In March of 2007 several Bend firefighters travelled to Seattle to participate in their first “Scott Firefighter Stairclimb”. This event, which is a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, brings in firefighters from all over the world for a friendly competition to see who can rum to the top of the Columbia Tower the fastest while wearing full firefighting gear. Following months of preparation, and then the competition itself, the Bend boys were ready to let off some steam. By chance, Mark Taylor and Mike Baxter stumbled across Seattle Fire Pipes and Drums preparing to enter a local pub to perform. They followed the band in and got their first taste of live pipes and drums. Appropriate celebration ensued and a lasting impression was made on Baxter, who is a die-hard Celtic music fan.
Upon returning to Bend, Baxter raved to his crew about the music, and how lucky Seattle was to have a band made up entirely of firefighters. Later that night Baxter and his crew, Engineer Justin Struhs and probationary Firefighter Billy Seaton were relaxing at the top of the stairs at fire station 304, a popular firefighter gathering spot for some reason. Struhs suggested that we could form a band of our own. “We could travel around and play for beer”, Struhs said. “And to save money, we could sleep in my van”. Baxter thought this was one of the stupidest ideas that he had ever heard, mainly because he had seen the floor of Struhs’ van. Seaton, being on probation, said nothing. Struhs usually came up with a handful of “mildly considered” plans to build inventions each shift, so Seaton and Baxter were skeptical at first. Slowly the crew warmed to the idea. Since this idea would not require them to build a jig, or a press, or forge metal with a propane torch, or make greeting cards, or candles, or a boat out of plywood, or build skate boards, surfboards, or skis, or make a small guitar into a large one or make gloves out of wax paper, or start a sheet rocking business, they started looking for a bagpipe instructor. Besides, who doesn’t like the idea of free beer?
At that time, they didn’t know how much interest they would find in the department. The most important detail it seemed was to find an instructor to tell them what would be involved in starting a band. Since none of them had even held a set of bagpipes, it was to be a daunting task. As luck would have it, many of the local pipers had recently moved out of state. They tried online instructors, but that didn’t work with the city IT department who began wailing and gnashing their teeth at the mere suggestion of opening up the firewall. They tried self-study which was a dead-end. Finally, they found a pipe instructor, Susan Jensen, would soon be moving to Redmond and agreed to take them on as students. By the time they took their first lesson, it had been about a year since that night at the top of the stairs at fire station 304!
Emails were sent out to recruit other band members, and eventually, Mike Baxter, Justin Struhs, Billy Seaton, David Telfer, Steve Doyle, and Time Reardon signed up to attend lessons and soon the obnoxious humming of practice chanters could be heard throughout Bends fire stations. Meanwhile, Kevin Dieker, Trish Connolly, David Mackenzie, and Chris Guy expressed interest in becoming drummers. These four firefighters found a local drumming instructor, Dale Largent, who although did not specifically teach Scottish-style drumming, agreed to teach them the rudiments of the art.
Well into their first year of lessons, the band began to look into purchasing actual bagpipes. These were ordered even though they could not play them. As practice went on week after week, the pipers were learning new skills and tunes on their practice chanters. The drummers, meanwhile, were tapping away on their practice pads. This sound, heard over a period of several minutes, to several hours could produce results similar to those of water boarding, and other methods of torture outlawed by the Geneva Convention.
Eventually, the pipers started piping, and the drummers started drumming. It was time to get the two groups together and play some tunes. It was a rough at first, but as they hammered out the details in the conference room of the fire administration building, they actually played a tune together. It sounded alright too! As the tune ended and they looked around at each other with wide grins, bass drummer Dave Mackenzie laughed and said, “That just happened!”
A tartan needed to be chosen and uniforms ordered. A band logo also had to be designed. The logo was the brainchild of Nate Connolly, who is the husband of drummer Trish Connelly. He used his construction and design know-how to come up with a unique logo that incorporated a Scottish clan crest with a Maltese cross. With the logo design in capable hands, the band began to look for a tartan. Trish Connolly found the Mckay, or MacAoidh, pronounced Mc-eye, tartan and recognized the McKay name from Bend history. Trish, being the president of the Bend Fire Department Historical Society, had a keen eye for the historical tie-in with the tartan and the band. Clyde McKay had been part of a committee to form the Bend Fire Department back in 1919. McKay has been honored with a street and a park in Bend. This seemed to make perfect sense to the rest of the band and kilts made of the McKay tartan were ordered with the hope that they would arrive by St. Patrick’s Day. When the bills for all the uniform pieces including kilt, belt, sporran, Glengarry cap, hose, flashes, and shirt were tallied, the bill came to over $700.00 per band member!
