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The pipes are calling: bandsmen blow, squeeze and wiggle their way into tiny fraternity marked by historical significance

Jason Tudor

Airman Sandy Jones stood on the grassy hillside waiting for a cue. He had lingered with fellow members of the Air Force Pipe Band--frozen by cold wind off the Potomac River--since late morning. They were preparing to sound a single tune.

"Mist-Covered Mountains," a 107-year-old Scottish dirge, waited. The song's author, John Cameron, took the music from "Johnny Stays Long at the Fair," appropriate for the body nearing the plot at Arlington National Cemetery.

Given different circumstances, 24-year-old Airman Jones might have chosen something other than the song picked by the pipe major, Tech. Sgt. Melvin Ross. Perhaps the one he had written just months before; the one for the fallen American leader approaching on the flag-draped caisson rolling toward him. Its title?

"President Kennedy's Welcome to Sean Lemass."

Musicians with the Air Force Pipe Band, now an offshoot of the Band of the Air Force Reserve at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., share history and experiences with players like Mr. Jones that reach back six decades. Being in the Pipe Band, which traces its roots to the Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps of the 1950s, is different. Just ask those who've played the Bolling AFB, D.C., officers club cocktail parties for chiefs of staff and marched through Moscow's Red Square playing "Scotland the Brave."

Drawn together by the love of a common instrument, this isn't a band confined by the cinderblock walls of its Middle Georgia headquarters or the half-life of an assignment. Military pipers are connected. Once a Pipe Band member, always a Pipe Band member. They are more like former members of the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team. Fittingly, the T-Birds and the band have similar goals: influence the community, keep the troops happy, recruit, retain and tell the Air Force story.

Master Sgt. Scott Gunn personifies that experience. He started playing oboe the same year John Lennon played his final concert and The Ramones played their first. He's served as an Air Force bandsman for 20 years and can just as easily strike a tune on tenor saxophone, English horn and Irish Uilleann pipes. Playing the Highland pipes, however, is what really gets him excited.

During an afternoon practice, he hauled the pipes to his shoulder like a drill team member's rifle. He pressed the blow-pipe to his lips and exhaled, filling the blue-and-yellow bladder with air. With a squeeze of his left arm, he played. Sound honked out of the three pipes, called drones. His fingers danced across the holes of the chanter creating the melody. Meanwhile, his foot tapped, his eyes closed tight, and his thick cheeks ballooned with air to refill the bladder.

It's an effort. After just 20 minutes, beads of sweat covered Sergeant Gunn's face and neck. His arms hung fatigued. He gulped from a bottle of water and played on. After nine years of this, he's won his share of Highland games piping competitions at Grade 4, or entry level.

Entry level or not, he's piped President George W. Bush, President Clinton and others out of the Capitol rotunda on St. Patrick's Day--with some nagging questions along the way.

"The president is two feet behind me, and I'm thinking as I'm playing, 'Do I speed up? Do I slow down? What's my sound like? I just hope I'm not leaving him behind,'" he recalled.

He didn't. President Bush later praised the band for its musicianship. A compliment from the president. Being in this band is different.

Airman Jones remembered the Army general's orders: "Mist-Covered Mountains" had to start the moment pallbearers lifted President Kennedy's casket from the caisson and stop when they reached the plot.

The pipers worked on it individually and then played it together in the parking lot of Arlington House, former home of Robert E. Lee. When the band finished practice, the players headed off to a diner for some coffee and donuts, returning at 10:30 a.m. Then, they waited--for three hours. The downtime led to a concern.

Airman Jones and other members of the band were hoping their instruments would still be in tune.

They would find out when the pallbearers lifted the casket.

Playing the bagpipes, let alone tuning them, is not a source of instant gratification.

Potential pipers will sink between $1,200 and $4,500 into a set of Highland pipes. Then, they should be prepared to sit down three to five hours every day practicing, only to enjoy solo performances some two to three years later, according to even the most optimistic instructors.

The attrition rate for the 6,000-year-old instrument's suitors is only slightly lower than the rate for those training to become Air Force pararescue specialists. If 10 potential pipers go into a classroom, just three will leave as players.

Wannabe Band of the Air Force Reserve members can't "just play the pipes." As the organization's Web site notes, this is a secondary instrument. The band has four permanent and five "augmentee" players. Augmentees are volunteer pipers from the active and Reserve corps. To put together a "bare-bones" pipe band, Sergeant Gunn needs five to six pipers, two snare drummers and a bass drummer. For more elaborate ceremonies, "10 is perfect" for pipers, with three snare and one bass drummer alongside.

Change is on the way. Seven volunteers from within the band's ranks volunteered to learn to play the pipes Sept. 17. During their first gathering in the band's conference room, the volunteers received instruction books, were measured for uniforms and played their first notes on bagpipe chanters.

