George Del Monte: He was, in the truest sense of the term, a living legend. Educator, musician, playwright, and…most of all, a friend. Better yet, was our BFAM (Brother From Another Mother) relationship. Over the years, I’ve saved every piece of email that we shared, including those which he wrote in Italian, to encourage me to learn it better. After all, I am/was a Sicilian from Brooklyn (BklynMario).
Among drum and bugle corps people, there is a special place in heaven reserved only for them. Now George is also a member of that group.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like when he reunited with Pepe. To be certain, they’re already reprising the *miraculous* story of George explaining to the diner waitress that his brother (Pepe) suffered from a rare, incurable malady, which only allowed him to express himself in loud, unintelligible mumbles, that only George was able to understand. After relating his brother’s order with the shouted, “…and no onions! My brother hates onions.” Pepe then says something that George deciphers as, “My brother needs to go to the toilet. Where is it?”
On his way there, baby brother falls and apparently hits his head on the edge of the marble counter. George rushes to the semi-conscious sibling. “Are you okay?”
“Okay? Of course, I’m okay. Why shouldn’t I….” This is followed by a deafening scream of “Oh, my God! I‘m terrific! I can speak! What a miracle!” that everyone in the diner can hear.
George looks up to heaven, in this case, the roof of the diner. “My brother has been cured! Thank you, Lord!”
As his words resound throughout the room, applause is rampant. “Praise God!” “It’s a miracle!” Forks are dropped as the crowd blesses themselves. Arms are raised. Heads bow.
On the way back to their table, Pepe’s voice is incessantly heard.
Not paying attention to where he is walking, Pepe trips and falls again. George immediately bends down to help his fallen brother.
“You still okay?”
Silence. Gasps. And then, from Pepe, a garbled, wrenching babble of insistent, demanding sounds. George listens for a moment and shouts, “Yes! I told her that you didn’t want any onions!”
I pray that God has a sense of humor.
Estelle Getty’s role as “Sophia” in the sitcom “Golden Girls” would always begin her Sicilian stories with the portrayal setting words, “Picture it…” I can think of no more fitting way to preface this tale of George Del Monte…
Picture it: 1964. Somewhere far above Dallas’s Love Field, the Hawthorne Caballeros are victoriously flying back with yet another American Legion National Championship trophy to add to their already overstuffed display case. The celebrations were over. All that remained were the ravaged remnants of Texas beer embedded in the many, seemingly semi-comatose, world champions.
The trip home would be long. The chartered, propeller-driven aircraft was of no known carrier, and the thought that World War II and Korea were still logistical realities capriciously flirted with many beer-befuddled brains. To add to that notion, the cabin was growing warmer. Could it be anti-aircraft flak? The nearly simultaneous grunts of heat disrupted sleep pleaded for more air conditioning. Silence. A voice was heard:
“No wonder it’s hot in here. They’ve turned off the fans.”
“Fans? What fans? I don’t see any fans.” Another voice.
“Oh, yeah? Just look out the window,” came the faceless response.
Indeed, one of the “fans” had been “turned off” and was spewing an evidentiary trail of grey-black smoke as proof of its non-functioning condition.
What followed was a prophetic precursor of the film Airplane. A stewardess, who was not working, but vainly trying to recover from a festive night in Dallas, woke up, blearily looked out the window, saw the malevolent stream, and panicked.
“We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die!” Sleep-running in a Paul Revere-like fashion, she made our fate witchfully known to all of us as she stumbled her way towards the cockpit. The pilot-proclaimed announcement that we were “…going to make a routine emergency landing” did nothing for our hopes of winning another championship next year.
When her pounding was met by the opened cockpit door, the vision of the captain desperately tugging at what we quickly learned was the fuel release lever, before taking off one of his shoes and heavy-handedly breaking it from its console position, was yet another portent of what was to become of us. This action did, however, bring the railing banshee stewardess to new heights of ecstatic terror. The captain had had enough. The punch he threw was swift and had far better results than his shoe action. Paula Revere silently slumped to the floor, her warning still taunting us.
Prayers were audible now. The reality of our collective demise solemnized the cabin. It lasted for all of ten seconds. A voice, possibly responsible for the explanation of the heat, was now bellowing in a prescient, pre-Bill Murray, lounge performer blare, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Was it possible that George made God laugh so hard that He decided to spare all of us? It was the first time that I ever kissed the Earth and was almost ready to do the same thing to George.
