Bagpipes that make it rain

A certain synchronicity of time between what is happening now on the Old Continent and St. Patrick’s Day prompted me to submit this piece to Souvenirs de guerre. Although St. Patrick’s Day is not the Scottish holiday, which is St. Andrew’s Day, due to Celtic immigration and historical events, it has become so traditional in North America to hear Scottish pipers that no one has any problem with it. Besides, aren’t Ireland and Scotland both Celtic countries?

Among the cities on this continent with a historic parade for this holiday, Montreal has been at the top of the list for over a century and a half. However, in the pervasive gaiety of the popular « Parade », Montrealers attach a very special meaning to it: that of the imminent and long-awaited arrival of spring.

The following, which is a true story, began on a distant day in my childhood, in 1964 or 1965, when I was less than 10 years old. Just as I had been introduced to Quebec’s St. Jean Baptiste Day, I had also been introduced to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. With a father who, in his own words, had « a grandmother with Hill as a maiden name, a mother whose maiden name was O’Malley and a father who played lacrosse at the Shamrock… », how would that be surprising?

My father was Ti-Mick Côté, a garage serviceman, a part-time taxi driver and veteran of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal. I’ve already talked a little about him and others in this blog and I still have a lot to say.

We both left that morning in a car, an old green and white 1956 Chevrolet, with a rounded body, so rusty that when I hit my shin on it one day, it left a scar for eternity. We made a pit stop at the Binerie, a meeting place for taxi drivers who could eat there almost at any time. We used to say « the Binerie on Mont-Royal Street » because it was located « on Mont-Royal street » in a working-class neighbourhood which was full of children playing outside. That was long before some speculators invented « Le Plateau » as a way of making money for them. We had driven to Montreal city centre, still the Metropolis of Canada, under a sky that threatened the worst. An hour and a half after our departure, our stomach was full but we were worried. We finally found ourselves at the strategic waiting place at the curb. With a touch of Quebecois fatality in our eyes, the weather did not look that good. As we left the house, the temperature was chilly and the streets were under thick and grey skies. We had been psychologically prepared for what was to come under an Irish and Scottish winter. Lo and behold, as we were waiting at the curb there was a change in temperature as only this city can offer, whether positive or negative. And in just one hour, the weather forecasted magically disappeared, giving way to ideal weather…

I was very happy and waiting with my two feet firmly planted on the edge of the pavement with my back resting on my father’s belly. My father was standing right behind me. All we had to do was to take part in a game of who would be the first to see the arrival of the head of the procession from a distance. And so, under a pure azure sky, we witnessed the first energetic comings and goings of the pre-parade scouts and, more importantly, finally began to hear the plaintive and moving sound of the Black Watch bagpipes which I knew and my old man had meant.

My father’s instructions were that when the men of this regiment were passing by, I was to stand perfectly straight, head up in silence and no matter what happened, not to move an eyelash, because at the same time, he was to give the most beautiful military salute possible. The salute given by us was a very important symbol. My father had reminded me each time…

“During the war, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Black Watch fought side by side many times to push back Hitler’s army. And that neither of us ever gave up…” He added… “That year he could also have joined the Black Watch…” but that I had finally chosen the Fusiliers because his language was French. In short, all these things made me think, as a child, that under those circumstances it was only natural that the bagpipes should give me the emotions they did. Moreover the regiment’s drums sounded like those of our old Compagnie franche de la Marine which we used to go and see in the middle of summer at the Fort of Saint-Helene Island…

When the music passed us by, of course I did what I had to. Except that suddenly a startling sensation came over me. Something like three drops of rain falling on my head. “But it’s not raining… Could it be a sparrow?”, I said to myself without moving and scanning the sky left and right. As soon as the bagpipes passed, I touched the top of my head to see what it could be. No, it wasn’t bird’s dropping, so it could only be water. I asked my father who was watching me, if he hadn’t received some drops. He simply said that maybe he had, but that he hadn’t bothered because he was perfectly at attention honouring the Black Watch that were passing by. Mockingly, he added that I’d better get back watching the parade because if I missed it, I’d have to wait a long time for the next one…

The rest of the parade went very smoothly, as you can imagine, but on the way back the whole thing seemed rather too strange. I asked my father if he had ever seen a weather phenomenon like that and then, probably coming from those Scottish and Irish roots that gave him the ability to communicate with elves and leprechauns, he replied, “You know, sometimes some bagpipes make it rain without anyone being able to understand it. But then, it happens so infrequently that you can consider it a great chance to be personally affected.”

