Playing patriotism

Bruce Benson served his nation in World War II, flew as a commercial airplane pilot and owned a furniture store.

But musician is the title he cherishes the most. Music connected him to his wife, Jane, before, during and after their 68-year marriage.

To honor her memory, as well as his fellow military veterans, Benson emerges from his historic home in Webb City, Mo., every night at sunset to sound taps.

“Music was all over our relationship,” said Benson, 92, a member of American Legion Post 322 in Webb City. “She was a dancer. I was a musician. She ran a dance school. I wrote music for her dance school. Our two sons, Van and David, are both musically inclined. We had a little four-piece band and played for some of her recitals.”

In her final days, Jane wrote some notes, one of which inspired Benson’s nightly remembrance. “May our family stay strong in Christian faith, in family love and patriotism,” Jane wrote before she passed in December 2014.

Now, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will keep Benson from performing his simple ceremony, across the street from the town post office. (However, when lightning crashes his party, Benson stays inside and plays a recording of taps instead.)

Benson is routinely accompanied by Dave Bergland, who served in the Marines. They often play the national anthem before taps during their warmup that lasts around 15 minutes.

“People ask us why we do this,” said Benson, who started his nightly routine more than two years ago. “It’s to commemorate our fallen heroes, other people who are still serving and because of what my wife wrote in her memoirs. My thoughts, as we finish playing taps, go to her presence here and completing what she wrote as one of her last thoughts she put on paper.”

Benson’s ritual attracts a range of onlookers. Kids disembark from their bicycles to salute the flag. Senior citizens pause and reflect.

After he finishes playing, Benson salutes the flag, greets his audience and retreats into his home — a converted theater built in 1937.

The Bensons moved into the home in 1990. Visitors see the building is still filled with beautiful lighting, ornate decorations, and original flooring and woodwork. Benson sees a home filled with memories of love, music and special moments with Jane.

They met at Fort Crowder in the early 1940s when he was in a 60-piece Army band and she was a dancer for the USO.

“I was sitting on the bandstand one night and she came over,” Benson remembered. “She looked up at me and said, ‘Could you play two courses of Southern Fried with a four-bar intro?’ She was so pretty and very sweet. I looked at her and said, ‘Yes, I think we can do that. Let’s talk about it.’ And that was the beginning of our romance,” said Benson, who accepted her invitation to dinner the following Sunday night.

They were married in March 1946 after Benson returned from the war. “She is still deep in my heart,” he says softly. “I have wonderful memories.”

Now, Jane is never far from Benson’s thoughts, whether he is at home or out playing one of his horns. Each Sunday he plays at their church, First Presbyterian of Webb City. He also performs at veterans’ funerals and other events when invited.

Post 322 Commander Donald Wooten said Benton performs at all the post’s ceremonies.

“We love him,” Wooten said. “The horn is his life. There should be more people doing this in our country. But there are few people like him.”

Bergland — a self-described “wingman” to Benson — reveres Benson.

Their friendship began shortly after Bergland heard taps as he drove past Benson’s home. By the time he turned his vehicle around, Benson had moved inside. “I walked up the alley and could not find him,” Bergland recalled. “How could he move that fast? He was an older gentleman.”

Undaunted, Bergland showed up the following night and the two musicians immediately hit it off. Bergland agreed to return the next evening with his horn.

“I told him it would not be an every night thing,” said Bergland, who is 53. “But it has turned out to be an every night thing. He is an amazing man. He is so encouraging. He is patient. His way about him. He is an incredible teacher.”

The two perform together at other events. Last Fourth of July, Benson arranged for them to play at five different ceremonies. “You can’t keep up with him,” Bergland said. “He’s incredible.”