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For more than fifty years, Carman Cluna was an essential element in the mix of national, and especially East coast drum corps.  His World Drum Corps Hall of Fame credentials, only partly justified by his on field influences, are far too numerous to detail, but were perhaps best personified by the legendary Skyliner corps in which he collaborated with no less personages than Hy Dreitzer and Eric Perilloux, to paint visuals for the inimitable “New York sound.”Although Carman was also an innovative journalist, and a proactive participant in corps judging, and governing associations, it is his dynamic persona that I celebrate here. His death in July of this year is symbolic of our lost heritage.



All of this is wrong.  This should not be a breeze-blessed, heat-free July afternoon.  I should not be sitting in a screened patio in a New Jersey suburb, hearing things such as wind chime tinkling, bird sounds, and hushing noises in hybrid Lombardy poplars. I should not be old, but I am.  And my teacher and friend, Carman Cluna, should not, be dead, but he is.
     I first met Carman in 1958 at a junior show on Randall’s Island.  I sat in the stands with Bob Bellarosa, and pretended to be a young (I was) but important (I wasn’t) part of a resurgent Skyliner corps.  Bobby introduced me to Carman, but I wasn’t paying attention. The corps on the field was Our Lady of Loretto, and they were playing “Penthouse Serenade,” and “Sugar Blues.”  These were the songs of Our Lady of Mount Carmel from my Northside, Brooklyn neighborhood.  This was the music of Corbett (the original alter ego of “Pepe”), Mario DeStefano, Frankie (Burns) Brunetti, and the corps that I once belonged to.  I knew that there had been many other neighborhood-legendary personalities, but since I joined the corps after it’s greatest years, I had never met any of them, nor did I think it was important to remember their names. 
     “They’re playing Mount Carmel songs!” I blurted.   The “Carman” person sitting next to me chuckled.  A breathy, mocking voice accompanied by a disdainfully incredulous four curled fingers and an indicating thumb in my direction asked no one in particular, “Is this guy kidding?”  I immediately began to dislike “Cloonah.”
     Bobby laughed and made a conciliatory remark about kids who had no respect for the past, and had so much yet to learn.  He was right, of course; on the way home he taught me more about legacy that went from Tom Costa to Joe Gennaro, Robert Notaro, and Carman Cluna and was already well on its way out of our insular Brooklyn neighborhood.
    After my uncomfortable first meeting, I was to encounter Carman several other times, and I explained the situation.  As he listened, I recall restlessness-- quick eyes and words always anxious to move on to the next topic. Half-smiles of acknowledgement were as swift as the cigarette gestures that followed them.  The breathlessness after restlessness was a punctuation that insisted on a listener’s attention.  I listened, but I still wasn’t sure what this man was about.  He spoke too fast, and he seemed too smart. It didn’t take long for me to discover just how right and wrong I was.
     Why I decided to go back to a junior corps isn’t particularly important, but it was clear that I had no choice but to go to Our Lady of Loretto.  After all it was a Brooklyn corps, nearly everyone looked Italian, and there was the Mount Carmel connection; besides that it was an easy ride on the Canarsie Line subway.  It was a good idea, but bad timing.  Loretto was going through the same anguish of demographics and cultural changes that inner cities would spend nearly three decades trying only half-successfully to recover from. As a consequence of this, we didn’t compete in 1959, and it wasn’t until the latter part of the year that the corps was reorganized.  Our teaching staff was now comprised of Don Friesing on drums and Joe Gennaro on horns.  Our drill instructor was Carman Cluna.
     Although I should recall a great deal more about the 1959-60 pre-season year, I don’t.  Like so many memories that we thought would last forever, we are deceived by the youthful vanity of permanence. What I do remember most of all is the damn whistle, and the voice growing hoarser with each November vapor-visible “Do it again!” that was automatically preceded by the shrillness of that portable, metal monster in the winter night-frigid armory air as it reverberated off the deserted, cast iron seats, across the green-painted steel arches, and recoiled from the glazed brick walls.  Just how many times we said “%*$# Cloonah!” could exponentially be determined by his whistle shrieks. And, being a man for all seasons, the same cursed rattle of a tiny ball in a holed metal container, would spring and summer echo from the train trestles on Randall’s Island across a very small bridge to the sanity of the asylum on Ward‘s Island--a location we thought we’d all eventually be confined to with just one more blow, and one more “No, no, no!”
