Tom Day stands silently while the final prayers are said and the casket flag is folded. Then he lifts his bugle in white-gloved hands and sounds Taps in notes that are as strong and powerful as a crisp salute.
“This is the last time a family has to say goodbye to their loved one. Whatever I can do to make it a special time for their veterans, I do,” says Day, a 63-year-old Marine Corps veteran who has played Taps at the graveside of nearly 1,200 servicemen and women during his lifetime.
The poignant bugle call used since the Civil War to signal lights out and later to mark a hero’s passing has echoed through Day’s life since he was 7 when he joined his first drum and bugle corps. Encouraged by his father, Marine Col. Joe Day, he played Taps for his first military burial at age 10 for a neighbor who died in the Korean War.
The gratitude of the family struck a chord that was never forgotten. When Day learned that recordings of Taps were replacing live buglers at many funerals, he took action. In May 2001, he founded Bugles Across America, headquartered in his basement in Berwyn, Ill. (pop. 54,016), and through the Internet and newspapers, began recruiting trumpeters to give a dignified farewell to the nearly 1,800 veterans—mostly World War II and Korean War—who die every day.
Day’s heartfelt call was answered by 2,800 horn players of all ages, who have served at 35,000 funerals around the country since the organization was established.
Since retiring from his state lottery job in 2002, Day has dedicated himself to coordinating the national troop of volunteer buglers. He buys secondhand instruments, has them repaired, and donates them to buglers who don’t have their own horns. He rounds up dress uniforms and recruits horn players from school bands and Scout troops. He makes and presents memorial plaques to each veteran’s family.
Appreciation for the live bugling runs deep among the veterans’ families.
“The service was so beautiful and patriotic,” says Carole Sebastian of Lansing, Ill. (pop. 28,332). Day played for the funeral of her husband, Walter John Sebastian, 83, a bomber pilot in the Army Air Corps, who died Aug. 30, 2003.
A fee, if one is charged, is set by each bugler. But it’s love for their country and those who served that rallies members of Bugles Across America.
“It’s hard when it’s a 19-year-old kid,” says John Murphy, 50, a volunteer bugler and Army veteran. “It’s total emotion. When I start playing Taps, I shut my eyes and concentrate on playing as best I can. Afterwards, I can react.”
Three days a week, Murphy drives 80 miles from his home in Deltona, Fla. (pop. 69,543), to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell (pop. 2,050), where he plays for as many as eight funerals a day. He works evenings at a video rental store.
“My only frustration is that I can’t get to all the funerals,” says Murphy, who has sounded Taps for about 300 veterans.
When the last of the 24 notes of Taps is echoing over the casket, Murphy opens his eyes and looks toward the family.
“The rewards, you can’t imagine. I can see it in the family’s eyes. They come up and thank me,” he says. “It’s just so important that we finish their service right.”
A piece of history
Every evening during World War II outside London, a four-man color guard lowered the flag outside the window of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Leonard “Rosie” Ross did the bugling for the retreat ceremony.
“I’m very proud of that. That’s a piece of history,” says Ross, 97, of Mayer, Ariz. (pop. 1,408), the oldest member of Bugles Across America.
As a young boy, Ross taught himself to play horn from a 25-cent book ordered from Sears & Roebuck Co., and he has always made a living with his music. During the 1930s, his band, Rosie’s Rhythm Rustlers, entertained up and down Route 66 and he’s performed evening shows at the Pine Cone Inn in Prescott (pop. 33,938) for more than 50 years.
During the daytime, though, he often is dressed in his American Legion uniform, paying his final respects with Taps for a fellow veteran.
“I don’t like the recordings. They sound bad,” Ross says. “There’s no tone, no volume, and it’s just a letdown to the guys being buried.”
Salute to grandpa
“I played for my grandpa all the time and always on his birthday. He loved hearing Taps,” says Rachel LaPorte, 15, of Oak Forest, Ill., (pop. 28,051) one of the youngest members of Bugles Across America.
She promised her grandfather, John O’Brien, a World War II Army veteran, that she would play for his funeral and she did on May 17, 2001, at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill. (pop. 1,620).
LaPorte has sounded Taps for 40 veterans since, and also plays for memorial services at the national cemetery.
“I can’t even describe to you the feeling,” she says. “It’s a great feeling. This is the last thing that can be done for a comrade.”
The honor student is involved in school and community theater, marching band and choir, dance lessons, and is yearbook editor at Oak Forest High School. If LaPorte has a funeral during school hours, she wears her dress uniform to school: a navy blue jacket and slacks, white shirt, bow tie, and cummerbund.
“At first I had friends say, ‘You’re going to the cemetery?’ But they know that I love what I’m doing. This is my thank-you to the men and women who serve our country.”