on being german then irish and now a scottish bagpiper!

IN WHAT APPEARS on the surface to be mere coincidence—and we all know there is no such thing as “mere coincidence,” is there?—a couple of friends who actually read this blog pointed out that I was losing the personal touch. That perhaps I was dwelling too much on politics and current events.

Both made the same two suggestions: first, that I give a go at a few anecdotal posts, something that allows my readers to get to know me a little better—outside of my political persuasions.

And second, since I tell such good jokes and tell them so well, perhaps I should post a joke now and then. That I should, in fact, take their advice regarding both suggestions.

So this is the first of several postings that following their advice that will hopefully “personalize” this site a wee bit.

Photo of a Scotts Guardsman bagpiper and a castle and the sea behind him.

Growing up German in my head

Growing up with a name like “Umphred,” I just assumed that I was of German stock. Oh, I knew there was a wee bit o’ the Irish in me, but with that name (think “Herr Oomfrett”), it was hard not to associate it and my family with Deutschland.

Such was the sense of the Irish within my Mother that she chose my Christian name to be “Neal,” which she believed to be Irish. 1

In fact, when my birth certificate was handed to my parents, it bore the more Catholically appropriate Latin-based name of Corneilius, written oh-so beautifully in all its calligraphic glory with flowing black ink from a proper quilled pen. Well now, Mrs. Umphred was as angry as a leprechaun who has had his flask of whiskey nipped and put up a grand brouhaha:

“His name is N-E-A-L and its Irish and that’s what’s going on the certificate!”

Believe it or not, the folks at St. Ignatius simply drew a line through the one name and scrawled a far less impressive Neal above it in blue ink from a common commercial pen.

When I was older, I found out that I was mostly Irish, coming from a line of Lenahans and Callahans and O’ Thises and McThats, and that some guy with a unique (strange?) last name married into a family of potato eaters!

It kept getting weirder . . .

Bagpiper: photo of bagpipes.

But we’re not German

In 1972, the whole family was living in Gramma Umphred’s house in the wake of the flood brought on by Hurricane Agnes. The flooding of Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding Wyoming Valley was the “greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States”—up until then.

One night after dinner, my father informed me that we were not German! He said that while he was stationed in Germany in ’45, he spent much of his spare time tracking down the name and that not a single German had ever heard of an Umphred. In fact, several laughed and assured him that Umphred was not a German name!

So I was only German in my own head the first twenty years of my life!

Photo of beautiful female bagpiper.

One reason some men might consider taking up the pipes.

Then we learn we’re Scottish

A few years later, a member of the family was vacationing in Scotland (no doubt making pit stops at each distillery along the way). Lo and behold, she found the Umphred name with a page of its own in a Book of Arms in an old castle on the moors. Hoot mon! We were Scots, not Heinies!

Well, as an American proud of our (supposedly) classless society, I was—needless to say—almost as proud to be descended from a vaguely noble lineage, even if it was connected to a rundown piles of stones a stone’s throw from a peat bog.

Well, this royal Scottish background had its effect on me in a rather weird way: I was at an estate sale where I was told that I would find a collection of pre-WWII jazz 78s.

As was the norm, I waded through the usual assortment of white pop recordings, dominated by Bing Crosby and Vaughn Monroe and Paul Whiteman and the silly novelty discs so popular then.

But I also stumbled over a set of old bagpipes, which I bought and took back to my apartment. I proceeded to learn to play them via the tried and true method of fumbling with the bag under my arm and fiddling with the pipes.

Over time, I became modestly assured—I would never use the word adept to describe my playing, but to the average person, I sounded quite Scottish. Of course, the wheeze and drone of the pipes fooled many an unsuspecting listener into believing the pipes well played.

So it was that I found myself with a small reputation among friends and acquaintances as the guy with the bagpipes, which brings me to the gist of my story.

Bagpiper: photo of Spencer Tracy as a priest from the movie BOY'S TOWN.

Since I don’t have any photos of Father D, I thought this photo of  Spencer Tracy in Boy’s Town would work.

A lapsed Catholic and a good priest

I met Father Devlin at Paul’s Beanery & Eatery—the only place in Bellevue that served Port Townsend Coffees, a robust yet smooth blend that left Starbucks and their ilk in the dust. Paul’s place was at the Crossroads Mall (although the wannabe hip owner insisted that the mall was not mall, it was a “shopping center”). I lived across the street and had my morning coffee at Paul’s with other mall habitués every morning.

Father D had first approached me when he saw me pulling The Nation, The Progressive, and “Z” off of the newsstand shelves. A “progressive” priest who supported the socialist movement among the priests and nuns in South America (who would be brutally raped and murdered by government forces doing the will of Reagan and the CIA), we were of like mind.

The two of us met daily and became the focus of an ad hoc coffee klatsch that would discuss the news of the day and whatever other blarney that caught out attention.

He was the type of priest—Irish to the marrow, of course, and enjoyed a good whiskey and a hand of cards—that almost made me want to give up my status as a “lapsed Catholic” and begin attending service again. After Berni came into my life, my schedule changed and I gradually lost touch with the group.

Father D was transferred to a parish a good car trip west of Bellevue and, well, you know, we drifted apart.

Photo of a Scotts Guardsman bagpiper and a castle and the mountains behind him.

A request for me as bagpiper

Which is why I was more than a little surprised when I recently received an email from the good Father. Even more surprising was his request: that I play at a graveside service for a homeless man, who had no family or friends, and who I had never met. The service was to be at a “pauper’s cemetery” in a neck of the woods that was several hours from my place.

I agreed and, a few weeks later, I drove to the cemetery. I was not familiar with this part of the state, so, of course I got lost and, being a man, I didn’t stop for directions. So it was that I finally arrived more than an hour late, only to find that the funeral director had evidently left and the hearse was nowhere in sight. 

There was only the digging crew, and they were eating their lunch. I felt badly about missing the service and apologized to the men for being late, there being no one else to apologize to.

I went to the side of the grave and looked down. The lid of the cheap metal vault was already in place with the first few shovels of dirt obscuring it. I didn’t know what else to do, so I fetched my pipes and started to play over the unfinished grave.

The workers put down their lunches and gathered around. For some reason, this moved me even more and I played out my heart and soul for this poor man with no family and no friends, no gravestone and no epitaph.

As I played Amazing Grace, the workers actually began to weep for the homeless man. Then I, too, began to weep, except that I wept for all the homeless, for all the “countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones, and worse. 

Finally, I finished.

I packed up my bagpipes.

I started for my car.

My heart was full as I pondered why we allow such things to occur—to allow a fellow man to live out his life in poverty and solitude.

As I opened the door to my car, I overheard one of the workers say to the others, “I never seen nothing like that before—and I’ve been putting in septic tanks just like this one for thirty years!”

Apparently, I was still lost . . .



1   “From the Gaelic Niall, which is of disputed origin, possibly meaning champion or cloud. This was the name of a semi-legendary 4th century Irish king, Niall of the Nine Hostages.” – Behind the Name


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