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Drum beat

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The Observer exited our Wednesday night Zumba class at the People's Gym (the Jim Dailey Fitness & Aquatic Center) into an event the likes of which we'd never seen before: A bevy of marching bands had descended upon War Memorial Park for some sort of high-stakes competition.

The parking lot was filled with school buses, 18-wheeler trucks and congregations of practicing youth, all decked out in elaborate costumes and all very, very sweaty. We wandered the lot in sheer awe of this cultural phenomenon, stopping occasionally to gawk at a crew of post-pubescent men, decked out in fuchsia bibs, playing their xylophones.

On what strange planet of skilled extracurricular activity had The Observer landed? Only after hitting it off with a group of tour bus drivers did we fully understand what we beheld.

Drum Corps International: Marching Music's Major League. The Observer had stumbled upon a competition of the most elite student musicians in the world, ages 16-21. Drum Corps is a nonprofit that's been around since 1972 and has almost as many members as the Boy Scouts. Its vision statement is inspiring: "A world in which the positive life-transforming personal and societal benefits of marching music performing arts are widely recognized and enjoyed." We were prepared to recognize, enjoy and be transformed.

The Observer made fast friends with the bus drivers of the Sacramento Mandarins and scored a great (and free!) seat in War Memorial Stadium. The night was cooler than usual, the waxing gibbous moon illuminated the field, and I realized that beer was being sold at this wholesome event. The Observer was greatly pleased with this twist of fate.

Eight marching bands would go on to perform that night in an exhibition that lasted nearly three hours: The Jersey Surf from Camden County, N.J.; The Pioneer from Milwaukee, Wis.; The Madison Scouts from Madison, Wis.; The Troopers from Casper, Wyo.; Spirit of Atlanta from Atlanta, Ga.; The Mandarins from Sacramento, Calif.; The Cavaliers from Rosemont, Ill.; and The Bluecoats from Canton, Ohio.

The Drum Corps is an enrichment activity of the highest order. The youths travel together for 60 days during their competitive tour, traversing the country in buses, sharing every meal, sleeping in high schools and churches (lock-in style), and practicing constantly. The technical skill of these kids is spectacular.

Mike, who drives The Sacramento Mandarins from town to town, was celebrating his 59th birthday that night. The Mandarins had serenaded him with their band's song earlier that morning, "Year of the Dragon." He showed us a video of him crying in a parking lot, encircled by young people in gym shorts and T-shirts, playing their horns and percussion instruments. "I got me like 12,000 views," he said.

The Mandarins were once an all-Chinese drum and bugle corps, Mike told me, starting in 1963 when school bands were highly segregated. Today the band is one of the most diverse groups in the country.

Each band has exactly 16 minutes to perform. They unfold architectural sets onto the field, assemble stages, wheel out huge metal barriers and props, all in record time. The Observer watched seamless costume changes and flag spinning. We saw bands made up entirely of young men playing trumpets, flutes, tubas and dancing in expressive, vulnerable and slightly homoerotic ways. It was beautiful.

When the Mandarins went on the field, we heard Mike whisper under his breath, "Let's do this damn thing." Their set was strange and dark and mythological and flawless.

The Observer shared popcorn with the bus drivers and we exchanged Facebook deets. They'd be heading to Birmingham the next night to do it all over again. Mike has been with The Mandarins for over four years. He says his heart is big and he loves doing what he does.

After the last band went on, the drivers had to move their buses and trucks. We left the stadium before the winners were even announced. Walking the perimeter of the stadium, we passed neat rows of trombones and gym bags, all huddled together. The Observer had seen something that felt real, rare and special.

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