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
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.”
The digital bugle allows a funeral detail to hold up what looks like a real instrument. But in its bell is
“God, that’s kind of stupid,” Day said to himself of the new policy. “So I called up the Pentagon and said, look, I’ll find some horn players for you.” The Pentagon’s attitude, he says, was initially a humoring, “Okay, you go ahead and do that, bugle boy.” To which Day said, “Yeah, that’s what I am.” And so, Day knew what he had to do.
Nearly 8,000 volunteer “Taps” players later, Day has done just that. To be sure, it’s a drop in the bucket. At last count, there were 16,000 digital bugles in use throughout the military, and in 2010, they were responsible for “Taps” sounding at 185,000 of 236,000 requested military funerals. But to many vets’ families, hearing human players on real horns is still important. And Day’s friends at the Pentagon now tell him that his Bugles Across America (BAA) is covering around 35 percent of all live “Taps” playing throughout the nation, making BAA perhaps the most desirable subcontractor ever, as its service doesn’t cost the military a penny.
Day originally recruited horn players through his national network of friends, from a life spent around drum and bugle corps, as well as in the military (Day pulled an eight-year hitch in the Marine Corps, and later did a stint with the Navy Reserve after the Marines said he was too old when, in his forties, he tried to reenlist). “Marching and music are my life,” Day says. In his spare time, as a retired state lottery worker, Day still does everything from judging the music units of JROTC groups for Chicago schools to helping organize the city’s Memorial Day parade.
BAA started attracting media attention shortly after 9/11. He was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and on the network news. The pieces helped swell his ranks. But the nonprofit operation, run on a donor-based shoestring budget out of Day’s cramped basement in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, turns mostly on word-of-mouth: from funeral directors, stretched-thin military honor guards, and with direct requests from families who want some momentousness lent to the last moments they’ll spend with their loved one.
I meet Day one summer morning at his working-class burglar-barred bungalow. All silver-haired and square-angled, his fire-hydrant build is still gunnery-sergeant solid from the daily morning workouts he puts in on his ski machine and Ab Coaster. His house, however, seems an unlikely nerve-center for “Taps” HQ. The dining room is arrayed with American Girl dolls, which his third-grade-teacher wife collects. There’s also an ever-growing mob of stuffed pandas, which they both find captivating. “I don’t know what the hell to do with them all,” says Day. “But I like pandas. They’re black and white.”
Descending into his wood-paneled basement office with a low drop-ceiling, every square inch seems to be competing with the next for justification. Everything is in its place. Still, it is wall-to-wall exercise equipment and military collectibles (toy soldiers, uniform hats on mannequin heads) and musical paraphernalia (bugles and trumpets, bugle-shaped lamps, the lyrics to the old Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” papering the wall), with gobs more random memorabilia (model cars, Grease posters and dolls, more pandas).
It is here where he oversees BAA, keeping in touch with his 50 state directors, all of whom are volunteers, arranging to send horns he buys off eBay to players in need, or to audition new players over the phone. Day is not dictatorial, and is even eager to spread the publicity around. “Do good things and tell people about it,” he tells recruits. The more people know, the more will join, he figures.
‘Taps’ by Tom Day
‘Taps’ by G.P. ‘Chip’ Stickler
But the one thing neither he nor his state directors will countenance is players who can’t blow a clean “Taps.” The performance is too high-stakes to gamble on. Day himself, ironically, doesn’t even read music—perhaps one of the only people inducted into the Buglers Hall of Fame who can’t. But he puts a premium on musicianship. He has an eccentric Vietnam vet in Florida who calls about every month to audition. He fails every time. Day sent him a horn just to be nice, but he still won’t let him play BAA funerals. “This is a onetime deal, and it’d better be good,” says Day.
Once a player makes the cut, he or she is put in the BAA database. When an email request from BAA’s website comes in—and they’re constantly streaming in (50 or so do on the day that I’m at his house)—all horn players within a 100-mile radius of the request are informed, and someone usually steps up to play the funeral, sometimes driving hundreds of miles at his own expense. Day’s players run the gamut. They are former military, as well as lifetime civilians. Ages have ranged from 11 to 102. They’ve been construction workers and chefs and songwriters for the Oak Ridge Boys. They play in all manner of conditions, from a scorching golf course in Mesa, Arizona, to a frigid cemetery in Erie, Pennsylvania, where 40 angry geese erupted from under a snow drift during a 21-gun salute.
