On one hand, Lee Lightle is typical. He is a retired trucker, a World War II veteran who lives in as large a house as he can afford in suburban Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Money is always short now that his Disabled Veteran's stipend has run dry, but he and his wife still work odd jobs, making ends meet.
But he is also the Bear and Business Manager of MacKay Pipe Band, a surly bunch of young bagpipers that gather at his house at least once a month to wake up the neighborhood with a piercing skirl as they tune their pipes for the parade of the day. As a member of his band, a member of his adopted family, I know that Lee is far from typical, and I have never met a better man.
On an average summer Saturday morning, Lee pushes his weight up out of his chair when he hears the first carloads of bagpipers arrive. He walks slowly over to his door, taking care not to rush his stiff legs, and watches as the members of his band emerge sleepily from their cars, kilts wrinkled and their eyes glazed with sleep. His round belly shows from between his sweat pants (pulled too low) and T-shirt (stretched too high), and his mass takes up most of the doorway as he holds open the screen door to his house. As his band files past him, he claps each member brightly on the back and pokes fun at them cheerfully, far too cheerfully for 7:30 in the morning. He likes to do this because he knows they are tired, and it is always his game to see who he can get a rise out of.
After awhile, Lee feeds coffee to everyone and continues to poke fun at the slower moving, and soon everybody is awake and talking, forgetting the time. More cars pull up in front of his house, and his living room fills. There is time to kill; Lee lies about what time the band is to show up, partly as a precaution to make sure everybody is there on time, and partly because he likes to spend time with his band.
But then somebody notices the hour, and the Lee Lightle Explosion occurs. Suddenly, Lee transforms from a happy-go-lucky fat old fellow into the owner and the zealous leader of MacKay Pipe Band. He shouts and swears until the house is evacuated and his pipers are packed back into their cars, ready to drive off towards their next parade.
I called Lee just after eleven on a Tuesday night. Normally, it is improper to call anyone at such an hour, let alone a sixty-eight year old man. But I knew he would be awake, sitting in front of his brown recliner next to the phone, reading a book with the TV left on, waiting for sleep to come. Lee is a man of ritual, and this is one he repeats every night, from 11 p.m. to 1:30 in the morning. During the eight years that I have known him, I have never witnessed any deviation from his nightly schedule. I knew that his digital wristwatch would beep at him at 11:30, reminding him to take his third insulin injection of the day, and again at 1 a.m., when it is sleeping pill time. I know this because I set his wrist alarm myself - Timex buttons are too small for an old man's clumsy fingers.
I also knew that Ann, his wife, would be asleep on the couch next to him, that he would wake her up, and that they would be glad I called. Ann, who band members have dubbed "Big Mamma" to mark her as mother of the band, drinks a glass of Blackberry Brandy on special occasions, and when Lee told her that I wanted to interview him, she poured herself a glass.
After talking to him on the phone for a while, our interview started to sound like any of the hundred conversations I've had with him in that living room, drinking warm beer, swapping news, gossip, and tall tales for hours at a time. Storytelling is his element, and for him, the interview was just another story session.
Lee was born into hard times on September 26, 1924 in Germantown, a borough just outside of Philadelphia. He was the only child of a broken home; his father left when he was a baby, and his mother kept the family going by working as a private nurse in wealthier families' homes. "I'll tell you one thing," he said, "you had mashed potatoes, you had potato soup, you had fried potatoes, you ate potatoes. That's all there was."
When Lee was 10, his mother remarried to a hard working trucker named Harry Mowery. Mowery owned and dispatched several trucks, and during an era where jobs were short, the trucks always rolled, and he assured his family that there would always be just enough money to get by. Besides his work, his father had one great love: he was a bagpiper. Mowery learned the pipes as a young man, and played whenever he could with local bands around the area. Though Lee was destined to follow in his stepfather's footsteps, he would never have guessed it - as a child, he hated the sound of bagpipes and wanted nothing to do with them. "It was just a lousy racket, just a lot of noise," he said.
Though life was hard, Lee doesn't remember his childhood with regret; like he often says, he's not one for bitching and moaning about his problems. Instead, Lee has developed a lifelong attitude that may have sprung from the early days when his family had little money: you just do the best you can with what you have and enjoy life as it comes to you.
When he was 12, Lee started his first job working with his stepfather. "During the winter my father would haul coal out of coal mines, and I would have to help carry the coal bags and stuff it down in people's cellar, so that took care of working." For a day's work, which he remembers often lasted from six in the morning until eight at night, he would receive 25 cents. Not a lot of money, but then again, it was enough for a young boy to hop the weekend train into Philadelphia for a nickel movie and a three cent burger. "And fishing doesn't cost much," he said.
