Playing at the many funerals and memorial services since September 11th was only a part of Julius Pontecorvo’s overall responsibility. The other part was coordinating all the schedules for the other buglers enlisted to help out. When Julius took on the job as Official Bugler, no one could have ever predicted the amount of organizing and managerial skills that would some day be required. In a typical year Julius might have expected to be called to play three or, at worst, six services. But after September 11th, even amid the shock of losing so many friends, he had to coordinate an incredibly complex system of getting all of the important ceremonies covered by himself or another trumpeter.
“Out of all of them, we only missed one,” he said. “It wasn’t my fault (there was a problem with somebody not passing on the correct information). But I felt personally responsible. I expressed my feelings to the ceremonial unit and I asked them to tell the family we are so sorry. We had in that one day, I think, 19 or 20 and I knew I was responsible for all of them.”
“Of course, during this time I had to take care of my kids” – Julius and his wife Cathy have two daughters, 15 and 10 – “and my family obligations. So, I would be up to 11 or 12 at night taking care of phone calls and faxes, and then up again at 6 the next morning and it would begin all over again, pretty much 7 days a week. I had to buy my own fax machine, used my own car, I paid for all the gas. I didn’t ask the City for anything. Because of the love of doing it. You do what you have to do.” It is a sentiment shared by the many other firefighters, policemen and emergency workers who even now continue at the World Trade Center site the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, working long hours without compensation because they want to — in fact, need to for their brothers.
In the elaborate and beautiful choreography of a New York City Fire Department funeral, part of the role of the bugler is to coordinate his timing with the helicopter pilot who performs a “flyover” at precisely the moment that “Taps” is completed. This provides a very moving conclusion to the ceremony. “This has been going on for several years, even before September 11th,” Julius said. “Since back in the late 80’s, early 90’s, I think. Since there have been so many deaths, since the 11th we have had only one helicopter – occasionally, two. We used to have three.”
“I can hear the pilot coming. If I don’t hear or see him right away, I might slow my playing down slightly, as slow as I can without dragging it. But, it’s a beautiful feeling when it does happen just right.”
When the timing works out, it is indeed very impressive. As the last long, held-out note of “Taps” is sounding, a NYPD helicopter flies over the congregation, standing in total silence. “We’ve done some perfect ones. And, we’ve done some non-perfect ones where he was so late that we actually waited ten minutes in the freezing cold. But that’s very rare. A lot depends on the winds and air traffic, but, usually, I try to coordinate it with him.”
At a recent funeral in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue at 50th Street, ranks of firefighters in full dress uniform were lined five deep for several blocks north and south of the Cathedral. The coffin was carried out of the church, down toward the waiting fire truck, as pipers from the Emerald Society played “Amazing Grace.” The family members of the fallen hero walked slowly, solemnly out onto the steps and paused. Then all activity ceased and the street, normally the busiest and noisiest in the city, fell completely silent. The Ceremonial Unit Commander signaled the thousands of assembled firefighters to give a hand salute. And Julius Pontecorvo, unseen at the side of the great cathedral, raised his horn. Into the silence the haunting notes of “Taps” rang out.
At that moment, as at many other locations during the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, a lifetime of preparation and experience came into focus and was transformed into action for Firefighter Julius Pontecorvo. The crisis was at hand, and he was “going in.”
Author Douglas Hedwig is a professional trumpeter (Metropolitan Opera, 27-year veteran) and Brooklyn College Professor of Music in New York City. Over the span of a 35-year career, he has performed, conducted and taught throughout the world, recorded over 40 albums in chamber music, orchestral, and commercial idioms, and received honors and awards from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Fulbright Foundation, The TELLY Awards, The United States Department of State, St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s School, and the cities of Siena and Capodimonte, Italy. He was awarded the Doctor of Musical Arts Degree from The Juilliard School in 1986, where he later served on the music history faculty. He was the first trumpeter to receive a doctorate in the history of the school.
None of these accomplishments comes close to equaling the pride, honor, and sense of purpose he felt while performing “Taps” as a volunteer “Civilian Bugler” at many funerals and memorial services for the brave men of the FDNY who gave their lives on September 11th so that many thousands of others might live.Â Douglas Hedwig was awarded a “Commissioners Special Commendation” by Thomas Von Essen, then the Fire Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department.Â The citation reads, in part: “In Recognition of Your Compassionate Actions on Behalf of The New York City Fire Department…[the] FDNY thanks you for your dedication and assistance…[and is] Deeply Appreciative of Your Efforts During this Difficult Time…December 13, 2001.”
Author’s Postscript: Julius Pontecorvo recently took a retirement option from the FDNY. He is now substitute teaching in the New York City Public Schools. He is looking to get his Masters (probably studying with me at Brooklyn College!) and get a full-time music teaching job in the NYC Public Schools.
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