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By Jim “Mac” McKenzie

By 1968 Jack Whelan was already known nationwide as a potential Drum Corps Hall of Fame member. His years marching with the Lt Norman Prince “Princeman,” being a local and nationally known judge, M&M instructor of award-winning drill teams and drum corps, and owner of one of the most friendly personalities in the drum corps world, he was certainly a person I have been proud to know. I was fortunate to have Jack as my M&M instructor when I marched with St. Mary’s Cardinals in Beverly, MA.

This story about Jack begins in 1968. I had enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and, after attending basic training in Amarillo, TX, I was sent to Keesler AFB, in Biloxi MS, for technical training as a Ground Radio Operator.

Upon arrival, I was assigned to a unit of PATS (Personnel Awaiting Tech School) since my training class was not going to start for another 3 weeks. PATS was not a great assignment. Airmen spent their day doing details all over the base; painting, mowing the lawn, KP, cleaning barracks, etc. One of the most notorious was the Oyster Shell Pile. Personnel were given shovels and ordered to move a pile of oyster shells 10 feet away from its current location. Once that task was completed, the pile would be moved back to its original location. This process was completed day after day. This was Uncle Sam’s attempt at fighting the old adage, “idle hands make for devil’s work.”

Main Gate at Keesler Air Force Base

After a couple of days, I saw a notice that the base drum and bugle corps, known as the Keesler AFB Blue Knights, was looking for new members. As a 10-year drum corps member in my hometown, I said, “Hey, this is for me.” After a brief interview, I was reassigned to the 3310th Student Squadron, home of the Blue Knights.

The corps was made up entirely of tech school students. We had members from corps all over the country, such as Blessed Sac, Kilties, Cavaliers, Cardinals, Garfield, Black Knights, and Muchachos, as well as some former band members. We performed in off-base parades, on-base drill exhibitions, weekly Retreat, and daily “troop change” for students marching from morning classes and other students marching to their afternoon training class. Our repertoire consisted mainly of military marches but also included some familiar drum corps songs of the era such as “Charades,” “Man from LaMancha,” “How the West Was Won,” and “Brazil.”

Keesler AFB Blue Knights, 1970

Keesler Air Force Base Blue Knights – 1970

The 1968 50th Anniversary American Legion Convention was being held in New Orleans, only a 2-hour drive from Keesler AFB. So some of us drum corps guys decided to head to “The Big Easy” for the weekend and attend the preliminaries and finals.

Our plan was to rent a car on Friday afternoon, load up the car with gas, Jax beer, and ice from the PX, leave on Saturday morning, and head west on Interstate 10 to enjoy the drum corps weekend. Since we had to be back by Sunday evening to get to bed and attend our 5:30 AM roll call and 6:00 AM classes on Monday morning, we would leave right after the finals and head east on Interstate 10 back to Keesler AFB.

Things started off as planned. We arrived in New Orleans around 10 AM, parked the car, and wandered around the Bourbon Street area for a few hours, taking in the atmosphere and indulging in a few high-priced adult beverages.

American Legion 50th Anniversary Program Cover

It was getting late, so we decided it was time to find a place to sleep for the night. Being low-ranking G.I.’s we did not have a lot of money, so after some deliberation, we thought we would save some cash and sleep outdoors. We easily found a park along Lake Pontchartrain, drank some beers, and laid down on beds of pine needles to fall asleep.

Sometime later in the night, a car containing two of New Orleans’ “finest” drove up to our little “campground” in the park, asked for our IDs, searched us along with the car, and wanted to arrest us for vagrancy. We explained who we were, where we came from, and that we were in New Orleans for the American Legion convention. Finally, the officers said we could go, but we had to leave the park and find someplace else for the night.

As I said before we didn’t have a lot of money for a motel room for four, so we found a cheap place and of course, only paid for a room with two single beds. The other two guys snuck in after hiding in the backseat of the car. So, after a few beers and planning for the next day, we drew lots for the two single beds and the other two had to sleep on the floor.

The next morning, Sunday, we got up early to go to the field where the junior and senior prelims were being held. When we arrived, we discovered that very few junior or senior corps had made the trip, so there would be the finals only starting at 5 PM. We decided to head into the city and see some tourist traps on Bourbon Street, where we imbibed in a couple of expensive “adult beverages.”

Returning to the field later in the afternoon, we had to pool our funds to pay for our admission tickets. FUNDS WERE GETTING VERY LOW. As we walked along the field’s fence to the 50-yard line, I looked at the judges lingering on the field and saw the one, the only, Jack Whalen in the middle of the group. I immediately hollered his name and he turned and recognized me right away. He came over to the fence with his patented smile on his face. I introduced him to my companions and gave him a brief rundown of our experiences after arriving in the city.

Jack Whelan

Jack Whelan

The corps were coming to the “Start” and “Ready” lines so he had to get ready for the performances, but we agreed to meet again after the junior finals. St Lucy’s was the only corps I had ever seen perform before that night and they won by a wide, wide margin over the second place corps. If I remember correctly, most of the other corps were from Florida, Louisiana, and perhaps Texas.

Before the senior corps finals, we met again at the fence. Surprisingly, he invited us to the judges’ hotel rooms for an “after” party. The senior contest was similar to the junior contest in that the Sunrisers won by perhaps 20 points or so. If I remember correctly, only four or five senior corps made the trip to New Orleans.

Driving back to the judges’ hotel, I noticed that the gas tank was really getting empty. As a matter of fact, I was concerned we didn’t have enough gas to get back to Mississippi. Between the four of us, we had less than one dollar, just enough for a gallon or two, not enough for the two-hour return trip. We arrived at the hotel and brought our remaining four cases of beer from the trunk to the judges’ room and spent a couple of hours socializing and talking drum corps in general. Definitely a unique experience for us four airmen.

Apparently, Jack overheard the four of us discussing our financial dilemma and our concern about returning to the base before we would be cited for being AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave). Seems that he had brought up our concern with some of the other judges and they offered to buy our remaining beer so we could buy enough gas to make the return trip. We were able to get enough gas and returned to Keesler AFB around 3:30 AM. With roll call at 5:30 AM and our classes scheduled to start at 6:00 AM, we had made it back in time not to be considered AWOL.

I ran into Jack again in 1970 at the Mission Drums contest, about a week after I returned from Vietnam. I thanked him for buying our beer in 1968. He did reveal to me that he and his friends never drank it. They just wanted to make sure we got back to our base without being AWOL.


Keesler AFB Blue Knights, 1960s

Keesler Air Force Base Blue Knights, circa the 1960s