A Call to Honor
By Lucian K. Truscott IV
My father died two years ago. He was a veteran of two wars, in Korea and Vietnam, and for reasons of his own, he didn't want the military funeral he was entitled to. But Veterans Day seems like a good time to honor his service to his country with a story about his lifelong love of the bugle call, taps. As a boy, my father learned to play the bugle from the bugler in my grandfather's horse cavalry squadron. Today his bugle rests on its tarnished, dented bell atop my son's bedroom dresser; on the wall of the room is a photograph of a mounted Cub Scout Pack at Fort Meyer, Va., taken in 1931. My father, a tiny figure on a giant horse, holds the bugle against his thigh. The bugle reaches up to his shoulder, almost, and looks half as big as he is. I recall him telling me how proud he was when my grandfather finally agreed to let him play taps as a duet with the squadron bugler at lights out and cavalry funerals. Taps goes back a long way in the United States military - to 1862, and Gen. George B. McClellan's failed Peninsular Campaign in Virginia. According to a history compiled by Arlington National Cemetery, taps was the inspiration of Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, a brigade commander in the Union Army of the Potomac, who was not happy with the bugle call for lights out. As Butterfield explained in a letter to Century Magazine in 1898, he felt that the Army's end-of-day music was too stiff and formal and needed to be replaced with something smoother and more melodious. Butterfield could play calls on the bugle - training on the instrument was mandatory for officers commanding regiments and brigades - but he could not write music, so he sent for his brigade bugler, Oliver Wilcox Norton. With Norton making the musical notations, Butterfield played variations on "lights out," holding some notes longer and shortening others, until he was satisfied with his new version. It was later in the Peninsular Campaign that taps was first played at a military funeral after an artillery cannoneer was killed in action. The battery commander determined that the enemy was so close that firing three memorial shots over the grave of the dead soldier might lead to an enemy attack, so he ordered taps to be played instead. The tradition soon spread to other units in the Army of the Potomac. The 1891 manual for Infantry Drill Regulations made taps mandatory at military funerals, and playing taps remains an honor legally accorded to honorably discharged veterans, who are also entitled to a two-person military honor guard and the folding and presentation of the United States flag. When I was growing up on military posts around the world, taps was played nightly at lights out by the bugler from the Army band. At large bases, the bugler played into the public address system, and the call was amplified throughout the post. But on small posts, like the one at Oberammergau, Germany, where we were stationed for several years in the mid-1950's, a solitary bugler stood in the center of the parade ground and sounded taps without amplification. On summer nights, my father would get his bugle and walk across the street and play taps as a duet with the Army bugler, and I can still remember lying awake listening to him. I can also remember his sense of outrage when, at another base we lived on, taps played by a flesh-and-blood bugler was replaced with a recording. My father felt that taps lost its meaning when it was not interpreted by a soldier playing the bugle. I remember him playing taps so that the notes lingered mournfully, like an echo from the Army's past, signaling the end of the day and reminding soldiers of those who had gone before them. When he cracked a note, it spoke volumes about loss and mortality. Years later, when my father was a battalion commander, he made certain that a bugler played taps at funerals for soldiers in his unit; if one was not available, he played it himself. He thought it was the least the Army could do to honor the service of a soldier. Apparently, the people who run the Pentagon today have a different idea of what is necessary to honor the life of a soldier. Two years ago, because of a shortage of trained buglers, Congress decided to allow recordings of taps to be played at military funerals. Recently, the Department of Defense decided to build on this strategy, spending $50,000 to develop a bugle, equipped with memory chip and amplifier, that plays an electronic rendition of taps. Beginning this month 50 of the bugles will start to be used at veterans' funerals, some 100,000 of which are conducted each year. I'm glad my father isn't around to witness the latest technological twist on a fine old Army tradition. With faux buglers playing faux taps on faux bugles, the only real thing left at military funerals will be the honor of the dead. Lucian K. Truscott IV, a 1969 graduate of West Point, is the author of ``Full Dress Gray.''