Tapping the emotions: Its haunting 24 notes have been touching mourners since the Civil War. Now an exhibit at the Arlington National Cemetery Visitor Center tells the story behind the song.

May 31, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,SUN STAFF

Sometimes mourners forget it's coming. They're distracted, of course, not really thinking about the fine points of ceremony. The 24 haunting notes are familiar: They've heard them countless times at funerals for soldiers and police officers, during Memorial Day services, in the nationally televised burials of presidents, and in the movies. Yet nothing really prepares them for the moment.

A man or a woman in uniform and white gloves raises a horn, then sounds the nation's official farewell to the honored dead. And all emotional dams break.

Last month, in a Catholic church in Oil City, Pa., few of the mourners of Airman William Joseph Mohr III noticed the uniformed trumpeter seated near the front. They were still in shock from Mohr's death a few days earlier in a car accident in Texas. He had completed basic training and was on his way to his first station, in Louisiana. He died 10 days short of his 19th birthday.

Now, in the church where Mohr had served as an altar boy, not a seat was empty. The crowd was full of young faces.

When, at last, Master Sgt. Jari Villanueva stood to sound taps -- so familiar, yet oddly unexpected -- the sobbing started with the first note and built as he played. The sound came from all corners of the church -- a deep, heavy, physical sobbing that almost distracted Villanueva from his mission.

But he hit all 24 notes perfectly.

One wonders: Isn't the death of a loved one hard enough to bear without the addition of such powerful music? Does the bugler, or the trumpeter, ever feel a tad guilty?

"No," says Villanueva, of Catonsville, a trumpeter with Ceremonial Brass, a unit of the U.S. Air Force Band in Washington. "When people cry as I play taps, I think that it's probably a good emotional release for them."

A tribute to taps, perhaps the most emotionally powerful and evocative 24 notes in American music, opened Friday at the Arlington National Cemetery Visitor Center. "Taps: The Military Bugle in History and Ceremony" is a salute to the men and women who've sounded taps and other military calls over two centuries. And for Villanueva, it's the result of 14 years of research.

A passionate student of music and the Civil War, Villanueva has sounded taps hundreds of times since joining the Air Force in 1985. Like many of his colleagues in the Ceremonial Brass, and similar units in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, he has been summoned to military funerals in several states over the years. Sounding taps at Arlington National Cemetery, where the call is heard up to 30 times a day, is part of his regular duties.

The exhibit he helped establish pays homage to musicians Villanueva never knew but for whom he obviously has great respect -- men and women whose names are mostly unknown to the public but whose bugle and trumpet calls were heard by thousands over the years, in war and in peace, at Arlington and in national cemeteries and small graveyards across the country.

"I've sounded taps so many times," he says. "But I take it very seriously each time. I want it to be the best it can be. It's very important to the families of the deceased. When it's my time to play I want to make sure it's perfect."

No matter how hard the emotional environment might be.

Most of the time, Villanueva and his colleagues in the military brass units sound taps without flaw. It's rare to hear a note crack.

Ironically, the most memorable sounding of taps in modern times was perfect only in some metaphorical sense.

On a chilly November day 36 years ago, at the burial of John F. Kennedy, U.S. Army Band Sgt. Keith Clark, who had played hundreds of funerals and ceremonies at Arlington, cracked the sixth note. One writer took it as a metaphor for the moment -- a sob or whimper through a B-flat Bach bugle. In the weeks following JFK's funeral, other buglers at Arlington missed the same note.

"We all thought it must be psychological," Clark, retired and living in Florida, recently told Villanueva.

Clark's bugle and an account of his role in the Kennedy funeral comprise the centerpiece of the Arlington exhibit. It also features sheet music, manuals, uniforms and a kind of bugler's hall of fame: photographs of Army Staff Sgt. Victor Christensen sounding taps in 1939 as Franklin Roosevelt lays a wreath at what was then called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; Army Sgt. Henry Screcci sounding the call in the rain; Marine Sgt. Christian Ferrari and Navy Band Musician 1st Class Patrick Puckett, trumpets raised to their lips; and, in a photograph from the 1980s, Army Staff Sgt. Tammy Leverone, the first woman to do so, sounding taps at a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

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