The last time that I spoke to George was too far back to remember. As has been the case with so many missing friends— I being one of them— the Internet allows us to find each other. I’d sent him a few of my stories and was elated by his response. After all, this was the (I hate this word, but can’t think of any other!) legendary, but wholly mislabeled, understudy for Don Angelica and Jimmy D’Amico. That Del is a member of the prestigious Buglers Hall of Fame is ample evidence of his great talent. It is no b.s. that I actually feel honored that he remembered me so well.
The history begins in 1944 at an early Sunday Mass in the church of Our Lady of Lourdes, as 9-year-old George sits in the first row of pews, “…under the Gestapo gaze of Sister Adolph Hitler.” As the service ends, Father Wernicke decrees that the parish will have a drum and bugle corps and, purgatory-prompted, George dutifully appears on Tuesday at the church hall in the hope of being a drummer. Had he not been thwarted “…by the 13-year-old neighborhood gangsters” and duped by his best friend John Carlino, George might have gotten the last drum pad and sticks. Instead, he is rewarded for his diligence with a tarnished Army surplus bugle and told to go home and practice. Despite all his efforts, what comes out of the horn “…was something that sounded like a bull with a severe case of indigestion.” The horn is banished to the hall closet. The next day, George tries again— and again.
Amidst his nearly forty years of actively participating in drum corps, George’s greatest moments were as a part of shared relationships. Whether it was the impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime parade appearance in 1952 Jersey City that included names such as Hazelwood, Swann, Martin, and Jimenez, his first on-his-own-merit solo, and the countless Caballero victories, I had no doubt of his total sincerity when he told me, “When I soloed, it was about the corps, not me.” Though less often now, the recollection of the “once was” is still lived via cherished reunions with lifelong friends.
Shared, too, are the antics that were an essential part of George’s off-the-field performances. “George and Pepe Pranks,” highlighted by the miraculous, but momentary, mental recovery of George’s tragedy beset “brother,” staged in several late-night diners, is anything but myth. On the nearly receiving end of capers is the story of the 1963 New Jersey American Legion Championship “…when my horn broke during ‘Siboney,’ and the only notes I could play were those with the piston out.” Missing only a few beats, “I borrowed Mike Del Vecchio’s horn and finished my performance.” But, unwilling to be something less than the initiator of a joke, George decided to keep the horn until the end of the show. Being privileged floaters, “I remember [Mike] chasing me around the field trying to get his horn back, while I was doing everything I could to hide from him.” George ended this episode with the un-boastful, “I could fill pages with stories like this.” Like so many others, had I not personally seen and loved the clown-glorious guile in the eternal kid that was this man, I would probably be tempted to disbelieve what he told me.
I would very much like to have ended this essay with a word filmed close-up, followed by a fading long shot of George – sunset chair-lounging on his Florida patio, nostalgically recalling his drum corps experiences as he listens to a Cab CD. But to do so would be untruthful. What I thought to be a redundant question as to the worthiness of his drum corps-filled life, I was taken aback when he told me, “Was it worth it? Strangely enough, no. I ignored my family at a time when they should have seen more of me. I missed too many important events in my kids’ lives and should have spent more time with them. They often saw me play and were fiercely proud of Dad, but that is not the same as being with them and making life all about them. I thought of that at my induction into the Buglers Hall of Fame when I listed one of my accomplishments as ‘never having missed a job.’ Sad.”
I needed to pause before I read George’s response to my closing query if there was anything else that he wanted to tell me. “Anything else?— Please don’t misconstrue what I am about to say. I’ve had tremendous success in my life aside from drum corps. I played on a college World Series team— pitching the opener. I produced and directed an off-Broadway revival, won awards for poetry, won awards for play direction, was elected to ASCAP for writing music, directed over 80 major productions, produced a film for the gas company, had a part in a commercial, gave advice to many theatre ‘stars,’ had a column in major newspapers, was twice selected as coach of the year and taught successfully for 35 years. Why did I tell you that? Because no one knows it! My wife and children are the only ones privy to that information. I keep it ‘secret’ because I revel in my ability to help others. If I am asked, I will help without hesitation. If I am asked my opinion, I will give it without sugar-coating… all in the name of ‘truth, justice…’ and you know the rest.”
Yes, I think that I do know the rest. There is no reason for me to attempt to falsely rationalize what George told me. It may not be something that we want to hear, but it is perhaps something that we need to hear.
Grazie, mi fratello!…………………….mario
1977 Hawthorne Caballeros featuring George Del Monte as soloist in “Echano”