“On the Field from Denver, Colorado”

Chapter 1: How did this all begin? French horns to French kisses

[Editor’s Note: The following text is an excerpt from the book, “On the Field from Denver, Colorado … The Blue Knights!” One Member’s Experience of the 1994 Summer National Tour, by Gregory M. Kuzma. Throughout the summer, Halftime Magazine will feature additional excerpts from Kuzma’s book as well as personal stories from today’s drum & bugle corps members. We are interested in hearing from you. Please contact us if you would like to contribute your experiences.]

It all began in 1986 when my mom said she didn’t want me playing football. She decided band was the place for me. It would be less of a chance of late nights in the emergency room with injuries from a game. So, she took me to the instrument “fitting” night for the school band. It’s where the band director “fits” you with an instrument that he feels is best. As we walked into the band room, I nervously looked around at the other kids. I tried to think of musical icons like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and wondered if I could play the trumpet like him one day.

If I had a choice, I probably would not have chosen the French horn, but that’s what I got. My argument with Mr. James to fit me with a trumpet or even a trombone went unheeded. I was destined to be a French horn player whether I liked it or not. The only good thing I was told about the French horn was that after playing it, you would be good at kissing. I don’t know about that. My first attempts at French kissing weren’t exactly anything to write home about. Not that I’d write home to Mom and Dad about my first kissing experience, but that’s another story.

At one point, our director felt we were good enough to show-off, so he took our junior high band on tour around the state. We loaded up the coach tour buses and headed to our first stop in Bradenton, Florida. Stupid me, I didn’t pack any food for our four hour bus ride and boy, was I hungry. All I could think about was trying to find some food at the next stop.

At the junior high school, we unloaded our instruments from the buses and performed our selection of music while our audience, the Bradenton band students and parents, watched with mild interest. Afterward, we switched places and watched their band perform. Bored, I looked around for something to do. I noticed some refreshments on a table in the back of the auditorium so I helped myself to as many banana cookies as I could stuff in my band jacket. On what seemed to be the fifth trip to the cookie jar, I was denied by the Bradenton band parent “governing” the food.

“You’ve had enough banana cookies for everyone in your band,” she said sternly as she put her hand over the cookies. “Let’s save some for the other band kids, eh?”

Embarrassed and depressed about being denied my opportunity to stockpile food for the bus ride, I decided to retaliate. I went to every single member of my band and told them not to eat the banana cookies. Sure enough, my scheme worked to perfection as my little rumor mill turned the banana cookies into poisonous candy. I couldn’t have planned it better and was quite proud of myself. There were dozens and dozens of cookies piled up on the table and no one would eat them. I smile to myself as I packed up my French horn and got on the bus with my stash. Unfortunately, Mr. James caught wind of my prank and called me off the bus.

“I heard what you did back there,” he said, while opening a large plastic bag. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you?”

I searched for a witty reply, but couldn’t find one. I wondered what he had in the bag.

“Since you were the one who caused the cookie surplus, you’re going to be the one to take care of those leftover cookies!”

He handed me the large bag of about two hundred banana cookies. I expected him to watch me eat every single cookie right then and there.

“You’re going to get rid of every single one of these by passing them out to everyone on the bus without throwing any away.”

Well, at least I didn’t have to eat them all. I climbed back onto the bus and began the cookie distribution. However, it didn’t go as well as I had hoped. In fact, I got many puzzled looks since I told everyone not to eat them. No one wanted to eat these cookies because they were afraid of getting food poisoning.

We arrived at our hotel several hours later and Mr. James reminded me that I needed to give the rest of the cookies away or eat them. Since no one would take them, I ended up eating nearly all of them for dinner. Let me tell you, banana cookies are good, but when you ate as many as I did, you get tired of them real fast. In fact, I had an all-night bellyache from the all-you-can-eat cookie dinner.

At the end of three years of “perfecting my musicianship” as Mr. James would like to say, I moved on to the professional ranks–high school band. Well, at least it was to me. After all, when you’re this young, you only really care about what’s happening to you at the moment. And at that moment, I only cared about my side burns so I could try and maintain my ever-popular young “Elvis” look. Of course, I had to look good while playing my French horn for the high school girls.

All my preconceived notions of high school were shattered in the first week. No longer was I the big French horn playing man on campus, I was the typical freshman band geek–with braces. Even though I was still sporting my sideburns, no girl wanted to talk to me because I played French horn. This was a 180-degree flip from junior high when all I had to say was I played the French horn to get some French kissing practice. How was I supposed to practice now? I decided I needed to be more active in school.

So, I joined the high school marching band with much support from my mom, especially since it meant I would not be playing football. Band practice consisted of after-school rehearsals three times a week for three hours at a time with a halftime performance on Fridays. After the third week, I was ready to quit. I was in no mood to stand at attention while getting yelled at. If I wanted this, I would have joined the army. I thought about quitting all the time. This was really cutting into my French kissing practice. After all, practice makes perfect, right?

