by Cathy Droz, Founder – HER Certified
I AM A PIPER
If you were to walk along a certain one mile stretch of sandy white beach, on the island of Aruba, at sunset, you might see as many as fifty people walking towards the water’s edge, aimlessly as if sleepwalking. You would see families ascending to their tenth floor balconies of Marriott’s, Hyatt’s and Holiday Inns. You would notice teens frozen in place on the sand volley ball courts as if tranquilized, wild island dogs cease barking as if drugged, happy hour laughter halts and late afternoon swimmers quickly body surf to shore as if a lifeguards whistle signaled the sighting of jaws.
At first you might think their was a terrible accident on the beach, or maybe a luxury yacht floated too close to shore, you might even speculate that a celebrity like Tom Cruise was spotted walking that white stretch of sand. But at the same time your imagining this you hear the distinctive sound of bagpipes playing. As the sound gets louder you watch people place their hand on their hearts, remove hats from their heads, and even wipe tears from their eyes. Who is playing those bagpipes you think, and why?
The mystery pipers arms are tan like a weekend golfer’s coat of arms, his white legs however indicate he’s from a climate where he wears long pants more often than not. His crew cut salt and pepper hair fit his round, wrinkle free, baby face perfectly. His prescription glasses have dark tinted clip-ons to protect his large sparkly blue eyes from the sun. He’s barefoot, wearing a faux Tommy Bahamas’ Hawaiian shirt, kaki shorts and holding what looks like a bag of groceries in his right crooked arm. The piper is Lieutenant Edward Shannon, a 52-year old retired Port Authority policeman, a thirty- year veteran, 9-11 survivor and father of four girls.
Why does this man play the bagpipes every night for complete strangers in Aruba when he could be sipping pina coladas at his favorite karaoke bar with the rest of the tourists?
Edward John Shannon was born in Bayridge Brooklyn, the middle son of four boys of second generation Irish Catholics. “I started working at age ten and didn’t stop till ten months ago when I retired”, says Shannon.” Our family struggled financially back in the 60’s and my brothers were in trouble a lot with the law. It only seemed right that I work and help the family, even at such a young age.
Shannon says he always wanted to be a policeman. He was inspired by a police officer that periodically patrolled the floors of his elementary school. Ed remembers, as if yesterday, a rainy day in April when the young officer wore a raincoat over his uniform. The beige water repellent coat with. dark buttons and a thick soft belt double knotted around his waist. Ed kept looking him up and down wondering where he kept his gun. What if he needed it quickly, how would he get it out from under that raincoat? Ed remembers circling by his locker 20 times until he had the nerve to ask the police officer “where is your gun sir?” The officer reached in to his right side pocket of the raincoat and by the handle, ever so gently, raised his .22 caliber pistol. He showed Ed and said “here it is, now get to class”. It was at that moment Ed said out loud; I’m definitely going to be a cop, that was so cool.
Ed became a New York City cop and was laid off two years later. He then proudly became a Port Authority Police officer. Shannon worked the airports, tunnels, bridges and train stations for the cities of New York and New Jersey.
He quickly rose in rank as a Port Authority policemen and his leadership qualities were constantly rewarded. Lieutenant Shannon informs me in a New York accent and his expressive big blue eyes that, “Being a Port Authority cop, or any cop is no big deal.”
With his hands now talking as if a teacher of sign language, Shannon’s voice gets louder as he explains that people think that cops are like characters on Hill Street Blues, NYPD and those CSI shows. “Hollywood sure does have an imagination, I should write for those programs, you’d be bored to death with the truth, it wouldn’t be so glamorous.”
When asked specifically about his involvement during 9-11, Shannon makes it clear, “9-11 was just another day in the life of a police lieutenant, another day at the job.” He tries not to change the expression on his face or the inflection in his voice as he quickly tells me the story with little to no detail and not much eye contact. “When word got to us at the bus terminal that one of the twin towers had collapsed and they needed men; I went down my rooster and sent ten men, nine of them rookies fresh out of school. They had the most up to date knowledge and knew how to use the brand new Scott Airpack equipment, just like the firemen.”
