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Encounters | An occasional feature

On Pinellas beach, bugler sounds sunset ritual of taps

INDIAN SHORES — Every evening, when the sun starts to slip behind the high-rises, the people at Bayshore Yacht and Tennis Club pour onto their porches.

Carrying plastic chairs and sipping Cokes or cocktails, they line all eight floors of both condo buildings.

"Hey, Bill! We're ready!" someone called on a recent night, as a warm breeze wafted off the gulf.

On the second floor, a woman in a turquoise sweater stepped out of her screen door. "Just a few more minutes," she called. "We're waiting for the sun."

Most of the residents here are snowbirds; about half come from Canada. Years ago, when many purchased their condos, they could see the beach from their balconies. Now, towers across Gulf Boulevard block their view.

They don't come outside at sunset to see.

They come to listen.

• • •

"There are a lot of them out there already," Nancy Pritchard told her husband as she walked back inside.

Bill Pritchard looked up from the kitchen counter, where he was cleaning the mouthpiece of his old flugelhorn.

"Well," he said. "I guess it's time to get this show on the road."

He slid the mouthpiece into the horn, fingered the three brass valves and blew a B-flat scale, up and down, to loosen his lips. Then he closed his eyes and played the same scale an octave up, just to make sure.

He is almost 87. He has survived skin cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer "and 63 years of marriage." He doesn't know how long he will be able to hit those high notes.

• • •

Most of his memories are set to music. His dad's fiddle, laughing through the cold nights on the farm in Canada. His aunt's pipe organ, humming ancient hymns in the Presbyterian church.

He was 8 when a friend told him: The Salvation Army has bugles! "I rode horseback to the director's house, where he would give me lessons," Pritchard said.

When World War II broke out, his high school principal asked him to start a marching band. At 17 he enlisted in the navy, hoping to be sent overseas.

But then someone learned he had a horn. So each morning at dawn, Pritchard blew reveille. At dusk, he played Last Post, "Canada's version of taps." The war ended without him ever shipping out.

He met Nancy, now 84, while playing in a big band in the summer of 1946. They raised two daughters and a son in a stone house on a lake in Leamington, Ontario. Bill became a dentist and took over a practice. Nancy sold homes.

And every Saturday, for 32 years, the dentist picked up his trumpet and directed the 18-piece Lancaster Band at weddings and fundraisers.

"One of my patients came to Florida, to this condo unit, and told me about it. We bought ours in 1978," he said. "Smartest thing I ever did in my life." He smiled at his wife. "Except getting married."

Every winter, he brought his horn to Indian Shores. But he seldom played in public.

• • •

One evening in 2011, Pritchard decided to serenade the sunset. "It just had to be done." He was going to blow Last Post, which he had been playing a lot lately in Canada, at friends' funerals.

But this was America, so he turned it into taps.

Four months ago, he looked up the exact time of sunset and, one minute before, headed outside with his horn. He has blown taps every night since — more than 100 nights. Now, when their friends go to Goose's for weekly wings and dominoes, Nancy goes alone. Bill said, "I'd rather blow taps." He can't explain why, exactly. "I just want each breath to be meaningful."

• • •

By 7:30, the sky was a tangerine tie-dye. The breeze had stilled. More than 50 people crowded the condo porches.

Some came to remember. Others wanted, for just a moment, to forget: lost loves, arthritic knees, loneliness. "It brings us all out here together," said Randy Steenburg, 61, a retired train engineer. "It makes me feel blessed to be out here hearing him."

At 7:37 p.m., Pritchard raised his horn. The crowd fell silent. With his wife by his side, he puckered into the old mouthpiece and started slowly, softly, then sped up, grew louder, nailed the high note. He let the last note linger, fading with the light. Another day done.

WATCH HIM PLAY: A video of Bill Pritchard's playing is at tampabay.com; look for Links in today's Times.

On Pinellas beach, bugler sounds sunset ritual of taps 03/25/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 25, 2013 10:44pm]

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