Building the Green Machine
by Colt Foutz
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480 pages, 70+ photos
In trade hardcover: $32.95
In trade paperback: $19.95
In six years as a journalist in Ohio and the Chicago suburbs, Colt Foutz won fifteen state and national awards for his newspaper writing. He has worked as features writer and city reporter for the Sandusky Register (Ohio), staff writer for the Downers Grove Sun (Illinois), and city reporter for the Naperville Sun (Illinois).
Foutz played trumpet in and was president of his marching band at Dover (Ohio) High School, and studied music composition at Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a B.A. in creative writing.
Foutz is a recipient of a Follett Fellowship and Getz scholarship in the graduate writing program at Columbia College Chicago, where he is currently pursuing master’s degrees in fiction writing and teaching writing.
His essays have been featured on Chicago Public Radio and in Chicago Parent magazine, the Youngstown Vindicator, and Columbia College’s Story Week Reader, among others. His weekly editorial column, The Driver’s Seat, ran for nearly three years in the Naperville Sun, and won awards for community service and column writing from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association.
Foutz’s writing has garnered first-place honors in:
Feature Writing (2002, Ohio Associated Press)
Spot News (2003, Northern Illinois Newspaper Association)
News Series (2004, Northern Illinois Newspaper Association)
In-depth Reporting (2004, Suburban Newspaper Association of America)
Entertainment Writing (2005, Suburban Newspaper Association of America)
Building the Green Machine is his first book. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and son.
In this Q&A, Building the Green Machine author Colt Foutz answers several frequently-asked questions from readers and fans of the Cavaliers.
Who did you march with?
The short answer? Nobody. I answer this question in a longer, funnier way in my blog “Who the heck am I… ?” but the Cliff’s Notes version of my musical experience is this:
I spent my high school years drop-kicking a trumpet around the field with the Dover (Ohio) Marching Tornadoes. I was elected band council president as a junior, and put on some pretty kickin’ car washes and dances. (We never did a Car Wash Dance though, which might have been interesting.)
Piano was my instrument. I also played in the steel drum band. I wrote a lot of songs in high school, and got paid to sing/play them. I majored in music composition in college, where I also sang in the choir, which got me a nice tour of Europe.
I still play/sing for friends’ weddings, etc. Wrote a jingle for a Pittsburgh judicial candidate once, and also one about the greasiest hot dog shop known to man, The O.
How did you come to write about the Cavaliers?
After school, I got hired as an entertainment writer by the Sandusky Register (Ohio). I brought a lot of attention, as you might expect, to stories with musical elements.
In 2004, at my third newspaper, the Naperville Sun, features editor Nichole Roller, a big drum corps fan, asked me to write a preview of the Cavaliers’ home show that July. I gladly shoved my city government reporting aside and spent a week or so researching the corps and an afternoon interviewing several members and Jeff Fiedler.
My goal in the story was to show how hard drum corps kids work to put on a top-level performance, a process I knew from my high school marching years, but could see was on fast-forward with groups in DCI. With the Cavaliers, of course, there was no getting around their all-male fraternity and the success they’d achieved through their 56 years. But my focus was still: what makes these guys tick?
The story, when it ran, caught the attention of a lot of corps alumni, as well as folks who knew NOTHING about drum corps. The response beat anything else I’d ever written, and I’d written a lot of controversial stuff as an investigative reporter.
One of the people who called me up was Jan Warren, wife of Cavaliers founder Don. The more she talked about Don’s life, the more I could see the potential for a long story with a great arc to it. She sold me on writing a book about drum corps. I conducted my first interview with Don at a December 2004 audition camp.
Why the Cavaliers?
Why not? They were local, so I had a lot of access to Don Warren and plenty of current and former members in and around Chicago. They were at the forefront of the activity, having won four of the last five championships. They were quirky, with all-male membership. And they had a depth of history – nearly 60 years – that would enable me to write about how the activity evolved since World War II.
And nobody goes back as far as Don Warren. Period. The guy started the corps in 1948, and is still in charge. He’s devoted his life to this stuff. Where else was I going to find that kind of access to memory, to changes in the activity? The guy came up with the idea for Drum Corps International while standing at a stadium urinal in 1970. Talk about inside information!
But all that said, I didn’t pick the Cavaliers because they’re the only corps worth writing about, or I consider them the best, or junk like that. By focusing on one corps, though, I could really get inside what drum corps was like in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, all the way up through today. Rivalries and traditions stand out all the more when you can see them through a particular window of experience.
Much of what happens with the Cavaliers is universal – in some way, kids who marched in hundreds of other corps go through the same thing. Sure, the book is also an opportunity to hear the history of a very influential group, and get a little inside information about how they do what they do so well. But this book is for ALL DRUM CORPS AND MARCHING BAND PARTICIPANTS. I’m telling it how it is so you can go, “yeah, uh huh. That’s just like the time… .” Picking a corps to focus on enables me to do that in detail that makes it interesting and entertaining.