“I directed the rest of my staff on securing the terminal, calming the public and making ready for further drama and destruction.” A very confident Shannon looks me straight in the eyes and says, “My ten men never made it to roll call on 9-12.” I asked if he had regrets for sending those men? He said “no, it’s my job, and it was their job too.”
“I am sorry for their families and loved ones, but it’s what we sign up for.” Besides the passion for being a cop, Lieutenant Shannon developed another passion, the love of playing the bagpipes.
Ed recalls standing along a sidewalk in Brooklyn, on St. Patrick’s Day, with some buddies at age 12. They watched the local school band march by, the neighborhood rotary group sachet in no particular rhythm and then, like the opening scene of Braveheart came 25 handsome, burly men in kilts and knee socks wearing plaid hats and walking, not marching, with a precise beat and Celtic pride written all over their faces. The pipers filled the streets with the sound of Danny Boy and as they passed each cluster of onlookers, silence came over each and every person. He saw hats come off, tears run from people’s eyes and hands placed on hearts. The sound from the drones of the pipers instrument magically forced Ed to stand up straight as the hairs on the back of his neck did the same.
He remembers placing his hands, palms in, close to his body like a West Point cadet ready to salute. He held his head erect while goofy 12 year old thoughts left his head replaced miraculously with feelings of patriotism, honor, manly hood and ethnic pride. He doesn’t remember exactly what part of that outer body experience changed him that day, but at that moment, Ed Shannon knew he wanted to be a piper.
Officer Shannon played the pipes for thirteen years and then gave it up for ten. During his 13 years he played every year in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. He says he loved playing the bagpipes and always got a kick out of how women wanted to look up his kilt, especially on St. Patrick’s Day when they were leaving an Irish pub. Shannon proceeded to tell me in a very theatrical cockney Irish accent “When you’re an Irish American, a city cop and play the pipes, you really know what’s right in the world.”
He felt it was right, but gave up the pipes for ten years to spend more time with his wife and daughters and earn his Master’s Degree. However, on Christmas 2002 he received a special gift from his family. The card, on the box read, “YOU’RE A PIPER, AND WE MISS HIM”. Inside the box was a chanter, the practice instrument for the pipes.
It took a few weeks on the chanter before he took his bagpipes out of the closet and started to play again. He said that, “all the things I hold dear as a policeman, a father, husband, Irish American and a human being were profoundly felt when I played the pipes. It was good to get that feeling back again.”
Shannon realized something even more profound once he started back. He understood why he didn’t talk about 9-11, why he kept his feelings deep inside. He felt that day was a personal attack on his city, his fellow cops, his men and himself. He chooses not to talk about it.
Shannon attended 33 funerals after 9-11. At all 33 funerals fellow police officers played their pipes. Shannon didn’t get to do that. My biggest regret about 9-11 was that I was not able to bury those men properly by playing Amazing Grace as they entered their final resting place. I did my job as a police lieutenant that day but I failed to do my job as a piper the days and weeks that followed. I know that will stay with me the same way my brothers will never recover from their role in 9-11.
Lieutenant Shannon says he’s a happy man. Why not? He says, I’m a retired cop with a great pension, good health and wonderful family. Shannon is quick to say however when summing up his life to date. “I would have to say that first and foremost, I’m a piper that is what has made me who I am today?” Every time I play a song like Amazing Grace, God Bless America or Danny Boy at a funeral, wedding, birth of a child or the beaches of Aruba I do it for every man woman and child so that they too can feel what I felt as a 12 year old standing along side a curb at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Brooklyn.
It is probably what all those people feel as they follow me past hotels, bars, snorkeling boats and swimming pools down the beach. “I am a piper” says Shannon as he embraces his pipes, gives a smile and wink to his daughter Tara and starts to play his next song.
He moves along the beach again with that precise walk, leaving his footprints in the sand as he goes. The sun is lowering to the horizon and getting a deeper orange in color, the palm trees whistle their own tune and up ahead you see people looking towards the beach whispering to each other. You see men with hats off, volleyball players kicking sand as if waiting for another team and red faced happy hour regulars holding plastic cups as they walk towards the beach. You can spot the war veterans with hands already placed over their hearts alongside children hovering over their sand castles before the next wave takes them away. It’s sunset and their all waiting for Lieutenant Ed Shannon to play his bagpipes… for he is the piper.