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Lone piper and his haunted past

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I was walking in Assiniboine Park last Saturday morning with some friends when we heard bagpipes.

It was 8:30 a.m. -- a strange time to hear a piper in the park.

Somebody was piping Garry Owen, the music Gen. George Custer ordered played as his U.S. 7th Cavalry rolled toward the so-called last stand at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

I looked, and off in the distance there he was, standing by a picnic bench near the cricket pitch.

The lone piper.

But apparently he wasn't alone. Someone else appeared to be lying on the picnic bench. There was something about the music and the lone piper that was drawing me to him. I wondered who he was and why he was there.

By the time we reached the picnic bench he was seated, playing a chanter and serenading a woman who was still stretched out on the table.

Actually, there were two other women on the bench. They were pictured inside the bagpipe case with a small American flag wrapped around the handle. One photo was of the courageous aviator Amelia Earhart, the other Custer's wife, Libbie.

Then, like piping in the park, I heard something else I wasn't expecting.

"I know you," the piper said.

Whereupon he introduced himself.

"I'm Gary Watkins."

"Gary," I burst out smiling.

With that, I wrapped my arms around him as if I'd found a long-lost brother. And in a way, I had.

-- -- --

Gary Watkins and I played hockey together for one season at Bourkevale Community Club. He was one of those naturals: a tough, darkly handsome kid with fire in his eyes who eventually would be placed on the Detroit Red Wings protected list.

But instead he ended up in the Vietnam War.

I knew that, but it wasn't until we met a few days later across the footbridge at the Joe Black Coffee Bar that I learned the rest of the story. He said the Red Wings had wanted him to report to play junior hockey in Flin Flon. Gary wanted to see the world.

"I didn't know there was a war at that time," he said.

So shortly after his 18th birthday on a November night in 1964, he snuck out of his parents' St. James home, destined for an American military recruiting office in Grand Forks, N.D. To do it, he engaged the help of his best friend.

"I told my dog not to bark," he said, "and I climbed out the basement window."

The U.S. Navy took him and, sensing he was tough and a natural in another way, sent him to a so-called school for escape, resistance and evasion on an island in Washington state.

It was a mock prisoner-of-war camp, with a twist.


And humiliation.

Gary and the others would endure the prospect of voluntarily crawling in a corner and barking like a dog.

"They would do it," Gary explained, "so they wouldn't have to go back in the coffin."

The coffin?

"Yeah they would put us in coffins."

Gary remembered how he had to cross his legs and kneel, then the coffin would be closed on top of him.

Instinctively, Gary used mind control to endure the hour or what felt that long. He focused on the only thing he knew by heart: the Lord's Prayer.

It's not that he was religious, it's just that he'd heard it every morning at Assiniboine School, and now he was repeating it over and over again inside the coffin.

Meanwhile, the constricted blood flow from kneeling in the coffin left him numb from the waist down.

"What it taught me," he said of the experience, "was my inner core and who I was."

What the 19-year-old had found at his inner core was molten anger.

And this is how he felt when he crawled out of the coffin.

"Go ahead, shoot me."

Gary Watkins was ready for Vietnam.

When he got there he would be assigned to be a rear-door gunner on a shoot-and-destroy helicopter that ferried Navy Seals back and forth in the Mekong Delta.

He would survive crashes and firefights. And just over a year after he arrived, he would leave with the kind of numbness of the mind that comes from carrying the psychological weight of all the coffins his buddies would never crawl out of. And a feeling of impacted guilt "that I could have done more," he said.

That's his connection with Custer and the reason he carries Libbie Custer's photo. Because of her own anger at the officer who didn't do more when the general sent a message asking for support.

But there's another connection; Gary knows the feeling of being surrounded in a firefight and what goes through your mind.

First you hope your firearm won't jam. Then you hope you're not going to run out of ammunition.

And finally?

"You hope you're going to have a bullet left for yourself."

By 2004 Gary had three university degrees, two grown daughters, was divorced and was on the road most of the year with his bagpipes, living out of his rust-rimmed truck. It was that year, somewhere in Montana, that he hit the end of the road emotionally.

"I couldn't get out of the truck."

He found a veterans' hospital in California where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and granted a disability pension. This is how he described the feeling or lack thereof: "Life becomes a flat screen. All three dimensions are gone and you can't feel.

"That's the situations I have with relationships. I can't feel."

That made me wonder about the woman on the picnic bench.

"She loves me," Gary said. "But I can't give her what she wants."

And then he said this: "I would have to consider myself a human tragedy."

-- -- --

I drove Gary over to Bourkevale Community Club and parked beside the hockey rink where we both played as kids. Where he once found the happiness he said he can't find anymore.

But as we talked, Gary acknowledged something: Despite his emotional numbness, he is happy when he's playing the bagpipes because he sees the joy it brings others.

He's happy when he reaches out with his music.

The way he did that early morning in the park when I was walking by and his piping drew me to him.

It was near the end of our three hours together that I decided I needed to tell Gary how I felt about him.

"You're not a human tragedy," I assured him. "You're a human triumph."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2011 B1

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