Bugler returns year after year for two decades of Memorial Day ceremonies

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COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Anyone can press a button on a digital bugle and two 9-volt batteries will pump out the 24-note rendition of taps, but it takes a lot more skill to perform the honorary song.

Buglers are in short supply. That is why John Okuley comes every year to Columbus’ Historic Union Cemetery for the annual American Legion District 12 Post 82 Memorial Day ceremony.

Okuley has been performing with his bugle at the event for some 20 years.

No valves to press, or buttons to push, Okuley plays his simple instrument with his breath and his lips adjusting them to form the correct pitches to make the notes for Taps and Retreat, which he plays to open the ceremony.

He first learned to play the instrument as a Boy Scout, and after mastering it received a bugle from his parents for Christmas as a boy.

That same silver bugle gleamed in the bright sunshine Monday, its surface reflective and tassels immaculate.

It is clear that Okuley cherishes not only the instrument but what he considers his duty.

He never joined the military, though he has family who are veterans including his father who served in World War II.

Okuley could go bring his skills and bugle to any Memorial Day service but he has chosen the one held at Union Cemetery for a reason.

“There are other ceremonies around town but there are a lot of veterans in this cemetery from way, way back,” said Okuley. “I think it’s important we recognize them even if they don’t have any relatives that know they’re around anymore.”

Okuley’s renditions were understandably rough around the edges, given the fact he doesn’t bugle on a daily basis anymore and the added pressure of the presence of a television news camera.

Regardless, he played his heart out for the 13 people who showed up to the ceremony.

The ceremony itself has seen a decline in attendance. They have been seeing 15 to 30 people in recent years; but back in the day, as former state commander and former post commander of American Legion District 12 Post 82 Carl Swisher described it, the event would draw 80-100 people.

Swisher is unsure of why attendance has dropped.

His best guess is that things have changed; families are busier and have spread out.

Neither Okuley nor Swisher think Memorial Day has been hijacked by commercialization, despite the advertising barrage of special deals and media queues that portray the day as the unofficial beginning of summer complete with backyard cookouts in the company of friends.

Swisher, with a stiff lip, says people will continue to come to the ceremonies on Memorial Day and Post 82 will continue to hold them, as long as they (the members) are around.

But Swisher is no spring chicken. He and two other members of Post 82 officiated the ceremony. All of them served during the Vietnam Era, and are getting older.

They admit it would be physically impossible for them to plant all the flags at the grave markers on their own, and they rely heavily on Boy Scouts for help.

The prospect of them not being around to plan and perform the ceremony begs the question, who will?

Upon reflecting on the dwindling turn out and the hundreds of veterans whose family lines no longer exist or have moved away, Okuley put it simply.

“Unless people keep remembering what they did, the ceremonies like this might disappear,” said Okuley.

Surely, in the grand scheme of things, Memorial Day will always be celebrated; and many of the ceremonies held Monday at local cemeteries will continue, until people just stop showing up.

However, before that day comes, you’ll know where to find one bugler with his bugle performing the songs on his silver horn himself.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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