Monday, May 27, 1996
Memorial Day echoes solemn notes of taps

The Cincinnati Enquirer

At dawn today, they will play and people will weep.

Two trumpeters will lick their lips. Then, they'll put their horns to their mouths and play, one echoing the other, a short, sad song.

It lasts only 24 notes. About the time it takes for a tear to travel down a cheek.

They will repeat this performance four more times today. For this is Memorial Day. And the melody is taps.

The holiday and song honor the troops who died in war to keep us at peace.

Rob Pugh and Jim Porter are the players. They belong to the American Legion Post 530 band in Greenhills.

At first light, they will play taps in front of Greenhills City Hall. Later today, they play it at two cemeteries, during a parade and, finally, at the post's headquarters.

It's a long day for a short song.

"It'll be dark when I get up," Jim says. But he's not complaining.

"No one grumbles when they get to play taps," he says. "That's an honor. It's a solemn song.

"It's . . . "

Jim gets a catch in his throat. There's a moment of silence.

Regaining his voice, he apologizes for the long pause. "I'm an emotional person," says the 64-year-old retired printer and Army veteran. "I laugh easily. And," he says, his voice breaking, "I cry easily."

Through tears, he calls taps a Memorial Day tribute, "a 'thank you' to all veterans who have died for our country."

For the troops

The song is older than the holiday by a scant four years. Taps was first played in 1862. Memorial Day - originally a holiday honoring fallen Civil War soldiers - was first observed in 1866.

Some of those soldiers heard taps. It was written for them.

In the summer of 1862, Daniel Butterfield, a general in the Union Army, wanted a better bugle call. He didn't like the one that signaled "lights out" at the end of the day. To him, it sounded harsh.

He wanted something with a soothing air. So, using an older call as a guide, he wrote the 24-note piece that has since become known as taps. How it got that title, no one knows.

Oliver Willcox Norton, the general's bugler, was the first to play taps. The bugle call made its debut on a hot night in July 1862 as the Army of the Potomac rested by the James River in Virginia.

The Union Army was in enemy territory and in trouble. The army was in retreat after losing a series of skirmishes called the Battles of the Seven Days. Those troops needed soothing.

"The song gives a great sense of finality," notes Jim Porter. It says, lights out, day is done. The end.

Away from the crowd

On Memorial Day, Jim and Rob customarily play this haunting melody after an honor guard fires a 21-gun salute. The flag flutters in the breeze. The guard's commander shouts "Present Arms!"

"That's our cue," Rob Pugh says.

He goes first. Always.

Jim retires to the distance, "behind a tree or some such place, where no one can see me. I'm the echo."

If he faced the crowd, he would not be able to get through the song. When he plays taps, his emotions get to him and he remembers the first time he played it.

"It was in '53 or '55 for a young soldier killed in an automobile accident. When I started, his wife became hysterical. I'll never forget that. So, it's better for me not to see the people."

Different thoughts go through Rob's head. The 46-year-old draftsman never went to war. But he knows that guys his age went to Vietnam and never came back. When he plays taps, he remembers them and thinks of an uncle he never knew. His father's brother died in England during World War II when a B-17 loaded with bombs crashed on take-off.

He honors them in his mind. Then, he concentrates on playing. Taps is not an easy piece. Even its ending is tricky.

After the last echo fades away, taps always ends in silence. There's no applause. The trumpeters don't expect it. Taps is their sacred hymn.

To them, it's enough just to hear the sounds of clearing throats over the silky whispers of a flying flag.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.