Larry LaRue: A trumpet playing patriotic notes

A veteran’s rekindled passion helps him honor former service members by playing taps

Staff WriterNovember 11, 2013 

Bob O’Neal’s trumpet, a 1927 King Silvertone, was a gift from an uncle, and O’Neal played it in his high school marching band.

Then he hung it and his playing days on the wall of whatever home he happened to be living in over the next 54 years.

That changed after O’Neal turned 70. As with most men who rediscover a passion, it was because of his wife, Ronnie.

“We went down to a bluegrass festival in Tacoma, because I’d always liked that music, and afterward there was this room full of banjos,” O’Neal said. “There were banjos for sale, kits to make your own banjo, books and DVDs on how to play the banjo, and I said, ‘Gee, I’d like to learn how to play the banjo.’”

O’Neal bought a DVD but didn’t watch it — until the day he turned 70.

“On my birthday, my wife and family bought a banjo and called me on it,” he said. “They pretty much demanded I learn to play it.”

Play it he did, going so far as to join a large banjo band once he learned to play chords. He enjoyed himself so much he started looking at that trumpet on his wall differently.

“I knew if I started playing it again, I’d never be that great, but people who play instruments have to have discipline, have to practice on their own,” he said. “I remembered the days in marching band. You had to have rhythm and some kind of ear.

“I look back with fondness on those years.”

So O’Neal took down that King Silvertone with the delicate etched scroll and had it refurbished. For the first time in more than 50 years, he played it. And he joined a band called New Horizons, filled with musician retirees.

The story might have happily ended there. O’Neal plays with New Horizons every Thursday morning.

But somewhere between picking up the banjo and starting to play the trumpet again, the Tacoma man heard about Bugles Across America.

A nonprofit founded in 2000, it has one goal: to provide a live bugler to play taps at the funeral of any veteran whose family requests it. That resonated with O’Neal, who spent two tours in Vietnam, 21 years in the Army and retired a lieutenant colonel.

So he signed up and began playing taps on his trumpet, avoiding depressing the valves to make it sound like a bugle.

For most services, he wears his Army uniform. For special occasions, he has a colonial army uniform complete with tri-cornered hat. He will wear that Monday.

“At the Kitstap County Fairgrounds at 3 p.m., there will be a memorial service for World War II Medal of Honor winner John Hawk, who died last week,” O’Neal said.

There are about 100 buglers within a 50-mile radius of Pierce County who participate in Bugles Across America, and about 7,500 nationwide. The youngest is 11, the oldest 86. Nearly 2,000 are women.

Now 75 years old, O’Neal is proud to be among them.

“Most everyone who was in the service, it leaves lasting impact on your life,” he said. “What we do is felt by the families of a veteran. The families out there are very respectful of the ceremony, respectful for what their family member had done.

“I spent two stretches in Vietnam and when I came back, I stayed in the service. I got the support I needed from my family and buddies in the service.

“This is a way to give back,” O’Neal said.

“The saying in the organization is ‘A warm horn powered by a human heart,’” he said. “A lot of funeral directors don’t know about us and they have a lot to do in a short time. They may tell a family they can play a recording of taps.

“We’re trying to tell them, one call and we’ll have someone there for the family, and it won’t cost anyone a thing.”

Aside from his Thursdays with New Horizons, O’Neal now practices with the horn every other day and still fusses with banjo chords. If a family would like, he can play “Amazing Grace” on his trumpet at the end of the service.

“It’s emotional,” O’Neal said. “I’m happy to be able to give to a comrade who’s passed away.”

To learn more

To donate or volunteer, go online to buglesacrossamerica.org

Larry LaRue: (253) 597-8638
larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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