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September 11th

Today is September 11, 2020. It’s been nineteen years since that day, and a generation has passed. I’ve lived through my own challenging experiences, while trying to be mindful that we’ve all suffered from that terrible shock and loss. Walk with me, backwards in time, to share some of the ironic moments and thoughtful actions that make this day so special.

Since my stroke (February 2017) I’ve wanted to play the pipes, but I can’t. Despite ground breaking therapy and three-and-a-half years of hard (and constant) work, I still don’t have sufficient movement on my right side—my stroke robbed me of that! But the chance is still there! It’s just out of reach. I’m working with the therapists from Spaulding Rehab and the engineers from MIT and Tufts, and we’re getting closer. It’s assistive technology on steroids!

For about 15 years (until my stroke) I’d play at the 9/11 memorial in Marblehead, and then fill my day with other appropriate piping opportunities. My favorite event was piping at a restaurant in Salem, which was bought and managed by a Marblehead couple. They had lost their son on 9/11 in NYC, and took the money they were paid in settlement to buy the restaurant!

Author piping with firemen at attention in the background

During the Marblehead service (circa 2015), firefighter and Captain Betsy Wilson was to recite the firefighters prayer, and before she did, she took off her helmet and set it on the ground before her. It represented the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11.

Going further back, from 2005 through 2010, I’d walk up to Crocker Park and play from 8:46 am until 9:03 am. That was the period of time between the two plane strikes in Manhattan. Many folks came up and listened, and this photo was taken by one fellow who hunted me down later to give it to me.

But the memory that stands out most in my mind is from 2004. I’ve desribed it below.

September 13, 2004
This last weekend I flew from Boston to Pittsburgh (via Washington D.C.) to compete in the bagpipe events at the Ligonier Highland Games. When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I learned that United had lost my garment bag—the one holding my carefully packed kilt. (At piping competitions, one must perform in Highland attire.) I was at the airport until well after midnight on Friday and then again early Saturday, on the promise that the bag would arrive first thing that morning (my first competition event was at 11 am Saturday.)
By the next morning, my bag hadn’t arrived. In fact, it was still in D.C. I drove the hour and a half to Ligonier spewing a stream of caustic invective, not knowing if I’d even be allowed to compete; I’d never tested the “Highland attire” rule before. The organizers and my judges were understanding and allowed me to play in my jeans. I was grateful for the chance to compete, but through all the stress I didn’t place very well.
My bag made it to Pittsburgh in time to be checked in for my flight home to Boston (also routed through D.C.) It had been a long day and a frustrating trip—hardly worth the cost and effort.
The last leg, from Washington to Boston, was a late flight. The plane was half empty and the lights were down so people could sleep. At about 10:30 pm, the pilot came on and announced we were approaching Manhattan and that the World Trade Center ‘Tribute in Light’ was visible out our left window. I’d forgotten that it was September 11th, and I recalled how the ‘Tribute in Light’ was now only lit on the night of the anniversary of 9/11.

I looked out at the pillars of light blazing up at us, where the towers had once stood, and I realized that this memorial was as much for those in the air as it was for those on the ground. Passengers on the left side of the plane got up so everyone had a chance to see it. While some had been sleeping or dozing before, now soft conversation filled the darkened cabin. Most reminisced about where they were three years ago when it happened. The flight attendants spoke quietly among themselves about friends and colleagues who’d been lost (this was a United flight).

Here we were on 9/11, flying the reverse route of those ill-fated planes, over Manhattan gazing down on the beacons that cried out over such horrible loss. I rose and made an offer to my flight attendant, who replied with a determined nod. Retrieving them from the overhead compartment, I unpacked my pipes and (kneeling, because of the low ceiling) played a slow, deliberate Amazing Grace.
The pilots opened the locked cockpit door to listen. Moist-eyed flight attendants stood in a phalanx behind me. Afterward, there was no conversation—there was nothing left to say. A few whispered “thank you’s” slipped through the silence, but beyond that we rode the last miles home burrowed in our own thoughts.
I’m still filled with emotions I can’t begin to describe, nor will ever forget. My trip was well worth it.

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