Music is the refrain of firefighter's career

Bagpipes: A fire department's `ambassador' is to be celebrated for the honor he has shown to others.

April 08, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

John Michael McCruden has served the people of Baltimore County for 31 years as a firefighter, paramedic and hazardous material specialist. But he's best known for the mournful bagpipes he's played at hundreds of police and firefighter funerals.

McCruden's unwavering willingness to play at those grave sites, dressed in full kilt, has made him a legend in the Fire Department and beyond.

"Firefighter McCruden is the most recognized and most requested ambassador from our department in 25 years," said Baltimore County Fire Chief John Hohman.

McCruden, 59, is recovering from cancer surgery while waiting to officially retire from the department. Before he leaves, he will receive a rare distinction - honorary firefighter status with the Baltimore City Fire Department, in honor of his steadfast devotion to playing the pipes on countless burial details.

"He never turned down any family," said city Battalion Chief Raymond O. Devilbiss Jr. "You asked, he went."

McCruden's bagpipe instructor, Jim Quigg of Baltimore, said McCruden is a "special piper."

"His music has soul," said Quigg, a native of Scotland. "John can march and he can play. You can close your eyes and hear him breathe life into the bag. He can put you under a spell."

McCruden recalled one such ceremony. He was playing at the funeral of Lt. Daniel J. Raskin, 31, who was killed in 1990 when a heavy fire hose fitting exploded into his chest while he was fighting a barn fire with the Chestnut Ridge volunteers.

"He was of the Jewish faith and I was worried that I might not play the proper tunes at the funeral," said McCruden. "At the last minute, the rabbi came up and told me that the family requested `Danny Boy' - as Irish as you could get. Well, I felt like they were being so gracious, really I did.

"So I played `Danny Boy' the very best I could," said McCruden. "Then I immediately broke into `Hatikvah,' the Israeli national anthem."

McCruden's honor before the city Fire Board will be delayed as he recovers from surgery. He entered Good Samaritan Hospital on Wednesday to have a cancerous kidney removed; other treatment and rehabilitation lie ahead.

"I will defeat it," McCruden said, sitting outside his old stationhouse on Falls Road in Brooklandville, the day before his date with the surgeons. "It beats the alternative."

To his wife of three weeks, Liz Nuttle, McCruden's spunk is everyday behavior.

"He is the most unique person I have ever known," said Nuttle, an artist and florist. The couple resides not far from the Brooklandville station, where they raise honeybees.

"We were married on March 15, the Ides of March," she said. "What does that tell you about the guy?"

It barely scratches the surface, those who know McCruden said.

He grew up on Jonquil Avenue, in the shadow of Pimlico Race Course, where he earned money by walking horses after they exercised. His father operated a service station, studied voice at Peabody Conservatory of Music and sang in operas at Lyric Theatre.

"And people say I lack culture," McCruden said.

When the family lived for a brief time in New York City, John McCruden made his first Communion and wore the traditional white suit and shoes. But much to the surprise of the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, McCruden was later spotted by a New York Times photographer who snatched a good photo op - the young McCruden, dressed in his ceremonial finery in Central Park, with a silver-colored cap pistol stuck in his belt.

After the family moved back to Baltimore, McCruden dropped out of high school and joined the Maryland National Guard's 19th Special Forces detachment - the Green Berets.

An artistic exercise

He recalled a training exercise when a team of Special Forces sergeants, including McCruden, were issued 35 mm cameras. They were to learn to take high-quality intelligence photos by attending the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore for a quick course on photography.

McCruden got clear photos all right. Their content was a bit of a problem, though.

"The team was sent out around the city to take photographs and return to the institute to study them with the instructor," McCruden said. "Everyone else snapped shots of trains and buildings. We went down to strip clubs on The Block and captured the dancers. Everyone thought they were great."

After he broke his leg in an Army parachute accident, McCruden signed up with the county Fire Department. At the time, he was engaged to Mary Ann Keogh of Ireland.

But no sooner had McCruden made firefighter than he was suspended for eight months. There was a little matter of 5 pounds of C4 plastic explosive that he had forgotten to return to his military unit.

"The FBI thought that because my wife was from Ireland and I am of Irish heritage, I was aiding the Irish Republican Army," McCruden said. "They accused me of everything from terrorism to not believing in the baby Jesus."

McCruden was eventually cleared and returned to his job.

A tragic loss

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