Over thirty-five years ago a rag-tag group of old drum corps friends had a crazy idea, but then, what’s so different about that! We were all a little crazy back in the day, and the drum corps stories we could tell would probably fill volumes. This age-out bunch had different ideas, though. Dump truck caroling.
The concept was simple and sounded easy enough. Get a dump truck. Fill the truck with hay. Climb in. Ride around together. Sing. Laugh. Bring back the good old days! Have fun. And so, a tradition was born in the late 1980s.
Dump truck caroling!
Frank Raffa, former St. Mary’s Cardinals and Beverly Cardinals drum major, now the owner of Raffa Construction Company, made the perfect organizer and leader. And, besides, he owned a dump truck.
I was in charge of invitations, attendance, truck capacity, correspondence, itinerary, scheduling, carol copies, and obtaining proper clearance and permission for site visits.
The idea was to give back to the community that had given us all so much as young adults. We’d make a list of committee members, special friends, family, supporters, and those who had been ill or suffered during the past year, or those who were alone. We were never short of stops to make, people to surprise, or folks to thank. Year after year the list grew until we had to make tough choices. People came to count on our arrival. They’d be standing at the door or waiting at the window, watching for the Raffa Construction dump truck adorned with bales of hay and crowded with costumed carolers ready to sing a few carols and bring them homemade baked goods, or a holiday wreath.
After a few years, we expanded our reach to nursing homes where we’d walk the halls and sing for the residents. We even collected items to give to everyone, like shaving cream, hand lotion, boxes of tissues, anything we thought would bring a smile. And Santa Claus in full regalia would play his accordion as we serenaded folks through the halls.
There was seldom room enough on the truck for all who wanted to join our crazy Cardinals Alumni singalong band of crazies, but somehow we squeezed into the bed of the dump in the cold of Sunday night before Christmas every year.
Once, we were even written up on the front page of the local newspaper for our community efforts. That was cool. But the coolest part was seeing Pete and Rose Nuccio at their door, or Jack Weir’s mother coming to greet us at her front door on Essex Street after Jack died, or stopping at Ma Raffa’s for homemade pizza and pizelles, or the homemade cookies from Cathy Novack’s parents. There was always a crowd that gathered for a bunch of old drum corps friends who just wanted to remember those who made our youth so special.
Ray Novack, from the Beverly High school band, where Frank and I taught for years, played Santa Claus and accompanied us with his accordion. We had certain “signature pieces” and old standards like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” but there were also some carols with “alternative” lyrics during the ride. Those shall remain forever forgotten! Nonetheless, the peach schnapps kept us warm as we laughed along the way.
Our favorite piece was our exit number. “WEEEE Wish You a Merry Christmas” which was the signal for the driver (who was Joe Kasenenko for years before his sudden death) to begin to pull away as we waved dramatically. That was cool. Hollywood cool!
On more than one occasion we had stories to tell. Like the time we went to Blueberry Hill nursing home. That night Steve Kelley was driving the dump truck. After we had finished our facility caroling tour and climbed back into the truck Frank and Ray gave us “the cue.”
With residents waving at the door and staring out the window, instead of the truck starting to drive off, the back of the truck (the dump part) started to slowly rise higher and higher. Steve thought it would be hilarious if he dumped us all out! The looks on the faces of the terror-filled residents as they witnessed the screaming carolers and accordion cacophony was, well, memorable. It all ended well, but I don’t remember if Steve ever drove after that.
We’d ask nursing home residents what their favorite holiday songs were, and our repertoire grew quite handsomely after a few years. I remember leaning over and asking one old gentleman at Essex Rehab what song he’d like to hear. His response was simple.
“Get the hell outa here, and take all your g-d friends with you!”
“We don’t know that one, but if you’ll hum a few bars…” Needless to say, everyone at the home chuckled, apologized for the old man’s nasty disposition, and Santa started the next carol without skipping a beat as we moved through the corridors.
Another time, Donnie O’Connor was dressed as a Christmas tree with full lights and decorations. We went into an upscale senior living facility and sang in the lobby for the residents who had gathered. Unbeknownst to us, the residents were allowed to have pets. A small dog belonging to one of the residents thought the tree was real. Horrified onlookers watched as Donnie never missed a note while trying to shoo the furball away from the base of the tree without success. While the crowd was embarrassed, the pup was, well, “relieved.” As for us, we couldn’t stop laughing as we “relived the tree watering” again and again on our way to our next stop!
Each year we finished the evening by celebrating with Chinese food. A few years ago we went back to my old office at Cummings Center in Beverly. During the caroling excursion Mrs. Claus (Ray’s wife) had “felt a little queasy,” and, unfortunately, when she got out of the truck and headed to my office she took a wrong turn. Santa Claus (with his accordion on his shoulder) was chasing after her down the corridor as she “swayed” and “had a bit of trouble with her balance.” (Might have been the schnapps, but then none of the rest of us were driving.)
Anyhow, the following day my account manager at the two-million square foot Cummings Center complex came to my office with a grin and a single question.
“Did you enjoy your party last night?”
I was surprised, but simply answered “Yes,” and asked, “How did you know?”
“The security cameras caught Santa Claus carrying an accordion and chasing a drunk Mrs. Claus down the hall. When they showed it to the head of the complex he just said to ask Linda O’Connor. She’ll know.”
I guess my reputation preceded me.
I was charged a $100 fine for “improper disposal of hay.” (I thought we’d cleaned it all up, but I guess we missed some!) By the way, I asked for a copy of the tape to enter it in that funny video show (you know the one…AFV), but they were having too much fun watching it over and over. Last I heard it was played at the company Christmas party. I never got the copy of the tape, and I didn’t mind paying the fine. It was worth it.
Not all drum corps memories are made on the field or on the bus. Some of the best memories are made with great old drum corps friends in the back of a dump truck.
Merry Christmas, and have a happy, healthy New Year!
North Star Alumni – 2020