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150 Years Of 'Taps'

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This Saturday, 200 buglers will assemble at Arlington National Cemetery to begin playing "Taps," a call written 150 years ago this year.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jari Villanueva, a bugle player, says he started out as a Boy Scout bugler at about age 12. He went on to study trumpet at the Peabody Conservatory before being accepted into the United States Air Force Band — where one of his duties over the next 23 years was to sound that call at Arlington National Cemetery.

Villanueva says "Taps" has taken him on a wonderful journey. "During the Civil War," he says, "in late June and July of 1862, the Union Army is camped all along the James River, and especially at a place called Harrison's Landing. Within that big army is a brigade commanded by Gen. Daniel Butterfield. Butterfield doesn't like the regulation call for 'lights out' — that call, like most calls in the Army manual at that time, was derived from the French.

"So Butterfield calls his brigade bugler," continues Villanueva, "a 22-year-old private by the name of Oliver Wilcox Norton. Butterfield gives him music to a new call, and asks him to play it that night. The next morning, Norton is approached by different buglers from other brigades who asked, 'What was that you played last night?' He then furnishes copies of the music to the other buglers, and pretty soon everyone is now sounding this new call" — the 24 notes of "Taps."

It might seem amazing that parts of the Confederate army also picked up "Taps." However, Villanueva points out, "both armies shared the same manuals, so bugle calls on both sides were the same. The Confederates were close enough to the Union camps that they probably heard 'Taps' being sounded, and pretty soon they were using it."

In today's military, "Taps" is used in two ways: the first, as the regulation call for extinguished lights at the end of the day; the second and certainly more important is its use at military funerals, wreath-laying ceremonies and memorial services. At Arlington National Cemetery, "Taps" is heard about 30 times every day.

Playing "Taps," Villanueva says, is "an awesome responsibility. It is the one piece of music that the people coming to Arlington would hear and that they would go away with. I was striving to make it as perfect as possible."

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Army Band's principal bugler, Keith Clark, knew that he might be called soon to perform this duty. "When he heard the news," Villanueva says, "the first thing he thought of was to go get a haircut, because he thought he might be the bugler called to sound 'Taps.' He got the call, went into his spot and stood for about three hours in the cold, waiting for the procession to arrive."

Finally, without much of a chance to warm up, Clark sounded the call — and cracked on the sixth note. "People would talk about that, about how he perhaps had missed it on purpose as a tribute — the nation sobbing for their lost president," Villanueva says, "and Clark remarked that for weeks afterward in the [Arlington] cemetery, buglers kept missing the same note. It must have been a psychological thing."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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