Drum Corps 9-1-1

Have you ever broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, had your kitchen engulfed in flames or ran out of clean drinking water for a week? With thousands of miles traveled in less than two months, drum corps prepare for the best but sometimes encounter the worst.

Imagine you are preparing for a long road trip adventure across the United States. You plan your routes and budget for food, fuel and lodging. But just like any plan, sometimes things don’t always go as you imagined. Just when you least expect it, things go wrong, and chaos ensues. As the old military saying goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

That is what happened to me when I took over as the director for the Revolution Drum and Bugle Corps in the spring of 2005. When the day finally came to go on our summer national tour, I was confident my staff members had done their due diligence to ensure we were ready for anything. Unfortunately, there was nothing that could have prepared us for our drum corps emergency during the first week on the road.

On the first day in west Texas, one of our bus drivers (driving one of the two leased coach buses) was already tired of our “corps food” and decided to drive his bus to a local Mexican fast food restaurant. As he made the turn in the drive-through, an awning smashed one of the passenger windows behind the driver seat. After finishing his quesadillas for lunch, he returned to the housing site and proceeded to duct tape the window closed to keep anything (and anyone) from flying out of the bus at highway speeds. At the time, I hoped that this would be the worst (and last) of our troubles, but I would be wrong.

After our first exhibition performance on the third day, we began our long drive toward Austin. At our very first fuel stop at 2:30 a.m., the bus drivers woke up all the members, instructional staff and parent volunteers to get off the buses to refuel. As we stood around waiting outside the Flying J in the middle of nowhere mumbling about lack of sleep, we noticed something peculiar. Our bus drivers were topping off the pumps when they suddenly realized they had mistakenly pumped 90 gallons of gasoline instead of diesel in each bus.

After several frantic phone calls with the bus company manager and my brother (a certified master mechanic), we determined that while it might be safe to operate the buses for a short distance, there was still concern over possible damage to the engines. We were stuck at a Flying J in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, with very few options.

And just like what I experienced back in 2005, dozens of marching ensembles in Drum Corps International (DCI) face a variety of logistical challenges every summer. Yet administrators find creative ways to adapt and overcome these seemingly insurmountable odds. Here are a few other drum corps emergencies that nearly brought things to a screeching halt.

Fire Truck

While some drum corps just try to make the most of a bad situation, the Colts Drum and Bugle Corps found a way to turn an aging kitchen trailer into an improved, state-of-the-art food truck when an emergency struck while on tour in Nebraska in 1999.

Then-director Greg Orwoll was riding in the food truck planning out the next day’s schedule. “Normally the food truck brings up the rear, but since I was riding along, we were in the front leading the convoy,” Orwoll says. “Which was fortunate because what happened next would have been more devastating if we weren’t in the lead.”

With smoke coming from the back of the trailer, they pulled over to prepare for a tire change. Instead, they found rear doors as the source of the trouble. “When we opened the doors, the entire rear of the truck erupted into a wall of flames,” Orwoll says. “A fire had been smoldering inside and when the doors opened the oxygen literally fueled the fire.”

The Colts administrative staff immediately dialed 9-1-1. While they waited for help, they pulled the tour buses over and formed a bucket brigade that passed several dozen 10-gallon water coolers and hundreds of members’ water jugs to fight their own version of a kitchen nightmare. “We literally ran out of water as we emptied the last water jug onto the smoldering fire,” says Orwoll.

The damage assessment was tremendous: All electrical components were burned off, PVC plumbing had melted away, the walls and ceiling were charred, and the gas lines were destroyed. “It was obvious we had a big problem on our hands without a functioning kitchen truck to feed several hundred people for the coming days,” Orwoll says.

Upon closer inspection, the corps determined that the fire was a result of a freak accident. A wrench hanging on a side wall that was used to change liquid propane tanks had careened perfectly sideways to slide between the battery guard and the battery posts on the generator battery to short out the battery and throw sparks onto the side wall made of plywood.

Orwoll quickly reached out to the local Gothenburg, Neb., community for assistance, and the support was tremendous. Contractors at the local hardware store put in long hours over the next two days to install new electrical wiring, plumbing, a floor, walls, a ceiling, a lighting system, insulation, a power generator and a water heater (a new addition as they did not have hot water before). Even the local high school band students helped paint the interior, and the school cafeteria staff washed their canned goods and utensils.

The Colts then put on a “Thank You, Gothenburg” exhibition show for the community by calling every church, television and radio station. More than 2,000 people attended the impromptu performance to support the Colts and learn about the drum and bugle corps activity.

“The incredible thing is there were just over 3,000 residents in Gothenburg,” Orwoll says. “The athletic director says more people had attended that exhibition performance than their fall football regional championship. It was the biggest crowd he had ever seen at the school.”

At the end of the night, almost $5,000 in cash donations poured in that helped replace food and materials lost in the fire that was not covered by insurance. Rising from the ashes, the Colts fire brought together a small Midwestern community for an evening of mutual appreciation that thousands would not soon forget. An autographed bass drum head, signed by the Colts, still hangs in the Gothenburg City Hall as a reminder that good deeds can spark from disaster.

Water Crisis

When people think about the Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps, they might think about the group’s high-energy performances and exciting show concepts. However, most people probably did not know that a water crisis at its 2012 DCI World Championships housing site nearly sunk its national tour prematurely.

Upon arriving at its host school at Northview High School in Brazil, Ind., Jersey Surf was faced with severe drought conditions combined with a boil water advisory due to a water main break in town. Since the drum corps members consumed more than 500 gallons of water a day for drinking and cooking, administrators quickly realized that they could not boil water fast enough to meet their cooking needs.

