Michiana Chronicles: The Bugler In Me

Jul 9, 2020

I was looking for a good deal on my heart's desire at the Salvation Army, when I spotted a bag of old comic books on a high shelf behind the register. Bingo! I've got grandchildren the same age as I was when I spent hours and hours reading those cheap, floppy, innocent and uncomplicated rags. Maybe it was just wistful thinking, but I was sure they'd love to lift their eyes from the screens of "those devices" - to discover the likes of Archie and Jughead and GI Joe. So, I bought the whole stack.

When I got home, I sat down with my new old treasures. Flipping one over for a look at the back cover, I saw that long-forgotten ad recruiting junior salesmen for the "personalized greeting card" business, Oh, the prizes we could earn! A guitar! A real beauty shop hair dryer! A toolbox! A bugle!

[with skepticism] Have you ever known anybody who actually took them up on their offer?

A bugle hangs on a tent.
Credit (AP Photo/Brad C Bower)

No? Well, you do now!  . . . . . It was the bugle that got me.

When I was a kid, we moved to a little town in western Virginia at the foot of a mountain called Angel's Rest, which was every bit as picturesque as it sounds. Still is. You can see it for yourselves if you want to hike that portion of the Appalachian Trail. Back then, my little fifth-grade self could imagine me standing in the gloaming, looking out over the mountain, playing Taps to the dimming of the day. And although really shy around all adults, that image proved a powerful enough motivator that I decided to go for it. After a few questions and a few caveats, my parents said okay, and I could put them down for two boxes.

A few weeks later I was eye to eye with our friendliest neighbor's doorbell, product sample in hand. I don't remember her name, and I don't want to just make one up, but she was an artist, and the kind of adult who saw children as people and spoke to them as such. It was a good place to start. Summoning the courage of whatever avatar I was operating through, I rang the bell. She bought eight boxes. Eight boxes! I didn't argue, but in retrospect I see that was a lot of personalized greeting cards for one woman. Which left only six, and I rode that wave of success all the way to the finish line.

Another few weeks later, wonder of wonders, another brown paper package with my name on it showed up at our house. It was my bugle! I knew not to expect too much; it only cost the profits from sixteen boxes of cheap greeting cards, but it looked like a bugle to me. Before I even put it to my lips, I let all my siblings try it out, let them each make a few awkward blats. It turns out bugles are pretty easy to play. Think kazoo, or comb and waxed paper, but with the potential for gravitas.  

After we all had a turn, I put it away until the excitement died down. Then, at dusk, I snuck the bugle out of the house under my jacket and made my way up the road that looked over the mountain, gravel crunching under my feet. The air was chilly. A grassy fragrance wafted up from the cooling ground. Facing the mountain, I raised the bugle to my lips and I played Taps, just like I had imagined, lingering over the last notes of that sad sweet melody like somebody old enough to understand grief. How did I even know that tune? Well, It was 1964, the year after I had listened with the whole nation while Taps was played at President Kennedy's funeral.

After that, I put it away for good. My singular desire had been fulfilled. And I had no forum for future bugling. That bugle got relegated to our toy chest, where anybody was free to do with it what they could. Then it migrated to the bottom of a closet and then, dented and missing its mouthpiece, to the trash. Soon after, the part of me who saw myself as that bold and proactive salesgirl, that fulfiller of dreams, that bugler, got buried as well, under an avalanche of adolescent self-consciousness, and then work and relationships and childrearing. That day on the roadside, I could have been playing Taps for the loss of my own childhood.

But now, half a century later, I see that little bugler never entirely disappeared. We women of a certain age find our voices, some for the first time, at this time in our lives. With a wealth of experience behind us, we get opinionated, we get political, and we add our voices to the public discourse.

These days I'm not sounding Taps, not yet. I'm playing reveille, and call to assembly, and now it is my intention to be heard.