There’s that moment at the edge of the rehearsed syncopation, when Sgt. Rabon Hutson strides alongside the other musicians in the United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps, a cool silence settles across the pitch and then a tsunami of brass explodes across the audience.
Hutson’s cannon is a glimmering contra-bass tuba, the tune is from composer Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide” and the audience was a packed Thursday afternoon crowd at Camp Pendleton that came for the Drum & Bugle Corps, the Silent Drill Platoon and the Marine Corps Color Guard.
This performance trio based in Washington, D.C. is slated to perform at Camp Pendleton and other local Marine installations through the week, with a Friday fete at the Miramar air station and a Saturday show at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
“The look on a veteran’s face when he comes up to you and thanks you for what you do, it probably means more to me than anything else about my job,” said Hutson, of Tallapoosa, Ga. “We represent the veterans as well as the active-duty personnel. We’re the face of the Marine Corps.”
With a row of tinkling xylophones in front of him and whirling drummers behind, Hutson only moments before had been a white-and-crimson blur as the musicians marched in highly intricate patterns across the Paige Field House football field.
The Marines call that “music and motion,” and they undergo 12-hour training sessions for days in February and early March at Yuma Marine Corps Air Station before they hit the road to perfect their routines at stops like Camp Pendleton.
It preps them for the ceremonial reviews that run throughout the summer in Washington, D.C., a side tour in Texas and then the Marine Corps Birthday Ball season in November. It adds up to between 300 and 400 performances annually.
Nearly all the enlisted musicians boast college degrees, some with graduate-school diplomas.
During Thursday’s performance, a Marine with the Color Guard slowly lowered the Corps’ banner and 54 battle streamers were splayed out in the sun — the ribbons that commemorate the more than 400 wars and campaigns the service has fought since 1775.
For all the pomp, the ceremonial Marines are there to remind everyone that the Corps exists to wage battle. Hutson said his favorite concert was the Medal of Honor ceremony performance for Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, who was left permanently disabled after throwing himself in front of a grenade to protect his fellow Marines during combat in Afghanistan in 2010.
“That was pretty special to me,” Hutson said.
While Hutson earned his way onto the “The Commandant’s Own” by passing a tryout, Cpl. Jesse Thorton was plucked out of Camp Pendleton’s School of Infantry while he was training to be a grunt. The East St. Louis native didn’t even know what the Silent Drill Platoon was.
“They were looking for height, confidence and the way that you speak,” said Thorton, now the No. 2 Rifle Inspector.
He flips, twirls and heaves M-1 rifles into the sky as he walks the line of his fellow infantrymen, who catch the weapons as if by magic.
Thorton said there’s actually no mystery to the feats. He and the Marines already know where he will stop along the line of infantrymen, and they rehearse the fast spins and gyrations of the rifles for weeks in Yuma until the motions become natural.
Even when bayonets are mounted on their rifles, injuries never happen, he said.
Unlike Hutson’s band, Thorton’s platoon performs most of its movements without music, keeping time with the stomp of shoes on dirt and the slap of leather hands on the wood and metal of the carbines.
“I’m just glad I have the opportunity to do what I do,” Thorton said.