Musicians play 'taps' to highlight bugler scarcity

Sunday, May 22, 2005

BATH, N.Y. -- It began with three haunting notes from a teenage girl. A second bugler, about 100 yards down the road, picked up the tune. And then a third.

More than 850 buglers, trumpeters and other horn players fanned out Saturday along 41 miles of roads in rural western New York and performed a cascading rendition of taps to highlight the scarcity of buglers at veterans' funerals.

The 24-note melody started up at Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, overlapped from one instrument to the next as it reverberated through a string of small towns from Painted Post to Campbell to Savona, and closed out nearly three hours later at Bath National Cemetery.

The Armed Forces Day tribute, dubbed Echo Taps, took in at least 866 musicians from 30 states playing all varieties of brass horns, from trombones and tubas to flugelhorns and valveless bugles.

"This is just a way of paying tribute to our veterans and hopefully bringing more buglers into the fold," said organizer Les Hampton, a Corning Inc. engineer who served on a Navy destroyer in the Vietnam War. "If there's a selfish reason for doing this, I just hope that when my time comes that I have a live bugler."

Thousands of spectators lined the winding route, standing at rapt attention as the music came through. Some put their hands to their hearts, others dabbed at tears or saluted.

Haunting notes

The dramatic musical tableau started with 15-year-old Hannah Sollecito, a descendant of Union Army Gen. Daniel Butterfield, who was credited with composing taps along with his brigade bugler, Oliver Norton, during the Civil War.

Sollecito, of Baldwinsville, N.Y., said being chosen to play first was overwhelming. "I could barely talk when they asked me, and then I started crying," she said.

Each musician, often separated by less than a hundred yards, performed a full rendition. The song rolled through the Chemung River Valley to Corning, before tilting northwest toward Bath, at about 20 miles an hour.

The final haunting notes were delivered by Fran Look, 80, a World War II paratrooper who performs taps at about a dozen funerals each year, and George Taylor, 74, a Korean War intelligence specialist who has played at almost 10,000 funerals since 1945.

"So many people find it more comforting when you play taps," he added. "They wouldn't settle for anything less. Taps is a 'Thank you' to the veteran."

An average of 1,800 U.S. veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam die per day. There are not nearly enough buglers to perform live renditions at military funerals.

Taps is usually delivered digitally, using either a compact disc player placed near the grave or, increasingly since 2003, a Pentagon-approved, push-button "ceremonial bugle" that anyone can mimic playing by raising it to their lips.

The armed forces have about 500 musicians who perform taps, but many of them have been dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan. About 3,800 civilian volunteers in the four-year-old Bugles Across America group also fill in wherever they can.

The Echo Taps project aims to honor military service, enlist more volunteer buglers and raise the profile of America's 120 national cemeteries. Organizers hope to get a mention in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest line of brass instruments playing the same tune.

After Saturday's elongated performance, the entire symphony assembled on a parade field at a Veterans Administration's medical center here to play taps one more time together.

Gail Rodriguez snapped photographs to send to her son, Jesse, a Marine sergeant serving in Afghanistan.

"He thought it was an awesome thing for them to be doing," she said, standing next to his young son, Trevor.

Rodriguez prays every day that God will keep her son safe. "That's the only way you can cope," she said.

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