Memories and Musings – On Bagpipes and Gunpowder
Alexandria, VA – I get high on the sound of bagpipes.
In much the same way that the smell of turpentine and the sound of fat watercolor brushes being swished in an old coffee can conjure memories of art classes at the High School of Music and Art, the sound of bagpipes and the smell of gunpowder remind me of my early days as a part-time freelance photographer for the Alexandria Packet, now the Gazette Packet.
I still ponder how someone who grew up in Brooklyn, NY, where I never heard a bagpipe or saw a battle reenactment, could get hooked.
I remember that early in my photographic career, I followed the sound of bagpipes, Pied Piper-like, to the door of the Ramsay House Visitors Center on North Fairfax Street. Ramsay House was the headquarters of the Alexandria Tourist Council, the predecessor of what is now Visit Alexandria.
At Ramsay House, I met Barbara Janney (now Barton), executive director, and Diane Bechtol, media relations manager. They had seen my work in the Packet and asked me to come back with prints for possible purchase of publication rights. I brought them dozens of photographs in a 5×7 photographic paper box.
I used to shoot almost all day on Saturday. I would process the film in my home darkroom on Saturday night, print on Sunday, and drop the photos off on then editor Jim Coldsmith’s desk (sometimes on his chair when there was no space on the desk) on my way to my full-time job on Monday morning. I never knew what would be published until I saw the newspaper on Thursday.
Bagpipes still call to me.
When I say I was “freelance,” the operative word is “free.” For the weekend’s work, I was paid $5 per published print! The most I ever made was $50, and that was when their full-time photographer was on vacation. But the Packet provided my film and photographic paper. I could photograph pretty much anything I wanted. I shot many kinds of events and fine-tooth-combed the streets of Alexandria for pictures that begged to be taken.
There is at least one not-so-happy memory from those days. Although I mostly set my list of things to photograph, Coldsmith once identified three things he’d like: a boy scout project at Dora Kelly Nature Park, a new communications bus being used by the Fire Department housed at their Duke Street firehouse, and a new high-rise in “Condo Canyon,” one of the few non-condominiums going up in Alexandria’s West End.
I figured those three things would fit on a 36-exposure roll of film, 12 shots each. I shot all three, but there was a problem, a big problem. I forgot to load the film in the camera! I was beyond embarrassed when I had to fess up and ask the firemen and boy scouts to reshoot (the building didn’t care). The firemen were kind, but the boy scout reshoot never managed to convey any of the enthusiasm it had the first time around.
It was a painful lesson.
The battle reenactments at Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site hooked me on the smell of gunpowder. Well, not just the smell of gunpowder; it was more the entire event. It was the seriousness and dedication of the men and women who set up the camps and reenacted the battles. It was the color and flair of the costumes. It was the beat of the drums and the sounds of the buglers and fifers.
Jeanne Theismann, special assistant to the editor of the Gazette Packet, in her write-up of Wanda Dowell, then director of the museum, as a 2016 Living Legend of Alexandria, wrote:
“Fort Ward, a former Union Army installation located in the West End of Alexandria, was the fifth largest fort built to defend Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. It is now called the Flagship of the Defenses of Washington and one of the best preserved and interpreted.”
Fort Ward hosts Revolutionary and Civil War battle reenactments and offers history education, programs for children, and special events.
As I said at the beginning, I got hooked on the sound of bagpipes and the smell of gunpowder. Maybe that explains why I still like the pipe bands and colonial-garbed troops in today’s parades.
Mosaic artist/photographer Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.
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