Out of all the days of my youth, the best of which were spent marching in drum corps, and I will never forget those early years marching in the St. Andrew’s Bridgemen.
The Bridgemen started as a small parish corps in downtown Bayonne, NJ. A picturesque town of oil refineries, factories, and waste-water reclamation plants that represented the best of life in Middle-Lower-Class New Jersey.
The place was a friggin’ dump.
The thing that makes me proudest about my years in the Bridgemen is the lasting impact that the corps made on the activity. Sure, the campy antics and crude costumes of our shows from the late ‘70s and ‘80s may lack the sophistication and polish of today’s corps, but it was seminal work … Like James Tiberius Kirk, the Bridgemen boldly went where no drum corps had gone before, and did it with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
The same intensity of attitude and joie de vivre with which the corps approached its work on the field manifested itself in the group personality of the corps off the field. A personality that resembled a combination of The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus rolled up into one merry band of traveling funsters who always went for the joke first, and asked questions later.
Within the ranks of the corps absolutely nothing was sacred and if there was a corps motto of any kind, it was probably “Cut No Slack” … A phrase heard often around Bridgemen rehearsals. If someone went walking into a setup for a good one-liner, it would be considered blasphemy, if not bad form, to let it go without comment.
It wasn’t a corps environment for everyone and, although many of us survived, and often thrived, in this never-ending stand-up comedy routine, some individuals felt, after a time, that being in the Bridgemen just wasn’t the place for them.
Hey, we were like the Marines … The Few, the Proud, the Mostly-Charming-but-Quite-Often-Obnoxious…St. Andrew’s Bridgemen.
I can remember one guy quitting the corps after getting a hard time about something or other and remarking, as he left the parking lot never to return, “This place is a walking one-liner.”
In true Jersey form, and without missing a beat, a voice chimed in: “Yeah. So?”
It took a thick skin to be a member of St. Andrew’s, and it wasn’t any different for the instructional staff. Every new instructor had to earn their stripes … to prove that they were one of us. Hazing, possibly, a right of passage, if you will.
Such is the strange case of one George Tuthill. A Long-time drum instructor for the Hawthorne Caballeros, as well as my first competing corps, The Our Lady of Angels Blue Angels, from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
The 1975 season was what was euphemistically referred to as “a rebuilding year” for the Bridgemen … In other words, we were awful. Rank, raw, grab-your-kid-and-head-for-the-hot dog-stand-now-while-you’ve-got-a-chance bad. Most of the stalwarts who had helped bring the corps to DCI Finals in ’72 and ’73 had aged-out or moved on, leaving behind a small nucleus of veterans that was augmented by new recruits from our feeder corps, the St. Andrew’s Kidets, as well as a number of “imports” from out of state … including a sixteen-year-old me.
It was a bunch of mostly unrefined talent without any real seasoning … The corps had 35 horns, about 24 of whom actually played. We didn’t go to any of the major competitions that year because, as one member remarked, the field announcer would have asked, “Judges are you ready? Bridgemen … Are you serious?”
It was a tough season to be sure. The only thing that held us together that year was attitude. An attitude that was at the core of Bridgemen values. An attitude that says “Don’t tell us what or who we can or can’t be, do or achieve, or we’ll make it our business to prove you wrong no matter what, or how long, it takes, and your car might possible get fire-bombed in the process” (just kidding about that last part, mostly.) It’s an attitude that, tempered by time and maturity, has served most of us well over the years, and may well have kept the Bridgemen from folding that season.
Adding to the ongoing problems was the mid-season loss of our drum arranger and instructor, John Flowers. Flowers’ wife was adding to the family roster back in Delaware and he just couldn’t get up to New Jersey to be there with us that summer.
The guys told Corps Director, Eddie Holmes, he should hire the guy from Hawthorne. The guys actually meant Dennis DeLucia, the instructor for our dominant rivals, the Hawthorne Muchachos Junior Corps, but Eddie went ahead and hired Tuthill from the Hawthorne Caballeros Senior Corps.
That was probably when the guys realized they needed to be more specific with Eddie.
George came to the corps in the middle of the season with all the best intentions, but too late to bring about any real improvements, so he focused on damage control.
Now, as I mentioned, every instructor who walked through the Bridgemen’s doors intending to teach the drumline had to go through some sort of trial-by-fire before they could be accepted as one of us. An initiation if you will, a mating dance, whatever. It was a chance for the instructor to decide if he could fit in with the drum line, and a chance for the drum line to decide if the instructor would, well, be allowed to live (again, kidding … It’s true that one guy who came to us from the Complex Simpletons, of Wesuckandweknowit, Ont., disappeared after a few rehearsals, but no body was ever found, and he left saying something about suddenly discerning a vocation to join a cloistered order of monks…in Kuala Lumpur.)
It was no different with George Tuthill.
