"This is warm air powered by a human heart” | The hardest 24 notes in the world

By Brett Cihon

Alone, Bob O’Neil finishes the last notes of Taps. He stands a moment, lowers his trumpet and wipes his brow with his uniformed shirtsleeve. Sobs from the memorial fill the warm April day at the Tahoma National Cemetery.

O’Neil quietly backs away from the group. Within seconds he’s jogging down the cemetery road.

“We have one right now at 2,” he says through heavy breaths. “Then 2:15 and 2:30. I can talk after that.”

O’Neil slows only as he approaches committal shelter number two, one of four shelters where marines, soldiers, sailors, coast guard and their wives and other are memorialized at the National Cemetery serving the puget sound reagion. Three members of the Marine Honor Guard are lined up, waiting for the funeral procession of a Korean War Veteran.

One of the young marines, Lance Corporal Robert Smith, is holding a small bugle with an electronic piece inserted into the brass tubing.

O’Neil walks up to Smith. “Put that away son,” he says.

O’Neil is one of sixteen volunteer buglers in the bugle core at the Tahoma National Cemetery. Four times a month, O’Neil drives from his home in Tacoma to the cemetery to play the 24 notes of Taps for as many as 20 memorial services a day. At the end of each day his feet ache and his mouth is sore from the seven hours of memorial music played. But the retired Lieutenant Colonel finds solace in the fact that he has provided hundreds of American Veteran’s their final song.

He also finds solace in the fact that his fallen comrades didn’t have to hear their Taps from a fake bugle.

“This is warm air powered by a human heart,” says O’Neil, positioning himself for his third service of the day. “The other thing is electronic. It’s not the same.”

The “other thing” O’Neil mentions is what has come to be known as a Ceremonial Bugle. Described on the website www.ceremonialbugle.com as “a dignified method of playing Taps at a military funeral when a live bugler is not available,” the Ceremonial Bugle is a bugle with an electronic disk inserted into the horn. The Ceremonial Bugle allows a servicemen to present the illusion of a live rendition of Taps. The website calls the Ceremonial Bugle and it’s “symbolic playing” of Taps, a more respectful means to honor those who served.

In 2004, a USA Today article quoted Mark Ward, the Pentagon’s senior policy adviser, that about 4,000 fake bugles were purchased for military services. Tom Day, the founder of a nonprofit group Bugles Across America, said   16, 000 Ceremonial Bugles are used at around 35 percent of all military memorials in the U.S. each year. That number is compared to the 35 percent of military services that use a live bugler. The rest, he said, use CD players or do not play Taps at all.

Day started the nonprofit following a 2000 law, that amended The Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, entitled veterans to military funeral honors. The law promises two service members to fold and present the flag to surviving family members and a bugler to sound Taps. If a bugler is not available, the SSCRA reads, a high-quality CD or digital bugle will be used. But Day didn’t think a digital bugle, or sometimes no sound at all – just because the government guarantees it, it doesn’t make it so – was good enough.

“A recording of Taps is what I would consider stolen dignity,” Day said. “A man or a woman who has served their country deserves live Taps.”

Slowly, Day’s organization found the ability to provide live Taps for more memorials. With 65 years in marching and music, Day has watched Bugles Across America grow to 8,000 members strong from his home in Illinois. Buglers as young as 12 and as old as 92, including over 2,500 women, have played Taps at more than 200,000 funerals since 2000. All of these funerals are done by volunteers like O’Neil. No pay, no compensation. Only the knowledge of playing what Day calls Tthe hardest 24 notes in the world while men and women who served the country are lowered into the ground.

There is one tangible benefit, though. Those interested in playing for Bugles Across America receive a free horn. In effort to solidify live Taps, Day and his organization will send a $150 dollar bugle to anyone who wants to join. For beginners he supplies a mouthpiece and various CD’s and instructional books on the bugle. Once someone demonstrates Taps over the phone to Day using the mouthpiece, they’re part of the bugle core. No dues or monthly fees, Day says. He’ll even supply a uniform.

Still heaving from the jog, O’Neil lines up and waits for the funeral procession. A grizzled white hand pats him on the back.

“Where you been?” asks John Way, the Honor Guard Commander from American Legion Post 239 in Bellevue. “You haven’t been slacking off on us again, have you?”

Way is one of ten or so men from American Legion Posts 239, Post 99 in Kirkland and Post 78 in Auburn that twice a month make up the memorial color guard at Tahoma. Aged veterans of WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam make up the memorial honor guard team along with two active duty service members, lead the bevy of memorials. Ambassadors for the cemetery, they watch and speak with the grieving family of the lost veteran. They read prepared statements at the memorial. They issue the 21-gun salute. They hand a rose to the husband or wife of the bereaved.

Opinionated and always with an eye for tradition, members of the memorial honor guard recognize the importance of O’Neil and his horn. Way says there comes a moment in every ceremony right after the guns are sounded and Taps starts to play that he always has to fight back tears.

Veteran James Marr, from Post 99, says that men who gave up their lives in the face of real atrocities and real horrors should at the very least be provided with a real horn at the end of their days.

Having done hundreds of funerals, Alan Schneder of Post 99 remembers private ceremonies when Taps was played from a boom-box.

“It takes away from the whole thing,” he says.

O’Neil says that the services do their best to provide active duty live buglers. The Army and Navy do a decent job of trying to assign a bugler to every ceremony, he says. But since active duty military receive a $50 stipend for each service, O’Neil says, a live bugler is not always fiscally feasible. That’s where active duty service men like Corporal Smith come in. With a feather touch on the nob and his cheeks puffed like a robin, Smith says he imitates a live bugle pretty well. He says the family still has the live bugler effect, and that a ceremonial bugle is better than a boom-box or no Taps at all.

If they used a Ceremonial Bugle at his funeral, he’d be O.K. with it, Smith says.

The funeral procession comes to a stop in front of O’Neil. About 15 cars in total. A woman with gray hair and shaky at the knees needs help walking from the car to the front seat of the service. Her middle-aged daughter guided her to the seat. The daughter hugged her husband and took a seat in the front row. Slowly, other family members filled vacant seats. The old woman shields her eye from the sun.

“This is a good family,” O’Neil says quietly.

Each memorial ceremony is different but strangely the same, Way says. As many as 150 cars have followed an urn to the front of a service pew. And they have as few as one solitary visitor, watching the service in the rain. The service is a great way to help lead people through their grief, help family’s take solace from knowing their loved one was put to rest.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Taps. Civil War Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield wrote the song at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. Like Revelry and so many other songs, it was originally meant to denote a time of the day. In Taps’ case, the song signaled lights out, so that at the first note, worn and dirty Union soldiers were called to head to their beds. But over time the song began to signal a fallen comrade. Played in Arlington National Cemetery and at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the song signals salute for all in the armed forces.

After Way reads a few words he turns to watch the members of the honor guard fire off the 21-gun salute. The old timers have a hard time with the heavy rifles and some misfire. The shots jar the family. After no one speaks for a moment, family members start to look around. Through tears in her eyes, the old widow lifts her head up as if just about to speak.

But standing a ways back, Bob O’Neil brings his gloved hands close to his face. He touches his lips against a silver tube. And air sounds through the horn.