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my career as a bugler


I once was a bugler for the United States Air Force. The government paid me $98 a month plus cheesy room and board, officially making me a professional musician. It is a bit of a convoluted story, but here we go:

When I turned 19 years old, all healthy males my age who were not politically connected or fully engaged in college were whisked off into the army or marines to tramp around in a far away jungle and shoot at or be shot by complete strangers. None of that appealed to me so I enlisted in the air force.

In basic training we took a written test intended to gauge our trainability for various job assignments. I tested well, qualifying for anything they had. On the list of available jobs were in-flight refueling and computer programming as the two available only to top-tier-test-takers. We had three choices, so I checked both of those boxes then one in the bottom quarter from the two there in case they couldn’t put me in the better slots. I chose security police because four years as a cook sounded pretty dismal; at least cops get to move around and spend some time outdoors. That was my insurance bet – I didn’t want any confusion in the job assignment machine as to which of the two “Oh Well” categories I should fall.

USAF sent me to cook school in Fort Lee Virginia.

I was disappointed, angry and disgusted.

My Dad was livid. He sent powerfully worded letters railing at the stupidity of assigning their best resources to four years of kitchen duties. Recipients were his congressman, senator, house committee on armed forces, senate committee on armed forces, secretary of the air force and probably others I cannot conjure up at this moment.

Almost at the end of my weeks cooking slop for 1,800 GIs I got a phone call from an air force colonel. No-stripers (blank sleeves) don’t get to talk to multi-stripers, certainly not GIs with brass on their collars, and very definitely not uniformed guys with birds on their shirts. There I was in the sergeant’s office with a full-bird colonel on the line.

I understand that you don’t want to be a cook.
No sir.
What would you like to do?
I don’t know what is available, sir.
How about that computer programmer position you signed up for.
That would be great, sir.
Do you want to finish your last week of cook school to gain that next rank?
Yes sir. That sounds like a good idea.
Okay. I will cut the orders.

So I shipped out (okay, the air force flies) from Virginia to Texas with a brand new single stripe on my sleeve, and a raise from $93 to $98 per month.

On the bus delivering me to Lackland I happened to chat with a guy who had some experience as a student there. Turns out that everyone does KP (kitchen grunt work), cannot go anywhere on base unless they are marching in formation, has their bunk and belongings ready for inspection at all times and various other little leftovers from basic training.

EXCEPT those with ropes on their shoulders.

Okay. How does one get a rope?

Squad leaders get yellow ropes (out for 5′ 2″ me – they choose the tallest guy in the squad)
He rattled off a couple more of exceptions that I wouldn’t qualify for, then,
Drum and Bugle Corps gets ropes, and their own barracks that is never inspected.
OHO! I am a trombone player. Perhaps they have a bugle I could fake it on.

USAF computer operator class of 1968


So I auditioned on a horn, while very unlike a slide trombone, did have the same bore, length of tubing, and octave range. I earned a baritone bugle slot in the Lackland Air Force Base Drum and Bugle Corps (non-members often called it by the shorter, unflattering name, “beat and blow”).

I not only won a nifty, powerful red and white rope for the shoulder of my uniform, I got to put white laces in my boots using a tricky square lacing pattern that was so tedious to put on that we had special dispensation to have zippers installed in our GI boots so we only laced them once – ever. I moved into the special barracks exempt from inspection, parked my bugle next to my bunk … and never played it again.

They assigned me to a swingshift (evening) class of computer operations (none of us in 1968 knew the difference between programming and operations of those strange, rare machines.

I could not join the group in their evening practices because I was in school. I could not march in the daily noon parades because I did not practice with them. Likely because my situation was unusual enough and nobody had any incentive to do extra work reassigning me to another barracks, they just left me there cruising the Lackland training facility almost as if I was off to school in the civilian world.

Perhaps the only professional bugler in history who never blew a note.

You get what you pay for.