Hang around members of the Reading Buccaneers long enough and you no longer notice the tinny clang of metal that accompanies their every step. Until you get to that point, however, it’s hard to miss. And it’s a tell-tale sign of family, hard work, achievement, belonging and excellence.
At every Drum Corps Associates championships finale, a sacred and cherished ritual takes place. With the field full of performers of every corps and the stands full of fans buzzing with excitement about the championships they just witnessed and the scores they’re about to hear, to the untrained eye this ritual is easy to miss. But for the Reading Buccaneers family, it’s the most important moment of the entire season: the annual distribution of the Buccaneers dog tag to members and staff.
One by one, members of the corps family lower their heads while a member of the corps administration or staff places a dog tag with the corps name, logo, show title and year emblazoned on it, around the person’s neck. The season is over. The long, difficult and exhilarating journey concluded. And the most significant and cherished symbol of the year is earned. Not a medal with a DCA logo attached to a red or blue ribbon. Not a ring. Those may have value. But the inexpensive piece of metal on an inexpensive chain placed around the member’s neck is the most priceless and precious medal of all. It’s come to symbolize everything that is great about the Reading Buccaneers experience, and like so many other special moments, it happened almost by accident.
The dog tag grew out of an effort by corps administrators in the ‘lean years’ of the mid- to late-1990s to provide all members and staff with a memento of the year, to thank them for being part of the corps’ resurgence. This was a small but symbolic piece of corps director Jimmy Gruber’s unrelenting focus on the member experience, making sure members understood that they were part of an organization with a rich history. Buccaneers Hall of Fame member Joel Miller and his wife Jean, both consummate volunteers, were instrumental in conceiving the idea, which started with simple trinkets such as keychains. Then, a simple tag with a ship’s wheel embossed into it.
In 2001, the corps first personalized the dog tag, with the simple words “Reading Buccaneers 2001” on one side and “Portraits of Bernstein” on the other. It stuck. According to Support Staff Coordinator Lois Tierno, it’s evolved into one of the most meaningful things the Buccaneers do. “In a very big way, our members are like our own kids,” said Tierno. “So it’s very special to give them all something to thank them for being part of our family, and to celebrate what they achieved during the year. It’s always an emotional experience to hand out dog tags at finals.” The annual ritual is often punctuated with extra-special moments, like Corps Director Jimmy Gruber placing the dog tag around his daughter Abigail’s neck for the first time, or Lois placing the dog tag on the tunic and aussie worn by the late Geoff Silver in 2009. These are moments the public never sees but cut right to the heart of what it means to be a Buccaneer.
The dog tag means different things to different members. For most, it’s the tangible evidence of a year’s worth of effort and the achievement of goals, all as part of an extended family. For sixth-year trumpet player Ken Kerr, who is currently in his twenty-fifth year in the activity, the dog tag is “symbolic of effort expended, goals achieved, challenges met and conquered. But most of all it’s a token of kinship with the greatest extended family I’ve ever been involved with, a kinship which like all truly valuable things, is earned, not given easily. The receipt of a Buccaneers dog tag is always the most special moment of the season!” Stephanie Cullen marched baritone for four years in 2007-2010 and is in her second year on the visual staff. To her, the dog tag is “symbolic of the effort made through the year and all we achieved in the process. It has nothing to do with a score and everything to do with the organization, the members and what you experience during the year together.”
For some, the dog tag is a reminder of the life lessons learned in drum corps that carry over into ‘real life.’ Horn Sergeant Justin Wilson is in his fourth year as a Buccaneer and has also marched a season with DCI’s Bluecoats. His dog tags give him a sense of pride in his accomplishments and the friendships he has forged. In addition, they give him the “strength and confidence to face any obstacle head-on.”
For others who have had a variety of drum corps experiences, the Buccaneers dog tag carries particular significance because it is uniquely Buccaneers and represents the home its owner has found in the organization. Staff Coordinator and Buccaneers Hall of Fame member Carl Ruocco drew a parallel to the sense of tradition and honor he experienced in his many years at the Santa Clara Vanguard. “At Vanguard it was the star. Here, you have the same value and importance. Our members keep them, wear them and show them. They wear their pride in being a Buccaneer around their necks. Few corps do this. For me, it’s special because it shows that I’m part of the rich heritage of this great organization.” Brass Caption Head Paul Cullen stated simply: “I have a WGI gold medal, two DCA gold medals, a DCI gold medal and other medals. My Bucs dog tag means more to me than any of them.” Kyle Bennett, in his fourth year as a Buccaneers baritone player, said that “the Buccaneers dog tag means more to me than any other medal. It symbolizes the year and all the hard work that went into it. Everyone works for it together, so it’s a symbol of our family bond as well. I don’t know where my DCA medals are, but I know exactly where my dog tags are at all times.”
When looking for heroes in drum corps, it’s easy to focus your attention on the names you know – the great designers, instructors and administrators who have impressive resumes and many honors and accolades next to their names. To be sure, they are vitally important to the activity. It’s also easy to pigeon-hole achievement as something awarded only by a judge and having the highest score on the sheet. However, the real heroes in drum corps are the rank-and-file members who push themselves to excel at things they never thought possible and who pour their souls into entertaining audiences, in the process, forging strong family bonds and learning important life lessons. Achievement comes in many forms, some individual, some collective, but when drum corps is done right, every corps achieves great things every year, simply by having made the journey. The 128 members of the Reading Buccaneers are our true heroes, and a small piece of metal says more about them than anything else could.