What kinds of things do you write about in the book?
Well, you get to hear what kids were like in the 1940s, and every decade up to today. How did they spend their time? What ways did they get in trouble? Why did they join drum corps? What did they do on trips, and overnights? How badly did they want to win? How were they different then, and in what ways are kids today the same?
You see how the Cavaliers came together – how they got instruments, uniforms, picked a name, started traditions which are so well-known today – like “The Corps Song”, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and initiations, and the Cavalier handshake.
You get to hear some of the stories that have never been told. About how Don Warren and other leaders worked behind the scenes to make sure the activity was honest, to gain little competitive advantages, to keep the corps running as money was running out. You hear about how the Cavaliers integrated in the 1960s. How they landed Rosemont as a sponsor a few months after – gulp – their board voted to disband.
You hear stories from competition – what was played, what the tension was like, how hard the guys worked to be champions, what they did to stay there, even when their headquarters burned down in 1967. You hear about drum corps families – several generations that met and fell in love in corps and still serve the Cavaliers.
You get a behind-the-scenes view of life on tour in 2005, when I spent a few days with the Cavaliers on the road and talked with several members, volunteers, instructors, fans and families about what happens to put together a top show.
How do you treat secret traditions like Splooie? Will reading the book spoil these for me if I become a Cavaliers member later?
As a journalist, I want to give you as much as I can so you understand what being a part of a top drum corps feels like, and appreciate what the Cavaliers have created especially.
But covering that ground also comes with a respect for what they’ve built. The reason traditions like Splooie are so special to the Cavaliers is because it’s their thing, and defining it explicitly would never mean as much to you, or to me, as it does to the guys who have lived it and kept it sacred for so long.
So. When it comes to initiations, for example, have I collected stories from Cavaliers past and present that capture the spirit of what goes on, and in some cases tells you exactly what goes on? Yeah, you bet. But I’ve never seen or sat through an initiation, and the guys were telling me things they didn’t have a problem with me knowing. To know the whole story, you’d have to be there, and go through it. And as far as Splooie is concerned, do I nail down where it came from, and what it means to the guys? Well, I did my best. But I can only report what people tell me. And if they don’t tell me… . Let’s just say the secret is safe, and because it’s secret, that shows you that it means a lot to the Cavaliers.
Why are the Cavaliers all male? Will they ever accept females?
They’re all male because they want to be, and as a private organization, they’re allowed to be. The question is answered very well in the F.A.Q. section at www.cavaliers.org. It’s part of what makes the Cavaliers the Cavaliers.
As far as the book goes, I tackle this topic in a number of ways. There are historical incidents where the rule is looked at, such as when Don Warren’s daughter faced up to the fact she couldn’t march in her father’s corps – and ended up beating him in another. And members and leaders weigh in with their opinions.
It’s one of the defining characteristics of the Cavaliers. And the book wouldn’t be complete without addressing it. Check it out.
What other groups do you talk about? Anything about rival leaders? Anything about senior corps?
Because Building the Green Machine follows the Cavaliers through history, tracks their rise, fall and rejuvenation, I am always talking about the competitive and artistic environment for each particular era. And this means telling you about other corps, and rival leaders. By the time the index for the book was completed, we’d counted, and there are, like, 95 senior and junior drum corps mentioned in the book, plus another few dozen winter guards and high school groups. You get a feel for the whole activity in every decade.
For example, when the Cavaliers began, they modeled themselves after local juggernauts like General George Bell and Austin Grenadiers. They borrowed instructors from seniors in Commonwealth Edison’s Knights of Light, and the three-time senior champion Skokie Indians. They even marched in senior shows against the likes of the Reilly Raiders and Pittsburgh Rockets.
In the 1950s, the Cavaliers went all out to surpass local rivals like the Grenadiers, Skokie/Des Plaines Vanguard, Madison Scouts and Belleville Black Knights. Out east, they literally fought to break the dominance of New Jersey corps like St. Vincent’s Cadets, and Blessed Sacrament Golden Knights, and Garfield Cadets – which you’ll recognize as the “little” outfit George Hopkins directs today.
On the eve of DCI, rivals including the Chicago Royal Airs (now defunct), Casper (WY) Troopers, Santa Clara Vanguard and Anaheim Kingsmen came on the scene. Don Warren knew their leaders intimately, and so I spend time telling you about Sie Lurye, and Jim Jones, and Gail Royer. These are visionaries – and characters – who ultimately decided drum corps needed to make their own rules and stand separately from the VFW and American Legion.
