INDIANAPOLIS — “Patriotism goes up and down,” said Bill Wellman, World War II veteran and tireless entrepreneur, as if he were talking about the stock market.
Flag-waving may have leveled off (at least compared to the immediate post-9/11 years), but Wellman speculates it’s about to spike again.
His reasoning could be classified – at least for the 90-year-old Wellman – under good news/bad news: “There’s going to be more patriotism because people my age who fought World War II are dying out at 1,100 a day, and that’s going to bring more and more attention to service and sacrifice.”
The rate is actually closer to 600 a day. Still, World War II vets are dying out, and the day is approaching when the last one goes. It’s not a stretch to assume that event will trigger a rush of appreciation for what is often called the Greatest Generation, as well as a surge of patriotism.
Wellman, of Valparaiso, Ind., has positioned himself to take advantage of the surge. He has figured out a fairly inexpensive but profitable way to sell a digitized version of taps, the emotion-choked military dirge.
His device consists of a small computer hooked up to two 30-watt speakers and is based on the technology that turns lights on and off automatically at a prescribed time. He charges $1,500.
Wellman sold two in Indianapolis recently at the American Legion’s state convention at the Marriott East, The Indianapolis Star reported. One went to the host hotel, which frequently hosts veterans’ groups. (In its poolside courtyard, the Marriott East wisely flies the flags of all four military branches.)
About 600 Legionnaires attended the convention. Wellman sat at a card table alongside other vendors, including a woman selling Marine Corps key chains and baseball hats that said, “If you love freedom, thank a vet,” and a representative of Purifan, a machine that removes cigarette smoke from the air.
Wellman figured he reached about 100 prospects with his pitch, mostly Legionnaires interested in installing “Taps” at their posts.
An adviser to Dean White, the Merrillville-based billionaire, Wellman is an idea man with a history of attention-getting marketing schemes. Over the years, he has owned bars, a bowling alley, a hotel and a dinner theater. His promotions have involved an elephant, a dwarf, Orville Redenbacher and one time an American Indian hired to live, briefly, in a teepee in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn.
Wellman got the idea for his Taps of America device a couple of years ago after catching a TV news story about a man in Tacoma, Wash., who every evening hauled his bugle out onto the balcony of his condo and played taps.
There must be a simpler way, Wellman figured, and he came up with the idea of marrying timer technology with a recording of the mournful song. He has sold about two dozen devices.
Wellman’s hometown has been blasting taps every night at dusk for 15 months.
“It’s really quite cool,” said Bill Oeding, Valparaiso city administrator. “The only challenge was adjusting the volume so it wasn’t just blasting. That was quite minor.”
A few months ago, Wellman made an inroad into retail by selling to Silver Beach Pizza, a pizza joint in St. Joseph, Mich.
“I haven’t had a ton of comments, but I’ve watched people,” said owner Jay Costas. “People stop talking. Older people take their hats off.”
Wellman met with and pitched to James Koutz, of Boonville, a past national Legion commander. Koutz, retired from the VA, agreed to become an agent for Wellman’s “Taps.”
“I think we should work on cemeteries,” Koutz said to Wellman. “Just about every cemetery has a veterans section, and this’d be perfect.”
True perfection, Koutz and Wellman conceded, would be taps played live, by an actual trumpeter. Somebody like Wayne Dunlap, an Air Force veteran and Legionnaire from Carmel who happened to stroll through the vendors’ area with his trumpet.
Dunlap, who plays taps at military funerals, was conciliatory.
“To have taps played digitally is better than not having it played at all,” he said.
Live taps is increasingly rare. At more and more veterans’ funerals, a soldier appears to blow taps but actually just activates a digital recording that blares from the horn via a speaker concealed in the bell. It requires no training and is much cheaper than hiring a musician.
The future looks bright for digital, and Wellman figures: Why stop at taps?
So at noon on a recent Sunday, the American Legion post in Valparaiso became probably the first place in the nation to blast “God Bless America.”
The broadcast will be repeated every Sunday for the foreseeable future.