Computerized bugles honor the dead, irk the living

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, May 29th, 2009

“How could this be? Those who were courageous enough to fight and give their lives for our freedom honored with a tape player!” declares an impassioned bugler on the website, Bugles Across America, a non-profit group whose goal is to ensure that every military funeral has access to a live bugler.

Jari Villanueva sounds taps at the Tomb of the Unknowns, in Arlington National Cemetery, where he bugled for 23 years. "It just grinds my teeth," says Villanueva, concerning 'fake' buglers. (Photo Courtesy of Jari Villanueva)

Jari Villanueva sounds taps at the Tomb of the Unknowns, in Arlington National Cemetery, where he bugled for 23 years. “It just grinds my teeth,” says Villanueva, concerning ‘fake’ buglers. (Photo Courtesy of Jari Villanueva)

1,800 veterans pass away each day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a number that has swelled in recent years due to the passing of World War II, Vietnam and Korean War veterans along with active-duty soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For these funerals, the military offers the families of the deceased military honors, which, according to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, entails the presence of a minimum of two members of the armed forces to fold and present the American flag to the next of kin and play taps. The latter can be done by a live bugler or trumpeter, or with a digital recording that is hidden inside the horn itself. Despite outcry from service members and others the recording, known as the push-button trumpet or ceremonial bugle, is being used more and more.

“Visually, it looks like someone is playing the bugle but in reality they are just holding a boom box that looks like a bugle,” said Jari Villanueva, who spent 23 years as a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery and is eternalized in the Buglers Hall of Fame, an organization whose colorful list of members includes Tom “Bucky” Swan, George “Sidemouth” Richardson, Frank “Buzzy” Bergdoll and Al “Goober” Chez.

“It just grinds my teeth when I see pictures of services on the internet that say so and so plays taps,” said Villanueva, referring to services that use the ceremonial bugle, “well they are not playing taps, it’s all fake.”

Villanueva’s website gives a history of the bugle, dispels myths about taps and provides background information on the tune. According to his site, the earliest American version of taps was called “Extinguish Lights”, a tune set down by Silas Casey, a hero of both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War who noted the song in his three volume manual of infantry tactics. Officers in the Civil War were expected to know bugle calls to command and orient their troops. Union General Daniel Butterfield used his own unique bugle call, “three notes and a catch,” for orders directed at his brigade.

“The men rather liked their call, and began to sing my name to it,” notes Butterfield, in a letter to the editor of Century Magazine, following their publication in August 1898 of an article about the use of trumpet calls in battle. “The men would sing, Dan, Dan, Dan, Butterfield, Butterfield to the notes when a call came. Later, in battle, or in some trying circumstances or in advance of difficulties, they sometimes sang, Damn, Damn, Damn, Butterfield, Butterfield.”

General Butterfield wrote the modern version of taps while camped at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia, following the Seven Days Battles, in which Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia routed the Union Army of the Potomac. Over twenty six thousand casualties were suffered on both sides, and Butterfield himself was wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, where he lost 600 of his own men. Butterfield believed Extinguish Lights was too formal a way to end the day, and to honor his men, he improvised a new tune, with the help of the brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton.

Butterfield wrote the 24 somber notes known as taps, likely basing the tune on an earlier battlefield one called tattoo, which is noted in a military procedure manual produced in 1835 by Winfield Scott.

“The call, sounded that night in July, 1862, soon spread to other units of the Union Army and was even used by the Confederates,” notes Villanueva’s website. “Taps was made an official bugle call after the war.”

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