Gene Horner held his bugle in folded hands, but kept its mouthpiece in his pocket as he stood in Fort Richardson National Cemetery on a misty fall day.
He knew there would be no opportunity to warm it up once the hearse arrived. Just silence before his moment to sound taps.
When the vehicle parked that day, a U.S. Coast Guard honor guard detail carefully rolled out the casket – simple and gray – and straightened the flag draped over it before escorting it to the committal shelter.
Horner slow-saluted the veteran, a man he's never met but whose goodbye he wouldn't want to miss.
There's a machine that can do Horner's job now, but he feels duty-bound not to let it. He feels this veteran – all veterans – deserve to have the traditional bugle call played by a living, breathing human being at their funerals. That's Horner's mission.
"It's the highest honor a bugler can do," Horner said.
Horner directs a group of about 15 volunteer buglers who play at military funerals across Alaska in instances when an active-duty band member will not be there. This was the 150th request that group has fielded this year. Most of the time, he does it himself since he's retired and has a flexible schedule.
He's been doing this since 2000 and his track record is remarkable, filling or finding a volunteer for all but a couple requests. Sounding taps four times in a week himself is common.
Usually, he arrives an hour early, as he did that September day. After a small group gathered under the shelter, Horner stood off to the side and waited to sound taps for the 105th time this year.
A bugler’s calling
Horner's mission overlaps nicely with that of Fort Richardson National Cemetery's director, Virginia Walker. Horner, 68, is the state director for Bugles Across America, a nationwide roster of horn players who fill taps requests for veterans' funerals. Walker calls on Horner directly and has for 17 years.
In 1999, a National Defense Authorization Act required that military honors be provided for any veteran's funeral that requests it. While the act states that at least two uniformed military personnel fold the U.S. flag and present it to the family, it allows for a recorded version of taps to be sounded.
For both Horner and Walker, that just won't do.
The cemetery keeps a "digital bugle." That electronic device plays a flawless version of taps, Horner said. Anyone can hold it to his or her lips and convincingly present the notes that traditionally conclude military funerals. Horner said the digital bugle's clear tone is the mistake-free standard other buglers can only hope to achieve.
"It really is an incredible version," Horner said. "But it's just a recording."
Walker has needed it only once. That was last winter, after Horner called from a shut-down Glenn Highway while he was on his way there. Far more often, Horner is there.
"It just wouldn't sound the same," Walker said of using the device. "You'd have that perfect electronic sound but it's just not the same as when someone sounds it live."
Veterans deserve nothing less, she said.
"They served our country honorably, and we want to make sure that they get honor and respect at their final stand. And live bugling is part of it."
In her office, Walker keeps a picture of Horner, standing outside in the blowing snow, on a bitter-cold day. She said it speaks to the pride Horner has in his mission, which Walker calls "intense." Last weekend, she picked all the apples from her tree, made apple butter from it and brought him a jar.
"I've run out of things to do nice for him," Walker said.
"I take it real serious. I want to be there," Horner said.
"I'm probably a little prejudiced because that was my job in the Army."
A veteran himself
In 1967, Horner was 17 years old. He describes himself as an unruly teen in Texas and California. He was "invited to enlist" in the Army by his father, he explained, but had been planning on a military career anyway. A trumpet player since age 9, he joined a training brigade band during basic training. That led him to his first duty station in Fort Rucker, Alabama.
"They needed somebody bad, and I needed a good job," he said.
As fighting in Vietnam intensified, his services were in high demand. As part of a 15-member Army funeral detail, he traveled by bus nearly constantly in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, staying in barracks and hotels. In one three-month period in 1968, they took part in 186 funerals.
In August of that year he went to Vietnam himself.
Being a member of the 4th Infantry Band during war wasn't as musical as one might think. Horner said Army bands then were essentially 50 men who could be plugged into any task. From the central Vietnam highlands city of Pleiku, that often meant building bunkers and going on short-range patrols.
On about 10 occasions, he traveled by helicopter with a chaplain to platoons and companies who had lost individuals in the fighting. At outdoor ceremonies, he sounded taps for fallen soldiers as their units stood in formation.
Though he had planned on a long military career, Horner's three years of active duty ended after he returned to the United States in November 1969.
"I wasn't overjoyed with what we were trying to do in Vietnam," he said.
Once home, he reconnected with the woman he would soon marry. They both began college coursework in Sacramento. In 1970, they took a semester off from school to travel to Alaska to work and make money. That semester is going on 47 years now, he joked.
Now retired from his career as a piledriver, he helps in his wife's accounting office. He's also a longtime member of the Mat-Su Concert Band.
"That's my outlet. I'm a mediocre trumpet player, and I can hold my own down on third trumpet," he said. "I mean, I love to play."
In 1999, Horner attended the funeral of a colleague, a World War II veteran who otherwise had no family. That day, when he realized the Army band wasn't there, he fetched his bugle, which happened to be in his vehicle.
He asked Virginia Walker for permission to sound taps. She's been asking him back ever since.
This month, Horner stood waiting in a dark blue suit for the ceremony to begin. On his lapel, he wore a pin commemorating 50 years since the Vietnam War.
"Every time you turn around there's another 50-year anniversary," he said with a laugh. "I'm really starting to feel old."
Horner rarely knows much about the veteran being eulogized. From where he normally stands, sometimes he can sometimes hear the words that are spoken and learn a little about the individual. But his focus is the survivors.
"I play right to the family. (That) is where my heart is going. And it doesn't matter if there's two people here or if there's 200 people here. It's the same thing," he said.
That fall day there was no family in attendance. Nathan Lee Bordewick served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a seaman recruit from 1970 to 1971, according to Walker. In times like these, she requests attendees for veterans who are otherwise unaccompanied for the funeral.
"We could find no living next of kin, but we would be grateful for your attendance to honor his service to our country," Walker wrote to the 175 people she emails in advance of such occasions.
Though all national cemeteries host services for unaccompanied veterans, some of the larger ones are not able to facilitate individual funerals for each, Walker said. She makes a point of it, though. She started keeping a list of people to notify in 2014. Before that, it was often just Walker, other cemetery staff, and Horner in attendance.
"It may just be their relatives can't make the flight, the cost of the flight is prohibitive, they're ill, they're elderly, or they just have no one left in the world," Walker said.
About 20 people came to Bordewick's funeral. Several Coast Guardsmen in uniform were joined by a few leather-clad bikers from the Alaska Vets Motorcycle Club.
The rain held off under dense cloud cover. Golden birch leaves had recently begun to fall in the month before the ground freezes and the snow begins to fly. Horner, holding his Getzen American Heritage Field Trumpet that he uses only for taps, described another feeling, one more familiar than age. It starts in his abdomen, reaching his chest like a swelling lump.
It's a feeling that arises from the solemnity of the moment, he said. On occasions when a team fires volleys in salute, it peaks just after the third round cracks the quiet.
"It's just like right there," he said pointing to his chest. "And you take that breath and play."