Honoring those who served

A Port Rich­mond bu­gler of­fers his mu­sic­al ser­vices at vet­er­ans’ fu­ner­als and me­mori­als across the city. 

Port Rich­mond man and bu­gler Ed Bil­ger, who played “Taps” at the city’s Vet­er­an’s Day ce­re­mony this year, seen per­form­ing at a ce­re­mony in Palmer Cemetery earli­er this year. SAM NE­W­HOUSE / STAR PHOTO

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. ••

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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