The Playing of Taps

This post is slightly revised from one that first saw the light of blog in 2006. Here in Hawaii, where just about every location that is not a tourist trap or an arm of government is a military base, there are a hundred skilled trumpet players, so getting a professional to play “Taps” at a Memorial Day function is not a problem. In the more rural parts of America, the situation is different …

The trumpet player was trying to relax. Which was one reason he was so tense.

It was Memorial Day. The parades would start in an hour. They would visit little plaques in each of the six villages of their small town on the Maine coast, each plaque in its turn. Some marching, a prayer, a wreath, three guns, Taps.

Taps. The bugle call. It sounds so simple, so easy. But it is not easy. Oh, no. Those high notes are hard to reach, those long tones hard to hold. One butchered phrase turns beauty to agony. And most amateur players butcher several of them. He was an amateur, he knew the risk. He also knew that they were counting on him to get it right. And he’d managed to leave the house, at an hour too damned close to dawn, without caffeine.

He needed to think of something else for a minute. He turned on the car radio, hoping to catch the sports flash. He missed it, as usual. The station was sports talk, and the announcer was just then accepting a call. “Hi, how are ya?” Every caller said the same thing. As if the physical and emotional condition of the announcer had not been on display coast to coast for most of the preceding three hours. As if the caller cared. He turned the radio off.

He turned in to the high school parking lot where the band members were gathering. It was a small town, a small band, and not much of a band. Practically all the members had gone to that high school, had marched in the high school band under the same tyrant teacher. Their number was shrinking now. Some were infirm; others had passed on. Most of the ones who were left were retired. There were not many younger folk. The high school had not had much of a music program after the tyrant left them; those few who had learned to play instruments had other kinds of music in mind. And they weren’t going to be caught dead in the white trousers that, with the red polo shirts, the band had adopted as its uniform.

Most of the band members were assembled into groups, gossiping. The same cliques and families as in 1962. Or was it 1862? Some of those groups had long pedigrees. The order of music had not changed in three years. About half the members did not know the order. Eventually the band president got the players to line up in marching order. Having established who was to stand where (making allowances for the three absent members who would meet them at the first site, which was hard because some of those present kept asking whether they should stand “here” or “there”), she finally got them onto their bus, a school bus. It was a class party.

The trumpet player was from away. They left him alone. He was grateful for this. He was still trying to relax, get ready for “Taps”.

The school bus found others; eventually, there was a small convoy. One bus had the band. Another held the color guard from the local coast guard station, and a detachment of four Marines, the firing squad. In yet another, veterans from the American Legion post, about a dozen. Most had served in World War II or Korea; their coming to attention was now falling victim to arthritis, to osteoporosis. This year there was a single veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a woman. It looked as if the Legion had adopted a Girl Scout. At a few of the stops, there were veterans in cars; at others, a band from the middle school, or an elementary school; at one, a fair number of scouts, girls and boys, with flags. There were spectators, some places more, some fewer. A few tourists downtown, otherwise they were all locals. Not many had flags.

At every site the busloads poured onto the street, about 500 yards from the little plaque that was their destination and their purpose, and sorted themselves out. A chaotic process. The trumpet player thought of iron filings shaken out into a tray and then brought into contact with a magnet, a weak one, not big enough for the job. The retired Air Force major general in charge got the color guard and firing squad organized and then called the parade to order. The order almost always caught the band by surprise; it scrambled madly into formation from its chat groups and got started on its march just a few seconds after it was too late. The trumpet player forgot about it. He needed to be ready. It was almost time.

Some marching, a prayer, a wreath, three guns.


The trumpet player, hidden under dark glasses, closed his eyes. He blotted out the ragged red-and-white band, the Legion color-bearer who could no longer hold the American flag highest, the tempestuous, oblivious children in the adjacent playground.

He played. And as the first phrase rose over the parade ground he saw tents, long lines of Civil War tents along the Potomac River, the bugler sounding for them a call they’d never heard before. Then the tents became stones, long lines of white stones at Arlington National Cemetery, which became crosses, long lines of white crosses in a D-Day cemetery in France. One of those white crosses had his name on it, his blood underneath it. A bugler stood beside it. He was that bugler. He lifted the high note over the cross, and it became a pile of Manhattan rubble. And then a pile of body bags, pulled off a transport newly arrived from Iraq. As the last of the call faded away, the bodies were buried under new white stones. Silence.

It was over. The band boarded the bus for the last time and headed back to the high school parking lot. A few moments of mutual congratulations and thanks before the chat groups reformed. Final greetings as they packed their instruments into their cars and headed off for families or American Legion barbecues: “Happy Memorial Day”.

Happy Memorial Day. The massacre of Antietam in the style of Currier and Ives. Ike Eisenhower as a smiley face over the D-Day beaches. “Have a nice day” inscribed on the archway of Abu Ghraib prison. Party ribbons on the lines of white stones. As if …

The trumpet player merely nodded, picked up his trumpet case, and headed for home.

– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2006, 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.


  1. I’ll echo what Amber wrote.

    Of this I was aware when a member of the greatest generation passed last Fall. So I brought the old bugle given to me by a boy scout leader… and told the cemetery folks to leave the tape player go. ’twas my tune the family listened to. And not many minded that I didn’t hit all the notes.

    You and your trumpet could have a career, OC.

  2. Thanks, everyone!

    Brian –

    It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it. – Robert E. Lee

    And the irony of it, Doug, is that the bugler shared the distinction of the military musician and the ambulance driver (in the days before the invention of the Medic/Corpsman) of being underage and/or “least capable under arms”.

    Amber, Sauerkraut, the shortage of buglers is a symptom of changes in musical taste and military practice (the radio having taken the bugle’s role as troop signaler). There is an organization of volunteer buglers that tries to ensure that live “Taps” remains an option for those who wish it. And I’m sure not all of its members always hit the notes. The super-polished performances of today’s US military bands is not something that stretches far back into history. The Civil War band, according to surviving accounts, mostly played “noise”.

  3. Here’s a co-inkydink… just noticed this in today’s paper: International Trumpet Guild Conference… Harrisburg Hilton, The Forum, et als… today thru Saturday. or 717-540-1010.

  4. Ah, the ITG. I know about that organization, of course, but I’ve avoided joining. I’m not the “joining” type, I guess. I generally needing “joining” money for eccentric luxuries like rent, food, clothing, and energy bills. Besides, I’m uncomfortable being around a whole pile of (mostly) guys who are all better players than I am and aren’t shy about letting you know about it. A favorite ITG T-shirt is emblazoned “Hi. I’m better than you.” I have to deal with mega-egos professionally. In my hobbies? Not really interested.

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