“Taps”? Bring a Boombox; Buglers Are Scarce

DUBUQUE, Iowa — After Richard Cowart’s father died in 1999, he expected a dignified military funeral for the military veteran.
The service was “superb,” he said, “until somebody turned on the boombox.”

Since a live bugler was unavailable to play “Taps,” the honor guard overseeing the service used a recording.

“It was scratchy with the wind,” said Cowart, a professor at the University of Dubuque. “It was whipping through and making all sorts of weird noises.”

Of America’s nearly 20 million veterans, more than 390,000 died in 2016 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Under federal law, they are entitled to a military honors ceremony, which includes the folding and presentation of the flag and playing of “Taps,” a funeral standard since 1891.

But after the military faced a shortage of buglers, U.S. lawmakers in 1999 authorized the playing of a recorded version of “Taps.”
While not appealing to everyone, the option is one of several that veterans service organizations in the tri-states have utilized as they struggle to locate players.

Many people in the tri-state region possess the ability to play “Taps,” said Nick Lucy, a member of American Legion Post No. 6 in Dubuque and the East Dubuque Drum & Bugle Corps.

The challenge is that few people have time to attend a daytime funeral on short notice.

“Funerals are not planned, as a rule, in advance,” he told The Telegraph Herald.

Honor guards have made accommodations, such as enlisting trumpeters from local high schools and colleges or using musicians who can play non-traditional instruments like trumpets or baritone bugles.
Others have resorted to playing “Taps” using a “ceremonial bugle,” which consists of a cone-shaped speaker inserted into the bell of the instrument.

“We have learned that we act pretty well,” said Jim Knautz, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 5274 in Platteville, Wisconsin.

The post handles 20 to 25 funerals annually but ceased using live buglers about five years ago when volunteers could not be located.
The ceremonial bugle has become its substitute, he said.
“When we put the bugle up to our lips, we puff our cheeks and we look like we’re playing,” Knautz said. “We get comments virtually at every funeral about the wonderful job the guys are doing.”
Post members avoid disclosing to attendees they are using a recording, however.

“We try to make the service as real as possible, and if they think there is something mechanical that we’re doing, it’s not real fitting,” he said. “Some people might get offended, so we keep it quiet.”

Buglers face the embarrassing prospect of making errors while performing “Taps” live.

Sometimes the weather is cold or the ground beneath the player’s feet uneven. The performer’s lip slips, and he or she misses a note.

Platteville police officer Simeon Morell has performed “Taps” twice for a yearly law enforcement memorial ceremony. He recalled the pressure.

“You’re sitting there in a ceremony, and your trumpet is cold,” Morell said. “It’s very hard to get a clean first note.”
An audible mistake shifts mourners’ attention to the player — something to be avoided, he said.

A famous incident occurred during the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, when the bugler, Keith Clark, faltered on the sixth note.
Proponents of the recording say it helps them avoid such errors.
“When you hear ‘Taps’ played by someone who cannot play ‘Taps’ beautifully, it makes you cringe,” said Gerald “Shorty” Burger, a member of the Dubuque Marine Corps League.

Having the ceremonial bugle is “great,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing they ever did.”

Howard Reitenbaugh holds a different perspective. He serves as the national coordinator of Bugles Across America, a volunteer organization, headquartered in Berwyn, Illinois, that dispatches buglers to sites when local players cannot be located. More than 4,100 people participate across all 50 states. The organization fills more than 80 percent of requests.

A wrong note emoted by a live bugler is forgivable, Reitenbaugh said, compared to the mechanical failure of a ceremonial bugle from which there is no recovery.

“Too often that digital horn fails —if someone forgets to replace the battery, or somebody presses the wrong button and instead of sounding ‘Taps,’ it plays ‘Reveille’ or ‘Assembly,’” he said.
Reitenbaugh recalled a service in which the bugler forgot to keep the bell of the instrument elevated.

“He pushed the button, put the thing up to his face,” he said. “That little cone player slipped out of the horn and rolled down the sidewalk still warbling.”

Only a fraction of eligible veterans belongs to the American Legion. Those who do are often of retirement age, but Bill Kubler, honor guard commander at American Legion Post No. 6, does not see younger veterans joining as the older members pass away.

“Too many people look at organizations like the Legion (as if) it’s almost like an old fogies’ outfit,” he said. “That is not the case anymore. The availability of the facilities is open to the public. Our sincerest hope that there is going to be something left or somebody to replace us to do military rights for us.”

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