With only a couple of tunes under their belts, they began to meet for regular practices. Largent who is a member of the local band, Moon Mountain Ramblers, asked in November of 2009 if they would like to play during the Moon Mountain Ramblers break on St. Patrick’s Day at McMenamins in Bend, Oregon. The band quickly agreed to do that, for no pay of course, and their first gig was set in wet concrete with four months to go. Along with the McMenamins gig, the band elected to do a “pub crawl” through several of Bends’ downtown watering holes. With the pressure to sound good quadrupled, the band intensified their practicing. The bands first gig took place at noon on March 17, 2010 at the Greens Golf Course in Redmond. Their uniforms consisted of band kilt, black band t-shirt, black hose with duty boots, and a scaly cap. Some members wore long sleeve shirt to ward off the cold March winds. They marched into the club house and out to the grass where they circled up and began their set, which included Scot’s
Wha’ Hae, Green Hills of Tyrol, High Road to Gareloch, and Scotland the Brave. As the band came to their first stop the crowd remained silent. Nothing could be heard except the Central Oregon wind whipping past the bands ears. They looked at each other in horror, but drummer Kevin Dieker called out the next tune and they played on, fighting the urge to drop their instruments and run. That was when the band found out that alcohol may play a key role in their performances. The crowd as it turned out was quite grateful for their appearance and profusely thanked them for coming.
The band was now several hours away from the pub crawl that would end at McMenamins. They met late in the afternoon in and empty theater at McMenamins, with all ten members in attendance, and tuned the pipes up and adjusted uniforms. A beer was handed around to help ease the butterflies in everyone’s stomach. The march to the Bend Brewing Company began, which drew some very curious looks from people on the street. Deputy Fire Marshal Dan Derlacki agreed to go with them to prepare bar managers for the bands’ arrival, hold doors open, sell t-shirts, and collect donations. As he held the door open, the band marched in to everyone’s surprise and there was no turning back. There were many friendly faces in the pub, which helped ease the anxiety level for the band. A little. The Bend Brewing Company is located in a smaller building, longer that it is wide. The band formed up in a straight line along the bar and let it rip. Derlacki got the crowd involved by having them raise their pints in the air in honor of fallen firefighters while the band played Amazing Grace. This was immediately followed by Scotland the Brave, and got a good response. The bands suspicions were correct. Alcohol did indeed play a crucial role in the bands performances!
From there, the band marched down Bond Street, attracting followers and scaring dogs off into the night (it’s true!). J.C.’s bar was the next stop, and many members of the fire department were there waiting. A set was played to a raucous crowd and the band began to relax. A little. Just before 7:00 pm the band marched into city hall and played a tune for the city council meeting that was just getting underway. This was also the bands first televised appearance, and they managed to get almost all of the city councilors out of their seats to watch! From there the band travelled to the 10 Barrel Brewing Co. The band formed up next to the flames of the outside fire pit and played once again to friend and stranger alike. The crowds grew noisier at each stop and the band began to have more and more fun! As the bands confidence grew, the sounds started to get sharper and sharper, making the big show not as hard to fathom anymore. After this set was over, the band began to receive texts from J.C.’s bar to come back and play again. This they did and then took a break to eat dinner and have a quick beer, all purchased by Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Bontemps. This was the first “free” beer the band had received, and although uniform and instrument costs were in the $4,000.00 range, it still tasted free. Struh’s prediction had come true! They were playing for free beer!
Soon it was time for the big show. The band grabbed their instruments and headed for McMenamins.
After waiting in the manager’s office for what seemed like hours, the Ramblers were finally done and ready for their break. The band marched down a very crowded hall and with the help of off-duty firefighters, crowded into the same theater that they had warmed up in earlier that day. Now there were about 250 people crammed in there, and they had all be celebrating for several hours. Many seemed puzzled when the band forced their way into the room, especially at the sight of David Mackenzie’s giant bass drum, while others began to cheer. Once again the band tore into their set and Derlacki got the crowd to raise a pint and the crowd responded.
Piper Steve Doyle got up on stage and performed a scorching rendition of Itchy Fingers. Following this it was time for the band to knock off and do a little celebrating of its own. But the manager had other ideas. He suggested that the band play out back at O’Kanes bar, where another 250 to 300 people were gathered around the fire pit. The band went straight there and did it all again to a roaring crowd. Finally the night was over and the band, after stashing their instruments, hoisted a round of Irish Car Bombs. The entire band was abuzz at how much fun they had had that night. The rest of the night was spent at McMenamins with family and friends reliving the experiences of the day and making plans for the next gig. Just like honeymooners, they could hardly wait to do it again!