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Tapping the Heartstrings

Postcard from Arlington, Va.

By Kate L. Rakoczy

ARLINGTON, Va.—Every night, without fail, a faint but familiar sound floats into my apartment. You have to strain to hear it, but if you turn down the TV and listen closely, it is unmistakable: it is the sound of “Taps” being played on a solitary trumpet.

I live less than a mile from Arlington National Cemetery. Somewhere around 10 p.m. each evening, a lone bugler stands on a hillside underneath the shadow of a moonlit tree and sounds his mournful tune into the darkness.

At least that’s how I imagine it. It seems the only possible setting for the playing of so haunting a melody.

“Taps” is said to have originated during the Civil War as a replacement call to mark the day’s end. Up until that point, lights-out was marked by an elaborate tune borrowed from the French. But in July 1862, Union General Daniel A. Butterfield decided his brigade was deserving of a less formal signal. While his regiment was stationed at Harrison’s Landing, Va., following the Seven Day’s battle, he called bugler Oliver W. Norton into his tent and had him play a few notes he had scribbled on the back of an envelope. Butterfield revised the tune a bit and then asked Norton to sound the call for the troops. “The music was beautiful on that still summer night,” Norton later wrote. As the story goes, nearby regiments heard the call and were so moved that they adopted it, and thus Taps spread through the Union Army and even some of the Confederate ranks. Following the war, it was made an official bugle call.

According to Jari A. Villanueva, a bugler and bugle historian who was the curator of the Taps Bugle Exhibit at Arlington Cemetery from 1999 to 2002, Butterfield did not compose “Taps” but merely revised Scott’s “Tattoo,” an earlier bugle call. Villanueva makes a compelling case for why Butterfield would have been familiar with the version of “Tattoo” to which “Taps” is very similar.

Furthermore, “it is hard to believe that Butterfield could have composed anything that July in the aftermath of the Seven Days battles which saw the Union Army of the Potomac mangled by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia,” Villanueva points out. “Over 26,000 casualties were suffered on both sides. Butterfield had lost over 600 of his men on June 27 at the battle of Gaines Mill and had himself been wounded. In the midst of the heat, humidity, mud, mosquitoes, dysentery, typhoid and general wretchedness of camp life in that early July, it is hard to imagine being able to write anything.”

Still, many (including this author) prefer to cling to the legend of a heroic general who, after enduring the heat of battle, was inspired to write a bugle call to honor his soldiers’ feats. The melody certainly has the somber yet proud ring of a composer who had been bruised but not beaten. Even when played at funerals today, it is not a completely mournful tune. The way the notes dip down in the second to last set of  “da, da, da,” only to come back up and end with the same three notes with which the song opens, implies not an end but a new beginning.

Twenty-four notes. That’s all “Taps” contains. And yet those 24 notes are some of the most moving ever strung together.

I was in New York last September to cover the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks for The Crimson. The weight of the sadness in the air that day was oppressive. It was impossible for any journalist to remain a detached observer. But it wasn’t the bagpipes or the reading of names or the faces of those left behind that really got to me. It was that third, long note of “Taps” and the way it cut through the silence in that pit and seemed to hang in the air forever. That was what brought the tears to my eyes.

It is difficult to say whether it is the call itself or its association with death, but “Taps” has a way of putting things in perspective. Earlier this week, I had “one of those days.” Work was hectic, I had to run a gazillion errands and when my day was finally done, my normal bus route was under construction, so I had to take a bus the opposite direction to catch a train that would take me home. When I finally got to my apartment, I was hot, tired and cranky. I threw my stuff—and myself—on the bed.

I was set to drown in self-pity when those familiar notes caught my ear:

Da, Da Da…

And suddenly my bad day didn’t seem that important anymore.

Kate L. Rakoczy ‘04, a social studies concentrator in Lowell House, is associate managing editor of The Crimson. She is spending her summer days interning in our nation’s hot, humid and hectic capital, and is grateful for the nightly reality check provided by the lone bugler in Arlington Cemetery.

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