“We started by purchasing all of the water we could find at local supermarkets,” says Bob Jacobs, director of the Jersey Surf. “But after two days, we had completely emptied the shelves.”

The dire situation forced the drum corps to modify its rehearsal schedule to minimize time in the sun and consumption of water. Jacobs quickly initiated a social media outreach campaign to ask for donations and water for the last week of tour. And fans responded.

“Drum corps fans from around the world donated money online that helped offset the costs involved with obtaining the water, which was a pretty sizable tab by the time we rolled out of town,” Jacobs says.

In addition, Bob Medworth, host school band director, and the local Red Cross helped the Jersey Surf secure a supplier that delivered nearly 3,000 gallons of clean water to the housing site for the remainder of the week.

Despite the dire situation to rehearse in extremely hot temperatures, the Jersey Surf was able to satisfy its thirst with an adequate amount of water to get through the last week. “The manner in which friends and neighbors came to our aid reminded us of our own ‘Share the Love’ approach to our lives on tour,” Jacobs says. “Our members were smart about conserving water and remained hydrated.”

Jacobs took time to discuss the ordeal with the members and staff. “It was quite an eye-opening experience considering how many folks in the world go without fresh water on a daily basis,” he says.

Cliff Diving

The Velvet Knights (VK) Drum and Bugle Corps’ “Magical Mystery Tour” took on a deeper meaning in 1987 than most fans know about. Sure, they had the typical drum corps issues: air conditioning billowing dusty smoke, broken down buses in the middle of nowhere and overheating engines when driving up steep grades in the mountainous terrain.

But the incident that stood out for most members that summer occurred when the percussion bus took a wrong turn on a long winding road on the way to the Allentown (Pa.) Regional.

After performing in New York, the convoy of buses rolled out as the members settled in for a nap. Several hours into the trip, cymbal player Jen Swanek recalled the moments before the season-defining event. She was awakened as the bus slowed down and then suddenly lurched forward, skidding through gravel and hitting what seemed like huge speed bumps.

“They were mild at first, then we started to hit them faster and each one harder than the last until it seemed as if we were breaking through solid brick walls,” Swanek says. “My body bounced around while our belongings smashed the windows.”

As Swanek hung on for the wild ride, there was one last impact that ripped all of the seats from their bolted carriages and flew forward toward the driver area. Then everything went silent. Slowly, section leaders took accountability for each section to ensure everyone was OK. The members then crawled out the sides of the bus and helped each other get back up to the road about 60 feet above them.

Fortunately, the physical injuries were relatively minor: a few lacerations, torn ligaments, sprains and strains. Injured members were taken to the nearest hospital to be treated while the rest of the drum corps stayed at a Howard Johnson’s at the nearest town.

Members loaned each other clothes, food and bedding. When the sun came up, the staff organized a recovery party to retrieve luggage and equipment in the bus at the bottom of the cliff. Within a few hours, corps director Jack Bevins chartered a school bus to take the place of the drum bus and had VK back on the road.

When VK got to Allentown, they were told that while they could still perform, they had to go on immediately with no warm-up or time to change into uniform. As the drum corps limped onto the field with members helping carry each other to their starting position, the entire crowd got on their feet, screaming, whistling, clapping and stomping.

It was a surreal moment.

“Although it was the worst performance that season, it was also the most energetic and emotional show we ever had,” Swanek says. “We had no warm-up; I’m not even sure everyone was carrying their own instrument.”

When the announcer had informed the audience that VK would be two hours late due to a bus accident, not a single person left the stands. “Not only did our fellow drum corps members and staff exemplify the most outstanding compassion, bravery and fortitude, but the fans were there for us as well,” Swanek says. “It reminded us why we worked so hard to do what we did for them.”

For the rest of the season, the percussionists had to ride the yellow school bus. During DCI Finals week, Star of Indiana’s Bill Cook sent his own coach bus to assist the Velvet Knights with its transportation. “It was then that we realized that not only was our drum corps a family, but the drum corps community was part of our family as well,” Swanek says.

Despite the misfortune, the Velvet Knights overcame one of its most difficult national tours to finish with a 7th place tie with the legendary Star of Indiana at the DCI World Championship Finals; 1987 marked VK’s best placement in its 30-year history.

Bus Rodeo

As for my 1995 incident with Revolution, I had to make a decision at 4 a.m. to continue on and risk breaking down or stay and wait for new buses to be driven up six hours from San Antonio. After consulting with my administrative team, I decided to find a place to stay for the night.Out of sheer luck, several parents had connections to a place across the street: The Wagon Wheel square dancing hall.

I went into the driver’s lounge of the Flying J—where our staff was going over show film with our members (to buy us some time)—and explained the situation to everyone. It quickly became apparent that the members and staff didn’t care where they slept at this point. They just wanted to get some rest before another long rehearsal day in the Texas sun. We eagerly loaded up the buses and went across the street where we crammed 100+ people into a tiny dance hall that was smaller than most high school gyms. It had one bathroom and no showers.

Fortunately, our new buses arrived nearly eight hours later, and we were back on the road just in time for our next performance in Austin. By staying calm and keeping everyone informed, we were able to manage the situation while finding a way to give our members some “floor time” during the bus swap.

While potentially devastating, the disasters experienced by all drum corps prove a valuable lesson that kind hearts and fast action could help anyone overcome any challenge.

About author

Gregory M. Kuzma

Gregory M. Kuzma (www.gregorymkuzma.com), who simply goes by “GM,” is a performing arts consultant for drum and bugle corps and marching bands around the United States. A drum and bugle corps veteran, he is the author of the book “On the Field From Denver, Colorado … The Blue Knights!,” which highlights his 1994 summer tour adventures as a drum corps member.

A photo of Mineola High School band.

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