Maintaining the melody: Teen bugler keeps taps refrain rolling at military services

Bugler Sammy Flentje is silhouetted by the early morning sun as he plays taps during the 9-11 remembrance ceremony Sept. 11 in City Hall Plaza.
Posted: Nov. 3, 2013 12:01 am Updated: Nov. 17, 2013 12:15 am

Herald-Whig Senior Writer

Twenty-four mournful notes from a bugle serve as the final goodbye, the final honor, accorded to veterans.

For the past year and a half, 13-year-old Sammy Flentje has been playing taps at military funerals and official ceremonies in Quincy. Military officials say the teen's service is needed, because the last generation of veterans trained as buglers is dying.

"It's an art that's going out. We don't have buglers any more," local American Legion Commander Harry Hendricks said.

Sammy said it's important to honor veterans who risked their lives and devoted so much of their time and efforts to the nation, so he joined the long procession of buglers who have played taps as a show of respect and thanks for servicemen and women.

Sammy came to Beth Young's attention about 18 months ago when he was in the sixth grade. She was at the Flentje home reconnecting with Sammy's father, Karl, one of her former students.

"I was visiting his parents one day, and I heard him practicing his trumpet. I said, ‘He's good.' He had amazing tone for a young person," Young said.

She asked Sammy's parents if he would be interested in volunteering to play taps at military funerals and other ceremonies. He has been volunteering his time ever since.

Young is retired after spending 33 years as a school teacher and librarian with the Quincy Public Schools, and she was the quiz bowl coach for 23 years.

Young also is a bugler.

"I played taps when I was in junior high. My dad was a regional (American Legion) commander, and I played taps at funerals or events when they needed somebody," Young said.

Young's career made bugling difficult, but Whitey Pohlman, a former American Legion Post 37 commander in Quincy, told her he would count on her helping at funerals after she retired.

"I have been playing taps again for about 10 years. For the first three or four years, I was the assistant and Bob Ericson was the principal bugler," Young said.

Ericson, a Quincy native, famously signaled the ceasefire of the Korean War with his bugle in 1953. Ericson now resides at the Illinois Veterans Home.

A sense of pride and history

Sammy has played at more than 25 military funerals or other events this year. His parents or his grandmother usually drive him to the events, though he occasionally has pedaled his bicycle to events close to his home.

Buglers show up at cemeteries along with honor guards and may wait 15 to 90 minutes.

"These are not 10 minutes each," Young said.

When Sammy first began bugling, the honor guard members or other adults often would come over and compliment him after he finished playing.

"They would say, ‘Good job, young man. We appreciate that,' " Karl Flentje said. "It was almost like he was embarrassed that he was being singled out. He's not one to stand in the limelight."

Much to Sammy's relief, most of the honor guard members have gotten used to seeing him at military funerals. He's just part of the team now, and that makes him more comfortable. If there's interaction with the veterans in the honor guard, it's usually by way of good-natured ribbing for the young bugler. He said if they joke with him, he jokes right back.

There's no generation gap when honoring veterans is involved.

"It feels good to be able to help out," Sammy said. "It's pretty important to honor the veterans."
Bugling gives Sammy a sense of pride and history.

Sammy was 1 year old when the terrorist attacks took place on Sept. 11, 2001. After playing taps at Quincy's 911 Memorial for two years, Sammy has gained a greater appreciation for the life-saving efforts of firefighters who died when the World Trade Center's twin towers fell.

Hendricks has been involved in honor guard duty since returning from the Korean War. He also has experienced the pride from serving at funerals.

"It's done because it's an honor for veterans to have an honor guard at their funeral, and it's an honor for the people in that unit. It's a two-way street," he said.

Difficult to find buglers

Hendricks said American Legion commanders all over the nation are finding it mor e difficult each year to find people who will be in an honor guard. When it comes to live buglers, many posts have given up.

"Now they've got a bugle that plays itself," he said.

Three local funeral homes have bought and shared a player bugles, where a taped taps performance is triggered by the push of a button.

Hendricks understands why the taped performances are needed, but he shakes his head when he thinks about relying on canned music.

Sammy has the same reaction.

"He tells us, ‘I don't understand why they can't find people to do it live, because it's really easy,' " Stephanie Flentje, Sammy's mother, said.

The genuine World War II bugle that Sammy uses is smaller than the trumpet he plays in the Quincy Junior High School band. Bugles also lack the valves that trumpet players use to hit different notes. The five notes played on bugles are controlled by the bugler's lips, but Young said that becomes more difficult when funerals are held in sub-zero temperatures.

"We're playing in heat, rain, cold and ice. The only time we don't play is when there's lightning," Young said.

Becoming a team

Young said Sammy is a great example of American youth, not only because of his bugling.
He's a Herald-Whig carrier, delivering about 53 newspapers in his neighborhood on weekends. His paper route is another activity that breaks down his natural shyness.

"I have figured out how to interact more with people. I talk with people on the route, especially if they're up on the porch when I'm delivering," Sammy said.

Sammy has been a member of a youth group at St. John's Church since the summer of 2012. Operation Serve has six-member teams who do public service projects. They have done work at the Horizons Soup Kitchen and cleaned out public bathrooms, which he describes as "not that hard and not that bad."

He came to Quincy from Germany in 2008 with his parents and sisters, Becky, 10, and Ruth, 7. Karl, a Quincy native, served as a preacher and missionary at a Baptist Church in Germany for 15 years, and each family member speaks both German and English. Sammy also is taking Spanish classes in school.

Sammy has been taking trumpet lessons from Jeff Schuecking, who plays with Quincy's Heidelberg Band among other groups. He also is playing French horn.

When people ask Young about the teen bugler working with her at funerals or ceremonial events, she often gives credit to Quincy Junior High School, where Sammy is in the music program. She said there a lot of stories where young people are doing good things that might get overlooked.
Young and Sammy have become a bugling team.

When Sammy first started playing at military funerals, he didn't have a uniform. Young joked with him that he could hide behind a bush or a tree. The Legion post eventually bought him a uniform, then altered it to fit the teen's slender build.

When Young and Sammy play Taps, they're usually performing an arrangement of "echo" taps. One of them will start the song. The other will stand at a modest distance and echo the melody. To some listeners, it sounds like an echo. To others, it is a response from a fellow bugler.

For Sammy and Young, echo taps also seems like a fitting allegory for a pair of buglers passing along the melody that is the last thing heard in a military burial.

They hope more buglers will take up the refrain and keep the military tradition alive for generations to come.