You can hear the wail of the bugle all the way from the sidewalk. Twice monthly its shrill notes pierce the breeze along Beach Boulevard in front of American Legion Post 555.
The plaintive sounds have wafted through the neighborhood for more than a decade, provided by the lungs of Fred Hummer, a World War I veteran who has been playing the same horn since 1918.
Today Hummer, 93, uses his bugle-blowing talents for one purpose only: to open the meetings of Post 555 with a mournful melody called "To the Colors" that sounds like a sad call to arms.
"It reminds me of being in the service," said the former Army bugler, standing stiffly in his blue Legionnaire's uniform.
The sound of the bugle seems appropriate coming from this bungalow-like hall. For 46 years it has stood as a beacon, landmark and social center for the residents of Midway City, a tiny unincorporated enclave surrounded by the city of Westminster.
"People used to drive by there and they always knew where they were when they came to the American Legion building," said Del Catran, the burg's unofficial mayor who has lived here for 43 years and once served as the legion post's commander.
Said Art Horne, president of the Midway City Chamber of Commerce: "At one time, most local activities took place in that building. It's been the backbone of the town."
In fact, the land on which the legion hall now sits formed the town's backbone even before the building sat there. That was in the 1930s when Beach Boulevard was a dusty two-lane highway connecting Midway City--named for its location halfway between Long Beach and Santa Ana--to the coast. Founded by Huntington Beach oil workers who preferred living away from their oil fields, the 2.5-square-mile town straddled both sides of what was then called Huntington Beach Boulevard. The area developed a strong identity of its own that later resisted efforts to incorporate into the budding city of Westminster.
In 1937, a year before they formed American Legion Post 555, a group of local veterans bought the 1.25-acre site at Beach Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue from a group of German immigrants. A little landscaping and tree planting made the place--which they dubbed Legion Park--a popular site for picnics, public ceremonies and outdoor gatherings. Later, the legionnaires persuaded the county to put in a street at the park's northern boundary, called Legion Place. And eventually they spent $500 to buy an abandoned building from the city of Huntington Beach that had once served as a recreation hall at the old Standard Oil Company camp in that city.
"It came in two sections," Catran recalls. "We trucked it down here on two big flat trucks and put it together with wire cable."
Officially dedicated in 1947, the 3,000-square-foot building at 14582 Beach Blvd. consists of a main floor, stage, kitchen, offices and barroom. It is still held together by wire cables in its attic and beneath its foundation, Catran said.
More than legionnaires have gathered there. The Midway City Chamber of Commerce used to meet regularly in the hall. Early planning meetings for construction of the town's fire station were held there. The building has long served as the local polling place. And it has been host to innumerable square dances, fashion shows, wedding receptions, banquets, town hall meetings and other public gatherings.
Today, that tradition continues with regular Friday night bingo games, weekly Red Cross blood drives, meetings of the Boy Scout troop that the post sponsors and monthly breakfasts for senior citizens.
And, of course, there's the snack bar and cantina, open six days a week, where veterans can kick back to enjoy their favorite refreshments and swap war stories to their hearts' content.
"It's nice to get together with other (former) military people," said Charles C. Altomare, 79, a veteran of World War II. "There's a lot of camaraderie."
Claud Koch, 75, a Pearl Harbor survivor who held his wedding reception there in 1948, said he values the continuity the hall provides. There's something good about "the companionship of guys who were doing the same thing you were," he said. "This place has been here a long time."
But the focal point of hall gatherings comes at the post meetings opened by Hummer and his bugle. The legion members discuss business, plan activities and engage in lively discussions about world and local events, or whatever is on their minds.
The post has 329 members, mostly World War II veterans age 65 and older, with a smattering of younger Korean and Vietnam War vets. Among other things, said commander A.C. Gus Sifuentes, they raise lots of money--about $22,000 last year--for local charities. They also share a passionate interest in current events, as shown by one member's suggestion at a recent meeting that the post organize a summit of experts to discuss gang problems in the wake of the recent shooting at Westminster Mall.
"We have to do something about these gangs!" Sifuentes exclaimed. He and several others then offered impromptu editorials against graffiti vandals, gun control, President Clinton's draft record, the American Civil Liberties Union and gays in the military.
While the post rarely takes official stands on local or national issues, the commander said, "obviously we have our positions."
All of which is just fine with Hummer, as long as he can keep blowing his bugle.
"It takes all the pressure off your chest," the old soldier, who will be 94 in November, said of his musical efforts. Hummer attributes his longevity, among other things, to staying off special diets and keeping active. "This is a wonderful post," he said. "If I didn't do this I wouldn't be as healthy."