July 8, 1979. Smith-Walbridge Drum-Major Camp; Syracuse, Indiana.
My 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.
That 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”