Woodland String Band honors its military Mummer

Ed Farrell (center), playing his alto sax during the Woodland String Band's 2012 championship performance, returned from military service in the Middle East this year in time to strut in the New Year's Day parade. (Photo courtesy of the Woodland String Band)

SINCE THE Vietnam War era, the Woodland String Band has honored members who are away on military duty by reserving a Mummers suit and a place in the New Year's Day parade for them.

So, when Ed Farrell III returned in July from his third tour of duty in the Middle East, he was a little rusty on his saxophone but he knew that his Mummers suit would be waiting.

Between his duties as a 15-year veteran of the Cheltenham Township Police Department and his deployment in the Air National Guard, Farrell didn't attend enough of the 88 Woodland String Band rehearsals and 41 performances this year to accumulate enough points for the suit.

Instead, he earned it by serving his community and his country.

For Farrell, this isn't the first time.

Tom Loomis, president of the Woodland String Band, said that in December 2003, Farrell had just returned from his U.S. Army Reserve deployment in Iraq when his fellow Mummers surprised him by marching down his street, serenading him with "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and presenting him with his parade suit.

"I remember him standing there, holding his young daughter in his arms as we played," Loomis said.

"He was a turret gunner on a Humvee in Iraq, so every mission was a risk," he said. "To have him home safe and playing with us on New Year's Day was very emotional. He said, 'You have no idea what this means to me.' That's what this is all about - families."

Farrell agreed.

"Those years of deployment were soon after Sept. 11," he said. "We'd just had our second child, so there were two little ones at home. It was comforting to come home and be with family and friends, and get back into the swing of things."

Although the circumstances are drastically different, Farrell, 42, said the camaraderie in the military and in the Woodland String Band have meant a lot to him over the years since he became a Mummer in 1985, marching with his dad, Ed Farrell Jr.

"I'll just keep doing it till I can't do it anymore," Farrell said. "It gives me a reason to get out of the house, get together with the guys, joke around. It's almost like therapy. It relieves stress."

A couple of days ago, during Woodland's most stressful week of the year, one of its dancers, Sammy Harris, said that his wife's friend's friend, who has Down syndrome, wouldn't make it to the New Year's parade for the first time in 30 years because he was recuperating from surgery.

"We heard this at 2 p.m.," Loomis said. "By 7 p.m., we were on his front lawn in Delaware County, playing songs for him. One of our members put a hat from last year's show on the man's head. He can't make it to the parade so we brought the parade to him. You should have seen his smile. We did it for that smile."

Loomis has been Woodland's president for 25 years and is serving his first year as president of the String Band Association.

"I gave up golf," he said. "I gave up bowling. All I do is string bands. I'm 53, but in Mummers years, I'm 92."

He laughed.

"It's all for the passion of mummery," he said. "People who don't see us until the parade think we just pop up on New Year's Day. This is a yearlong thing. We go to each other's weddings, christenings and funerals."

When longtime member Joe "Buster" Rogers died unexpectedly last month, more than 100 of his fellow Woodland String Band members met at the clubhouse, on 3rd Street near Snyder, dressed in black shirts and pants, and walked to the funeral home.

"We walked to a click on the drums," Loomis said. "You could actually hear the footsteps all the way from the club to the funeral home."

They played "You'll Never Walk Alone" and other songs of remembrance.

Later, they marched behind the hearse, down Two Street, past Rogers' home and over to their clubhouse, where they played "When You're Smiling" and other upbeat songs to celebrate Rogers' life.

"Buster was not only a Mummer, he was an Irishman, so this was an Irish funeral," Loomis said. "We're all family. That's the best word for our club. Family."

 


On Twitter: @DanGeringer