A very short piece from the recently released collection Speaking with Strangers. It’s a story about pageantry and war that was published originally in Miscellany, the College of Charleston literary magazine, using the pseudonym V. Pascoe.
We went to see Her Majesty’s Royal Highland Regiment at the Citadel Field House one early autumn evening. Do you remember? You with your Scots ancestry and I with my fondness for all things male. The band was rousing and disciplined, but it was the pipe and drum corps we came to see and hear. And we weren’t disappointed.
After a warm-up by the band, and without a pause, the pipers marched onto the field house floor, applause mounting. One might almost say they flowed onto the floor. They did not so much march as move like oil to the hum and moan of the bagpipes and the drummers’ haunting, muffled cadence. The corps and their instruments seemed the very essence of manliness—the cockiness of their strut, the Celtic kilts with elaborate ermine codpieces, the bare and knotty knees, the peacock showiness of flowing shoulder tartans, the unyielding drone of the pipes.
They epitomized centuries of going to war, their uniforms binding together those of a kind to intimidate the adversary—vulture feathers like streaks of blood in black, bobbing head gear, leopard skins slung across drummers’ shoulders. How well trained. How beautifully controlled. What awe they would inspire in battle.
Ah, the ancient art of war. The fragile spirit of solitary man inflamed by the pomp and pageantry of the corps, wound like a coiled spring, intense potential power intent on victory. Thus seemed those glorious pipers as they strutted in file across the field-house floor.
But then a terrible imagining overcame me. I saw the Abomination of Desolation overtake this magnificent manhood. I saw modern war, unimpressed by spectacle or skill or courage—unseeing, unfeeling, unyielding, unknowing—blow a hole in the field house floor, ripping apart the pageant. Remnants of men flew through the air, kilts billowing, limbs flailing, grace and order gone, beyond all symbology or retrieval. And I knew at once—as I know still—that war is no more mere sport for men.