Day himself has seen all manner of curiosities at funerals, and relates the grim particulars with the gallows smirk of a man who has spent much time around death. He respects it, but unlike the amateur, is not made overly reverential by its presence. There was the woman at the black church who, in a highly emotional state, tried to jump into the casket with her veteran uncle. “She jumped like a halfback would over the line into the end zone. They were taking the casket out, and she wanted to be in there,” he says. A burly funeral director was standing beside it. “The big guy catches her in midflight,” he marvels. “She’s kicking her feet and everything. I thought, ‘Holy God.’ Luckily, I played before she did the jump.”
Then there was the woman who approached the casket, looked at her deceased loved one, and started screaming, running frantically to and fro. “I thought she was going to fall,” Day says. “I put my horn down, grabbed her, and said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ”
“That’s not my mother,” said the woman. “They’ve got the wrong person in the casket.”
Another time, when Day was firing a three-shot salute in honor of the deceased (in addition to playing “Taps,” he often brings his own World War II-era M-1 rifles for such purposes), the bayonet shot off, arced high into the air, then descended in what looked like slow-motion, impaling the ground just six inches from the priest’s foot. The priest later congratulated Day for handling the mishap gracefully, saying, “I can’t wait to get back to Aurora to tell the nuns how the bugle player tried to kill me.”
Day tells these stories with lightness, but takes no vet’s funeral lightly. Though most of the time he’s playing for strangers, he writes down the name of each one of the deceased in a log that he keeps on his desk, as though attempting not to forget the people he’s never known. Some funerals are easier to remember than others.
Day has spent the bulk of his adult life teaching kids the ins and outs of drum and bugle corps. (In the seventies, when living in California, he even helped cofound the Anaheim Kingsmen, who went on to win the first Drum Corps International world championship.) About a decade ago, Day coached a group of Boy Scouts in a drum and bugle corps in nearby River Forest. The Scouts aged out and moved on. Some even joined the military.
But one day, about five years ago, Day was about to play a funeral. One of his former Scouts, Joshua Harris, came to the funeral, and said, “Hey Gunny, can I play ‘Echo Taps’ with you?” He had learned “Taps” from Day, himself. They played together that day. Then played a couple more funerals together.
Six months later, Josh, now 21, shipped out for Afghanistan. “He was riding in his vehicle,” says Day. “They blew the front end off. He and his buddy were killed. His parents called me to play. I thought, ‘Holy mackerel.’ But I’ve got to do it.” Day told his wife, Donna, to stand graveside beside him with water, “in case I fall apart.” While a military bugler usually plays “Taps” in about 40 seconds, Day believes in playing slow, taking up to a minute and 10 seconds, wringing the sad, sweet melancholy out of every last note.
He was worried he’d chip a note, bugler-speak for screwing up, as John F. Kennedy’s “Taps” bugler, Keith Clark, famously did, after standing in the drizzle for three hours at Arlington National Cemetery while waiting to play. Some called Clark’s a mistake, but Day prefers to think of it as a “bugler’s tear.” With Josh’s family and many of the former 14-year-olds from Josh’s old Scout troop in attendance, Day tried with all his might to play “Taps” for the kid that he’d taught to play “Taps”: “I got that first note out. A couple people started crying. The next phrase—more people. By the time I finished notes 22, 23, and 24, at least 100 people were crying. And me, too. That was something. That was really something. That was the worst funeral I’ve ever done. And that includes my mom’s and dad’s.”
Generally speaking, Day is a glass-half-full kind of guy. He was introduced to music as a 7-year-old. His father Joe (whom Day still idolizes) was a swashbuckling Marine biplane gunner and pilot who died at 92. He did everything from sparring with Joe Louis to swimming with Johnny Weissmuller to helping start the Civil Air Patrol in Illinois in the forties. But his greatest feat, in Tom’s eyes, might’ve been the time he safely landed his Luscombe Silvaire in the tractor furrows of a cornfield without even telling his son that they’d run out of gas.
When his father drove Day up to the Norwood Park Fieldhouse for his first round of drum and bugle corps practice, he eased the reluctant boy out of the car, then quickly drove away. Day was given a pair of decrepit cymbals. “They were the cruddiest things,” he recalls, but “I thought, oh, this is great, because I liked to shine shoes.” Day took the cymbals home and shined them up for hours with glass wax and brasso, playing them until his parents’ ears bled.
“There’s something about taking a piece of crap, and making it look good.”
In one way or another, that’s what Day’s been doing his whole life. In the Marines, he arrived at Parris Island already knowing how to take apart and reassemble an M-1 with his eyes closed. His drill instructor wanted to know what gives. “I grew up in Chicago,” he told him. “We all had M-1s.” His DI said, “Okay, wiseguy.” But from then on, says Day, it was: “If you have a job, give it to Tom.”
