Justin plays his trumpet at funerals. Military funerals. Or really, up until now, the funerals of veterans who die, every week these days, forgotten. The VFW tries to help. The local National Guard post tries to help. The VFW brings a flag to drape the coffin. The National Guard shows up with three uniformed men bearing rifles loaded with blanks, ready to fire the salute. But nobody had a trumpeter. They brought a tape recording of taps. Justin heard this while reading in a park next to a cemetery last summer and was horrified. A whole life lived, all those sacrifices, commitments, attempts, failures, and successes, he figured, deserved a real human with a real horn playing this real retreat. So he started coming. He puts on his suit. He drives his struggling 1989 VW Fox to the cemetery in question, parking far enough away so the rumble of the failing exhaust system doesn't disturb. He walks to the grave site. Waits his turn. Plays the notes in exact cadence but with the hint of emotion that makes his music rise. Turns and strolls away without looking into the tear-filled eyes. His ghost-like appearances and retreats have mythic impact. In not yet two years of his service he has become the town's standard bearer of that last full measure.
One plays taps to learn bugling when one is serious about the trumpet. One learns to play taps the first time it truly matters. For Justin that moment came at his great-grandfather's grave on a chill November day when he was just twelve.
This Saturday morning the clouds threaten as they roll out of the west: towering gray breakers that advance across the late morning sky, lit in extravagant brilliance by the still climbing sun. Justin approaches across the deep green of a July with too much rain and as he does, becomes alert to differences. This is neither the many-generationed crowd of a World War II veteran, nor the sad, eclectic mix when the deceased has fought in Vietnam. This is younger, louder, more deeply aggrieved. Yet as in all other cases the crowd silently parts and allows him in. Today there are seven soldiers he notes with unexpressed surprise. Today a red-eyed child dominates the scene. Today the widow is barely older than Justin himself.
When he played at his great-grandfather's funeral, his own dad fighting the pressures to "get a professional," he had let one note crack. But it was the sixth note. The one cracked at Arlington Cemetery on November 26, 1963 as President Kennedy had been buried. And the power at that unintentional allusion had overwhelmed all present. It took five days after that for Justin's grandfather to find a videotape of that day and play it for the pre-teen musician, who still, at that point, only dimly understood.
On this morning Justin's notes slice the air. With each phrase he counts back through his generations of warriors. The physical limps, the endless nightmares, the persistent alcoholism that link all the males before him stretching back beyond his grasp of the family tree. And with each phrase his peripheral vision catches glimpses of the grief surrounding him. Parents, grandparents, wife, friends, children. The sky itself perhaps. At 18 he cannot find anything that might ever be worth that. He wonders if he ever will.
The soldiers salute as he completes the last note. Justin nods slightly, tucks his trumpet under his arm, turns, and walks away. Before he reaches the VW, the rain is falling.
copyright 2004-2005 by Ira Socol
for the "JFK taps," click here. For perhaps my favorite literary summation of war, John Dos Passos' Body of an American (from a post at Veterans' -Armistice- Day)