At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a low wailing, mournful sound will resonate from the Boone County Courthouse.
That same sound has been inspiring soldiers before battle and lamenting the fallen for centuries. Reminding brave men and women of the cost of war and the price of freedom, the song of the bagpipe haunts the air and grabs the heart.
“It’s like a tingling sensation, and you feel your hair stand on end,” said Jane Rabeni, founding member and pipe major for the Boone County Fire District Pipes and Drums Band. “It creates a sadness and brings so many memories to people.”
The Pipes and Drums Band has been recreating that sound since December 1997. It has played at the MU Homecoming parade, the Memorial Day Air Show, Twilight Festival and at funerals for fallen firefighters and police officers, including the funeral of Columbia police Officer Molly Bowden in February.
On Friday, they will lead ROTC cadets and the joint ROTC Color Guard in a procession from Francis Quadrangle to the courthouse steps in honor of Veterans Day.
But the band is about much more than its public appearances. It’s about family, tradition, duty and honor. It’s about giving up Tuesday nights to practice and being moved to tears while playing at a stranger’s funeral. It’s about almost passing out from playing during a parade and passing on a tradition to new generations. It’s about bringing people joy and sharing people’s sorrow. It’s about the strong bold lines in plaid kilts and the strong blood lines that trace back to Scotland.
Ken Hines, assistant chief of the Boone County Fire Protection District, brought all this to Columbia. Hines learned the pipes in the 1980s while working as a fireman in St. Louis County. Hines, who is on Coast Guard reserve duty in St. Louis due to Hurricane Katrina, has long been a fan of piping. After moving to Columbia, he asked if the Fire Protection District would support a local band, and in 1997 he began his search for people who shared the same passion.
Bill McKenzie, a retired city prosecutor, remembers the day Hines came into his office to ask if he was interested.
“I’ve always loved the pipes, ever since I could remember,” McKenzie said, “and when I got the opportunity to be in a band, I couldn’t resist.”
The band began with six pipers and three drummers. Today, there are 11 pipers and four drummers, ranging in age from 15 to 65. While ancestry is not a requirement, most members hail from Scotland, Ireland or England.
“It gives you a closer feel to playing the pipes,” said band member Heather Foote, 65. “It’s in your family, in your ancestry. These songs are telling a story of ancient days, of those sad times and memorializing those battles.”
The bagpipes are usually associated with Scotland and the Middle Ages, but their exact origin is unclear. An age-old instrument, the first reference to pipes in written accounts mentions their use by the Greek and Roman armies. They were introduced to Europe by the Romans and found a true home in Scotland. Pipers would lead armies out to battle. The steady tune helped set the pace for marching, and the sound could be heard across miles of countryside.
The bagpipe, along with the kilt and the tartan, the plaid pattern used to identify different clans, became national symbols of Scotland. Associated with war and family, they were also symbols of freedom, sacrifice and pride. After the Scottish rebellion of 1745 attempted to rid Scotland of British monarchs, the English banned all three in an unsuccessful attempt to squelch Scottish pride.
Irish and Scottish immigrants to America joined fire and police departments, leading to a tradition of piping for fallen officers. While it is most popular on the East Coast, piping bands exist all over the country. The Boone County band is the first and only fire department band in Mid-Missouri.
Learning to play the pipes takes dedication and years of hard work. In fact, a beginner doesn’t even touch the bagpipes until mastering the practice chanter, a device similar to a recorder that helps a piper learn the finger movements and the nine notes of piping. This usually takes about a year, and the change to pipes may come as a shock.
“So, you’ve been playing on this twinkie chanter and you want to get to the big boy,” Rabeni said. “You might not get the breathing right. Or your fingers have to stretch more. We lose a lot of people during this transition.”
Band member Gail Fitzgerald said the switch from chanter to bagpipes is like taking up another instrument. First, the piper situates the three drones, the heaviest part of the instrument, on the shoulder where they dig into the collarbone. Once the empty bag is under the arm, the mouthpiece in place and the chanter in hand, the real work — breathing — begins. Beginners gasp and gulp for air while teetering on the edge of wooziness. Once the piper coordinates breathing and finger movements, there is always the extra challenge of marching. It can take six months to grow accustomed to the pipes and five to seven years to become a good piper.
“It’s a very aerobic instrument,” Rabeni said. “I was at a doctor’s appointment, and I had to take a breathing test. I gave it a good blast, and the doctor looks at it and asks me to do it again. So, I gave it a good one. He looks at it. Then, he looks at me and says, ‘May I ask what you do for a living?’”
Rabeni, 61, has been developing her lungs since age 12. Her father, the grandson of Scottish immigrants, sent Rabeni and her sister to the Gaelic College of Celti Folk Art in Nova Scotia to learn piping and Highland dancing. For five summers, Rabeni sat at a picnic table learning the basic notes on a chanter before touching a bagpipe. Her father bought her first set of pipes in 1957, and she still has them today.
“My job was to blow up the air mattress on our camping trips to develop my lungs,” said Rabeni, whose compact, petite body becomes a commanding presence as she furiously and steadily stomps the ground to set the pace of a song.
Band member Heather Foote, a member of the Graham clan, said she remembers wearing a kilt her mother made her and a glengarry cap, which is the hat pipers wear, with her clan pin on it when she was 5 years old.
“And here I’ve come full circle,” said Foote, an energetic sprite of a woman with short auburn hair, wide-awake blue-green eyes and a cackling laugh. “I just have a bigger kilt and cap, but the same pin.”
This Veteran’s Day, Foote will honor her father, who fought at Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. A surgeon who jumped out of planes to set up tents for operating during battles, he became personal physician to President Harry S. Truman after the war. He died 10 years ago.
“I always think, ‘I wish my dad was alive so he could hear me play and know that I was learning the pipes,’” Foote said.
Fitzgerald also honors her father with piping.
“Funerals are the most meaningful to me,” Fitzgerald said. “I had been playing for two years, and I piped for my father’s funeral two years ago. It was very poignant. Some people say they could have never done that for a family member, but it was easier for me to do something special for him than just sit there.”
When Fitzgerald was younger, her grandfather took their family to Iowa to see the Black Watch, a regimental band from Scotland. Later when Fitzgerald went to the University of Iowa, she joined the all-girls piping band. After she graduated, it was 38 years before she picked up the pipes again.
“I come from a Scottish background, and it was a big thing to know about our clan,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s meaningful to me because of the heritage.”
Even in Boone County, band members still hear the call of their ancestral home. Whether it’s Fitzgerald sitting on top of a Highland bluff listening to bagpipe music on her iPod, or Foote imagining a piper on a moor in the mist, or Bill McKenzie recalling when he played the pipes on a 200-foot bluff overlooking a valley in Hahatonka State Park, they all answer in their own way.
The bagpipes, of course, aren’t for everyone. Sometimes even loved ones, like McKenzie’s wife, disapprove of the instrument. The band endures many jokes, such as, “What’s the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?” “Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe.”
“The pipes can sound like a dying cow sometimes,” Rabeni admitted.
Still, the Boone County band members take piping seriously. Whether it’s funerals, holidays such as Veteran’s Day or events honoring the fallen firefighters of Sept. 11, playing the bagpipe is an emotional experience. The wail of the instrument reminds them of civic duty, their heritage and the bagpipe’s commemoration of life, death and sacrifice.
“I’ve learned that you can play the pipes with tears rolling down your cheeks,” Rabeni said.