Which is how it went in the corporate world as well. In a lengthy postmilitary career that involved a series of jobs in the financial sector, one of his first was working for a seedy small-loan company, where the former Marine was drafted to do collections in Cabrini-Green, once considered the city’s most dangerous housing project. Figuring he could use some rosary beads while praying for his safety, he stopped in at a religious store. There, he noticed cleric’s collars on sale for seven bucks. “Give me two,” he told the clerk. After that, he did collections as “Father Tom.” Not only did he never get roughed up. But some of the neighborhood toughs even guarded his car.
Each morning, after working out on the Ab Coaster, but before practicing his bugle, Day walks for three blocks around his neighborhood with his daughter, donning rubber gloves to pick up trash and the used prophylactics discarded by amorous visitors who’d parked there the night before. Most would curse God, or at least the local police. But Day counts it a blessing that at least such reckless people are using birth control.
The daughter, 31-year-old Julie, still lives with Day and his wife. She has cerebral palsy, autism, and an inoperable cyst on her brain. I spend several hours with her while I’m at Day’s. She’s funny and lively. She calls her dad “Uncle Tom,” just because, he says, “it pisses me off.” She’s adopted his PG-13 gunny-sergeant language—every other exclamation taking the form of “What the hell?” And she’s known, when riding down the road with Day, to flip an index finger instead of the bird, confusing passing motorists who look up to the sky, as though she’s directing their attention to something that they’re missing.
Julie is also a rich diet. She tries to finish Day’s sentences and shoves papers at him, attempting fruitlessly to be helpful while he’s being interviewed by me. She boosts a camera case out of my reporting bag, and it’s not altogether clear she intends to give it back. Day says that at one point, a few years ago, she started shattering picture frames, using the glass to cut herself for whatever reason. When he took her to a doctor-recommended shrink, the shrink tossed them from his office, insisting brusquely that he couldn’t treat people with “special needs.”
“Come on, Julie,” Day said. “We’re doing this on our own.”
Day adjusted her meds, with experimentation, and she is no longer cutting herself. She’s even started coming to funerals with him again. He’s brought her to 65 or so, over the years. By this point, he says, she knows how the flag should be folded, and corrects the honor guard if she thinks they’re standing in the wrong place. He says it’s important to take Julie to these places, to expose her to life.
I tell Tom that this sounds like a curious thing—exposing Julie to life by having her stand graveside as he plays “Taps.” Day says it’s not as strange as it sounds. She loves the ceremony and watching her dad play. She likes collecting pinecones in the cemetery for her mother’s school projects. And it’s essential to him that she see her old man bring comfort to others in their darkest hour by “putting warm breath through metal.”
He wants her to understand that important things take time and real effort. Many choose push-button convenience. “You’ve got your phone, and your digital bugle, and you’re all automated,” he says. “Get the job done as quickly as you can with the least amount of problems,” Day says, mocking the digital bugler. “ ‘Oh, I did three funerals today and pressed a button, and by golly, I sure feel good at the end of the day.’ Well, that’s their feeling, not mine. I put some air through a horn. I show up in perfect uniform. And I help that family get through that final time with their veteran. You got your digital, you jumped in the car and drove off. But there’s no feeling, there’s no heart.”
Day stays until the bitter end of each funeral, every single time. He stays until after the flag is presented, and friends and family head to their cars. Though when invited to a post-funeral meal by the family, he always declines. He wants their last memory to be of him playing perfectly, not of “me getting spaghetti down the front of my uniform.” “Taps,” he says, “is my 24-note prayer. The preacher can talk. But my prayer for this veteran is my music.”
Day also wants Julie to see his “Taps”-playing life, because Day is afraid of death. Not of his own end, necessarily. But of how she’ll cope once he’s gone. Lately, at 73, he’s feeling the ruthless reminder of the actuarial tables. “I’m scared every day, because what am I gonna do? How am I gonna have her squared away?” Day has made arrangements with the group Helping Hands, an organization that assists people with disabilities. So she’ll have a place to live. But on a deeper level, he says, “You realize that, hey, not every cylinder is working in the right fashion. But she’s my daughter, and I love her. And the only way I can show her that I love her is to accept her and have her help with certain projects. My theory is if I take her every place I go, and expose her to all kinds of people, that whatever sinks in is how I can educate her on survival when I’m gone.”
Julie already knows how Day wants to go. He wishes to be cremated, his ashes commingled with his father’s, both of them “dumped over a wall down at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Not in the ground. Not in a container or anything. Just out. Because I’ve done a lot of funerals there. I want to be with all the guys I’ve buried.”
The sound of this makes Julie strangely buoyant, as she’s watched Day play away plenty of them. “You’re going to be like coffee [grounds], Uncle Tom!” she cheers.