In modern drum corps, so much of breaking the mold and moving forward involves learning from and then emulating rivals. Where would drum corps be without the Blue Devils pushing the jazz envelope in the 1970s? Or the effect of the Vanguard’s Pete Emmons and the Cadets’ George Zingali (as well as Hopkins), Star of Indiana’s Bill Cook, a director of the Toledo Glassman – now executive director of DCI – named Dan Acheson?
Showing the Cavaliers’ place in drum corps means showing drum corps itself.
What was the most fun for you in writing this book?
Well, it wasn’t cutting the text down from 200,000 words to 150,000!
Definitely the people. Drum corps people are so bright, and hard-working, and warm-hearted. I rarely felt I was an outsider when I spent time with the Cavaliers. And though I’ve cultivated a keen sense of impartiality as a journalist, it’s hard not to root for an organization whose people are so talented and so dedicated.
Don Warren and I shared a lot of laughs in the last three years. Otherwise, the process of working on a book for so many months, covering so much ground, would have quickly become very tedious. I felt privileged to hear all the stories I did, to be given a window on the day-to-day operations of a leading drum corps.
I think the real fun begins now, when I can share all I learned. Thinking of the guys this winter, or kids in corps across the country next summer, thumbing through the pages of the book and shouting to a buddy, “Hey! Can you believe they did THAT?” is why I worked on this in the first place. Getting you cheering, heart-sick, giggly, and teary-eyed is why I do what I do.
What is your favorite chapter or part of the book?
I’m proud of the way certain sections of the book take different approaches, and give you something different. So I appreciate them all in different ways.
The most challenging bit to write was a sequence I set up in chapters 11 through 14, which begins Part Two of the book, called “The Green Machine Grows Up.” It’s a story mini-arc that begins with Cavalier Hall burning down in 1967. One of the ways the corps got through that was its tight-knit camaraderie, a feeling boosted in many ways by the familial bonds within the corps. So I play with that: I explore the ways corps members met their wives in rival corps, how tragedy came to visit the corps in other ways, how the kids of corps members ultimately formed a new generation of Cavaliers, how Don Warren’s family specifically got involved in the 1970s, and how the decision to admit black members grew the corps in important ways socially and professionally. And then I hop back to 1967 again and the corps rebuilding after the fire. It’s a process that, in effect, never ends. They’re constantly refueling the mission and making the minute adjustments which keep the corps going – but the legacy is what keeps the continuity. I like that I could write the book along thematic lines and play with chronology a bit. But these chapters took the longest to write. Well – I did sort of start my own family in the middle of them.
Other sections I really like in the book are the sustained passages of movement – you know, you’re in the moment and watching it unfold. So many of the score announcements hold a certain drama for me, especially when you’ve followed the corps up to that point and understand their significance. So I make something special of them. And The Fight at VFW nationals in 1957 – the memories of Cavaliers back then I knit together in a narrative of that first championship moment and its bittersweet aftermath.
I love the stories from the road, and all the stuff these guys pulled, whether in initiations or just passing time. There’s a collective feistiness to these guys I very much identify with, and so you’ll see that in the writing. I’m not glorifying certain pranks, or saying I would do them the same way, but I am – I hope – giving you permission to laugh. This is growing up stuff. Boys are going to be boys as they find out what sort of men they’ll grow into.
And the sequence of chapters toward the end that chronicles the corps in summer 2005 are ones I worked very hard on. I know you have to read about 300 pages to get there, but I think it’s worth it. You learn a ton about how the corps runs today and what kinds of guys are in it in the space of three days on tour, and it took a lot of writing to get it to flow. This is my wife’s favorite part.
What are you working on now?
What am I not working on, ha ha. Well, not another nonfiction book, not for the moment, anyway.
I’ve got a coming-of-age novel, Hell’s Darling Boys, that I put aside for a few years to work on Building the Green Machine, and I’m getting back into it. It’s literary fiction, but very accessible, I think. It’s about four guys, growing up in Sandusky, Ohio. How they fall apart and try to come back together again. In the opening scene they burn a message in a girl’s lawn.
I’m also toying with resurrecting a young-adult novel I started back in, woah, fifth grade. I’ve thought up this whole sci-fi bent to it – about how we’ve exhausted our natural resources, and aren’t bright enough to bridge the gap in time to keep society moving forward – but the main character, Peter Lask, is still basically what I played at being when I was a kid – a secret superhero on a BMX bike out to save the world.
I’m endlessly sending my short fiction sailing on the winds of rejection. But one is bound to stick someday soon.
And I keep one foot in the journalism world with my essays and articles I contribute to various newspapers and magazines. Had an essay run on Chicago Public Radio in May, and wrote a piece about me and my son for Chicago Parent. I’m in touch with Chicago papers about various columns I dream up, and one I wrote about Ohio football ran in a Youngstown paper in September. It’s still fun for me, going on these sprints of fancy. But when you get one book under your belt, you want to go for the next one. And the next, and the next. It’s a never-ending passion for me. I love it.