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Tears stream down faces as a casket sits above its final resting place. A widowed mother holds her baby as she is presented with a flag. A grieving parent looks on, pleading for the ability to turn back the hands of time. It is this passage of time that has produced the thousands of white gravestones in every direction, a trail of tears that has yet to abate. And out of the sadness and despair, a bugler's note pierces the thick air and lingers, eventually moving onto the next 23 notes in somber reverence. The Taps tune finishes and an uneasy silence takes its place.
For Staff Sergeant Andrew Allphin, this immensely emotional moment is all part of his daily job. He is a professional bugler for the U.S. Army band, named Pershings Own. In addition to playing concerts and special events throughout the Washington, D.C. Metro area, he comes here to Arlington National Cemetery to play Taps for funerals and memorials.
"Some days I'll be just out in the cemetery performing at many funerals," he says. "Some days I'll be down here at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier. Every time a group lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I play Taps to give honor to all those fallen soldiers who have gone before who are the unknowns and known."
After more than 8 years on the job, Allphin has played the tune thousands of times, carrying forward a tradition that dates back generations. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of Taps.
"As far as a piece of music, it's not that challenging," the seasoned musician says. "I've played much harder literature out there, but the principle behind it, the service I provide, is what gives me the most joy."
Allphin joined the Army Band as a trumpet player after earning his master's degree in music at the University of Michigan. He would eventually earn his doctorate of music at Catholic University of America and play at big national events such as the funerals of President Reagan and President Ford. He also had the chance to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, playing at various presidential inaugurations. As musicians go, he counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
"In the grand scheme of things, how many musicians out there get to come out and play the trumpet every day?" he says. "I got a pretty good job."
But the job doesn't come without its share of challenges. The weather elements rank chief among them.
"If you're a bugler, no matter how good you are, you're playing on a piece of metal to your mouth," he says. "Now if you think about it, if you're playing in 20 degree weather, and it's snowing outside, putting a piece of cold metal up to your mouth and trying to get a buzz, and trying to create a sound can often be very laboring. So you have to be at the top of your game all the time because you can't afford to miss notes."
Allphin faces tremendous pressure to hit all the notes perfectly, even if (as happens many times) he is forced to stand outside in extreme weather for 30-45 minutes waiting for a funeral to begin. Then, once it does begin, a whole new challenge crops up particularly for funerals of active duty service members.
"I look at the family members that are standing there, or sitting there getting the flag, and I see an infant in a mother's arms while she is burying her husband, and I have to think, 'OK, do your job. Don't get emotionally involved,'" he says. "Those are the hard times."
In those moments, there is nowhere Allphin would rather be. He relishes the opportunity to be of service to grieving families, lifting hearts through the power of music.
"I just want to give to them however I can and help them during their time of trouble," he says. "And if they feel like their son is being honored, that's my main goal."
[Music: "Try to Remember" by Paul Mauriat from Paul Mauriat No. 4 (Brazil)]
Photos: D.C. Gigs - TAPS