Buglers answer the call
By DAVID CASSTEVENS
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
FORT WORTH, Texas — He stood alone on a grassy hill, the sun glinting off his trumpet.
Below, a family huddled in grief.
All eyes fixed on two uniformed soldiers, facing each other as they worked in ceremonial silence, their gloved hands reverently folding, caressing and shaping the American flag into a small tight triangle.
A blue pillow with white stars.
The trumpeter said a silent prayer.
He prayed for the deceased, Harold Baker, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, and his tearful loved ones.
Steve Kalowski also prayed about his solemn duty, now at hand.
There are no do-overs at the committal services staged, one after another, all day, every weekday at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery, a garden of stones.
The trumpeter drew a breath and lifted the Bach Stradivarius to his lips.
The melody is only 24 notes and takes less than a minute to play.
But to perform the mournful bugle call flawlessly is never an easy task. On Nov. 25, 1963, a bugler with the U.S. Army Band was assigned to sound taps at Arlington National Cemetery near the grave site of John F. Kennedy three days after the president was assassinated.
Sgt. Keith Clark, on the world stage, cracked the sixth note.
Author William Manchester likened the sound to "a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob."
On this autumn day, Kalowski squared his shoulders. Hazel eyes gazing at some distant point, he sounded taps as it should be. Slowly. Tenderly. Each brass note rang out, as clear as the cool morning air.
The bugle call, which dates to the Civil War, beckons us to remember patriots who served our country with honor and valor.
"Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills,
From the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh"
The trumpeter held the last note — held it — until it dimmed like a dying candle flame, and faded out.
In 2002, Kalowski attended the funeral of his father-in-law, an Air Force veteran. Seated with family members, he listened as a bugler sounded taps, those familiar timeless notes wafting across Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, south of Chicago.
That moment touched him in a profound way.
"How come I'm not doing that?" he asked himself.
Kalowski later learned that the musician belonged to a volunteer organization called Bugles Across America.
By law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military-honors funeral that consists of the folding and presentation of the flag and a rendition of taps.
With Americans fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with veterans dying at a remarkable rate, an average of 1,800 every day, horn players are in short supply.
A recording of taps is played at more than 70 percent of committal services at Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.
Tom Day, a World War II veteran, founded Bugles Across America with the goal to provide a live bugler to sound taps at every veteran's funeral.
Day believes that a recording of the bugle call — in some instances, blared through a boombox — is undignified and doesn't properly honor veterans for their sacrifice to the country.
He and others also oppose use of the Pentagon-approved electronic bugle.
Used by some veterans groups as an alternative method of sounding taps when a live bugler isn't available, the $525 battery-powered "ceremonial bugle" plays a digital recording of taps as the operator holds it to his lips.
The electronic bugle's operation manual states, "While taps is being played, breathe normally as if actually playing the instrument for a more realistic image."
Kalowski contacted Day and became a Texas director for Bugles Across America.
The organization has grown to more than 7,000 registered members nationwide, with about 500 in Texas.
The 25 to 30 members from Dallas-Fort Worth include college and high school students, a retired commercial pilot and a firefighter. Kalowski, 43, works for Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
Jeff Jones, owner of a Grapevine pest-control company, owns three trumpets, a cornet and two bugles.
A BAA member, he sounds taps at military funerals and other events, from the annual 9/11 remembrance ceremony in McKinney to a Girl Scout camp that he attended last weekend with two of his daughters.
Like other horn players, Jones is a purist.
"Given a choice, would you rather have a live bugler or Memorex?" he said. "To me, it's just not right. How would you feel if you went to a military service and the guy doing the rifle salute pulled the trigger and a little flag came out of the barrel that read, 'BANG!'?"
John Wendell flew 67 combat missions in Vietnam. Shot down during his last flight, he spent 6 1/2 years — 2,370 days — in a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp.
Before his death from cancer last month, Wendell, 73, a longtime Fort Worth resident, summoned his son to his bedside. He announced he wanted to plan his funeral, down to the smallest detail.
"It was very important to him to have military honors," Ware Wendell said. "My father told me he wanted to have taps played live."
Upon Wendell's death, his son contacted Kalowski.
The representative of Bugles Across America assured him that someone with the organization would honor the wishes of this man, whose military decorations included two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, six Air Medals and two Purple Hearts.
At the grave site, there was no boombox. No fake bugle.
"That would be like a mechanically folded flag," Ware Wendell said.
Kalowski sounded taps — live.
Kalowski sounded the call for John Wendell in Greenwood Memorial Park in Fort Worth.
Ware Wendell can still hear it, each soulful note.
"It's the human element. The human touch," the war hero's son said in gratitude.