Over the past several blog postings I have been sharing with you all my experiences in learning how to play the Great Highland Bagpipes. One of the reasons for learning to play, aside from the fact that I think they are freakin awesome is to help honor our nation’s’ heroes upon their death. I spoke briefly about this in an earlier post, but for those who missed it, here is a quick recap…..
I work for the Department of Veterans Affairs on a long term care unit. Over the past several months, there has been an interdisciplinary team working together to create a new procedure for honoring the passing of our veterans. It is called the Final Salute. As a part of this Final Salute, it was suggested by a fellow staff member about how it would be neat to have a bagpiper playing in lieu of a recording of Taps at the nurse’s station being played while the body was being escorted off the unit. I had the esteem honor and privilege in taking part in my first one on the bagpipes recently.
I was on vacation when I received the call at home from one of the nurse managers.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I wake you up?”
“No, I was awake, just not out of bed yet.”
“Oh ok…Hey, um….I know you’re on vacation, but have you left town yet?”
“No, we’re not leaving for a few more days. What’s up?”
“Well I just got a call that there’s been a death. Would you be able to come in for a Final Salute?”
“Um Yeah……give me some time to take a shower and get dressed and I’ll be there.”
My pulse immediately quickened. Here we go. I had played for a few ceremonies on the units before. Usually just one song and done. This was the first time I would be performing for a extended length of time in front of what very well could be a large majority of the hospital staff. I quickly got ready and headed into the hospital.
Upon my arrival, they were completely ready for me. There was an honor guard composed of staff members who were also veterans. The body was transferred to a lidded cart and draped with the American Flag wrapped in a military funeral fashion as you would seen on a casket. I made quick work, assembling my pipes and making sure I was playing in tune. I rendezvoused with with honor guard and we quickly went over logistics since this was everyone’s first time with a bagpiper.
After a few deep breathes I struck in the drones and began playing Amazing Grace, leading the honor guard down the hallway and marching to the elevator. When I reached the nurse’s station I went straight into a rendition of Taps while the body was being loaded onto the elevator. All available staff on the unit were present and able bodied veterans were there saluting their fallen comrade. As I completed, I took the stairwell down into the basement.
The other part of the Final Salute is on the ground floor of the hospital. Shortly before the ceremony is scheduled to commence, a station wide page is broadcasted stating the time and place of the event. All available staff members then arrive to the area and line the hallways from the unit of the deceased all the way to the morgue. I exited the stairwell and was met with a literal throng of staff who turned out to pay their respects. I took my place in the front of the honor guard and once again struck in the pipes. As I began to march, a veteran staff member called “Ten-Hut! Present Arms!” All staff present who were veterans themselves snapped to attention and rendered a salute. All other placed their hand over their heart. As I played, I found very quickly that the ceilings on the ground floor are a lot lower than they are on the units. It became very apparent to me when I started to hit the top of my bass drone against the Exit signs and fire door thresholds. I was required to maneuver several back bends amidst my playing which did nothing more than increase my nerves.
As I round the final corner, my nerves began to get the better of me and I had a horrid case of cotton mouth. So much to the point where I was finding it difficult to breath while suppressing the urge to cough. In between breaths I made pitiful attempts to swab my mouth with my tongue furiously in an effort to generate some semblance of saliva. I reached the morgue just as the last stanza of the funeral march I chose to play was coming to a close. I turned around, cut out the pipes and stood at attention as the entourage escorted the body into the narrow passageway that led to the morgue. In front of me was the entire amassed group of staff that had fallen in line behind the honor guard and followed us all the way to our stopping point. Not a dry eye in the house could be seen. My anxiety disappeared almost immediately when I saw the outpouring of emotion that these people were having. It made all my efforts to this point worth it. This display has proved itself to be a wonderful expression of gratitude for what our nations veterans sacrificed throughout their lives, and I am humbled and honored to be a part of it.