MY DAY: A return to Smith-Walbridge Drum-Major Camp

July 8, 1979.  Smith-Walbridge Drum-Major Camp; Syracuse, Indiana.

imagesMy grandparents and mother drove me to Smith-Walbridge’s Drum-Major Camp, arriving on a cloudy Sunday afternoon.  The camp was located on a hill on the Northeast side of Syracuse, Indiana, at the edge of Boner Lake, with Syracuse Lake and Lake Wawasee within shouting distance.  It was a lovely location, and seemingly isolated despite the many boats that dotted the lakes throughout the day and early evenings, and the illuminated homes each night.

After checking in, and depositing my items in cabin 4-B, I bid good bye to my family and explored the camp.  I began chatting with a fellow drum-major from somewhere in Ohio.  Ironically, in 1990, our paths would cross again when I became roommates with her boyfriend (later her fiancee and husband) upon my move to Dayton, Ohio.

100_5772That evening, several hundred drum-majors and field commanders were spirited over to the dining hall for our first meal.  I can still remember standing by this tree, entertaining fellow drum-majors with jokes as we waited in the seemingly long line.  A camper named Rick had joined the circle, and discovered it was great fun to step on my punchlines.  Even at 15, I knew how to tell a joke, and this interruption was insulting, to say the least.

Inside the dining hall, Rick elected to sit by me while eating supper.  I clearly warned him it would behoove him to not interrupt another joke I told.  And, in the next eleven years of our friendship, he never did.

images (2)After supper we were herded into the cavernous, barn-like meeting hall that had a high stage.  There we were introduced to the directors and staff – legendary names of the marching band world: Merl Smith, Dr. Charles Hensey, Tom Smith, Jim Leslie, and others.  We quickly learned that we were to learn a new system of thinking, a new way of approaching leadership – much of which has been with me all these years as I train prospective drum-majors.  We were introduced to The Drum-Major Manual & Big Ten Football Band Charts. [I was starting my drum-major career during the transition of Big Ten style marching into corps style’s curve-linear marching.]  This manual was our Bible for the next six days.

It was in this hall that I sang in my first SATB chorus.  They taught us old camp standards, “Good Night, Ladies,” “Back Home, Again, In Indiana” and my personal favorite, “Tell Me Why.”

The men, in four-part harmony, sang:

Tell me why the stars do shine / Tell me why the ivy twines / Tell me why the sky’s so blue / And then I’ll tell you just why I love you.

And, then, the women echoed with:

Because God made the stars to shine / Because God made the ivy twine / Because God made the sky’s so blue / Because God made you, that’s why I love you.

We concluded with learning “America, the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  I can still remember the hair standing on my arms and neck.

The hill overlooking the lake.

The hill overlooking the lake.

Each night, after supper, we met in the hall for instructions, and the singing of these songs before our allotted free-time, and lights out.  Rick and I would grab our sundaes and dash to the top of the hill behind the cabins to look out over the lake, and discuss life and its many adventures.

The days began early and were long, and physically taxing as we marched, saluted, conducted, and learned drills in the hot sun, or pouring rain. Before dinner, many of us raced to shower, not caring that the hot water would soon be diminished.  The cold water was refreshing.

As the week drew to a close, the several hundred strangers had become one huge family – a family of teen leaders who would soon return to their respective marching bands to model what they had learned.  Friday night, our last evening gathering in the hall, was the initial round of farewells, starting with the talent show.  One counselor sang, “Time In A Bottle,” something I would hear each camp week for the following three years.  My friend Rick, from Illinois, dedicated, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” to me.  When he returned to where we were seated, he gave me his favorite ball cap.

images (1)

We ended the evening with our traditional mass chorus.  Then, after free-time and lights out, the male drum-majors gathered by the pavilion.  The counselors led us to one of the women’s cabins where all the female drum-majors were gathered.  In complete darkness, we sang our camp songs.  That night, as the women responded with the phrase, “Tell me why the stars do shine…” a shooting star was spotted through many tear-filled eyes.

My drum-major whistle and Rick's ball cap

My drum-major whistle and Rick’s ball cap

Five years ago, today, my son, Jose, and I returned to Smith-Walbridge’s old site. The clinics were moved to The University of Illinois several years ago, and the property has been acquired by a mega-church.  It was three days short of the first time I’d set foot on the ground twenty-nine years earlier – when I was about my son’s age.  As I stood on the hill overlooking the former camp that had meant so much to me (and, still does), I was flooded with memories… many wonderful memories of moments that shaped my life as a drum-major, a leader, a conductor, and as a person.

And, yes, the soundtrack of my mind was echoing, “Because God made the stars to shine…”

About Wright Flyer Guy

Darin is a single adoptive father, a teacher, playwright, and musical theatre director from Kettering, Ohio.
This entry was posted in Drum-Major, Music - Marching Band, Private Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to MY DAY: A return to Smith-Walbridge Drum-Major Camp

  1. Duncan Perry says:

    I attended that week! It was my second week of Drum Major camp at S-W having attended initially in the summer of ’78.

    Great memories…thanks for your post and your excellent memory!

  2. Steven Warrington says:

    Went To Smith Walbridge Camp in 1961, 1962 and 1963. Best summers of my life! Made great friends and had many laughs. Also learned a lot, as I was a featured twirler at the University of Michigan and went to the Rose Bowl in 1965. If anybody out there remembers me I sure would like to hear from you. Best to all former campers. What a great place!! Go Blue!!

  3. Ken Mead says:

    Hi, Darin.

    I didn’t start out my time online today planning to reminisce about my youth. But, through twist after a brief genealogy search I ended up reviewing my high school band camp days (Camp Maplehurst in Kewadin, Michigan) and remembering Smith Walbridge.

    I attended Smth Walbridge Drum Major camp in 1978 and returned as a counselor in 1979. Today I googled “Smith Walbridge Syracuse” and landed on your post. You brought back profound memories…as I was there with you in ’79. I don’t remember your name. Maybe we bumped into one another at some point. But, the hair stood on MY arms and neck today as I ready your touching account of that week and especially the final evening.

    I was the one who sang “Time In A bottle,” and it’s touching to know that you remembered it (I HOPE it was a GOOD memory). The shooting star that year capped my favorite part of the week as we all sang “Tell Me Why” and saw God’s responsive glory in the heavens.

    Thank you for posting this beautiful memory, so I could relive it as well. Hope life is good for you, Darin. I’ll come back to visit your blog. Please feel free to email me any time.

    With Gratitude,

    Ken Mead
    Atlanta, GA

  4. Richard W Kovener says:

    I have memories of Smith Walbridge too from an even earlier time. I was there for 3 summers in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The first 2 times were for drum major camp and the 3rd for baton twirling camp. My memories include the twice daily competitions where you didn’t know in advance who has going to be selected to lead your squad each time. And there where the morning “barracks” inspections! And of course the sign above the door to the meeting hall that a believe said “Through these doors walk the pretties girls in the world”.

    I visited the camp maybe 20 years ago and it was still operating. It is nice to know that it continuous to life on in a different location.

    -Richard Kovener
    Indianapolis, IN

    P.S. – I still have my baton and whistle (The Acme “Thunderer”).
    P.S.S – I may have some home movies. If I can find them I will share them.

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