On a muggy August afternoon, I enter the grounds of Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland. Since Day didn’t have any funerals scheduled while I was in Chicago, I’ve come to see BAA in action and am here to meet G. P. “Chip” Stickler, Day’s Maryland state director. Chip, a former jazz studio musician, is the instrumental music instructor at Broadfording Christian Academy in Hagerstown. I get there an hour early. But Chip, crisply attired in BAA’s dress uniform after driving 80 miles on his own dime, got there an hour earlier still, to warm up and find his echo, with the brass and nickel-silver of his custom-made Bach Stradivarius bugle gleaming in the sun.
We’re joined by two of BAA’s youngest comers, “the future,” Chip calls them. Both bugle for their Boy Scout troops. There’s 11-year-old Avi Chittum, who wears tzitzit under his Boy Scout uniform. He cut out early from his Hebrew academy on the first day of school to be here today. And there’s 13-year-old Jonah Mittelstadt, also in his Scout uniform, who says, “I’ve always wanted to honor my country, and this is a great way to do that.” When Jonah said he wanted to play “Taps” for vets at funerals, his parents took it seriously enough that they made him practice for a year before even letting him audition for Chip (which he passed). Though the boys bring their horns, they’re just observing today. Chip dispenses all sorts of tricks of the trade to the boys: how to stand at parade rest, why you should rub dryer sheets all over your head before playing (to keep the gnats out of your nose). But he tells me he’ll probably have the boys observing funerals for a good year before they’re allowed to fly solo. With the task at hand, there’s no such thing as too much preparation.
Before the funeral party arrives, a three-person Coast Guard honor team does. They look fresh-scrubbed and nearly as young as the Boy Scouts. They go through flag-folding dry runs, and coordinate with Chip on his cue to play. Chip and the boys then take their positions about 75 feet away, next to a cemetery border hedged with Leyland Cypresses, doing its best to blunt the busy indifference of a nearby office park and Taco Bell and Kohl’s.
A group of 15 or so friends and family arrive. They have gathered today to bury Frank Scordato, who was a U.S. Coast Guard ensign. Since I’m asked by Chip to stay a fair distance away, out of respect for the family, and since it’s bad form to interview funeral attendees when you aren’t technically invited, I know no other details of the man’s life, including the age at which he died. The Washington Post death notice was no help, and when I ask Chip for more biographical details, he says, “You know what I know.”
Chip gets his cue, and with the Scouts by his side, he blows a clean, mournful “Taps.” Like Day, he plays it slow, holding out a full eight-count between each bar. “As a piece of music,” Chip tells me, “It’s not hard. Yet it’s the hardest possible thing to play. It’s basically a chord. But when you’re playing that as a trumpet player, you’re not concentrating on the arpeggio but on the man in the casket. That makes it the hardest 24 notes.”
The honor guard doesn’t seem as emotionally freighted. After folding and presenting the flag, they’re off to the car before the minister even does his part. I’m told military honors were uncharacteristically conducted at the beginning, so they wouldn’t have to sit through the entire service. The world waits for no man, even at his own funeral.
After the service concludes, the pesky journalist in me is still itching to connect to Scordato’s story, to hang his life on some sort of narrative hook. Who was he? What did his military hitch look like? What did it all add up to?
But putting his horn away, Chip doesn’t seem as pressed. He often doesn’t know much about who he’s playing for. The important thing is that he plays for all of them. Chip himself has never served, so this is the covenant he keeps. He plays for young men who die on the battlefield, and old men who die in nursing homes. He plays for war heroes, and he plays for desk jockeys. “I have played funerals with 500 people there, and I have played where it’s just the preacher and me,” he says. “And I don’t care if there’s nobody there but me. I will be there to do that funeral. If we are requested, we are there.”
When nobody shows, Chip says, “It’s a very sad thing. I don’t know if he wasn’t well-liked, or if he simply had no one to grieve for him. Funerals are not a fun job. But they’re a rewarding job. Because you are honoring something that was done for you whether you realize it or not. In this day and age, there are people who simply couldn’t give a rat’s patoot about the military. But let me tell you something—if it wasn’t for the military, they wouldn’t have the freedom not to care. And that’s something we have to look at from an honor standpoint. Whether you like them, whether you hate them—they put it on the line. It’s up to us to honor them.”
With that, Chip starts up his Chevy Equinox with the “Bugler on Duty” decal on the door. He pulls out of Gate of Heaven, past the Kohl’s and Taco Bell, to head 80 miles back home. As I watch him go, after witnessing him carry out the unique mission of the “Taps” player—one of removed intimacy, putting the final, perfect notes of punctuation on a story that he hasn’t read—I’m reminded of the words of General Black Jack Logan, the father of Memorial Day, who in his 1868 order wrote:
If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well, as long as the light and warmth of life remain in us.
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.
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