Better jobs came later. When he was 15, he and four of his friends would walk to the local country club to caddie for the day. "We would wait until some rich person would come up and then we'd carry the bag. On a Saturday you carry doubles, you go out in the morning and carry two bags, and that got you a dollar and a 25 cent tip. And in the afternoon you'd carry doubles, and that was another dollar, so you'd come home with 2 dollars and 50 cents at the end of the day, so that was really good money."
By the time he entered High School, Lee figured that his future was set. While his friends were faced with choosing a trade school or nervously searching out bread-and-butter jobs - nobody who didn't have money went to college in those days - Lee decided he had nothing to worry about because his father owned trucks and he liked the trucking life. To him, trucking was an adventure, it was independent, and it saved him from having to spend his life in Germantown, Pennsylvania for years on end. Later, when he would return to trucking as an occupation, he enjoyed the life of the road, always meeting new people, always on the road to somewhere else.
But at sixteen, life changed dramatically for Lee, as it did for most Americans in 1941. In December of that year, he went down to his school auditorium with four of his buddies to hear President Roosevelt's "famous speech about the war." From that moment, the five of them realized that they had to enlist as soon as they turned 17 to join the war effort. "It wasn't like the Vietnam War back then," Lee said, "you had to enlist and you didn't want to get drafted because that was like you had to be forced to do what you had to do anyway. And of course our parents were pissed off that we left school, but I told my dad, 'You either let me go or I'll run away and join anyway.' "
His father did let him go, and Lee joined the Army just after his 17th birthday. From 1942 until the end of the war, Lee served as an infantry-paratrooper in the Army's 82nd Airborne. His war career took him from the hot and cold sands of North Africa, up through Italy, to the beaches of Normandy for the D-Day invasion, through Belgium, and as close to Germany as the border of the Rhine river. Over the years, sitting with him in his living room before or after long bagpipe parades, I have heard dozens of Lee's war stories. Most of them have to do with army life, ball busting drill sergeants, the misery of being too hot or cold on the front lines, the constant struggle for good food, or the pranks he and his buddies would play on other members of their regiment.
But the story he likes to tell best is the one that brought bagpipes back into his life. "We were near a place called City of Bella Bess out in the desert on the border of Algiers and Morocco, and at nighttime I heard the weird sound of the bagpipes," he said. "About four of us went down this sandy road, and the sound kept getting stronger and stronger, and it was the Queens Own Highlanders, and they just came out of battle that day and they were playing their pipes and burying their dead.
"So when I got up to the pipers, I sat around with them for a while, drinking tea that night, and the whole thing was too weird, it really got to you," Lee said. "So when I got back that night I got to thinking that if I lived through the war I was going to take up the bagpipes."
Lee did live to fulfill his promise, but just barely. In 1943, after leaving the desert to march through Italy, Lee earned both his purple heart and his disabled veteran's license plate. The details of his war wound are a mystery, and its account is conspicuously absent from his list of wartime stories. When I asked him during the interview to tell me how it happened, he muttered only a few brief words about shrapnel from a hand grenade, and then quickly changed the subject.
Two years after the war, Lee started his next big adventure: his family. He met Ann Schlissfeld at a dance just before Christmas in 1947. "I'll tell you, she was the best thing out on that dance floor. The first time I laid eyes on her, she got right to me," he said. "We did the Jitterbug back then, and boy could she Jitterbug." Lee and Ann dated for a little over one year, and on September 12, 1948, they married.
A few years after his marriage, Lee finally decided to make good on his wartime promise. In 1950, he joined the Ulster Pipe Band of Philadelphia, which was, and still is, the largest and best bagpipe band in the Northeastern United States. The art of playing the bagpipes isn't so much learned as it is passed on from piper to piper, and the teachers and students of great bagpipers are often traced back hundreds of years, like a family tree. The fact that Pipe Major Henry Boyd, the leader of the Ulsters, taught Lee the bagpipes meant quite a lot, and the close involvement they shared with each other in the years to come meant even more. The reputation it brought Lee still follows him, long after he stopped playing the pipes.
But Lee spent only a few short years with Ulster, and before long, trouble began. "They were Presbyterians -- Orangemen all of 'em. What happened was, Ulster was so strictly against Catholics. I brought a friend of mine along who was a piper and they didn't even want to talk to him because he was a Catholic. And that started trouble." The event touched off a series of arguments and divisions within the band, and a few weeks later, Henry Boyd and Lee left to form their own band.
But they found that forming a band on their own was more difficult than they had expected. Though they spent a month playing bagpipes in the streets of Philadelphia, trying to raise money for uniforms and equipment, they raised less than fifty dollars. Finally, Lee's father agreed to put up all the money they needed on the condition that he be made president, secretary, and treasurer of the band, and the First Highland Watch was born.
