

Isolated from the majority of the staff and almost all aspects of so-called real life, our existence in the dorms starts to resemble a sitcom rather than an intense drum corps pre-season.

One night, a few drummers make a field trip to New York City and stealthily return with a bunch of . . . errrr . . . junk food. Chaos results and a berserk member of our pit actually nails a dead frog to his dorm room door. Crunchy Frog theory is born.

On Friday afternoon, the realization that the staff is due back in town this evening suddenly dawns on us. Uh-oh. This was a crazy-fun week, but we’re definitely not ready for them — or anything else for that matter. We’ve accomplished about one of the 10 items on Tom’s list.


The drum line convenes an emergency meeting in the dorms and we nervously try to come up with a scheme to get through the    weekend. We decide to act like we practiced hard — we’ll fake our way through the weekend.

The general consensus is that, if we act the part, the drum staff will never know that we didn’t do anything this week. Someone jokes that if they catch on, our excuse will be . . . “Lee has never been to the mall. We had to go.” Wonderful.

On Friday night, the drum staff meets us for rehearsal at a vocational school in Teterboro. As rehearsal begins in the dimly-lit parking lot, we look at one another and try not to smile as we play through the drum warm-ups. Here we go again.

It does not take long for Tom Aungst and Thom Hannum to figure out that we didn’t   practice all week — not by the amused and perplexed look on our faces, but by the look of our hands and the sound being produced. Our drumming sucks!

Tom stands in front of us and says, “You didn’t practice, did you?” No one says anything in response, but it’s obvious that the charade is over. We smile. This is still kinda-sorta funny at this point.

Rod breaks the silence and says, “Lee has never been to the mall.” Drummers giggle at Rod’s smart-ass comment, but the drum staff is not amused. We rehearse until 3:30 AM without a break. As we put our drums away, no one is thinking about our next trip to the mall. This is no longer kinda-sorta funny.

The season begins

After weeks of some very hard work, we manage to get the field show together. Our first competition is in Lynn, MA, and our closest    competitor is the 27th Lancers, a popular drum corps from Revere, MA. Some guy who got cut from our tenor line (and our cymbal line), walks by as he randomly buzzes a contra mouthpiece.

“The six-pack is back!” he yells, referencing the small size of our snare line. The drum line murmurs at the dumb nickname invented by the ex-drummer, soon-to-be horn player. Although we’re insecure about the fact that our drum line is small, we’re pleasantly surprised to see that the 27th Lancers also have six snares. Let the games begin.

Announcer: “Garfield Cadets, you may enter the field for competition!”

Our show starts with the entire corps facing backfield in a tight block, except for Rod, who faces forward to count off after a cue from drum major Rich Armstrong, and a mellophone soloist who stands in the front of the field facing the audience. Unfortunately, Rod misses the drum major’s cue for On the Waterfront to begin. The mellophone player starts her solo, but we aren’t marching backwards. We are, in fact, standing still and listening to her.

Thought: Hmmmm. The show just started and we are standing around doing absolutely nothing. This is not good. Interesting maybe, but not good.

Rod yells, “Sh*t!” and the 1986 Garfield Cadets’ season officially starts with mass panic on the field. Rod starts the count on “five” (but the soloist is actually on count nine) and we all march, stumble and hop backwards as we try to catch up to the soloist.

Somehow, we pull the show back together and barely win the show. What will eventually become a great and wonderful season of drum corps starts with panic, chaos . . . and maybe just a little bit of humor.

To be continued . . .

Publisher’s note: Lee Rudnicki is a Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer and the show coordinator of the San Francisco Renegades. Pick up a copy of “The Renegade Journal,” his book about the San Francisco Renegades, at http://www.cafepress.com/renegadejournal. (1986 photo by Orlin Wagner)

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 34, Number 1), published at the end of March.