For the first time in over a decade, the horn of First Sergeant U.S. Army Retired Richard Pinter, also known as the Lone Bugler, will remain in its case, making this Memorial Day noticeably more silent than others.
Pinter, familiar to many in central New Jersey for his sounding of “Taps” at military funerals and his annual presentations at more than a dozen cemeteries on Memorial Day, is taking this holiday to address a health issue. “On the advice of my doctor I had to cancel everything. I’m being monitored for my blood work. If it changes, I’ll be in the hospital. I wanted to scale back my performances so there was something I could handle, but my doctor said I would end up in the hospital.” So Pinter has suspended his involvement in a ceremony that he has performed in for more than 40 years, but, he adds, “I am the official bugler for the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia. If I feel up to it, I may do a performance.”
Pinter sits at his circular kitchen table in his Bordentown home on Bugler Way, a small street named by the township in honor of his dedication to fellow veterans and for his involvement in veteran-related events, including his most recent involvement New Jersey’s Mission of Honor, a state wide effort to inter the orphaned and abandoned veteran cremains. A pile of colorful get well cards rises in front of him. “Since I’ve made (my illness) known, I have gotten a lot of feedback,” he says.
Diagnosed with leukemia a year ago, the 72-year-old Pinter says it is at an acute stage and that his only option is a bone marrow transplant, with his sister as a donor. “It’s been one thing after the other. I just don’t know from one day to another what’s going to happen,” he says.
Though he retired from his 38-year career as a military musician in 2000, Pinter found a need for something he knew all too well. “Every Memorial and Veterans Day the military band performed. The first year I retired, I saw the TV coverage from Washington, and I got a little emotional. When you’re doing it you wish you didn’t have to do it, and then when you’re not you wish you were,” he says.
Then he heard a personal call to action, very personal. “One day my wife said that when her brothers died no one from the military was there to play ‘Taps.’ I felt bad. Then my sister-in-law said the same thing. On Memorial Day, I called the family together and said we’re going to the grave sites and giving them the final honor that our nation never gave them. And I said (to the deceased family members), ‘Brothers, this is the final honor that our nation never gave you.’” He then looked at the rows of flags on veterans graves and said to himself, “What a disgrace that our nation cannot honor them,” and his service to his fellow veterans began.
His object, he says, is to instill patriotism — or, in his words, a love of country — and remind people of the meaning of Memorial Day. “Twenty percent of the people don’t know the meaning of Memorial Day. In the past stores closed and everyone went to the cemetery to respect the vets; today it is the opposite,” he says, adding that the effort is “my way to give back to my country for allowing me to serve in its defense for 38 years and to fill the void of respect shown by our nation when a veteran passes.” Any contributions or business support offered, he says, goes to paying for printing to make his services known.
The day to memorialize the lost lives of American soldiers was a response to the national pain caused by the American Civil War. Originally called Declaration Day and proclaimed in 1868 by John A. Logan, a general in the Grand Army of the Republic, the day was set aside “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.” The large number of American deaths after World War I enlarged the day’s significance as one of national memorializing. It officially took its new name, Memorial Day, and became a national holiday in 1971.
The tradition that Pinter follows — the sounding of “Taps” — also has its roots in the Civil War. It is historically accepted that in July, 1862, General Daniel Butterfield of the Union Army felt that the military’s musical Extinguish Lights signal was too formal and helped modify the musical passages to give the call a more honorable and deeper emotional resonance. The arrangement was adopted by other units in both the Union and Confederate forces and has become a 151-year-old American ceremonial farewell. The name “Taps” is related to the centuries old military custom of tapping drums as a “lights out” signal.
Pinter came to playing “Taps” out of circumstances. “Part of the Army Band military skills, part of your duty is to play ceremonial ‘Taps’ at military funerals,” he says.
His playing the trumpet and bugle were also born in circumstances. He was born in Trenton and grew with up a sister on Division Street, near Rusling Avenue, in the Chambersburg section. His father, he says, was a potter at American Standard, a “tough guy” who would not let the lameness caused by infantile paralysis slow him down. His mother took care of the house and family. The family attended the Hungarian Baptist Church on Clinton Avenue, where his father played in the church marching band. The younger Pinter attended Trenton Central High School.
