According to pipes/drums, an online publication dedicated to bag piping news and information, there are roughly 30,000 bagpipe players across the United States. But since the amphibious dock landing ship USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49) left for deployment there is one less.
That’s because of one man, Lt. Alexander Douglas Paul, a bagpipe playing dentist embarked aboard Harpers Ferry.
Paul uses his bagpipes to bring music to the military, all the while fulfilling his duties as the shipboard dentist.
“On this ship I am attached to Combat Logistics Battalion 13. I am responsible for maintaining green side dental readiness for all three of the ships,” says Paul with a relaxed demeanor. “I am in communication with the other two ships in the ARG [Amphibious Ready Group] to make sure all the Marines embarked are getting the dental treatment they need.”
Paul has always been a dentist at heart, but his love for piping goes back just as far.
“My dad was in the Navy,” says Paul. The coffee in his mug barely moves as he collects his memories. “He played the bagpipes prior to joining the military so I’m carrying on the tradition I suppose. He was a submariner and had the chance to be in Holyloch, Scotland.”
At this point he slows down and gathers his thoughts to continue, “When I joined CLB 13 last October, they had me play for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. I played the Marine Corps Hymn. I’ve played at memorial ceremonies, military funerals, and weddings.”
This past Sept. 11, Marines and Sailors gathered together on the mess deck to pay homage at a remembrance ceremony. Some were dressed in their whites and others in their working uniforms. Paul was dressed in bagpipes.
“I didn’t find out about the Sept. 11th ceremony until the day before it happened,” explains Paul, smiling about the memory. Paul played “Taps” during the ceremony.
“With ‘Taps,’ because it’s not something I typically play [on the bagpipe] I was focused on making sure I played everything correctly,” he said.
It took Paul his whole life to get to the level of skill he is at today. Practicing every chance he can get, even if it means being loud and raucous.
“A few people found my practice area in the vehicle turnaround area,” he says. “It’s not the best condition for the instrument, but I’m trying to balance not disturbing people, with being in a place where I can play and not sweat to death. I have to wear PT [Physical Training] gear.”
“There are two different types of practice with the bagpipes,” says Paul, his fingers fidgeting as if he was playing the notes.
Paul leans back in his chair, his head slightly tilted up. “The other type of practice is just the part you would normally put your finger on to change notes. You don’t have the parts sticking up on your shoulders. It’s very quiet. I can play it in this room, and no one would know what I’m doing.”
And when it comes to knowing his instrument, Paul knows exactly what he is doing with the bagpipes and even the history of it.
Paul explains how the early bagpipes were made from the stomach of a wild animal, which was skinned and turned into the belly of the bagpipe.
He talks about the musical structure with grand hand gestures, more excited with each passing topic. He goes on to explain the tuning of the main pipe and how the other pipes need to be in tune with each other.
Paul then checks the time. He has a 9 o’clock appointment, and he has to get ready. He has a technical job to complete; he is on deployment after all. He utters technical terms to his assistant. His passion for dentistry rivals his passion for playing bagpipes.
As of 2009, the American Dental Association recorded 186,084 professionally active dentists in the United States. That puts Paul on two small lists, one of 186,083 dentists and one of 30,000 bagpipe players but, most interestingly, the only one out to sea on Harpers Ferry.