River crossing

Mine would be 40 years ago, my first solo piping competition. It was 1977, about 18 months since I’d laid hands on a practice chanter. I’d been “on the pipes” – a set of imitation-ivory-mounted Hardies – for maybe six months.

I don’t remember having a choice in the matter. I was geared to compete from the get-go. It was what we pipers and drummers did. What one was supposed to do was described to me: salute like a boy soldier, tell the judge your tune, march up and down, making sure you don’t turn your back on the judge when turning, don’t play too fast, make all the doublings clearly, blow steady, try to keep in step with the beat or at least the beat-notes, keep going, don’t stop. Keep going.

The event was the Under-15 march at the St. Louis Highland Games organized by the local St. Andrew’s Society. Fresh from the United States’ Bicentennial celebrations, everything was still red white and blue, at a time when, unlike today, everything in the USA wasn’t always red white and blue every year. The games program was red white and blue, the ribbons on the medals were red white and blue. I think there was even a red white and blue Bicentennial tartan adorning an unfortunate drum-major.

I was prepped to confront my main competition from Kansas City: a young upstart named Kurt (or was it Chris?) Atwell. Everyone seemed to talk about how good this kid was. He must be beaten. Some sort of St. Louis vs. KC pride was at stake. Rivers vs. fountains. Beer vs. barbeque. Cardinals vs. Royals.

I diligently practiced my tune. For some reason, I was playing the obscure 2/4 march, “The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” Gordon Speirs, from whom I got lessons early on, assigned it to me in his often unconventional way. Something about it being a good test of my fingers, or my diligence, or maybe my sanity. I’ve never heard anyone play it since, and couldn’t tell you how it goes, mainly because the tune’s melody isn’t memorable, much less good.

At any rate, I rehearsed “The 12th etc.” every day after school. Marching back and forth. My parents and brother and sisters must have been going crazy listening to me struggle with the instrument and tuneless tune as I got set to do battle against Mr. Atwell, KC Kid Genius.

Games day arrived. If you’ve ever been what you think is the hottest and most humid place on earth, double that and you have St. Louis in July. I was decked out as one was when one played in lower-grade American bands in those days: hose tops, spats, thigh-itchy horsehair sporran, glengarry with cock-feather, epaulettes, khaki shirt, dorky embroidered band patch sewn to the short sleeve, floppy size-13 black dress shoes that I would have to “grow into.” It was the height of cool for this 13-year-old getting set for the eighth grade at Hanley Junior High, since then mercifully demolished in favour of a cracker-box suburban subdivision.

The judge was the truly terrifying Sandy MacPhee. Sandy back then, as he is now, was larger than life. At that time his son, Donald, must have been a toddler, destined for greatness, but Sandy’s legend as a pioneering American piper was established from his years in Detroit.

Yes, this is it. Sandy MacPhee judging, my mother pacing in the background, my sister, Clarissa, dreaming of Olympic balance beam gold.

Still not quite comprehending the occasion’s gravity, I approached Mr. MacPhee. “Name?” he asked in what I was sure at the time was a growl, but was probably just him asking my name. Name given. “What are you going to play?” “The 10th Argyll’s Crossing the Rhine.” “The what?” ” The 12th Battalion Royal Scots on the Rhine.” “The 10th Battalion HLI Crossing the Rhine?” I really didn’t know what to say. At that time I’d never heard of that excellent Donald Shaw Ramsay march. “Um . . .” “It doesn’t matter; just play whatever you want.” Someone must have stopped me from breaking down in inconsolable sobs.

I vaguely remember bumbling through the tune, still searching for the elusive crappy melody, my mother pacing in the distance with my younger sister, and my dad, as always, snapping pictures. But I “got through it,” as they say, albeit out-of-step and with drones blaring like the simultaneous horns of three Mississippi River barges.

There couldn’t have been more than three or four in the event. I placed second. Atwell was first, which was okay, since I sussed that he was much like me, a kid plodding along in the heat in spats, epaulettes and itchy sporran. Someone contended that it was fixed and I should have won. I didn’t care. It was over and I received a shiny gold (not silver?) medal with a Bicentennial ribbon, and I was hooked by the will to do better, to exceed and succeed with music. Welcome to piping.

The next year I ditched that dreadful march for the more sensible “Atholl Highlanders March to Loch Katrine,” thinking it was pronounced ka-TREEN, as in latrine. It’s a more difficult tune than “The 12th etc.” but, with a discernably good melody, it seemed easier. The stub-fingered, one-lunged legend John Wilson, who was judging, bizarrely mentions me by name in his autobiography, A Professional Piper in Peace and War, playing it for him at the Kansas City Highland Games where I once again confronted Atwell. I was again second, but Wilson wrote that I was the best player of the day and would have won had I not made “catches” in the final phrases. Best player: second prize. Welcome again to piping.

A more catchy tune.

I’m always interested to hear first competition stories. When more established pipers mention to me now that I judged their first contest, there’s not a certain amount of satisfaction that I, like Sandy MacPhee, didn’t completely scare them for good from the competitive piping avocation. It’s nice when they reassure me that I wrote positive things on their scoresheets.

Like the 12th Royal Scots or the 10th HLI, we all cross our rivers, theirs to military glory, ours to a glorious piping and drumming life awaiting us on the other side.