on being german then irish and now a scottish bagpiper!

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

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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