Then there was this one time at band camp. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard all about band camp and how it was many things. Let me be the first to tell you French kissing wasn’t one of them, well at least not for me. We practiced marching and playing all day and night while I wondered how I could improve my kissing technique. I figured it would be easier to meet girls already in band since none of the other girls in school would give me the time of day. It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I was able to really “charm” a girl in band. But, by then, I was already expanding my horizons.

In my junior year, I joined football, track, cross country, wrestling and the bowling team (as a joke). All intentions on not getting hurt were tossed out the window at this point. I somehow got tennis elbow from bowling, tore my Achiles tendon in my right foot (was on crutches for six weeks), and busted my chin (needed eight stitches) from football. And to add insult to injury, I sprained my left knee in track (when I tripped over the hurdles at the city track meet). Heck, I even came close to dislocating my right shoulder several times during my wrestling matches.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Nope, not even close. That year, I hurt my back really bad playing tackle football in the band parking lot with the band kids. There I was running a deep route to catch a touchdown pass and as I turned around to catch the ball, I’m tackled by a fire hydrant. I replaced the situation in my mind while lying on the ground staring at the sky. Crap! I had landed on a fire hydrant–on my back. Even though my back hurt like hell, I noticed I actually caught the football and held it up in the air. One of the drummers stood over me to make sure I was still alive.

“Hey man, you hit pretty hard. You okay?” He asked.

“Uh, I don’t know yet, (cough). I think I just got the wind knocked out of me.” I gasped for air.

“Okay. Well, we’re going inside now. Later.” Nice.

“Yeah, wait. Um, need a hand here.”

I think I laid there alone for about fifteen minutes trying to feel my lower back. Fortunately, I was able to eventually roll over and walk, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, back to my car. From that point on, my back has ached all the time. After all that effort to avoid me getting really hurt, I do it screwing around in the
band–the one place my mom put me to avoid getting hurt!

Before college, I was exposed to drum and bugle corps. My first experience was during the summer of 1993 when the Star of Indiana Drum & Bugle Corps and several other drum corps performed at a high school stadium in Melbourne, Florida. My family’s only reason for driving two and a half hours was to see Dave Bayardelle, my best friend. He was a baritone player in the Star of Indiana horn line. Before the show, we went to the store and bought some poster board and wrote “GO DAVE!” on it but I think it looked more like “GOE D!VA” when we each held a letter up in the wrong order.

The performances were awesome and entertaining. I went to the drum and bugle corps souvenir booth and noticed a sign that read, “Help wanted, mellophone player. Inquire within.” Intrigued, I inquired as to what a mellophone was. Turns out, it’s like a marching version of the French horn. Inspired, I auditioned on-the-spot with several others and even though I was not picked to get on the bus right then and there, I was hooked. Finally! Something competitive and within my talents to do at an even more “professional” level.

After high school, it was time for college. Of course, after I hurt my back, my chances of winning a football scholarship were about as good as winning the lottery. So, I decided to do something I was halfway good at. I joined the University of Central Florida Marching Knights band in the fall of 1993 to keep my “technique” up. When the spring of 1994 rolled around, my friend Dave called and asked if I wanted to go on tour with a drum corps. I was itching for a new experience and figured what the heck? How hard can it be?

“Hey, man. I’ve decided to march with the Blue Knights.”

“Um, okay. Who are they?”

“They’re from Denver and are an up and coming drum corps. You should come march with me.”

Not really knowing what I was getting myself into, I prepared for one of the most challenging, fun, and emotional summers of my life.

When I found out how much it was going to cost to march drum corps, I knew I could never afford it, but I had to find a way. So, I applied for a job at the local Pizza Hut. This was a dream job since I love pizza. As a cook, I got to take any pizza home that I messed up. I worked day and night for two weeks until I found out they were paying me a server’s wage instead of minimum wage. At first I thought they were garnishing my wages since I took so many pizzas home. So, I inquired to my boss about my financial shortcomings.

“Mr. Johnson, can I talk to you about my paycheck?”

“What is it now?”

“Well, I’ve been working as your cook. Okay, I was hired as a cook and although I’ve been mostly washing dishes (because I’m a lousy cook who ruins all the pizzas), I thought I should be getting minimum wage, not $2.13.”

“Yeah. We were going to use you as a server, but it never worked out. Maybe we can get you some serving shifts next time. See you tomorrow, bye.”

SLAM!

After I quit Pizza Hut, I found a friendlier job on campus at my college. With nicer people and flexible hours, I could work in between classes and make about half what I needed to march.

The rest of my funding would have to come from my friend, the VISA card. After several months of working up a small fund, we come to the present day. May is here and it’s time to go on tour.

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