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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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The digital bugle allows a funeral detail to hold up what looks like a real instrument. But in its bell is
a cone-shaped, battery-powered electronic insert that with the push of a button, plays a recorded version of “Taps” that sounds tinny with the reverb of a studio recording. “Buglers,” who are often just the flag-folders or other honor guard personnel who can’t play an instrument, are instructed to hold the device to their lips, in a pantomime of playing. Internet videos and photos abound of faux-buglers holding the instrument to their nose, upside down, or outstretched like a smelly fish. Often, “players” are not getting their mouthpiece to their lips in time after pushing the button. Or they might even put down the horn, mid-song, after the insert malfunctions. It’s military funeral honors, Milli Vanilli-edition. 

“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

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