Although he wasn’t around the piping scene as much for the past few years, the late John Watson, Sr., was one of those guys who, even after a few years, seemed to pick up right where you left off. He had a great heart just below his rough surface.
I remember what had to be among my first band practices after immigrating to Canada. I didn’t know John enough even to know that he was “Old Man” to everyone by that point, and he certainly didn’t know me. I was just standing there with my pipes at this dreadful remote outdoor location on Eglinton Avenue East in Scarborough. The glamourous reigning World Champion band was allowed to practice without harassment at the now-defunct Knob Hill Farms grocery chain’s headquarters. Just the odd car driven through the band.
“What the hell are you looking so sad about?!” he barks at me while I was, I thought, just standing there.
“Um, I don’t know. I’m just standing here,” I say, wondering if I was at the right band practice.
“Jesus! You look like someone just died!”
“Oh. Um, well, I’m fine. Sorry. What’s your name?” I ask trying to smile.
“You don’t want to know!” he says.
And it went on I think a bit more like that, until I gave up, later asking a few others what his deal was.
We got off to a rocky start, but I quickly came to like Old Man Watson, particularly when he was a solo piping steward. He preferred the Open Piobaireachd the most, he said. Old Man admitted that he didn’t understand the music, but always knew that when “that part with the guys coming over the hill waving their swords [i.e., the crunluath variation] starts, it’s – whoops – time to go get the next player.” I loved that.
He was able to identify the competitors who would try to hide when their turn was coming, and make sure that he ferreted them out and threatened to DQ them if they weren’t ready. No messing about.
A few years ago I ran into John at a Crappy Tire store near to where I work. He and a friend had on very serious dark suits and ties. He liked like Tommy Lee Jones’s stand-in in Men In Black. He told me that he was working part-time for a mortuary, “You know, haulin’ out dead guys.” He seemed to like the job a lot. I never did ask what he was shopping for.
Old Man Watson: one-of-a-kind.