The Williston Whistler

Local man played for Apollo astronauts

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The pace is quick. Bows fly furiously across fiddle strings. Fingers pluck and strum a banjo and a guitar. A wooden tipper strikes an Irish frame drum, a bodhran, to mark the beats.

Just outside the bar area of The Lincoln Inn in Essex Junction, Bill Chambers, 70, is marking the beats, too, as he does every other Wednesday night with the rest of the group that performs weekly for Celtic Party Night. As Chambers fingers the six holes along his tin whistle, both of his white sneakers tap simultaneously to the beat, tapping faster as the pace picks up.

A nearly full pint of Guinness sits on the floor behind his chair. Behind the lenses of Chambers’ glasses, his eyes focus intently on the sheet music in front of him. As the group hits the end of the song, Chambers raises his whistle up in his left hand, exhales audibly, and breaks into a wide smile.

“He practices a lot; you can tell,” said John Dodson, 24, a member of the Celtic music group who has been playing with Chambers for about three years. “He will come to a session with six new tunes … he’s always learning.”

On the Wednesday nights he’s not at The Lincoln Inn, he plays his tin whistle with the band Circadia at Ri Ra The Irish Pub in downtown Burlington. Chambers has taught himself to play over the last 39 months, after having played with musicians who did a lot of Celtic music, he said. Due to mouth surgeries earlier in his life, having an instrument to play with no embouchure – or a mouthpiece that requires a lot of adjustment of the player’s mouth to play – is key for comfort at this point, he explained. Before the pennywhistle, he played the recorder.

For Chambers, who grew up in St. Albans, music has been a lifelong passion.

“I always wanted to be a musician I guess from the time I was five,” Chambers said recently. “Every time I’d hear a band play, it’d be uptown, and I’d be way down on South Main Street – I don’t know, a half, three-quarters of a mile away I’d hear the band. I had to go.”

Chambers said he had to wait until he was 15, when he was in high school, to start playing. His first instrumental music teacher, Sterling D. Weed, who passed away last fall at the age of 104, was well known in the Vermont music world. Chambers’ first instrument resembled a trumpet: the cornet.

“Serial number 11213,” he said, laughing at himself. “Why I remember that one I don’t know.”

When Chambers got a rag caught once in his cornet while cleaning it, Weed told him he needed a horn player so Chambers ended up playing a mellophone or alto horn (which looks like a small tuba) the rest of the year. He went to the state competition playing the new instrument.

After school got out, “the cornet magically appeared again without the rag in it,” Chambers said.

In time, Chambers picked up the tuba, the baritone horn, and the trombone. In 1955 he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

“It was the only place I could make a living” playing the instruments he played, Chambers said. There was little need in symphonic orchestras for the euphonium or baritone horn, he said.

Except for some time away to get married and get a college music degree, Chambers played in military bands until his retirement in 1984.

He started off at Parris Island, near Beaufort, S.C. Then he spent a year in Okinawa. He played in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. For seven years he was based in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Army Band. He played at the White House about 75 times, and at Arlington National Cemetery at least 1,200 times, he said, for funerals of fallen Vietnam War soldiers.

An old tan briefcase carries remnants of his nearly 30 years in military bands. He pulls out a plaque signed by Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin; Chambers was among the band members who played for them in August 1969, upon their return from humans’ first walk on the moon. At that time Chambers was playing in the herald trumpet section.

“That section laid the people’s hair back for about the first ten rows,” Chambers said.

Chambers played at the grand opening of Disney World in 1971, and at President Nixon’s last coronation parade.

The “fun band,” though, Chambers said, was the 33rd Army Band based in Heidelberg, Germany, in which he got to play all over Europe.

“It wasn’t just military music. We could play rock or swing or whatever.”

After his retirement, Chambers tried not playing music for a while, but he couldn’t. He practices virtually every day he’s not performing, his wife Patricia Chambers said.

“He forgets to eat,” Patricia said. “He’ll be out there for hours.”

In the senior living building in which they live, in the winter her husband plays in the corner of a stairwell so as not to bother anyone, she said.

“How many people shut themselves up in a basement corner so they can play?” Patricia said. “It’s like (how) I love my grandchildren, (is how) he loves his music.”