I remember the night as if it were yesterday…
We were practicing at the old Geigy chemical plant in Bayonne’s industrial district (which wasn’t very much different from the rest of the town in atmosphere, aesthetics, or toxic waste, it was just zoned for it.) One of the snare drummers asked George if he could take a spin in his brand new Triumph TR-7 … A baby-blue treasure of a mid-life crisis made manifest on wheels.
George reluctantly said yes, thinking a turn around the parking lot was in order. Our guy took off, drove around the parking lot and headed off into the sunset, somewhere in the direction of downtown Bayonne. He showed up about a half hour later, with refreshments, tossed the keys to a bright-red Tuthill and chirped, “Hey, nice ride”, before picking up his drum and jumping back in line.
Of course, I would never name names, but the snare drummers initials were Steve Ventre.
Later that night Tuthill started re-working the book. John Flowers, it seemed to Tuthill, had written an impossibly difficult drum book that included every manner of percussion toy and artifact available. From wood blocks to flex-a-tones to metal castanets, we used it all … The list was endless (and remember the pit, or front ensemble, wasn’t even a concept back then, so we had to carry all this junk around with us.) The line carried more sets of sticks than Vic Firth could manufacture in a year. Even the snares carried around a utility bag full of sticks, mallets and gadgets.
After listening to a few run-throughs, Tuthill looked around and said, “How come you guys are using so many different sticks? Do you really need all of them?”
The drum line looked around at each other, and shook their heads no. No, they didn’t.
In a fatal error of tactical judgment that could come only from a complete lack of understanding of the nature and motus operandi of the individuals he was dealing with, and their propensity for physical humor and over-the-top sight-gags, Tuthill suggested, “Well, okay then. Get rid of them.”
No sooner than he had completed that sentence, a hail storm of mallets, drum sticks, and other assorted beaters, rained down upon George from all sections of the drumline—Hell, we even threw the sticks we were using, just to keep the bit going a little longer.
It is a rare sight when you get to see your drum instructor dance.
No permanent damage was done however. The sticks were all still usable, and Tuthill was in reasonably good shape as well, aside from a few minor contusions and a badly bruised ego. Now at least the ground rules had been established.
George left the corps shortly thereafter under very ambiguous circumstances. He left the activity all together a few years later to pursue a kinder, gentler, career in music education. In fact, he convinced the Salem Argonauts, one of the oldest competitive drum corps in the country, that they should get out of the drum corps business and become a concert band.
One only wonders if it had anything to do with … Nah. Coincidence.
Sadly, George passed away in 2001.
Good guy. Decent instructor. Couldn’t dance worth a damn.
The rest of the 1975 season was pretty much a wash, except that it created a nucleus of fanatically determined membership who vowed to bring the Bridgemen back to the top levels of the drum corps activity or, at the very least, never lose to the St. Ignatius All-Girls corps again. Ever.
Did I mention it was a really tough season?
There’s probably nothing more humiliating to a bunch of rough-and-tumble, blue collar kids from Bayonne, than getting schooled by a bunch of mostly pre-teen girls from Long Island in cowgirl costumes and majorette boots. They were vicious, determined, and we barely escaped with our lives.
That fall, the guys talked to Ed again, and he finally hired the right guy from the other Hawthorne. In September 1975, Dennis DeLucia, percussion arranger/instructor for the famed Muchachos, took the reigns of, what was to become, one of the premier drum lines of the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Now understand … Dennis had to earn his stripes with the drumline just like any other instructor, and those moments were no less colorful than the Tuthill incident … In fact I remember an escapade involving Dennis, a color guard show and a Boston Cream pie, but I’ll just save that story for a future telling.
Those were different times in the drum corps activity. Far more naïve and far less refined, but a time that is well worth remembering. Drum corps were places to get kids off the street and away from the negative influences of tough urban neighborhoods. The corps was a place full of opportunities to learn, grow, and discover. Most importantly, the members learned about risk and reward, and the potential gains that could come by taking chances. The education that was taught in the St. Andrew’s Bridgemen wasn’t in advanced musicianship and movement, as it is today. It was an education in life. It was about opening your eyes to the possibilities that lay outside of a couple of square miles of your own home town, and to what could be achieved by venturing out of the familiar and into the unknown.
And if, at the end of the day, there was also an opportunity for a good punch line to be meted out to some, more-or-less, innocent bystander, well … That was about as good as it could get.
Now that I think about it, it still is.
Note: This piece was written back in 1998/99 as part of an oral-narrative style history of the Bridgemen Drum & Bugle Corps, while all persons depicted in this piece are real, and accurately portrayed for the most part, certain artistic license has been taken for the sake of parody, and should not be construed, in whole or in part, as a literal history of the organization or the individuals named herein. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental, or used as a fictional depiction or personality parody (permitted under Hustler Magazine v. Fallwell, 485 US 46, 108 S.Ct 876, 99 L.Ed.2d 41 (1988)).
Copyright © 1998-2011 Doug Luberts, All Rights Reserved.