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Tale of Two Cities: Clydebank, First Stop

by Kristin Nord

Ten years ago this month I had first called Tom Shearer, asking him if he would take on my son as piping student.  The man answering the phone, his voice thickly accented, informed me brusquely that he was no longer offering Americans tuition.  They did not work hard enough, I remember him saying.
      Then he paused for a moment, in what I would later see was his natural enthusiasm getting the best of him.
     How old is the lad?, he inquired, his voice softening.
     Eight and a half, I replied.
     Ah, he said, with obvious delight. The Pear-fect age:  Ill make a champion of him.
      Thus began our association with Tommy, as he is known to his friends and to much of the piping world, and Jeanie, his wife of more than 50 years. On the afternoons my son had lessons, wed often talk for hours. Theyd tell us of  the Scottish industrial city of Clydebank, just five miles from Glasgow, where  theyd grown up and where Tommy had learned to pipe from his father. I had fantasized for years that one day we would return to Clydebank together, and the stories that theyd regaled me with would spring to life.
     Theres Tommy at 11, Id say, sorting eggs and delivering milk for the neighboring farmer before sunrise; now in the butcher shop on Radnor Street, stuffing sausage into casings. Theres Jeanie, as a teen-ager, working in the Singer Sewing factory. Then, in a final frame, just before they emigrate to the U.S, theres Tommy at the helm of the Renfrew Pipe Band coming within a quarter point of two world championships.
     From an early age, Tommy was truly a gifted piper, and if he had 
been given a choice, he would have become an Argyll and Sutherland Highlander, like his father before him, as soon as he was eligible. Eventually he would join up--and earn the prestigious pipe majors certificate from the 20th century legend, Willie Ross, at Edinburgh Castle. But during the war he was needed in the boilershops in John Browns Shipyard, the place where most of the Kings warships were built or repaired.  A wee man like Tommy was simply indispensable, because he could maneuver in crawl spaces where few other men could fit. And so he took his place in the deafening workyards, breathing in aesbestos with the rest of them.
      I imagine he did so with some defiance, as he packed his book of Robbie Burns poetry and his practice chanter for the times when he was idle. During those years he met Jeanie, a tiny girl with a saucy sense of humor, who was working in the ordinance factory canteen. She loved people and picture shows, cigarettes and fancy evening clothes.  Theirs
is a marriage that has had its ups and downs, but has mellowed into tenderness.
     If they seemed somewhat bewildered to find us not too long ago standing on the check-in line at Newark Airport--the buzzing loudspeakers wreaking havoc with their hearing aids--it was that perhaps the years of talking about Clydebank had lessened the need to revisit. As the years passed, what did Clydebank offer, other than wakes and funerals? They had already been called home to more than their share of them.
     Eight hours later, we landed in the rain, and found a smiling, round-faced man who appeared to be in his late 70s beckoning to us as we made our way through customs. He was Archie MacGregor, their brother-in-law, and like Tommy, and a number of Clydebank people I met, he was wearing hearing aids, for he suffers from what Jeanie described as noise deafness. 
      Though just five miles outside Glasgow, Clydebank is worlds apart, and does not appear to be sharing in the economic prosperity that is sweeping much of Scotland. As we travel down the main concourse, I see signs that to some extent the losses incurred from the war persist to this day. The most obvious are the blocks upon blocks of government housing erected after the war to replace the tenement neighborhoods that were in ruins. Thousands in Clydebank were killed by bombs during The Blitz; and thousands more emigrated afterwards, as the citys main industries breathed their last collective breaths. 
     In an earlier time, piping for a poor but talented man could have been a way up and out; and indeed, Tommy had been promised the pipe majors post in a second Argyl & Sutherland battalion. Then, the army  pipe bands were amalgamated; the pipe majors position never materialized.
     Tommy and Jeanie took a chance on America, landing in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city so grim in the late 1950s that their daughter Georgie burst into tears when she first laid eyes on it.  They worked a series of dispiriting jobs over the years to put food on the table.  But their home wherever they lived soon became a waystation for pipers and wannabees. Wherever Tommy went, he was in demand as a piper--and later, pipe major, for his playing could boost a bands level of performance several notches the minute he stepped into the playing circle.

     Today Archie lives on a block in a section of Clydebank known as Faifley. Here row upon row of identical flats ring hills, with each unit maintaining a tidy garden. It is an intimate world, where Tommy and Jeanie once lived as well, minutes from their best friends, Ellen and Johnnie, a block or two away from many of Tommy and Jeanies siblings. Just as so many of the landmarks Ive heard about--the shipyard; the Singer Sewing clock-- are gone; so have many of the family members passed on. And it is the persistent presence of these ghosts, whether it is Tommys father, Geordie, making his rounds as an itinerant Singer repairman;  or Jeanies sister, Maisie, being brought home by ambulance, seriously injured, the night the dance hall got a direct hit, that inevitably darkens many conversations. 
      Yet from the robust repartee that often follows--I see that a significant part of Clydebank has been successfully transplanted to Tommy and Jeanies Connecticut kitchen. Coming home can be a chance to revisit the streets we knew, but maybe more importantly, the people we once were. When thats done, what is left to say?
     When we meet for the return trip, Tommy will tell me he has no regrets about leaving. Im an American now, he says, in that thick Bankie accent.  Jeanie has packed a bag of soaps and special foods for Georgie, who is afraid to fly and still misses things.  Tommy has purchased several music books with bagpipe tunes to add to his extensive collection. There are, after all,  more then 10,000 tunes out there by his estimation. And hes just turned 77.
    Next stop: Glasgow. I had not expected such grandeur. To do this city justice, one must walk slowly, and take in its sweeping views--down and up, and from block to block.

Part Two >>

Photo: 'Wee Men Dancin', The Dashing White Sergent, John K. Clark 1996, The Piping Centre, Glasgow, Scotland


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