It started for Frank Hudak in the dark, lonely days before D-Day.
Hudak was a radioman in the U.S. Navy, barely 18 years old, not yet aware of the horrors that awaited him on a Normandy beach.
Hudak was awaiting orders while stationed temporarily in Scotland in 1944, a stranger in a strange, mysterious land. And one of the strangest and most mysterious things he came upon as he awaited his orders was the haunting sound of the pipes — the quintessential, heart-piercing sound of the Scottish bagpipe.
He fell in love with that sound and made a vow. He would learn to make that sound for himself. And he would share that sound and the feelings it evoked in him with the rest of the world, should he survive whatever hell was coming his way.
That was the second time Frank Hudak fell in love. The first time had happened two years earlier, in high school, when he first caught sight of Emily Moore. She was the love he came home to and married after the war’s end.
Janet Whalen is the oldest of Frank and Emily Hudak’s four children. She’s also the pipe master of the Amerscot Highland Pipe Band, which is the name her dad gave the outfit he formed in 1965. The band is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“Amerscot is my father’s legacy,” Whalen said last week during a break in the band’s rehearsal outside Dutchess County’s Staatsburg Fire Department building.
If you’ve attended the Saugerties Fourth of July parade within the past 45 years, you’ve seen the Amerscot Pipe Band in action. You’ve heard the high, skirling sound, felt the band’s stately cadence steal into and match your heart’s rhythm.
Whalen calls it “barbaric” music, by which she means there’s something inescapably elemental about those keening sounds, the flittering snare drums all marking silvery time to the giant bass drum. It’s music utterly unlike any other.
Whalen fell in love with the pipe at an even younger age than her father — she was 10 years old when she began to play in 1958.
She was shocked to discover that though she could practice with the Yonkers Kilty Pipe Band her father had joined after the war, she couldn’t perform. There was a problem:
“I was a girl,” she recalled with a shake of her head that said she still could hardly believe such a thing.
Her dad counseled his daughter to keep practicing. Life was unpredictable, he told her. Maybe one day…
That day came in 1960, when the 12-year-old Whalen was allowed to join the band after her maternal grandfather died. Her induction into the band was granted in hopes that she would one day carry on the family tradition.
Whalen has fulfilled that role like few others can claim. She’s been pipe master of the Amerscot since 1997, when her dad retired from the position. And she’s made sure the mantle will pass to her own children and grandchildren.
Thoughts of past and present swirl together like a Highland cascade when Whalen talks about Amerscot: memories of how her IBM-er father recruited band members by practicing in the company’s parking lot at lunchtime, of how her grandson was recruited like a prize high school quarterback and given a full college scholarship for his drumming abilities.
If Whalen has a single, summary message for people curious about what piping is or can be, it’s simple: there’s no better way than to come on and join the band.
“You don’t have to read music. We’ll teach you how to play. You don’t even have to be Scottish — my dad was Czechoslovakian.”
Her days with the band, then and now, have been nothing less than a “fantastic journey.”
“All the wonderful memories of parades, performances throughout the years, friendships formed and the joy of watching students become musicians — all priceless.”
Whalen’s fantastic journey is far from over, as anyone will be able to tell you after they see her and her charges, 32 pipers and drummers strong, marching through Saugerties village come the Fourth of July.