"These are really teeny holes!" said Senior Airman Shane Stanke.

"It sounds like Nintendo," said Airman 1st Class Deborah Varella.

"I'm getting light-headed," said Airman 1st Class Patrick Johnston.

Retired Senior Master Sgt. Jack Story had a similar reaction as he learned to play the pipes 30 years earlier.

"Like most of the people in the Pipe Band, I wasn't excited about being in the group," said the 57-year-old, who's still considered a mentor for current band members. "After working hard and learning about the history and the kind of jobs they played, I developed an appreciation."

Film director Alfred Hitchcock once described the bagpipes sound as being akin to holding an "asthmatic pig" under one arm and squeezing--and the pig sounded better. The new students' teacher, Sergeant Gunn, said piping is about blowing, squeezing and wiggling.

"And if that doesn't work, you blow harder, you squeeze more, and you wiggle your fingers faster," he said.

While they waited, not much was said, but much was remembered. Pipe Band drummer Staff Sgt. John Bosworth remembered how the band members scrambled to find Irish kilts (the ones they wore regularly were Scottish) for a performance just one week before. He also remembered shaking President Kennedy's hand the same day. Airman Jones remembered playing the song he wrote. He remembered shaking the president's hand. Pipers, many said, always had a special place in President Kennedy's heart.

When the horses trotted onto Memorial Bridge, the memories faded. Though 23 other funerals occurred at Arlington earlier that day, the one Bosworth and the band prepared for beside the 20-by-30-foot plot couldn't have meant more.

Whether their instruments were out of tune now or not, the musicians would be playing in moments, perhaps with Sergeant Bosworth providing emphasis on this verse: "There I shall visit the place of my birth. And they'll give me a welcome, the warmest on earth...."

Bagpipes do not offer new players a warm welcome. Why, after all, do people flock to the pipes when jokes like this abound: What's the difference between the bagpipes and an onion? No one cries when you chop up the bagpipes.

Sergeant Gunn called the need to play "the bug."

"When you get into piping, there's something there and ... oh, my gosh ..." he said, his voice trailing off. "It hits you that bad. The sound and the music hit you that bad."

Retired Lt. Col. Rick Blair started playing as a teen-ager in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1947 before enlisting in the Air Force, joining the Pipe Band and, later, leading it.

"I was captivated," he said.

Playing for the leader of the free world, leading the march of the 1997 Rose Parade and other events stoked Sergeant Gunn's musical and patriotic fervor.

"Are you kidding? I could die today and be pretty happy with my musical career," he said. "These opportunities are once in a lifetime. I wouldn't trade them for the world."

Pipers worldwide are ingrained parts of funerals for police officers and firefighters, a practice brought to the United States by Irish and Scottish immigrants.

In addition, pipers, according to scholars, were some of the first people on the battlefield. For these reasons and others, Mr. Blair said he strives for something deeper when he plays.

"The pipes become an alter ego," he said, "and that's what people come to see and hear. It's an instrument that delivers a certain 'E Pluribus Unum' for the country."

Mr. Bosworth, a retired 28-year Air Force band veteran, welcomed home Vietnam prisoners of war and casualties from the barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, during performances.

"They all meant something," he said.

Airman Varella, a vocalist who's never played an instrument, said sees the journey as one of fulfillment.

"It's a cool instrument," she said. "The sound is awesome. The history is amazing. Once I learn this, it is something I can do for the rest of my life. It's not just a military thing."

Recalling that Monday afternoon in 1963, Mr. Jones said the Air Force Pipe Band's influence on his life cannot be overstated. He still has the sheet music on which he wrote "President Kennedy's Welcome to Sean Lemass," signed by the president and the former Irish prime minister.

"I was a really lucky guy," the retired 25-year veteran said. "The experience I had playing professionally for the Air Force all those years ... you can't reproduce that."

The Air Force Pipe Band played the dirge until the pallbearers set the president's casket beside the grave.

When the last notes escaped their chanters, the band members stood on the grassy hillside and grieved with the nation. The notes of their tune dissolved as the eulogy for America's 35th president hung in the cold afternoon air, the band's place on the solemn soundtrack of American historical music secured.

Bagpipe Jokes

How do you get two bagpipers to play in perfect unison?

Shoot one.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To get away from the bagpipe recital.

What's the difference between a lawnmower and a bagpipe?

You can tune the lawnmower, and the owner's neighbors are upset if you borrow the lawnmower and don't return it.

How is playing a bagpipe like throwing a javelin blindfolded?

You don't have to be very good to get people's attention.

What's the difference between a dead snake in the road and a dead bagpiper in the road?

Skid marks in front of the snake.

--(Sources unknown)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Air Force Reserves
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group





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