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The Last 24 Notes

Tom Day and the volunteer buglers who play ‘Taps’ at veterans’ funerals across America

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By MATT LABASH
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Berwyn, Ill.
Tom Day is not a man given to extravagance. He thinks he’s living high on a reporter’s nickel if he orders a beef sandwich to go at the local Buona sub shop. He shops at Goodwill every Sunday, hoping to pick up bargains, like his handsome $35 suits. But if there’s one superfluity that Day especially can’t abide, it is that of empty rhetoric.

Getty Images

Getty Images

There’s been a lot of talk about “the troops” the last many years: Supporting The Troops. Hugging The Troops. Splitting A Malt With The Troops. (At least when not Forgetting The Troops, hurriedly paging past the “Faces of the Fallen” feature in your local paper to get to the movie listings.) The talk usually comes from helmet-haired cable anchors or men with soft hands who type things for a living. They use those who serve like polemical mascots, to run up the score either for or against the war of the moment. But to Tom Day, “duty .  .  . honor .  .  . sacrifice” aren’t just Memorial Day buzzwords that trigger the Pavlovian anticipation of picnic foods and mattress-outlet sales. 

They are words that actually require something of him, the dwindling resource you can’t buy more of: time. For the 73-year-old former Marine serves those who serve. Or rather, he serves those who have served. Day is the man who, both on his own and through the 7,500-plus volunteers in the organization he founded, Bugles Across America, has saved the tradition of playing live “Taps” at military funerals.

When Day was a 10-year-old kid, steeped in the thriving drum and bugle corps culture of mid-century Chicago, he first volunteered to blow “Taps” for a returning Korean War casualty. Since then, he has personally played over 5,000 funerals. All on his own, with no recompense from the military or from the family for whom he is playing. On average, he estimates, it costs him about five hours for every funeral, from the time he turns the ignition in his driveway until the time he returns home.

He always arrives early to “find my echo” (sizing up the acoustics of the church or cemetery for desired effect), though “in 5,000 funerals,” he says, “I think only four were on time.” And then there’s the additional time he spends practicing his bugle, getting a haircut, polishing his brass, shining his shoes, making sure there’s no finger-print smudges on the bill of his lid. It’s essential to “be squared away,” as he puts it, ever the Marine, in order to pay proper respect both to the deceased and their families. Doing the math, one figures Day has spent a good three solid years of his life standing at the gravesides of strangers, blowing the last 24 notes they’ll ever have played for them above ground. 

But what to some might seem like a nice gesture or a morbid hobby was transformed into high calling in 2000. It was then that federal legislation passed stipulating that every honorably discharged veteran had the right to at least two uniformed military personnel to fold and present the flag, and to sound “Taps” at their funeral. Day thought this was good. The bad news, the fine print added, was that if a bugler could not be found, a recording should be used.

Finding a live bugler proved a mathematical impossibility. With 1,800 vets dying every day (at one point, World War II veterans were dying at the rate of one every two minutes), the military had only 500 buglers to share the load. Day estimates there’s considerably fewer now, with general cutbacks and sequestration. Honor guards were thus initially directed to bring boom boxes to funerals, looking to stealthily place CD players behind tombstones, as they prayed the disc didn’t skip or scratch, that the batteries didn’t fail, or worst of all, that instead of “Taps,” they hit the wrong track and accidentally played “Reveille.” “Sounds funny, but it’s happened,” Day growls. 

To add greater insult, the Defense Department then introduced what it calls “ceremonial bugles.” In the venerable Pentagon procurement tradition of the $435 hammer or the $600 toilet seat, the digital bugles cost $530 a throw, and many purists/people-with-taste consider them abominations. Day’s volunteers, when they call them anything printable, tend to refer to these as “fake bugles,” while Day himself just calls it “The Device.” As one Navy musician tells me, “This is it, it’s the last song. Your veteran is dead. And it looks like you’re playing him off with something from Toys’R’Us.”

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