Saturday, November 13, 2010

Across the Gloaming

It was a grey, chill November day here today in Our Little Town, the first day that’s felt like fall in a while.

Most of this week has been in the 70s, in fact, making it feel more like May than November. Boy, it’s a good thing that Global Climate Change is a hoax, otherwise I’d be worried.

Wait, what?

I love these grey fall days when the leaves are turning and the air has a bit of a nip to it. Maybe it’s being an academic and living in a world where the year begins in the fall and everything is fresh and new when everything is fading and brown. Maybe it’s the fact that I can finally drink my tea without breaking a sweat. Maybe it’s just the quieting down of the year, after the frantic activity of the summer.

And maybe it’s the bagpipes.

I always think of bagpipes on grey November days.

When I was a kid, the church I went to had a Holiday Fair every November. It was our big fundraiser. There’d be booths set up in the Parish Hall selling all sorts of things (except the one booth that sold cheeses and sausages – for some reason the guy who ran that booth always made sure to sell out his supply ahead of time so all he had to do was wait for people to pick up their orders, and nobody could ever convince him to order more for walk-in customers) and a midway down in the basement, and special dinners both nights – spaghetti on Friday and roast beef on Saturday.

I was always on clean-up for the dinners, so even when I hadn’t spent the day down at the Fair I still had to get there by around 4pm, which was getting dark at that time of year.

One year when I was around 14 or 15 I set out on foot to get to the church for my clean-up shift. It wasn’t a bad walk, really – maybe three-quarters of a mile or so, and the route took me past one of the neighborhood parks, which had a good-sized creek burbling through it. This particular year as I approached the park I heard the sharp sound of bagpipes carrying through the gathering gloom.

It was a chilly afternoon, with a fading grey light that still held the bare limbs of the trees, and the pipes called over the creek and escorted me on my way, at once lonely and beautiful.

You remember a moment like that.

My friend Bob and I later tracked the piper down. He struck us as an old guy then, though I doubt he was much older than I am now. He was learning the bagpipes and his wife had exiled him from the house for his practice sessions, a not unreasonable demand when you think about it. Remember the old Scottish proverb – “Lord save ye from a beginner on the pipes.”

I don’t know if that’s an actual Scottish proverb, but I’m guessing it should be.

Exiled but determined, he had found an isolated spot on the other side of the creek and would practice there from time to time, and it was just luck that I first heard him that crisp fall day.  I don't think we ever got his name, and we only found him the one time, several months after the Fair.

But I still think of him and his bagpipes, every November without fail.

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