     To be certain, it wasn’t Carman alone who had everything to do with whatever success the corps had.  Our director, Salvatore (Sonny) Calvagna, and Joe, and Don were equal partners in our accomplishments, but it seemed that he was the ubiquitous, omniscient element.  He was there even when he wasn’t supposed to be there, and he had something to say about everything.  Although our repertoire was arranged by Joe, I have no doubt that he had a major input on what it would be; and the fact that our uniforms eventually became exact (but orange and black) duplicates of the Skyliner attire, was, I am certain, done at least partially- if not wholly- at his urging.  In fact, we played the same “Showtime on Broadway” off-the-line as they did. Was this coincidence?
     Carman’s omnipresence was only part of his charm.  No one else I’ve ever met could ever contrive so colorfully innumerable, physical, mental, and genetic reasons for your lack of coordination, or your outright stupidity.  He was there at every cue you anticipated, and every misstep.  It was then expected that you, as well as everyone else in the corps, would hear a definitive, pre-natal reason for your current state of simple mindedness.  Alternatively, a post-delivery rationale for your ineptness in failing to execute any maneuver, no matter how complex, would be attributable to the near fatal accident you incurred when your less-than-nimble mother (again in a drunken stupor) mistook you for the kitchen trash, and dropped you from the window of your shabby, rat, and cockroach infested tenement apartment, to the waiting maw of an empty garbage can three stories below.  Carman had a way with words.
     And we listened for the next two years, as he ranted and raved, panted, and flayed his arms in genuine or feigned disgust at our seeming inability to improve ourselves.  It was never quite certain whether our progress came as a means to an end to shut him up, or because we finally understood what he was trying to do, and did it.  Carman was too smart to tell us that. To this day, I honestly believe that at least part of our growth came because we wanted to please him, and to hear him tell us that we did well. Again, he was too smart to explain to us the possible subconscious motivation for our development.
     There was another Carman Cluna.  This was the person who would from time to time, hang out with us after a Friday night rehearsal, stop at Carlucci’s for a late night veal parmigiana sandwich, and talk to us eclectically about the Skyliner’s new drill, existentialism (What?), the proper way to dress for any occasion, and his dream of publishing the quintessential drum corps magazine.  And, if the topic was brought up, this was the Carman who (between pizza bites) asked you to sing the lead in a song, while he animatedly sang baritone parts, all the while depressing a fantasy valve and manipulating a non-existent rotor or slide, as he saw fit to equip his imaginary horn on that particular night.
     Saying, “Goodnight, I’ll see ya!” was easy.  There would always be another Friday rehearsal.  We would always see one another, if not this Friday, then the next, or at “The Dream,” or at the Nationals in Miami, but not this year.  And, “I didn’t get to any contests last year.”  And, “Has it been ten years since I last saw you?”  Or, “It can’t be twenty years!”
     I last saw Carman at the Hall of Fame show in Bergenfield thee years ago.  I had learned sometime earlier that he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, but I didn’t want to accept it.  Our heroes must be invincible.  I heard him before I saw him, heard the voice-- that near-deluge of words, the breathlessness.  Carman was holding court.  I waited for a pause in the princely proceedings before I approached him.
     “Hello, Carman”
     “Mario!” I reached out to hug him, but this was more of an Italian thing, so abbracciare, or “embrace” would be more descriptive.  As we stepped back from each other, his eyes scrutinized me, and I was seventeen years old again.  “You’re getting too fat.”  This was still Carman.  Our conversation, which was prosaic at best, lasted little more than a minute, and ended with a promises that were never meant to be kept.  As I moved away I noticed that he had extracted a notepad and pen from his jacket pocket, and was diligently recording something.  I wanted to believe that it was an idea for a new drill design.
     I’m not certain as to how I want to end this story.  I started with the premise that all of this is all wrong, but I don’t want to end it that way.  I go back to a photo of the corps that was taken in 1960.  Carman, in his ever perfectly attired “casual” slacks and shirt (his dressing down mode), is looking up at me.  I hope that I’ve written this well.  I don’t want to hear him shouting, “Wrong! Mario, can’t you do anything right?”           

Tommy Martin, Joe Genero and Caramn Cluna

  Courtesy of Holy Name Cadets Website - Garfield Cadets Function circa 1960 with Hy Drietzer, Brenda Cluna & Carman Cluna

 Courtesy of Holy Name Cadets Website - Garfield Cadets Function circa 1960 with Hy Drietzer, Brenda Cluna & Carman Cluna

Pepe Again at a practice session of Conn. Yankee.

From Brooklyn, New York  -  Our Lady of Loretto Knights

(Left of Priest,Father Fiore),Sonny Calvagna (Right of Priest, Father Fiore) Carman Cluna, Don Freising &Joe Genero,