Big Pug’s Pipes

Back in the early eighties, when Juneau’s waterfront was between the mining boom and the cruise ship boom, Puggy Nelson and I would ignore the ‘No Trespassing’ sign, go around a chain link fence and walk out where the abandoned docks rotted on their pilings. There at the end of South Franklin Street as it turns into Thane we’d sit in the sun and Pug would try to teach me ‘Gin I were a Barron’s Heir’ on the bagpipe practice chanter.

A practice chanter is easier to blow and a lot quieter than bagpipes. There are nine holes with the same spacing as an actual pipe chanter. I learned how to hold my fingers to sound those notes and how to make grace notes and doublings. Pug had a rare gift for being entirely present in the moment. He was a patient and encouraging teacher who got me halfway through my first song. It was a hoot to spend time with him but commercial fishing took me out of town for a lot of the summer. I got married and between school, jobs, small kids in the house and all that I ended up drifting away from the chanter and didn’t see Pug so much. When we did meet, he was usually up to something good. Once he told me about a restaurant job he’d started, “Oh, I just go in nights and push a few dishes through the machine.” Why does a guy pushing seventy take up dishwashing? To donate the money to people who needed it; people in Central America if I remember correctly.

Always after seeing him I’d think two things. ‘What a great guy.’ and, ‘I should practice the chanter.’ I’d toodle away at it until other things took the forefront then taper off. As time passed Pug and I met less and less often, sometimes going a year or more between sightings. Eventually I thought he’d moved away until one day, there he was downtown. He walked right up and said, “I’ve been thinking about you. I want to give you my pipes.” We’re talking beautiful African blackwood Grainger’s, mind you. I thought of the maxim, ‘Into the making of a piper go seven years.’ and said, “Jeez, Pug. I don’t know. That’s really generous but it would be a huge commitment. Let me think about it.” As fate would have it, three days later I bumped into him again at the very same spot. He said, “Wait right here. My pipes are around the corner.” So, that’s how I came to have these amazing pipes. He even included his sheet music: marches, reels, strathspeys and pibrochs, some of them wonderfully complex and, to me, incomprehensible except to say here was a player who knew his stuff.

That was almost twenty years ago. Since then I’ve made a few cold starts with help from a couple great pipers. Each time I’ve gotten closer to the break-through. When I was on a practice roll, I’d be happy to run into Pug and tell him so. When I wasn’t practicing I’d feel sheepish when we met. Through it all the pipes have spent their days waiting patiently for me pick them up and get serious.

The old docks are gone now. So is the Cold Storage where Puggy was foreman for forty years. In May of 2016 the man himself passed away. For whatever reason things happen, my brother-in-law decided to take up the bagpipes this year. He sent me a copy of Logan’s Complete Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe as a subtle hint that we should just do this together. Pug’s pipes aren’t excited yet because they’ve been down this road before but every day now they come out and of course, every time they do I think of Pug. My piping goal for the new year is to go down to where South Franklin becomes Thane and play ‘Gin I were a Barron’s Heir’ from start to finish.