Thursday, May 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio


Maybe this isn't such a pipe dream

What's the perfect pitch for a bagpipe?

Tossing it into a Dumpster.

- Anonymous

There are some things everybody loves: Pizza. Chocolate. Days off.

There are things everybody hates: Spinach. Being overworked. Management.

And there are things people either love or hate: Liver and onions. Regis. Cats.

Add this to the love-or-hate list: Bagpipes.

Some think bagpipe music sounds like a cat being strangled. If you hate cats, that's a good thing. I hate cats, but that's not why I love the pipes (which is what those in the know call 'em. Call 'em bagpipes and, well, you just aren't cool.) Pipes, like golf, Shetland wool, and tartan, are Scottish. There are Irish pipes, but when you think of pipes, it's a Scot in a kilt that comes to mind, right?

There's no reason why I should love the pipes. The only Scotch I have in me is when I sip Johnny Walker Red, and even then it doesn't stay in my body for very long. The call of the pipes first came to me 25 years ago, when I was with a college buddy at a seafood restaurant in Sharon, Pa. Sharon is a typical run-down steel town, unique because it has a convenience store that straddles the Ohio border, meaning you can buy lottery tickets in two states just by walking across an aisle. Actually, Sharon is fun because it has the best wing joint in the civilized world, but the point is, it's not much of a haven for Scots.

Anyhow, there we were, talking over plates of seafood, when in marched a pipe band. No pipe band worth its whisky is without drums. Forming by the salad bar nestled in a rowboat, these musicians - complete with kilts, tall hats, and knee socks - played. Loudly. You can't softly play bagpipes. The drummers swung their tethered mallets around like billy clubs, filling the place with booms and rat-a-tat-tats. It was a blast.

I know not why they were there, nor where they went. But it left a lasting, wonderful impression.

Fast forward to today, and my life at Fort Meigs State Memorial. Some re-enactments draw Scottish Highland units. Once during an early evening rain, a piper went into one of the blockhouses and played. The blockhouses were built to withstand cannonballs screaming through the sky from British batteries. But they couldn't contain the scream of the pipes from within. Music was heard all over the 10-acre fort.

Then my 11-year-old son, Andrew, who plays flute and fife, this summer set his heart, not to mention his lungs, on being a piper. From a period performer we bought him a chanter, which looks like a snake-charmer's flute. The chanter is the training wheels for the journey down the path of pipedom. He quickly picked up its eccentricities: Unlike the flute, you have to blow harder and use not the fingertips but the fleshy pad past the fingers' first joint.

The high point of his piping came last week. Thanks to fortuitous work and school schedules, we drove to Penn State to see the New York Yankees of Scottish music: the Black Watch, a combat unit that doubles as a performer of tunes and dance rooted in military traditions. They make a swing through the States every other year. My 13-year-old son, Ian, is not as big a fan of the pipes, but he does love his drums, of which the Black Watch has three kinds: snare, bass, and tenor. The pipes, and drums, were calling.

The show was great. We met some of the pipers and drummers, who in their Scottish brogue gave each of the boys a couple of tips.

The next night, back home, Andrew had his first full-fledged pipe lesson. The instructor told him and my wife that it takes seven years of hard work to be a good piper, and come time for college, a good piper can pick up a good scholarship.

Now THAT'S why I love the pipes.

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