In the sultry summers of my college days, I spent my time marching and playing with one of the finest drum & bugle corps in the country. The Madison Scouts, of Madison, WI, trace their lineage to a boy scout troop marching unit formed in 1938. It is one of only two current drum corps that can trace their beginnings as far back as the 1930’s, when virtually every town large or small with a VFW post or scouting group might have a corps for parades and town concerts in the park. Competitions were held to see who best marched, played, took care of their equipment, uniforms, and even groomed themselves. As the nation’s economy boomed through the 50’s and 60’s, these corps began to travel outside of their immediate geographical areas and spread their influence at ever larger competitions, entertaining ever larger audiences as they went.
By the 1970’s, Drum Corps International, or DCI, was formed, and drum & bugles corps from across the U.S. and Canada criss-crossed the continent every summer in competition, gathering toward the end of August for a championship. Through a system of open class, preliminary, and semifinal contests, the large field of attending corps was whittled down to 25 and then 12, who would then shoot it out in “Finals” for the title of DCI Champions, and bragging rights as a member of the elite “Top 12.”
The Madison Scouts are fortunate to be one of only a handful of existing corps who have ever won a DCI championship, once in 1975, and again in 1988 (DCI being a youth activity, there is a maximum age of 22; alas, I “aged out” in 1987 as the Scouts placed 6th at Finals). It is also one of only two remaining all-male drum & bugle corps (both of the all-male corps were part of the Boy Scouts of America). For these and many other reasons, the Scouts enjoy a very active and animated group of alumni, ranging in age from recently aged out 23 years old to retired gentlemen in the 60’s and 70’s.
The summer of 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the corps. Seventy five years without interruption is no small feat for any organization, and the Scouts celebrated this accomplishment with a show designed to honor the soldiers who have served our nation in battle, called, with a nod to the loyalty of its own past members, “Corps of Brothers: 75 Years of Survival.”
While many corps in practice for the DCI Championships draw a small crowd of volunteers, parents, and curious local band kids during championships week, the Scouts’ rehearsal site just north of Bloomington, IN was a beehive of activity on Finals Day. An alumni BBQ had old friends reuniting after decades of not seeing one another. Members’ children, some young, some already grown, accompanied them. Some folks who have discussed drum corps, music, politics and religion endlessly on Facebook were finally meeting face to face. Everyone gathered on the edge of the practice field for the corps’ final run-through of the show before they would pack up the semi-trailer and other equipment trucks with drums, horns, flags and rifles, and uniforms, and haul it all to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the big night.
After an emotional final run, there were some final words of encouragement from the staff and instructors. The horn players, about eighty young men, laid their horns in the grass in a large, perfect circle. Current performers sat inside the circle while family, friends, and onlookers stood without. But at one point the corps director invited others into the circle. First, volunteers who had selflessly given of their time to serve the corps during the summer tour. Then family members of the current performers, and finally alumni of any age. We would step through the gaps between the instruments in the grass and will our aging, creaking joints to sit on the grass with the color guard and percussionists, while the brass players went back to their horns to honor us with an a cappella version of the corps song.
Most corps have adopted a corps song, and some of the songs of corps past and present have been great ones: Danny Boy, Over The Rainbow, and When You Wish Upon A Star, to name a few. But in the case of the Scouts, its song has been part of the Madison lore since it was first used on the competition field in 1955. It is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from the Broadway Musical Carousel, written by the iconic American composing duo, Rogers and Hammerstein. It is an emotion-laden song of inspiration and perseverance that begins,
“When you walk through a storm,
hold your head up high …”
The singing of “Never Walk” by the Scouts is reserved for special occasions and particularly important moments around the competition field. One such occasion indelibly etched on my own memory is when it was sung on the field after winning the 1988 championship. I stood in the front few rows of the stands in the stadium of the Kansas City Chiefs and looked out proudly at my close friends and corps mates as they sang with their brand new championship medals hanging around their necks. In 2013, “Never Walk” was written into the show, the first time in decades, and alumni in audiences throughout the summer stood up in the stands to join in singing as the corps sang and then played it to the end of the show.
This summer was the first time since I aged out twenty-five years ago – has it really been twenty-five years, an entire other lifetime ago? – that I have been present at a moment when alumni have been invited into the circle to hear the song. I smiled as I lowered my own middle-aged bones onto the well-trodden grass of the practice field. The air was hushed as, with concentration and almost ceremonial flair, the brass players prepared to play. With a confident and professional cue from the drum major at the center if the circle, the song began. In an instance, twenty five years rushed away, and emotion not felt since I can’t tell you when flooded in.
So, what does a Madison Scouts alum think about while sitting inside the circle to hear the corps play “Never Walk,” for the first time in more years than the current age of this year’s age-outs?
He thinks of being 21 years old, of being hot and tired, but very, very happy. He thinks of his parents and siblings always in the stands. He thinks of the lights, and the sounds, the color and motion.
He thinks of the few teachers who “got” him, and all the bosses who never did.
He thinks of marriages and divorces, and the two beautiful kids who came with him to the show. He thinks of friends he just saw for the first time in 25 years, and how every one of those years blows away instantly, like a light dust.
He thinks of being old, yet feeling young, or is it vice versa? He thinks of friends and family and those he marched with who have already walked on into eternal life.
Today, I thought of the cautionary words of the poet W.B. Yeats,
“The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind.”
The last quarter century went by in a rush of wind, like an exhaled breath. As I pause now to take in a new, life-giving breath of refreshed air, I think of the “years to come,” and what I must do so that those who surround me also never walk alone.