Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bugle Lessons

A horn or bugle is used on club runs and at meets to give signals for concerted action; the lightest and simplest construction being preferred.

--Charles E. Pratt, The American Bicycler: A Manual for the Observer, the Learner, and the Expert. (1879)

I once wrote a half-serious post about wanting a cycling bugle for Christmas. Well, it took a few years, but my wish came true this past December. My wife gave me this fine specimen, made in India (?!). It’s the real deal, shiny and solid, a military-style cavalry bugle of the kind used by nineteenth-century cycling clubs to call out signals to riders. I love it. It sits on the piano in my living room, and has sparked numerous, usually short, conversations.  (A cycling bugle? Oh.) Now I just have to figure out how to play it.

At all club-meets, the bugle will sound the “assembly” five minutes before the time appointed for the start. At this signal the club will form in line, left in front, the smaller wheels to the left. The company will then tell off by twos, and the odd numbers will be the left-hand turn.

I can manage to get some scratchy, farty, animal-mating-call sounds out of my bugle, but that’s about it.  The complete lack of finger holes or buttons is somewhat daunting to this former saxophonist. My plan is to learn how to play by the modern method: watching youtube videos. All those DIY ukulele players are onto something. While there may not be as many bugle videos, I’ve found a few keepers. The interweb is a beautiful thing.

The three buglers shall ride near to the captain and sub captains (one to each), and shall transmit to the club such orders as they may be directed. Orders to be transmitted by one bugle only, except when otherwise ordered. No bugle to be sounded except by order.

Learning how to play the notes, however, is only one part of my bugle lessons. I’ve also got to brush up on cycling-bugle etiquette and signals. This is no small undertaking. Victorian cyclists took their bugling seriously.

The orders to be given by bugle shall be as follows:--
REVEILLE (No.3, Calvary Tactics, United States Army), to be sounded first thing in the morning when the club is on tour.
STABLE CALL (No. 14, Cavalry Tactics, United States Army), to be sounded twenty minutes after the “Reveille” to call club together to oil up, and put machines in order for the day’s run.

Charles E. Pratt is my go-to source for cycling-bugle protocol. Born in Maine to a Quaker family, Pratt took up cycling in the 1870s while attending college in Pennsylvania and became so enamored of the activity that he went on to found, and serve as first president of, the League of American Wheelmen.  He was a lawyer but, like so many of that early wave of cyclists, also a literary man (member of several literary clubs, including The Odd Volumes Club). His manual is a bit of an odd volume itself. Although it has poetic moments, it reads mostly like the work of a cycling lawyer; the book is replete with rules and regulations.

Upon the bugle sounding “Boots and saddles,” each man shall turn his machine to the left, and place his left foot upon the step, then each man shall mount; but he shall first be sure that the man immediately in front mounted safely, and proceeded at least two revolutions, before doing so.

Pratt and his ilk borrowed directly from the military tradition, where cavalrymen used bugles to send signals to riders. In the early days of cycling, the horse analogy was inevitable, and so carrying over cavalry practices (including uniforms) into cycling clubs was a no-brainer. But the military echoes also helped legitimize what some saw as a suspiciously new-fangled, dodgy pastime. Wearing military uniforms and following cavalry bugle calls greatly reduced the number of rocks thrown at cyclists.   

Upon approaching a stopping-place, or the end of the run, the club will be brought into single file. The bugle will then sound the “Halt,” when the dismounting will commence FROM THE REAR, each man passing the word forward as he gets off his machine.

Pratt has at least one other claim to fame in cycling history. In 1882, he orchestrated one of the first successful early participatory cycling events, the “Wheel around the Hub,” a 100-mile, two-day ride around the Boston area, which attracted about 40 riders. It was a cross-club invitational, and, really, the prototype of the modern century ride. Pratt’s article about the event, published in The Wheelman and Scribner’s Monthly, was considered influential in promoting recreational distance cycling.

RIDE AT EASE (No.15, Cavalry Tactics, United States Army), at the sound of which each rider may choose his own companion.

That rosy September morning in 1882, when those forty riders rolled out from Roxbury, they were sent forth, Pratt tells us, with the calls of a small bugle. The captain played “Boots and Saddles,” and, as Pratt tells us, “Fluttering handkerchiefs of ladies receded fast, and fresh scenes opened to view as the rubber-hoofed steeds sped noiselessly along the winding avenue, across and beyond the busy streets, past fine new mansions and quaint old houses.”

TATTOO (No. 5, Cavalry Tactics, United States Army) may be sounded if the captain so order, as a suggestion to the club that it would be advisable to go to bed, and get ready for the exertions of the morrow.

Someday, this summer perhaps, I hope to blow my own bugle, inexpertly but in earnest, at the start of a group ride. Handkerchiefs could come in handy, if only rolled up and inserted in the ears of my fellow wheelmen.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to hearing the Tattoo sounded late some summer eve. Keep on practicing, Jasper!


Speak up!