As the number and frequency of military funerals continue to rise, buglers needed to perform taps are in short supply
By TOM LUTEY
Of The Gazette Staff
His cheeks are stretched and red, his lips tinged slightly purple. Burt Gigoux has just turned out the lights for another era of fallen soldiers.
It is his fourth performance in less than a week of the 24 lonesome notes of taps.
"I did a funeral the other morning and one the day before. I have another one this afternoon," said Gigoux, who stared down a row of seven Marine riflemen on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn and played locally the first of perhaps a hundred taps performances scheduled across Montana this Memorial Day weekend.
Most of those performances will be played by an ever-shrinking number of buglers. At a time when cemeteries are scrambling to keep up with the number of dying veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, buglers are in short supply.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 1,800 veterans die daily. Congress allows that each honorably discharged veteran is entitled to at least two uniformed military people to fold the flag and a performance of taps delivered either live, by compact disc or fake bugle. Those last two options don't sit well with buglers like Gigoux, a Marine veteran who has performed at funerals from Lander, Wyo., to Deer Lodge so that when a soldier's last song is played, it's played with soul.
"It doesn't sound like it's got a heart," Gigoux said of the second and third options - particularly the third.
The push-button trumpet delivers taps perfectly. The recording played from a speaker in the bugle's horn is of Jari Villanueva, a retired Air Force master sergeant and Bugler Hall of Fame member. The government has distributed $500 push-button bugles to stations across the country, including Billings.
Buglers like Gigoux and Randy Grow, another local performer, have done their best to keep those push-button bugles in the closet collecting dust.
Grow belongs to Bugles Across America, an organization of 5,000 people nationwide who volunteer to play at funerals. The group was started after Congress in 2000 approved playing compact disc recordings of taps at military funerals. The group is always looking for volunteers, of any age, Grow said, male or female. Past military service isn't required. All that's required is that they can play the 24 notes of taps with ease, style and honor.
"There are a lot of people who could do this, but don't," Grow said, noting that school programs turn out trumpet players every year.
A lifetime musician and former band instructor, Grow started performing taps after hearing a particularly bad rendition at a Navy funeral in Great Falls.
"Bless the man's heart, he was trying, but I just wanted to take the trumpet from him and do it right for the family," Grow said.
After the ceremony, Grow approached the funeral director to tell him just how poor the performance was.
"Do you play?" asked the director.
Grow said "yes," to which the funeral director replied "Good. Go get your trumpet; we got another service at 1 p.m."
That was 2,800 performances ago.
The people responsible for scheduling military funerals understand that sometimes buglers simply aren't available and that push-button bugles do the job. Don Malsom, who lines up taps performers for the American Legion, said if the person holding the electronic device takes a deep breath, stands straight and puffs up his cheeks just right, funeral attendees seldom notice.
The thing is, the bugle players, the flag bearers and the riflemen who have been doing these funerals for decades are getting old, Malsom said. Few people are stepping forward to take their place.
"This day and age, they're not turning them out like they used to," Malsom said of the dearth of young horn players interested in performing taps. "It's almost an embarrassment to be patriotic anymore.
"The other guys are hard to find, too. Most of these guys walk out really slow and walk back real slow because they're about the age of the guy they're burying."
Gigoux bristles at the thought of people pressing a fake bugle to their lips, working a button and performing karaoke style. He's played taps on his cornet when the temperature was minus-10 degrees. At 10 below zero, a horn player has to push down on the right valve before he steps out of his warm car and into the cold, or else risk having the valve freeze open when it's time to play.
Gigoux said he's had a frozen valve break free at the last second before the third volley of the seven riflemen, which is his cue to begin playing.
His horn is one he bought with his paper route money at age 14. Gigoux never played taps on the cornet as a Marine, though the opportunity was there. Taps is the original lights-out song played nightly at 22-hundred hours on military bases everywhere. It's a much happier song when played at the end of the day, Gigoux said, which is when he liked hearing it.
Gigoux hung onto his cornet and didn't use it much before his house burned down about a decade ago. The cornet, along with some firearms, were among the few things that survived. He was having his firearms cleaned by a friend when he mentioned the cornet had survived, too. His friend, a fellow veteran, suggested that it was time Gigoux put the horn to use.
Gigoux and Grow will both be performing Monday regardless of the weather.
"The weather?" Gigoux said. "That lonesome song gets played in rain and snow, in the cold and in the heat."
Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.