When Fourth of July arrives in Washington, fireworks bursting in the air aren't the only sounds that traditionally enliven the capital.
The U.S. Army's Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps normally sounds out tunes such as “Yankee Doodle” at a National Archives ceremony, then steps off into the National Independence Day Parade. The buglers, fifers and drummers are crowd-pleasers, not least for their splashy uniforms. Their red wool jackets, beige waistcoats and trousers, black tri-corner hats and gray wigs hark back to the Revolutionary War.
But America's 244th birthday isn't occurring during a normal time.
Fireworks will still explode over D.C., but the Fife and Drums Corps' 70 soldier-musicians will be idle. This year the Archives will host a virtual celebration, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. E.T. And the parade? Like many spectacles from sea to shining sea, it's been canceled.
Camaraderie strikes the right key
"The best part of the job is the camaraderie and just the experience of working together as a team,” says Master Sgt. Patrick Richard, a 51-year-old bugler who has been in the band for 17 years. While members work mostly from home, rehearsing music and marches, he misses his colleagues.
A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Richard finished a master's degree in trumpet performance at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. At age 31, he joined the Army. Richard underwent basic training at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, where he was so much older than the teenage enlistees that a drill sergeant nicknamed him Grandpa.
Not a grandfather yet, he is married to a French horn player in the U.S. Marine Band known as The President's Own. He and Master Sgt. Greta Richard, 46, have two children, 15 and 13. They live in suburban Virginia, in a home they share with her parents, who are in their mid-70s.
Pandemic disrupts performance schedule
Summertime is usually a busy season for the band, whose headquarters are in Virginia, at Fort Myer, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. Its repertoire includes music from the early baroque period and the Revolutionary and Civil War eras. The players would march in many parades and also participate in Fort Myer's weekly Twilight Tattoo performances. But in light of the pandemic, the band has no large-scale events on tap.
Lately, Richard has played his Kanstul B-flat bugle at military retirement and change-of-command ceremonies. “We can't wear masks when we play our instruments, but we space ourselves apart,” he says.
In June he played taps at the cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was the third time he played taps at the tomb during a career that has seen him perform at the White House for the arrivals of Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and at presidential inaugurations and Christmas parties.
Doing double duty
These Old Guard soldiers, technically part of the 3rd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment, all have separate support duties within the corps. Richard is its supply supervisor, so he buys the band's uniforms, wigs and instruments. During emergencies, such as the September 11 attack at the Pentagon, corps members put down their instruments and assist military police, he says.
Although the military is famous for moving soldiers around every few years, the troops in the Fife and Drum Corps tend to stay put, making it, according to Richard, more like a family. “I love ‘em like brothers and sisters,” he says of his colleagues.