Buglers for military funerals are in short supply, but a new device lets anyone play taps.
Simon Britton is neither a military man nor a musician. "I'm pretty much tone deaf, to be honest with you," says the 43-year-old audio technician from his Manhattan office. "I can't hold a tune to save my life."
But the native of England has developed a digital facsimile of an icon of military funerals in the United States.A bugle that needs no bugler.
Britton's "ceremonial bugle" is the Pentagon's answer to a shortage of buglers as some 1,800 individuals who served in the armed forces, many from World War II, die each day.
The person holding Britton's bugle discreetly hits an on switch. He has five seconds to raise the bugle to his lips. He pretends to blow.
Out comes taps.
The secret lies in a small speaker and amplifier placed in the bugle's bell and a tiny computer chip that plays a version of taps recorded at Arlington National Cemetery.
Families of anyone honorably discharged from the military are entitled to a full honors ceremony for that person.That includes two color guard members to fold and present the American flag and a bugler to play taps, the mournful "end of day" melody composed in 1862 by Civil War Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield.
But the Pentagon estimates that only 500 buglers are on active military duty on a given day. That caused Congress to pass a law in 1999 allowing for taps to be played, via tape or compact disc, on boom boxes at military funerals if no buglers could be located.
The boom box strategy did not go over particularly well. Batteries would die in mid taps. If it rained, they had to be covered by plastic bags or paper.
Enter Britton. The president of a communications and technology firm, S & D Consulting, he has worked as an audio engineer, mixing sound for bands. He had heard of the Pentagon's plight from a friend whose advertising agency worked on the taps CD.
"My friend came up to me and said, "You know what, we're still getting a lot of complaints about the boom box and CD,' " Britton says by phone from his New York City office.
"I said, "Get me a bugle. Let me put something together and go down to the Pentagon and see if it's the sort of thing they'd like,' " he recalls.
Britton built a prototype, got a green light from the military to proceed with further development, and last October began a six-month field test of 50 ceremonial bugles in Missouri.
The bugles were given to military outfits and veterans groups to use at 1,000 funerals. The tests were deemed a success by the Pentagon: Family members of the deceased were pleased with the look and sound of the bugle. Some people, unaware of the ersatz nature of bugle and bugler, even remarked that they had never heard a more powerful playing of taps.
Early this month, the ceremonial bugle was officially approved, with the stipulation that a real bugler be used if at all possible.
The Pentagon has ordered 700 of Britton's bugles at about $500 a pop, and he is busy in production these days, taking phone and e-mail orders from military groups - from the Coast Guard to the Air Force to the American Legion. He plans to start shipping later in October, so the bugles will be delivered in advance of Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Still, in some military musical corners, the digital bugle has tapped into resentment.
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Tampa bugler Tom Leacock, 54, started playing taps in the mid 1960s for casualties of the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, his feelings about the way the song is presented run deep.
"It's almost kind of like going to a musical at the Performing Arts Center and having them put in a CD," says Leacock, whose main instrument is a trumpet. "I know it's very short tune, lasting about 30 seconds, but I think the real sound of it is a lot different than playing these electronic ones.
"I don't see any difference between the boom box and this thing, because it's still a recording that's being played. To me, this is even more phony because a lot of people won't know it's fake. But it's up to the families."
Leacock, president of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Volunteer Band, believes a better solution is to train a new generation of young buglers, such as Scouts and school band kids. That idea is being promoted by a group that Leacock joined about a year ago, Bugles Across America.
The group was founded two years ago in Chicago by a retired career military man named Tom Day, who has been performing taps for 53 of his 63 years.
Day was keenly aware of the shortage of buglers to play at funerals, so he created a Web site (www.buglesacrossamerica.org) spread the word, and soon had a network of some 200 experienced buglers from different parts of the country. He now boasts a membership of 2,200 volunteer players from all 50 states - ranging in age from 11 to 97, male and female - and has dispatched them to play taps at 29,000 funerals in 28 months,
"It's only 24 notes, but it's so important; it offers a form of closure to the family," he says.
Day's site attempts to help families find real buglers. Still, he admits that his brigade isn't big enough to handle all the funerals that arise. So he feels the ceremonial bugle can help fill the void.
"But the key is it has to be done right," he says. "In other words, hold it properly. Put it to your lips. And if you're in cold weather, like Minnesota, if a guy has a digital horn, he better have a plastic mouthpiece or he could be in serious trouble."
How does Day rate the bugle's sound?
"It does the job," he says. "It's an adequate replacement if a volunteer isn't available."
Day's primary concern is a situation in which a mourning family might not know the bugler and rendition of taps aren't genuine.
"If you have a digital horn, and there's no other bugler around, my feeling would be just do it, and don't aggravate the situation by saying, "Look, ma'am, I have a fraudulent piece of equipment here to play taps,' " he says. "Because they're grieving. If that type of bugle is all you have, then do it with dignity and pride, but do it right."
For Day, doing it right consists of showing up in the uniform of the service of the deceased to play the bugle. He even makes up a special plaque for the family, bringing the flag of the service member's military branch. "If they want Amazing Grace, I play that was well, and if the military doesn't show up, I'll fold the flag and present it myself," he says.
That kind of personal touch, with the soulfulness and emotion a real bugle can convey, is why Day has shelled out $20,000 of his own money to keep the organization afloat and growing.
He's received extensive support in Florida, where New Port Richey resident Larry Carey is state director of 200 buglers and oversees the Southeast region. His view of the ceremony bugle is similar to Day's.
"I'm one of the renegades of Bugles Across America, because for the most part, they have come out against it," says the Vietnam veteran who served three tours of duty as an Army special forces medic.
"The big problem in Florida is that the military cemeteries conduct funerals during the week, and most of my players are working during the day. We try to take time off to be there. But if we can't, at least the family can have a sense of decorum and dignity (with the digital bugle)."
Carey has one retired military man in his ranks, John Murphy of Deltona, who travels the state to play taps. "This is a diehard, dedicated guy," Carey says. "But we have all kinds of people - a rabbi in Bradenton named Barbara Aiello, and a young teenager named Jamie Keller from Sarasota, and some guys in their late 60s. We're all volunteer. We do ask for honorariums from people, and then we donate it back to Bugles Across America."
The only negative experience Carey has had with the electronic bugle was at a funeral in Bushnell, when a man playing a prototype digital bugle walked up to him after the service.
"The guy didn't know that I knew it wasn't a real bugle and he said, "Man, it gets harder and harder every time I do this,' " says Carey, 55. "I looked at him and said, "You a-h--. You weren't playing that. Don't come over here and tell me how hard it is.' Then, I found out he was charging families $50. That's one of the potential dangers of this thing."
Still, Carey was touched by Britton's $2,000 donation to Day's group: "He thinks we're great."
From a technical perspective, Britton's bugle has earned praise. It can be played like a real horn, though it's intended to house a small, black circular unit. That contains the mini speaker, a 35- to 40-watt amplifier, a power switch, a red light to indicate if the two 9-volt batteries are growing weak and a volume dial.
"It can get very loud," Britton says. "I haven't heard many bugle players myself, so I can only go by reports from testing. It is very audible at 30 yards away, where most buglers stand. But we tested it up to 100 yards and you can hear with no problem."
Britton, who has lived in the United States for 13 years, says he has received a positive response from veterans' groups that have been ordering the bugle.
"They say, "Thank you for doing this,' " he says.
"It's definitely going to create a better atmosphere than a boom box."