By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Jim Lanpher’s 38-year career with the Vermont National Guard’s 40th Army Band ends on Aug. 10 because he will then reach the mandatory retirement age of 60.
The Vergennes resident still remembers 49 years ago when he decided to start playing the trumpet. He was in school in his native Maine when he made the choice.
Music company reps displayed their goods. Among them were trumpets, the same instrument Lanpher’s father played in a U.S. Army career that began in World War II.
But Lanpher, who will retire as a sergeant first class, said that wasn’t why he picked one up.
“I liked the way the trumpet looked and sounded, and I thought it was pretty cool,” he said.
That choice began a military music career that has taken him with the 40th Army Band to Italy and Panama and to many military funerals to play Taps.
As it winds down, that career will include a week-long Independence Day tour of Vermont that features an July 2 evening concert on the city green in Vergennes, his home town since 1980. It may be the last chance area residents will get to see him perform locally with the Army band.
Lanpher’s wife, Diane, laughingly called this week her husband’s “farewell tour.” The 40th Army Band will also play Tuesday in Milton, Wednesday in Lyndonville, and — fittingly considering Lanpher lived there from age 11 until he graduated from the University of Vermont — Friday in Barre.
After August, Lanpher will still perform with the Vergennes City Band and the Champlain Brass Quintet. And he said he will savor the stops in his two Vermont hometowns during his last tour with the 40th Army Band.
But it will be a bittersweet tour, for sure, because of all the band has meant to him for 38 years, during each of which he has played two week-long concert tours on top of practicing and performing for one weekend a month.
“I think it’s the best part-time job in the world. I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed it,” Lanpher said. “I’ve never woken up in the morning when I’ve got Guard (duty) thinking I don’t want to go to work.”
As Lanpher tells it, there was never a question that the music and the military would figure in his life. In 1971 he passed both the Army physical and an audition for the Fort Devens (Mass.) band.
“It’s the first thing I did after UVM,” he said.
But a friend persuaded him to look closer to home, Colchester, to be exact, where the Vermont Guard is based.
“A good friend of mine, Rocky Morris in Barre, who was in the 40th Army Band, suggested I sit in ... just to try it out. And I sat in, and I had a great time. They were all great guys, and I enjoyed myself,” Lanpher said.
Lanpher decided to become a part-time soldier and military musician and to focus on a full-time civilian career. He chose banking, and ended up managing branches for the Merchants Bank in South Burlington and Vergennes until that firm downsized in 1995. Now he is with Horace Mann Insurance.
Before he could make his 40th Army Band decision official, Lanpher had to jump through the hoops like any other recruit. He completed basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and then trained with the 19th Army Band before reporting for duty with the Vermont Army National Guard.
Then came the four or five parades and two concert tours a year with the full band, plus a few gigs on the side with other 40th Army Band horn players in a group they call “The Brass Machine,” which plays material by acts like the Miami Sound Machine, Phil Collins and the Blues Brothers.
That adds up to more than 600 group performances with the full band or the smaller group over the years, but Lanpher said it has hardly seemed like work.
“I enlisted in the band, and that’s what I’ve done ever since,” he said. “After basic training I became a part-time musician. It is a very, very good gig. I’ve just enjoyed it so much. It’s a very, very good band ... We have a range of musical abilities, but the best musicians I’ve ever played with are members of that band.”
Of course, a military trumpeter also has a vital, sad and difficult solo task — Taps.
“It’s an honor to be the bugler,” Lanpher said. “Whenever you do taps for a deceased veteran, it’s an important job.”
Playing taps is always an emotional challenge, but also a technical one: Horn players typically warm up before playing, something not possible during a military funeral.
“It’s not a difficult piece musically, ... but it’s always under difficult circumstances,” Lanpher said. “You’re always nervous. You definitely want to do a good job ... It’s always a little nerve-wracking when you’re ready to start. You want to play it well. You want to play it musically, and you want it to sound good to the family.”
At the other end of the scale came one of two of the 40th Army Band trips abroad. In 1995, the Vermont band replaced the base band at Fort Clayton on the Panama Canal for two weeks, but the most joyous trip came in 1990, when the 40th was chosen to lead an annual parade in Verona, Italy, honoring that country’s “Alpini,” its elite mountain troops.
Lanpher said the 40th led a daylong parade that consisted of 600,000 marchers, and afterward were welcomed by local Alpinis before a two-week concert tour.
“That was a big honor,” he said. “That parade was quite thrilling.”
With a major chapter of his life coming to a close, Lanpher said he would devote more time to a family he said has always been supportive of his Guard career, to weekend projects, and to his insurance work. He will also continue to recommend to musicians they consider army bands as a career move.
And on Independence Day 2010, for the first time in 38 years, he will be able to spend time with his family instead of performing. In fact, they are already making plans.
“What we’ll probably do on the 4th is go see the 40th Army Band,” Lanpher said. “The members of the band are our friends, too. We like to go see them.”