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Tapping Into Playing Taps

Even though it’s considered the unofficial beginning of summer, I would like to focus on the principal purpose of Memorial Day as a day of national mourning. Americans are asked to fly the flag at half-staff from sunrise until noon to commemorate those who have died in military service for our country. The flag is raised to full staff at noon to honor living veterans.

At 3:00 p.m. local time, Americans everywhere also are asked to pause for one minute to reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all. The time was chosen because it’s when most citizens are enjoying time off from work for the holiday. The National Moment of Remembrance was first proclaimed in May 2000 for Memorial Day that year and was put into law by the United States Congress that December.

In addition, Taps Across America is an organization that promotes the sounding of Taps on Memorial Day at 3 p.m. Again, this year, CBS News “On the Road” correspondent Steve Hartman and retired Air Force bugler Jari Villanueva of Taps for Veterans are inviting musicians of all abilities and ages to sound Taps at 3 p.m. local time – a national holiday event Hartman launched in 2020 on the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell.

The organization encourages all musicians to participate and be among some 5,000 who are expected to sound Taps worldwide this year on bugles, cornets, trumpets, trombones, clarinets, flutes, saxophones – any instrument! Also, volunteers may sound Taps at any location that feels appropriate – the front lawn, back yard, a local cemetery or Veterans organization are some places participants performed in the past. Traditionally, when people hear Taps, they respond by standing, facing the music and placing their hands over their hearts.

I’ve been tooting my own horn since fifth grade. While actively playing in school I had my fair share of great experiences from marching, varsity, dance and concert bands and orchestras, to solo and brass ensemble performances for contests and concerts. Since 1979, I’ve been privileged to perform as a charter member of the Fort Wayne Area Community Band and with the Band Alumni of Notre Dame.

However, none of those experiences can equate with the honor I feel when playing Taps. As a member of Buglers Across America, it has been my privilege to occasionally play Taps for a deceased military veteran. I was first acquainted with the honor as a senior in high school when occasionally I was invited to play Taps at a military funeral.

And since I heard about Taps Across America in 2020, I’ve been playing Taps on Memorial Day at 3:00 p.m. on my front lawn next to the American flag. A few friends and neighbors have joined me in the commemoration.

The 24 notes of the hauntingly mournful bugle call we call Taps was composed during the Civil War in July 1862 at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia as a lights-out signal to soldiers. Since 1891, Taps is sounded on a bugle, trumpet or cornet at funerals, memorial services and wreath laying ceremonies.

Earlier I mentioned Buglers Across America and Villanueva’s Taps for Veterans, two groups dedicated to having a live bugler perform Taps at a veteran’s funeral. But you know what’s really sad? All those talented trumpeters out there from high schoolers, amateurs to professionals to choose from and what do many funeral homes and American Legion organizations do? They use an electronic recording of Taps inside a fake bugle anyone can hold pretending to play it that sounds like a tin horn because that’s what it is!

On a lighter note, so to speak, since 1918 when Irvin Berlin wrote the song “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as a humorous protest against the indignities of Army routine, buglers have been held with low esteem chiefly because the hatred of reveille was universal. Did you ever hear some of the “threats” in the chorus of that song?

Some day I’m going to murder the bugler,
Some day they’re going to find him dead;
I’ll amputate his reveille, and step upon it heavily,
And spend the rest of my life in bed.
The end of the second chorus is not as threatening, but based on my experience, it’s not truthful:
A bugler in the army is the luckiest of men,
He wakes the boys at five and then goes back to bed again…

At summer band camp in high school, I spent a week serving as the official bugler. Yes, I was the first one up in the morning if you don’t count the band director who had to wake me. But I didn’t go back to bed! I already was dressed since I couldn’t very well have played reveille beneath the flag pole in my PJs or underwear as the American flag was raised.

A half-hour or so following reveille, I sounded chow call. I can still hear the thundering herd of footsteps rushing out the barrack’s doors for breakfast. Guess who was last in line? And it was the same for lunch and dinner all week!

When I sounded Taps at the end of day, band members were in their bunks with lights out with many watching me through a window. When I finished and was getting ready for bed in the dark, someone would ask, “Are you undressed yet?” Then another would inquire how soon I would be in bed. This, of course, made me highly suspicious. Sure enough, about every night when I pulled down the covers, there was a frog or garter snake waiting to greet me. So, I wouldn’t say “A bugler… is the luckiest of men!” But he or she is honorable when it comes to sounding Taps!

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer