American flags flap and the wind sings in the cemetery trees for Korean War veteran John K. Elder. As members of VFW Post 33 finish their third rifle volley, Charles Wolfe and John Massari raise bugles to their lips.
The first three notes of taps rise first from Mr. Wolfe’s instrument and are echoed by Mr. Massari. Just 24 notes, the mournful song lasts only a minute, trembling and fading at the end as Mr. Massari slowly swings his bugle away from mourners and the urn holding Mr. Elder’s remains.
While Mr. Massari, 75, has performed taps more than 1,200 times at military funerals, Mr. Wolfe can’t play a note.
He uses a Ceremonial Bugle, which has an insert that plays a digital recording of taps, the British military’s Last Post/Reveille or other bugle calls downloaded from a computer. It’s a “dignified alternative” to be used when a live horn player is not available, according to the U.S. military and the device’s manufacturer, S & D Consulting International of New York City.
So why is the $530 digital bugle, which is only 15 years old, used for 80 percent of the military funerals held each year? Because there are not enough buglers like Mr. Massari.
The Department of Veterans Affairs expects more than 500,000 veterans will die each year. Each is entitled to a military funeral, which includes two military personnel to fold the flag and the playing of taps. Bugles Across America has about 5,500 volunteer buglers willing to play, and several hundred others participate in honor guards drawn from various veteran groups and state military organizations. It’s not enough.
“It’s tough to get live buglers,” says Jari Villanueva of Catonsville, Md., who has played at more than 5,000 military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery as a member of the Air Force Band.
“Unfortunately, the Ceremonial Bugle has become the preferred way to play taps at funerals.”
Mr. Villanueva retired seven years ago and is now director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard. He supervises 300 military funerals a month, and boasts that at least 75 percent have a live bugler. He echoes the feelings of many buglers about people who pretend to play at funerals.
“As a musician, it sort of grinds my teeth. I went to conservatory for four years. He pushes a button and people think he’s the greatest thing,” he said.
Mr. Wolfe says “playing” the Ceremonial Bugle is just one of his duties with the Post 33 honor guard. He admits to a little embarrassment when someone congratulates him on his performance.
During Mr. Elder’s funeral at Unity Cemetery, the Ceremonial Bugle’s taps was flawless. Mr. Massari’s version had one “cracked” note, which he chalked up to nerves.
“I get nervous all the time,” he admitted.
But he stands by the need for a live bugler. “Digital takes the human element out of it.”
The South Greensburg resident says mistakes in taps are rare. The most famous was Army bugler Keith Clark’s sixth note during President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.
“It was like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob,” wrote William Manchester in his 1967 book, “The Death of a President.”
In letters to Mr. Clark, writers said that the missed note captured the intense emotions Americans were feeling that day.
Mr. Massari practices every day at home and plays at funerals two or three times a week, He took up the trumpet when he was 10, and played in the band at Greensburg High School. One day, a member of the local chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars came looking for someone to play taps. They started pulling him out of class for military funerals.
“They used to hide me behind a tree or car,” he said.
Shortly after graduation in June 1957, he joined the Navy. The then-17-year-old auditioned for the Navy Music School but didn’t make it. He was stationed on two destroyers in the Pacific Ocean, playing music with other sailors on the fantail when they could.
After his discharge in 1960, he became a mold maker for Overmyer Mold Co. and then a corrections officer at the State Correctional Institution in Greensburg. At first, he played taps mostly for veterans of World War I and II. Then the Vietnam War began.
“I was playing for guys younger than me. I should have been there. It hit me harder than it ever had before,” he said.
Mr. Massari stopped playing taps for 35 years, taking up his bugle again in 2003, after he retired. Since then, he estimates he’s done 980 funerals. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to play.
“I have to practice every day just to keep enough lip to play taps,” he said.
“There always will be live buglers,” said Mr. Villanueva, who maintains tapsbugler.com, a website dedicated to the history and lore of taps.
“I’m very optimistic. There are younger folks out there who understand the importance of what we do.”
Kevin Kirkland: 412-263-1978 or firstname.lastname@example.org.