While Pinter’s interest in music may have been his own, the choice of instruments came from his father. “My father was a trumpet player and said, ‘You’re going to play the trumpet.’ I said that I wanted to play the accordion. He said that if I learned to play the trumpet, then I would get an accordion and learn to play. I learned to play, but my father never got me an accordion,” he says with amusement, before adding, “Playing trumpet is one of the most physical instruments to play. It all depends on the strength of the armature. It’s a frustrating and physical instrument to play.”
But the young musician persisted. Calling himself basically a jazz musician (he extols trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis), Pinter says that when he was in junior high school in around 1953 two German boys who played musical instruments moved into the neighborhood, and “we started a German band. We played all the German clubs. We played eight or nine years, and then I started my own band, a combo.” Along with playing, he studied the instrument in high school with its orchestra leader, violinist and composer Matteo Giammario, and then took classes at Trenton State College. In 1962 he decided to join the military with the hopes of playing in the Army Band. After taking “quite an extensive audition,” he served for a year at Fort Dix and then continued in the reserves.
When not playing with the military, Pinter was making a living for his family. He has been with his wife, Irene, for 50 years and has three daughters. “My father made me get a trade, and I was tool and die maker.” In the early years Pinter worked for regional companies, including Robertson Tiles in Morrisville, PA. That is where he also opened a music store, A-Z Music, in 1968 and taught and sold instruments. “I ran the music store from 3 to 9 p.m. and worked at Robertson from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.” Soon he was able to devote himself to his music business and continued until he sold it in 1980.
Having played “Taps” for more than 40 years, Pinter talks with authority on sounding it. “It is much more difficult to play than people understand. There are only 24 notes, but it is difficult. ‘Taps’ is an emotion; music is an emotion. It is the only time you are laying someone down for the love of the country.”
That emotion, he says, is missing by the use of electronic or digital devices. Explaining that while military honors have only been federally authorized from 2001, and military members will come to a veteran’s funeral to fold the flag and perform “Taps,” the sounding is often produced electronically by using a boom box or placing a digital device into a bugle especially designed for the ceremony. In addition to it being mechanical, Pinter says it is dishonorable and sometimes awkward. “A few years ago at a local cemetery, the battery in the bugle went dead while ‘Taps’ was being played. Then another battery went dead. When they were done, there was chuckling.”
Pinter says that musicians can make mistakes, too, but it is part of being human. Citing a bugler cracking a note at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, Pinter says, maybe it was a tear drop.
While he says that he can usually sound “Taps” without much distraction, he too can be challenged. “The most moving time is when a relative dies. I have a brother-in-law who passed away. I can usually do it without emotion, but when you do it for someone in the family it gets different.”
But for most attending a military funeral or commemorative ceremony, the sounding is affecting and memorable. And Pinter is working to keep the human touch to the ceremony by petitioning Congress to require a live bugler to perform “Taps.” Dismissing reports that the government cannot afford to bring in buglers, this bugler says that there are musicians available in the military who could outweigh the expense of purchasing, maintaining, and staffing the mechanical presentation at organized veteran services. “I believe they could save money at state or national veteran cemeteries if they use one bugler to play ‘Taps.’ One bugler could play 96 vets in a week and the cost would be less than what they pay now.”
Feeling that it is an uphill struggle, Pinter says that respect for the musical composition is growing and that the recent military reauthorization act passed by Congress named “Taps” as the National Song of Remembrance, rivaled only by the “Star Spangled Banner” in significance.
While hoping to see changes on how fellow veterans are honored, Pinter, who looks forward to picking up the bugle as soon as he can, is getting himself ready for the several months of chemotherapy before him. “I have to take it in stride, like an old soldier,” he says. And with Lone Bugler missing in personal action, others will have to listen to the silence and recall the haunting sounding of “Taps” and the special meaning behind it.
