Twenty-six times last year, Andy Brown hoisted his bagpipes onto his left shoulder and breathed melodies of comfort.
There was the funeral for the Columbia firefighter who had been killed in the line of duty. Brown stood alone playing “Danny Boy” and “Going Home” as the casket left the church. He saved “Amazing Grace” for the graveside.
In Hilton Head, at another service for a firefighter who perished on the job, he joined a band of pipers as they serenaded mourners with Irish music.
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Each song was for a veteran, a police officer or a member of the fire service. They were servicemen like Brown, who, himself, has been with the Myrtle Beach Fire Department since 2009.
Each performance was also a gift: something for the bereaved, a musical tribute to someone with whom Brown’s only bond was a shared commitment to serving the public.
I’m not there for me. I’m not there for the deceased. I’m there for the people that are there. … They find it to be soothing. It’s just important to them as it is for me to play.
Andy Brown, Myrtle Beach firefighter and bagpiper
“A lot of people think it’s support, one way or another, just being there for them,” the 27-year-old firefighter/paramedic said. “If that’s what helps them get through the grieving process on their own, then so be it.”
So it’s fitting that when Brown’s bagpipes broke, those he had soothed sought to help him.
On Jan. 6, Brown noticed a small crack in his bass drone, one of the long tubes that rests on a piper’s shoulder. He cursed, knowing that even a tiny break would make the set sound flat or out of tune.
The firefighter discovered the crack while playing with the Coastal Carolina Shields Pipes and Drums, a group of mostly retired pipers who practice weekly. Brown called his fiance, Emma Barrett, to tell her he was leaving practice early with his broken bagpipes.
By the time he got home, she had already created a GoFundMe page, an online fundraising account that allows supporters to make donations for various causes.
Barrett wrote about the police and firefighter funerals and her fiance’s passion for playing them.
“With our wedding this year it will be extremely difficult for us to purchase him a new set, but that is more [or] less what is needed for him to continue playing,” Barrett wrote. “I’m hoping that with the number of people who have been touched by his playing we can raise money to help him afford a new set. I appreciate any help you can offer to him.”
Initially, Brown didn’t think the idea would work. Who would want to help a guy buy bagpipes?
But the money soon began arriving.
Friends and fellow firefighters chipped in. Anonymous donations appeared. And when Brown started seeing contributions from the family members who’d heard him play at their loved ones’ funerals, he was touched.
Within 14 hours, the campaign had raised enough to purchase a new set of bagpipes. Within four days, it had reached nearly $3,000.
“It was very impressive,” said Mathew Ballard, a firefighter/EMT who works with Brown. “It was nice, since he does that for free, to see that many people step up and really help him out.”
The money will not only allow the bagpiper to purchase a new instrument, he can donate hundreds to a fallen firefighter fund as well.
For Brown, the experience has been both surprising and rewarding.
Originally from upstate New York, he never outgrew his second grade dream of being a fireman. He was volunteering for a New York department in between working with a private ambulance service when he landed his first full-time firefighting job in Myrtle Beach seven years ago.
Brown knew the history of bagpipes and their popularity within the police and fire departments. After arriving in Myrtle Beach, he started taking lessons from a member of a local pipe band. He bought his own set, a used one, in 2010.
A few years ago, he started playing funerals. The task was simple: focus on the music, not the emotion of the event. Sometimes that was difficult. When Myrtle Beach Lt. John Burns died in 2014, Brown struggled playing at his service.
But most funerals weren’t like that. Somber, yes, but often cathartic for those listening to him.
“It’s a very piercing sound,” said Lt. Christian Sliker of MBFD. “But there’s such a tradition. Firefighters love it.”
Brown is the only Myrtle Beach firefighter who plays the bagpipes and one of the few firefighters in the state who does.
That’s why other Palmetto State agencies often ask for his assistance.
It’s a very piercing sound. But there’s such a tradition. Firefighters love it.
Lt. Christian Sliker, Myrtle Beach Fire Department
The local department has supported Brown’s efforts, allowing him to travel across the state and even purchasing a special kilt for him to wear.
The guys on B Shift at Station 1 also enjoy listening to their coworker. On rare slow afternoons, Brown will sometimes pull out the pipes and fill the bay with his soaring notes.
“It’s a good time,” Ballard said. “Everybody has fun with it.”
In some ways, the piping and the job serve the same purpose for Brown.
Over the years, he has been drawn to the paramedic side of the work. He responds to people mangled in car accidents, to those slashed with knives or punctured by bullet wounds and to the ones who have suffered heart attacks and broken bones.
He wants to be the face of calm reassurance, the guy who’s there to help. And when all else fails, he tends to those left behind, the family members trying to comprehend tragedy.
The same is true for his bagpipe work, which he can continue thanks to a grateful community that’s much larger than he imagined.
“I’m not there for me,” he said of the funerals. “I’m not there for the deceased. I’m there for the people that are there. … It’s just as important to them as it is for me to play it.”