For 15 years, I’ve had an annual standing engagement.
It’s usually for a sparse audience, and that’s OK. The actual folks I’m playing my trumpet for are in attendance but aren’t able to acknowledge the music.
Each and every Memorial Day starting in 1998, I’ve traveled to rural Coryell County cemeteries to perform taps. My father, an Army veteran of World War II, passed away that year and it seemed like the type of thing he would have approved of.
The big national events at Arlington National and other huge cemeteries get lots of press, and they should. When a nation fails to recognize and honor the men and women who served in its armed forces there’s something fundamentally wrong. Memorial Day, resolutely nonpartisan in its pageantry, helps bind us together as a people.
But there’s a different atmosphere at the country graveyards of Coryell County. The grass may be in need of mowing and trimming. Faded plastic flowers poke their forlorn stalks from vases weighted against the wind. In the oldest section, Civil War veterans’ names on lichen-covered headstones bring to mind old wars: the Spanish-American, The Great War (WWI), World War II.
The Ireland community, where I live, was named for one of these veterans: John Ireland, who was a colonel in the Confederacy, and later 18th governor of Texas. Crossing the low-water bridge at Mustang Creek, the caliche road meanders awhile, finally turning off to the Ireland Cemetery. Ancient live oaks border the modest plots and Angus cattle peer curiously from their pasture. Mockingbirds and cardinals provide counterpoint to the sounds of the wind.
Archie Wright, my neighbor and friend, is buried here. A U.S. Marine who was taken prisoner in China during WWII, Archie taught me how to build a fence and how to laugh in the face of cancer.
As a young man, Archie used to ride horseback around the Levita and Ater areas. I usually play at Ater as well as Evergreen since they’re close to each other. There’s no set itinerary; I just set out to perform at as many cemeteries as I can.
Arising early each Memorial Day, I put my old Benge B-flat trumpet with the large symphonic mouthpiece in its case. I might as well sound as majestic as possible, right? Most of the time there are no living folks at the graveyards, but not always. Once, a few years ago, I ran into a high school kid at the Turnersville graveyard. He told me he played second cornet in his high school band and we passed several pleasant minutes discussing musical technique. When he found out that I was a member of the musician’s union, he asked how much I was being paid for the taps gig. He seemed disappointed at my “no pay” reply.
Taps originated sometime in the 17th century and was arranged in its present form in 1862. It is played on military bugles as well as on the modern (valved) trumpet. No valves are needed when performed in the key of B-flat — the B-flat trumpet becomes in effect a bugle and the performer produces the tones using his or her air control and embouchure (the muscles surrounding the lips).
While not subjected to as many cringe-inducing interpretations as is our national anthem, there are still many possible ways to play taps. Silas B. Ragsdale Jr., a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in WWII, cued me for many years at the conclusion of campfires at Camp Stewart for Boys in Hunt.
Si, who owned and directed the camp, always wanted me to “get another good trumpeter and play Silver Taps,” a variation much like a “round.” One trumpet starts solo with the second coming in a few beats later for an echo effect. On the banks of the Guadalupe River with the stars bright, it produced a memorable sound.
On my Coryell County taps tour, the last stop is often the Wiley P. Grubb cemetery. It’s small with few graves and the shadows are usually lengthening by the time I get there. Looking across the road to the grassland to the east, an elegiac mood envelopes the graveyard. Two whitetail deer bound off as I enter the grounds. It’s time to honor our veterans.
I raise the trumpet to my lips and take a big breath.