Brigadier William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery, Wrightstown. Scout Night Flag Placement on Friday, May 24, registration at 4 p.m., and flag placement at 5 p.m. Memorial Day Veterans Organization Parade and ceremony, Saturday, May 25, 10:30 a.m. in the Public Assembly Area, Section P. www.state.nj.us/military/cemetery or 609-738-2400.
#b#Hearing the Call for Taps#/b#
The presence of a bugler sounding “Taps” at the funeral of an American veteran seems as if it is just a normal part of the military burial ritual. It seems especially true with the United States Department of Defense (DOD) official statement that a military funeral “requires a minimum of two uniformed military members, in addition to a bugler, if available.” But the reality is different.
The bugler, the DOD continues, for the sounding of “Taps” “may be contracted or voluntary. The military service responsible for providing military funeral honors shall ensure that there is an active search for a bugler. If none is available, the service representative may authorize the playing of a high quality recording of ‘Taps’ on a stereo player or ceremonial bugle and shall ensure that it is available. In general, whereas a bugler sounds ‘Taps’ in a prominent position, to include a member using the ceremonial bugle, sound systems should be out of sight of the funeral party.”
A key phrase, however, is “if available,” and a 2013 Congressional Research Service report shows that actual buglers at a military funeral are less than average. “According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense Legislative Affairs, in 2010, there were more than 236,000 military funerals requested. Of the 236,000 military funerals, 25,000 had an actual military bugler play ‘Taps,’ 15,000 had a bugler from a Veterans Service Organization play ‘Taps,’ and 185,000 military funerals had ceremonial bugles.”
Yet live buglers are available. In addition to the services offered by Richard Pinter in the accompanying article, at least two other resources can provide live buglers: New Jersey Taps, the state chapter of Bugles Across America, and Bugler in New Jersey.
Bugles Across American was founded in 2000 when federal legislation was enacted to guarantee veteran funeral honors. The website of the Illinois-based nonprofit notes that “in recognition of the service these veterans have provided to their country, we felt that they each deserve a live rendition of ‘Taps’ played by a live bugler. To this end, we are actively seeking capable volunteers to provide this valuable service to Veterans and their families.”
The organization has more than 7,500 bugler volunteers in all 50 states and has ongoing recruitment. “Bugler Volunteers can be male or female. They can play a traditional bugle with no valves, or they can perform the ceremony on a trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, or a 1, 2, or 3 valved bugle. The bugler can be of any age as long as they can play the 24 notes of ‘Taps’ with an ease and style that will do honor to the veterans, their families, and the burial detail performing the service. There are no fees or dues to participate as a volunteer, although there are certain directives that must be followed.”
Those directives include arriving early at the gravesite, making contact with the Military Honors Team, and standing ready to sound “Taps”; looking sharp; and passing an audition, demonstrating the skill to sound “Taps” properly. The Bugles Across America’s New Jersey website is www.njtaps.com.
Bugler in New Jersey’s coordinator, Marine John Patterson Sr. notes that its website “is primarily meant to provide information about obtaining professional quality musicians to contribute to honoring the service of our veterans from all our military branches. If I myself am unable to provide the service due to other commitments, I will reach out to other musicians of equal or greater talent to fulfill the need. Funeral directors should be requested to request a bugler as soon as possible to allow time to make the arrangements.” A reasonable fee may be inlcuded. For more information, go to www.buglerinnewjersey.com.
As indicated by the congressional report and noted on the “Taps” related websites, finding a bugler may be difficult. While some funeral directors may be able to reach out to a bugler to sound “Taps” for a fallen veterans, the most fitting way to pay a final respect is for families, government agencies, and funeral service providers to think ahead, make note of the services, and be ready to serve, just like the veteran.
Bugle Call Event
Trumpeter, military reenactor, and author George Rabbai comes to the Trenton City Museum to demonstrate and explain the many bugle calls used during the Civil War, as part of a commemoration of the war’s 150th anniversary.
Rabbai is an adjunct professor of jazz trumpet studies at Rowan University and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and serves as bugler for the Mifflin Guard.
Infantry Bugle Calls of the American Civil War, Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Sunday, June 16, 2 p.m. $10. 609-989-1191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.