UA-112394588-1 UA-112394588-1 The Bugle Boy

Genealogy and Family History

The Bugle Boy, a Memoir of Richard Seltzer, Sr.

June 18th, 2014

My Dad, Richard Seltzer, Sr., died on Saturday, June 14, Flag Day. He was 91.  He was a retired Colonel in the Army Reserves, and married the day before D-Day.

This memoir briefly traces his unique life path, and might be of interest to strangers as well as friends and family.

Richard Seltzer, Jr.



Dad gave me this bugle about twenty years ago.  I believe  it once belonged to his Uncle Adolph, from World War I. and that Dad played around with it and other army gear of Uncle Adolph’s at the family summer house in Colonial Beach, Virginia.

Music was important to Dad.  He and his three brothers each learned an instrument and played regularly together with their Mom and Dad in the family living room.  Dad learned the violin with formal lessons, then taught himself the saxophone and the piano.  He used a chord system for the piano and played pop tunes and hymns with confidence and gusto, for sing-a-longs.  He played the saxophone for bands, sometimes for the fun of it, sometimes to earn some extra money.  And he played the violin in community orchestras, right up until his stroke at age 86.

After his stroke, he couldn’t talk, but he could sing — a left-brain, right-brain thing.  So you could say that music became even more important to him.

But the bugle was probably the most important instrument in his life.

In 1944, Dad was a private in the US Army, stationed in Georgia — a bugle boy waiting to be shipped to the war in Europe.

The day before he was due to leave, he received orders for Officer Candidate School.

It turned out that his company was sent to the Battle of the Bulge.  He heard that they were all captured, without casualties, and that the train taking them to prison camp was bombed by the Allies, and then there was only one casualty — the bugle boy, the man who replaced him, died.

Bugle and Bulge — one an anagram of the other, the same letters, arranged slightly differently.

Some might see it as chance.  But to Dad, he owed his life that to other bugle boy. He had an obligation to pay it back, to live a life that mattered.

Dad was given a life and also given a belief that he had a personal destiny.

And at every decision point in his life, in the back of his head was the image of that bugle boy who had taken his place, a humbling sense of responsibility, a debt owed.

I’m reminded of the final scene in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, at Arlington National Cemetery,  long after World War II.  The man who was saved is standing with his children and his grandchildren.  Not a word is said.  But you get the sense that the man’s whole life was predicated on that sacrifice and that debt.

And soon before his stroke, when Dad was sorting out what he wanted to happen when he died, he said he wanted his ashes to lie at Arlington National Cemetery.

Back in 1944, the Army sent Dad to the University of Pennsylvania to learn German.  While he was there, in Philadelphia, he met and married my mother.  The war in Europe ended exactly nine months before my birth.

Then the Army sent him to Camp Campbell in Kentucky to learn Japanese.  He was supposed to be air dropped behind enemy lines in the early stages of the invasion of Japan.  Fortunately, that war too ended before he was shipped, and I was born in nearby Clarksville, Tennessee.

At that stage of his life, Dad dreamed of a career in acting.  So as soon as he was discharged, he took his wife and infant son to California, where he had been accepted at the UCLA theater program.  But he couldn’t find housing, Mom missed friends and family, and something didn’t feel right.  He needed to take his life in a different direction.  He had a different destiny.

He headed back East, and went to the University of Maryland, preparing for a career in education.  Money was tight. At one point, while he was going to school, we lived in a log cabin with a wood stove.

When he graduated, he got a job teaching in a junior high school in Philadelphia.  At the same time, he worked on a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and to make ends meet, he drove a cab and sold his blood once a month.  (He was AB negative, which is rare.)

Next we moved to Rockville, Maryland, and Dad studied for a doctorate in education while working as a high school school administrator, as an intern, at half pay.

Eventually he became Dean of Instruction at Plymouth State College in Plymouth, NH, before that became part of UNH.  Then he had a series of jobs as superintendent of schools in three communities in the Philadelphia area.

And through it all, he stayed in the US Army Reserves, rising to the rank of full colonel. He was always proud of his country and his service in the Army.  He was more proud of that rank of colonel than of his position as superintendent of schools.  And yes, he wanted his ashes to lie in Arlington National Cemetery.

When Dad retired, at age 55, he returned to acting — getting bit roles in movies like “Trading Places” and “Signs,” and in TV shows like “Law and Order,” and appearing in TV commercials and print ads, and playing in live stage plays, as well.

About ten years ago, Dad and Mom moved to Boston to be close to my sister and me.  Here he continued his acting, became an active member of a Lutheran church and of an association of retired Army officers.  He played the violin in two community orchestras and dabbled in oil painting, right up until his stroke.

Of all his acting roles, the one he was most proud of was Teddy in “Arsenic and Old Lace”, back in Philadelphia, at the same time he was teaching junior high, earning a master’s degree, driving a cab, and selling his blood.  As the delusional character who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt, he ran up and down the stairs blowing a bugle.

That’s the story of Dad’s life as I know it.

But there’s an unexpected twist at the end.

Soon before his stroke, Dad found over the Internet a group of veterans from World War II, from his old company that got shipped to the Battle of the Bulge.   He learned that the bugle boy didn’t die, and he got in touch with him by email and shared life experiences.

Then just last year, the officer who took command of that company soon after Dad left for OCS and before the Bulge chanced upon Dad’s autobiography on the Internet and sent him a detailed account of what had actually happened in the battle.  In fact, more than half the men in the company died in the battle.

So there is the story that gave Dad a sense of debt and destiny; and there are the facts, which are very different.

And the story Dad believed for so long mattered more than the facts, giving shape and meaning to his life. And having a life that has meaning to yourself and that might inspire others is a rare gift.

I wish I had learned how to play the bugle myself.  If I had, in remembrance of him, I would want to play “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” and then, very solemnly, play “Taps.”

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