The First Highland Watch quickly attracted several lone pipers from eastern Pennsylvania, and within a few years was 14 pipers strong. The band bought an old church in the heart of Lansdale to use as their practice hall, and on weekends they opened its doors as a Scottish and Irish Pub called "The Castle." On these nights the practice hall became a dance floor, and local Irish bands came to fill the room with their music. Big Mamma served home-made Scottish meat pies with baked beans to their customers, while Lee poured drinks at the bar.
During this time, Lee returned to trucking, and went out on long hauls as far west as the Dakotas and as far south as Florida. He returned to Lansdale to meet with his band, play the odd parade, and work at the pub, but he spent most of his time on the road. By the time he was 50, after 10 years in the cab of a truck, the cigarettes, the long hours of driving, and the greasy road food started to accumulate into serious health problems. One day, Lee bet a younger trucker that he could beat him from the far side of Ohio to the first Howard Johnson's on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for stakes no higher than a cup of coffee. Though the statewide race was no extreme feat for an experienced trucker, when Lee climbed out of his truck at the trip's end, he collapsed onto the pavement and found that he could hardly walk.
His doctors diagnosed that he had Phribitis, a circulatory disease caused by long periods of inactivity, especially sitting. His legs were already damaged from his wartime wounds, his health was further exacerbated because he was a serious diabetic, and in 1955 he was taken up by the veterans disability program. Despite the pleading advice of his doctors, Lee was a stubborn man and might have continued trucking but for the fact that after his collapse, his company simply told him he couldn't drive anymore. Instead, he was forced to switch to an easier job driving around the city of Lansdale for the city government.
During this time, the health of his pagpipe band also started to decline. Bagpipe bands, which draw their members from a wide range of backgrounds, are subject to tensions that often tear them apart. "You always have talkers and workers. And the talkers outdid the workers and then they ran into problems because they weren't paying their bills. And like politicians there is always someone who gets greedy, and the money starts to disappear and stuff like that, so we just called it quits." In 1970, Lee once again left his pipe band, and within weeks, The Castle was put up for sale and most of the band split apart.
That I know Lee Lightle at all is a result of the fact that the man could never go without a bagpipe band for very long. When a schoolteacher called Lee to tell him that she knew of a fresh pool of young pipers in a high school less than an hour away from his house, Lee snapped back into action. Within months he formed the MacKay Bagpipe Band from a handful of teenage pipers, and within years the band swelled with new members.
When I joined the MacKay band in 1984, I met Lee near the end of his piping days. By this time, he had both of his major veins removed in each leg, he was up to three insulin injections a day, and he popped glycerin tablets like vitamins to keep his arteries open. He underwent several operations since then, one to place a triple bypass around his heart, one to install bypasses into his legs, and another to remove an aneurysm from his stomach. Each time the doctors opened Lee up, they extended their old incisions further down his chest, leaving him with a thick red scar that extends from his sternum to his groin. The doctors don't repair Lee, they just patch him together until something else goes wrong. "I oughta just have a zipper put in, to make it easier for the doctors," he said.
But Lee doesn't like to complain about his problems; he takes life as it comes to him. He wakes up by 8 a.m. to eat a breakfast of insulin, pills, and sugarless cereal. "I can't tell you all the pills I take because, Christ, there's so damn many of them." he said. "I take nine pills: one for my blood pressure, one for cholesterol, one for ... one for ... Awww, I don't know, just to keep me alive, put it that way.
"I don't worry about the future," Lee said. "I learned that in the Army. You shivered out of your foxhole and you know that's one day, and you live for that day and hope everything will be all right. I don't look for the future at all, and I'm not afraid of dying."
Despite his problems, Lee never loses his edge. He strikes one as being both older and younger that he really is: he is a spunky young man trapped within an old man's body. He can out-curse you, out-smart you, and out-wear you, but he can't walk up a flight of stairs without breaking into a sweat.
Lee's stubborn streak keeps him strong, and his cheerfulness keeps him young. But if you ask him, he'll say that he owes his vitality to his family and his band, words that he uses almost interchangeably. At the end of our interview, he put this sentiment into words. "See, I get down in the dumps a lot, and the only thing that picks me up is you guys," he said. "You guys get the needle in me that gets my blood moving. I think I'm the luckiest man in the world, because I don't have money, but if friends was money, I'd be a millionaire because I have you."
Unfortunately, one of the effects of his failing health and frequent operations is that he can no longer inflate his bagpipes, much less play them. But his love of the bagpipes lives on vicariously through his band, At every practice, at every parade, at every concert, Lee is waiting on the sidelines, watching his band perform with a glint in his eye: "They are my whole complete life, the pipes are, and I just ... well, that is my world."
Lord Lovat's Lament.