Piping a hero’s farewell
By Mac McLean
The first few bagpipe notes of “Amazing Grace” echoed across a hilltop at Prineville’s Juniper Haven Cemetery, bringing a somber silence to Phillip T. Quinn’s graveside service earlier this month.
Master Piper Mark McIntire, Military Honors by the Pipes director of piping, played his instrument to honor the World War II veteran being laid to rest.
“The highlanders believed we summoned the light (when we played the bagpipe ),” said McIntire, who has almost 20 years of bagpipe experience. “That light would come down, and it would take you to heaven.”
The bagpipers’ group founded in 2013 is a Prineville-based nonprofit that honors veterans by playing one of the world’s oldest instruments at their gravesides. The organization’s pipers played at 51 services in 2013, the year they incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and 84 services by the end of 2014. So far this year, its pipers have graced 300 services.
The growing demand is affirmation for the organization’s founders; however, it’s been hard to keep up. McIntire and the group’s founder, John Pierson, hope a recent $1,500 grant will help.
“We get calls to do this every day,” Pierson said, explaining the challenge for him and his six bagpipe players. “There are more than 1,000 military funerals in Oregon every month.”
Scottish historians claim the bagpipe — a rather loud instrument that produces sound when someone squeezes a bag of air through wooden pipes called chanters and drones — is one of the world’s oldest instruments and traces its roots back to ancient Egypt and the Assyrian Empire.
Bronze statues show Roman centurions playing bagpipes during their 400-year occupation and conquest of England. Written records show instances where Scottish and Irish troops used bagpipes instead of a horn before running against British troops on the battlefield in the mid-16th century.
“It’s a Scottish tradition,” said Jeffrey Mann, president of the Western United States Pipe Band Association. “When you bring someone into the world, the bagpipes are used to celebrate the event. … When someone leaves the world, the bagpipes celebrate that as well.”
Immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought these piping traditions with them when they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to settle this country in waves during the 17th and 18th centuries, Mann said.
These people often took jobs as police officers, firefighters or soldiers when they arrived, he said, which is why bagpipe melodies such as “Amazing Grace,” “Danny Boy,” “Flowers of the Forest” and “Going Home” are so common at funerals that honor these professions.
McIntire, whose ancestors boast an 800-year history with bagpipes, said the instrument is also popular at funerals because it carries a very somber, emotional tone that sweeps across the audience like a flood whenever its melodies are played.
“That’s what gets the healing process started,” said Pierson, who started playing the bagpipe and launched his organization as a way to honor both the people who served his country and the family members they left at home.
Pierson served as an Air Force reserve during the Vietnam War. His pararescue unit, most of whom were deployed to recover pilots after their planes had been shot down, lost 10 men in the line of duty. Pierson never went to Vietnam, he stayed in the United States, but those deaths haunted him.
“When I got out, I had this nagging sense of guilt I was not honoring those men,” Pierson said. Those feelings are the reason he started studying the bagpipe in 2003. He felt called to play at military funerals as a way to honor those who served, including his fellow soldiers.
In 2012, Pierson’s effort and desire came to fruition when military officials identified some remains belonging to a soldier from his unit who had been killed during the war. “His family asked me to play,” he said.
As Pierson played the bagpipe, the fallen pararescueman’s body was finally laid to rest during a special internment held at Arlington National Cemetery, 40 years after his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam.
The explosive growth Pierson’s organization has seen over the past four years is due to extra pipers who volunteer their time . The recent grant from the Oregon Community Foundation will help these pipers travel and make up for some of the money they spend on gas, food and lodging when they travel from their home to the veterans’ gravesides.
Military Honors by the Pipes has also expanded its reach by building relationships with veterans’ groups like the Prineville Area Band of Brothers, cemetery directors and funeral home providers who call the organization when they plan a service for a veteran.
Pierson is especially fond of this network because it makes arrangements easier for veterans’ family members — a group of people he feels deserve as much recognition as the veterans themselves.
“It was all taken care of in a matter of two weeks,” said Quinn’s son Patrick, who planned his father’s ceremony from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Patrick Quinn’s father wanted to be buried in Prineville because he was born there and his parents are buried at Juniper Haven Cemetery. When Patrick Quinn called the Whispering Winds Funeral Home, the organizers told him they would set up the funeral with pipers and a full honor guard organized by Prineville Area Band of Brothers.
“It was tremendous,” said Patrick Quinn, who was blown away by the amount of recognition his father received some 70 years after his service as a pharmacist’s mate in World War II. He said the bagpipe music McIntire provided that afternoon “was just the icing on the cake.”
This article was originally published in The Bulletin on Sept. 25, 2015