A reverent 'Taps' the least we can do for fallen soldiers
"Taps." I don't know anyone who isn't affected emotionally by that haunting melody. I was never in the service, but I did spend seven summers working at a Boy Scout camp, and looked forward every evening to hearing that lilting lullaby wafting over Camp Jamison. I even learned the words to the song. Did you even know there were words to the song?
"Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake from the sky.
All is well, safely rest, God is nigh."
Those aren't the official lyrics, of course. There are none. "Taps" is basically a bugle call that dates back to the War Between the States. You may have heard the legend that has made its rounds over the Internet but was circulated in hand-written form even before Snopes began to ferret out urban myths in a never-ending effort to separate fact from fiction.
The myth about "Taps" is that a Union officer found his son, who fought for the Confederacy, dead on the field after a major battle. The officer asked to be able to bury his son with military honors. His request was denied, but he was allowed, in most versions of the story, to have the company bugler play at his son's burial. The tune that was played was one that was found in the dead soldier's pocket -- one that he had composed himself. The melody was so dramatic that it began to be used for all military burials.
That makes a great story, but it isn't true. Not that I have a problem with that. I always live by the motto; never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
But "Taps" was actually composed by Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield in 1862, after the Battle of Seven Pines, during the recent unpleasantness between the North and the South. He and his bugler, Oliver Norton, reworked another call to play at "lights out." It was adapted for use at military funerals during the war at times when firing the customary three volleys over the grave to honor the dead would be unsafe because of the proximity of the opposing forces.
Soon the custom was adopted by the entire Army of the Potomac and even some Confederate units began to use the call. "Taps" has been played at military funerals in this country ever since and became an official part of the U.S. military code in 1891, according to the Department of Defense website.
One of my favorite novels is "From Here to Eternity," by James Joyce. The main character in Joyce's novel is Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, from Harland, Ky. He is a hard-headed ex-boxer and about the best bugler in the entire Army. My favorite scene in the movie version of the story is when Prewitt's friend, Maggio -- played by Frank Sinatra -- is killed and Prewitt takes the bugle away from the regular company bugler and plays "Taps" over Schofield Barracks. Great stuff.
Now I told you that to tell you this. This week, a huge uproar was set off in New York when it was announced that, because of federal budget cuts, "Taps" would no longer be played by live musicians at veteran's funerals in New York. Instead, a recorded version would be used, played on an "electronic bugle." This created a furor among members of the VFW and other veteran groups who believe that financial considerations should not prevent veterans, who have given so much to their country and asked so little in return, from receiving full military honors as they were being laid to rest.
Others argued that the electronic bugles have been used for years in some areas and that they are appropriate and respectful and make sense in a time when there are so many World War II veterans dying at such a rapid rate that there aren't enough army buglers available to meet the demand anyway.
But Wednesday, New York Sen. Charles Schumer announced that any budget cuts that occurred would not prevent "Taps" from being played at military funerals in his state.
"The families of our fallen military heroes can rest a little easier knowing that their son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father, sister or brother, will get the dignified send-off they deserve if the worst befalls them," said Schumer.
Good for the veterans of New York, I say. Making the effort to have a live human being playing a reverent version of "Taps" over these heroes' final resting place is the least we can do to honor our veterans.
That said, the most we can do for our veterans is to preserve our country and its heritage and its freedoms. We, the people, can do that -- can't we? I pray to God that we can. If not, someone will soon be playing "Taps" over the greatest nation in the history of the world.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.