At eight or at most nine years old, this became a certainty. For a few years, I felt the luckiest to have found this little happiness. But in reality, this was only the beginning of a story that would last for decades.

The following year, I believe, it was with my Dad that I saw for the first time a 1962 movie which was soon to become one of the most famous war movies: The Longest Day. And as you no doubt know, one of the events in the film was the crossing of the Bénouville Bridge in Normandy (code-named Pegasus Bridge) by Lord Lovat and his ‘piper’ (born in Regina in 1922), Bill Millin.

 

 

The thing seemed to me a pure fantasy, exactly of the kind I already knew the Americans were capable of inventing, so my father explained to me without elaborating too much that, despite a few small details, it had indeed taken place. And that it happened quite often in war that reality was more incredible than fiction and that he could give me dozens of examples of this kind of thing. And that one day, when I will be older, we might talk about it again if I was still interested.

Time passed too quickly and one evening in 1983, my Dad Ti-Mick left this earth to join many of his twenty year old friends. For his funeral, very modest I assure you, one of his brothers in arms with whom he had remained close all his life, Mr. Arthur Fraser, asked me if I had the idea of playing some bagpipes in church. I told him that he had a good idea, that I had a tape player to do it and that I would talk to the priest. I then asked the veteran in question if he had any suggestions for the song, as he was of Scottish origin. He then suggested When the pipers play. I don’t need to tell you any more about it except that if you don’t know anything about the lyrics, I suggest you read them and you will understand the rest.

Life went on and one day I decided to move to France. Since then, every two or three years my wife and I go to the commemorations in Normandy where we have made friends. And there, on a day of commemoration in Dieppe, I was given to learn two historical facts. The first was that on August 19, 1942 (the bloodiest page in the history of the Canadian Army), a detachment of the Black Watch was among those who landed (including the Fusiliers Mont-Royal) and those who were not killed became prisoners of war.

And the second is that the liberation of Dieppe in 1944 was carried out by the same regiments that had stormed the city two years earlier. These two Montreal regiments not only marched together to the applause and flowers of the city’s inhabitants, but that the Black Watch stood on guard of honour to salute the other regiments with bagpipes, including, of course, the Fusiliers.

And if that wasn’t bad enough for Ti-Mick, this was a month after these two infantry regiments had fought side by side and were decimated south of Caen, facing what is still identified today as the most powerful German armoured division of the Second World War, Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division (nicknamed Panzermeyer, or ‘Meyer the armoured’).

So this is the end of my story about a certain St. Patrick’s Day Parade from my childhood in Montreal in the mid-1960s. This is how I came to understand the tears my father was shedding that day.

What’s that you say? At 65, I no longer believe in Elves or Goblins?

Oh. I didn’t say that. You’d be wrong because during a commemoration day in Bénouville, without anticipating it, my wife Isabelle and I found ourselves stopped in the middle of a bridge to hear bagpipes.

And we can now testify that Ti-Mick had indeed been advised by these mysterious entities to tell the truth about bagpipes.

Because by the time I grabbed the camera to take the following shot, quite unexpectedly and while it was perfectly sunny, it suddenly started to rain in the car.

So who knows if one of these days, you might be a witness to such a phenomenon?

Thank you for reading.

Yves Côté, son of Ti-Mick


Below is a link to When the Pipers Play.

Lyrics

I hear the voice, I hear the war
I hear the sound, on a distant shore
I feel the spirit of yesterday,
I touch the past, when the pipers play.
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying, we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
The pibroch rears its deadly cry
Ah, some will live and some will die
And though they passed so far away
I feel their presence when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying, we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
It speaks of love, I have lost
Its speaks of my eternal cost
It speaks the price of peace today
A price remembered, when the pipers play
We do remember when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
The pipes kept playing, for you and me
They kept on saying we will soon be free
And your soul will never fade away
You’ll live forever, when the pipers play
Source: Musixmatch

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