Kari Haugeto was a struggling lounge singer outside Cape Canaveral, Fla., competing against senior citizen crooners for nightclub jobs, when opportunity came knocking. It was Uncle Sam, and he was looking for a few good musicians.
Haugeto joined the Navy, tried out for the U.S. Naval Academy Band, and got the job.
Now, instead of working in smoky Cocoa Beach hotel lounges, she's a petty officer who gets paid to march onto the field for Navy football games. She sings Duke Ellington at academy dances. She plays trumpet and drums at concerts. And she fights back tears while singing the national anthem at retirement parties.
"Sometimes all in one day," Haugeto, 29, said during a rehearsal last week. "It's crazy."
Haugeto occupies one of the more unusual corners of the 1.2 million-member U.S. military. But hers is a breed that is in decline. Since the Vietnam War, the budget-conscious Department of Defense has reduced the number of musicians in the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, jobs that some lawmakers have argued are superfluous to the military mission of the services.
Twenty-five years ago, more than 2,400 musicians served in the Navy, which boasted more than 40 bands. Aircraft carriers had their own bands. They played songs for sailors during dangerous at-sea refuelings. They held "steel beach parties" on the decks of ships. That number has been cut to 700 musicians playing in 13 Navy bands. None is based on aircraft carriers.
At the Naval Academy, music is not in danger of disappearing, as it has from many Navy posts around the world. The academy's band is the Navy's oldest and, with 61 members, its largest. The band originated with a fifer and a drummer soon after the academy was created in 1845. They played music to teach midshipmen how to march in time.
Five years later, the full band was officially created with 13 members. In the early years, the drum major wore an enormous bearskin cap and was known as Old Denver.
"Everywhere you go here, at every function, there's music," said Rear Adm. Gary Roughead, the school's commandant -- equivalent to a university's dean of students. "It's an integral part of the institution."
Band members say the job is like none other in the Navy. They may be called upon to play taps at a funeral in the afternoon and hours later be swinging through an Ellington medley at one of their concerts, like the one held at the academy Friday night to celebrate the Navy's birthday. The band records compact discs and has posted sample songs on its Web site (www.usna.edu/USNA Band/main.html).
'I love coming to work'
"At 28 years, I'm at the tail end of my Navy career, and I still love coming to work every day," said Master Chief Gary Wolfe, who has played trumpet at the academy for 20 years after serving eight years with two other Navy bands.
Wolfe said he had watched his father grow to hate the drudgery of his 8-to-5 job with the Defense Department. Two years away from retirement, Wolfe still considers his job "a unique and satisfying way to serve your country."
"It's something you get to put your heart into every day. You have to. There's nothing mundane or ordinary about it," he said.
The downside of a musician's job is that instead of barbecuing in the back yard on holidays, they march in parades or play to accompany fireworks. Also, the pay's not great. Most band members earn less than $30,000 a year.
One of the major benefits of the academy job is that it's permanent, which is rare in the Navy. For 99 percent of the nearly 400,000 men and women of the Navy, the lifestyle is one of constant change and travel. Naval Academy Band members stay put. Most of their concerts are in and around Annapolis, so they're not on the road touring like some other military bands. And they don't have to go through the grueling nine weeks of basic training that other enlistees face.
The competition is stiff, and the band can be selective. "You have to have 10 to 15 years' experience before you walk in the door," said Ensign Mike Grant, the band's assistant director.
Most requested tune
A potential downside is the ubiquitous Navy fight song, "Anchors Aweigh." It was written in 1906 by a former bandmaster, Charles Zimmerman, and played that year at the annual Army-Navy football game, where it became a huge hit. The tune was soon adopted as Navy's official fight song and is now one of the world's most recognized songs, according to Billboard magazine. It is also the band's most requested song.
That means the Naval Academy Band plays "Anchors Aweigh" hundreds of times a year. There's a long version. There's a short-and-fast version for football games. It is played with and without vocals. But band members say it grows on you.
"I never get tired of playing 'Anchors Aweigh,' " said bassoonist Dave Hanner, a 10-year band member.