This Veterans Day, Port Richmond man Ed Bilger served his nation the way he knows best.
Bilger is a bugler, and has rendered his services at more than 1,000 military funerals and memorials in the past decade — most often by playing “Taps” as a volunteer for Bugles Across America (BAA).
“It’s an honor. Basically, it’s serving my country,” Bilger said. “It’s closure for them when we do this … I’ve served on some tough funerals.”
Bilger recalled a memorial service for Engine 28 Captain John Taylor and firefighter Rey Rubio, who died in a 2005 fire in Port Richmond, as one of the hardest ceremonies at which he’s performed.
He said more than 2,000 Port Richmond residents attended the service at Campbell Square – and people told him they could hear his bugle playing “Taps” from Gaul Street, two blocks away.
“Your mind’s straight forward; you don’t pay attention to anything around you,” Bilger said of his mindset during emotional ceremonies. “They’re all tragic … how could that not affect me, seeing that? You’re thinking, ‘My God, so young.’”
The ceremony of playing “Taps,” which buglers affectionately call “The 24 notes,” dates back to the Civil War, said Temple University professor Anthony Waskie. In 1862, as the story has it, General Daniel Butterfield hummed the tune to his brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton, who transcribed it into music. The piece quickly spread throughout the Union Army.
“It was extended to not only ‘lights out, the day’s over, your duty’s done;’ but it was also used at funerals, when your duty is absolutely over, and you’re headed to your reward,” Waskie said.
In 2000, Congress passed legislation that would appoint at veterans’ funerals two uniformed military officers to fold the American flag, as well as a CD player to play “Taps.” That’s when Tom Day, a veteran of the Marines and the Navy, formed Bugles Across America to organize volunteer buglers to play at these funerals.
“We feel that live ‘Taps,’ played with real breath and from the heart, is better than a recording,” Day said.
Today, BAA has 7,500 volunteer buglers across the country — but Day singled out Bilger as one of the best.
“He is one of the guys that it is real breath, from the heart,” Day said of Bilger.
Bilger’s career as a bugler began by chance.
A born-and-raised Port Richmond native, Bilger learned how to play the horn while a student at J.P. Jones School, now Memphis Street Academy Charter School. But he stopped playing for 20 years after school and went to work as an accountant.
Then one day in 1997, Bilger was out in the woods with a friend hunting deer.
“I see a glint of metal in the trash. Here was a trumpet,” Bilger recalled. “You’re never thinking about what changes your life at one point or another.”
Bilger gradually started playing the bugle again at his church, and said he really enjoyed it. Then he signed up with the BAA, also putting his professional skills to work as the BAA’s accountant. Gradually, he got more and more calls to bugle, and memorial service organizers also began encouraging him to attire himself in the garb of a Civil War bugle brigade member.
“We said we could really use a bugler at some of our Civil War-era ceremonies, could you come out and play?” said Prof. Waskie, who is active in Civil War history and memorials. “All of a sudden, he started coming out and playing at our ceremonies. We suggested, instead of modern attire, why don’t you look into an army uniform? Now, he’s become a fixture.”
The role of a Civil War-era brigade bugler was a natural fit for Bilger, who has got American history in his blood. Bilger said 26 of his family members fought in the Civil War, all on the Union side save one. He’s also a Son of the American Revolution, with ancestors in Philadelphia dating back to 1781 and including some who were members of the Pennsylvania Militia.
This year, Bilger played “Taps” at Washington Square in Old City at Philadelphia’s annual Veterans Day memorial service, in honor of all American veterans.
He said he’s looking forward to future ceremonies in the area that will celebrate military history – among them a Dec. 7 memorial service at St. Anne’s Church, and a Dec. 14 service at Palmer Cemetery.
At all those events, Bilger’s goal will be simple: “To sound the 24 notes with honor and dignity,” he said. ••