Saturday, June 26, 2010

What a Football Stadium Means To Me

June 26, 2010

For most people, a football stadium is all about the thrill of the game, practice brought to fruition through sweet victory, and rivals defeated through dedication and teamwork. Well, it's that for me, too, but it has nothing to do with football. For me (and a lot of other people I know) it's all about the half-time and the pageantry of marching band and drum corps.

The 1980s was the heyday of marching band in Clovis Unified, and Clovis High's Golden Cougar Marching Band was sitting on the top of the throne. We were powerful, formidable, and an awesome force to be reckoned with. And yet, we were kids--probably kids who didn't realize in the moment what a lasting effect our experiences would have on us, and how nearly tangible some of the memories we were building would become. These experiences and memories were dreamed and willed into being by our director, the incomparable Mel Stratton.

Mel touched many lives in his years at Clovis High, in ways he couldn't have known. Take, for example, the extraordinary numbers of his former students from those days who are now successful band directors in their own right. But he lived, both before and after those days, as a fixture in the Drum Corps world as well. As a matter of fact, several of us from Clovis High and many surrounding schools had the privilege of marching under his direction in the corps he and his wife Patty founded, The California Dons. The Dons were a short-lived corps with the fire and fight of the underdog, and it played the part of the training ground to send many young musicians and guard members off to prestigious corps like The Blue Devils and Santa Clara Vanguard, among others, when the Dons closed their doors.

Last night our city hosted a drum corps show, and Mel and Patty opened their homes up for a pre-show open house for his marching band and corps alumni. We watched old video footage and looked at pictures, many of which most of us had never seen. Mostly, though, we reminisced. There was a lot of, "Remember when we the bus broke down and we had to get out and push?" "Remember the show when we arrived so late that we had to jump right off the buses and onto the field?" "Remember the feeling when we walked off the field at Nationals?" "Remember...." And yes, we did. We all remembered. There was so much to remember, and so many people to remember. We made some amazing friends in those organizations. (Being in such close quarters for so many weeks or months or years will do that.) We also got to travel and see things most of us, myself included, would never have had the opportunity to see or do at that age without being involved in those organizations. And most of us got to experience for the first time a real sense of family and community outside the families we were born into. Sure, there were squabbles every now and again, and there was a lot of hard work, but the family came first, and we were all working toward a common goal--one that we were successful at reaching, much more often than not.

At the Drum Corps show, after having spent the afternoon reliving fond memories, I was instantly transported back to the days that made my high school experience such formative time in my life. It's amazing how seeing those shows can bring you back to the exhilaration of performing and the euphoria of hearing the hard-earned cheers from the crowds. You remember, but with fondness, the sweat, frustration, exhaustion, and yes, even tears that go into building those shows. You also think, "Yeah, but it was all worth it." We were learning so much that wasn't just about music or dance or flags or even marching. We were learning that if the goal is worth reaching, it's worth working hard for. We were learning discipline, including self-discipline, and responsibility. There is no faking it if two hundred other people are depending on you to be in your spot and know your job. We were learning respect, not only for those in charge, but even more importantly, for ourselves. And most important of all, we were learning that we were capable of so much more than we thought we were capable of before we began. We were learning to believe in ourselves. We were becoming young men and women; we were growing up.

Thank you again, Mel and Patty, for all that you did for me, and for all that you did for all of us.

Mel and Patty and Me
Jeanne Butler, Danny Pena, and Jennifer Cole Hernandez
Danny and Me
Shawn, Judy, and Marty
Tony Bernal and Me
Brad Riley with the Dons uniform (not quite his size)
Jennifer Cole Hernandez, Steve Sprague, Jeanne Butler
Mel and Danny
Michele Falk and Pat Murray
Stacey Reece King, Kelley Young, Jenny Howell Eastman
Mel and Randy Guill

Santa Clara Vanguard
Blue Devils


  1. Wow...very nicely put Donna! One of the best writings on the benefits of band and music I have ever read! Thanks for sharing!

    Brad Riley :)

  2. Thanks for posting these Donna - everyone looks great!

    --Dwayne Smith

  3. wish I could've been there. Yes there are many things I learned from my days in band. I can change clothes in my car and no one around would ever know!

    I have had the privilege to watch my kids do some of these same things. With a director that I am proud to say is every bit as determined as Mel.

    Thank you Donna for sharing and thank you Mel and Patty for teaching us so much more than books can ever.

    Shirley Weaver

  4. What great memories! And nice to hear how much team-building and sense of community goes along with activities like this - it's not just about the sports teams, is it?

  5. That's awesome! I wasn't a band geek, but Kyle was, and the community of the whole thing was remarkable. They had a trip of a lifetime when they marched in the Rose Parade, in Pasadena. Being part of something so great gives you love to last a lifetime. I'm glad your got to have a little reunion.

  6. I loved half time when I was in high school. I wasn't in the band but I loved the shows!

    This was a really wonderful post obviously filled with memories. It made me feel like I was back in school too.


  7. Hi Donna,

    I think you summed it up quite beautifully! Thanks for posting the pictures, too! It was great to see everyone!

    With much appreciation,


  8. Donna,

    Your amazing writing took me back in time. We did learn important life leasons. There was passion for perfection! Working as hard as we could to do our part for the team. As I scrolled down...I saw photos of faces that I haven't seen in over 20 years. The photos brought back a flood of great memories of marching band and the friendships that were made.

    Thanks for the memories,
    Laura Wilburn (Spencer)