Call to Sorrow

When Army bugler Sergeant Keith Clark received the call that he was chosen to perform “Taps” at the funeral of President John F Kennedy it came as a bit of a surprise. He had assumed that a Navy bugler would do the honors, since President Kennedy was a World War II U.S. Navy veteran, decorated with a Navy Marine Corps medal for his valor in the South Pacific when a collision with a Japanese destroyer tore his PT-109 in half. But Keith Clark, a patriot and an American in the throes of shock and grief along with the rest of the country, was truly the right man for the job. He had been playing and studying the trumpet since he was a child, receiving musical training during his youth in Michigan, through college and then the military. Just two weeks before Kennedy was assassinated, Clark had performed “Taps” for him at the Veteran’s Day ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Comprised of just 24 notes, “Taps” is the traditional bugle call played at military funerals. It’s been in use since the Civil War, when Brigadier General for the Union Army Daniel Butterfield arranged it into the form we know today. Somber, melancholy, stirring in its simplicity, “Taps” communicates a profound sense of grief over fallen service members as they are laid to rest.

Bugler sketch by Civil War illustrator Alfred Waud:

Keith Clark showed up at Arlington National Cemetery early in the morning on Monday, November 25th, 1963. It was cold with drizzling rain. Temperatures hovered around freezing most of the day. Over a quarter of a million people waited in line for up to ten hours to view President Kennedy’s flag-draped casket as it lie in state in the Capitol Building Rotunda. After the funeral mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the procession began to make its way to Arlington National Cemetery. It finally arrived around 3:00 in the afternoon. After the traditional Catholic burial rites, the military honors were carried out.

Horse-drawn caisson transporting President Kennedy’s casket:

As the daughter of a trumpet player I know a thing or two about the challenges brass players face. I was raised around my father’s trumpet talk, daily practices, and the private trumpet lessons he gave in our home. Brass instruments are tough. They’re not for the delicate or the lazy. Cold outdoor air is the enemy. Numb, chapped lips are not helpful when you have to place your mouth on a horn and blow. So Keith Clark had been standing around for hours in the cold that day. On top of that, he was positioned just a few feet from the Old Guard Third U.S. Infantry firing squad who shot three rifle volleys as a farewell. Those loud blasts could not have been good for Clark’s ears. Then it was Sgt. Clark’s turn to complete the military honors for America’s slain President. With millions of eyes and ears on him from around the globe, watching on TV and listening on the radio, he began to play the solo “Taps” on his bugle . . . and cracked the sixth note. (I remember my father and his trumpet player friends calling it a ‘clam’). In a melody as slow and sparse as “Taps”, every note hangs out there conspicuously. So while many listeners might have winced at that sixth note, brass players everywhere, like my father, no doubt felt for the guy, as they could relate all too well.

How would I, or any of us, perform under such pressure? Under less than ideal circumstances, on the darkest day in our country’s history? Keith Clark is not the Bill Buckner of military musicians, famous for one error. Not even close. He was the experienced bugler who stepped up to the gut-wrenching task of committing our murdered President into his grave.

Here is the historic moment. Keith Clark’s “Taps” begins at 2:22:

 

The clammed sixth note has been described as sounding “like a sob”, and therefore deemed fitting for the tragic occasion; Clark’s bugle cracked in sorrow to reflect a sorrowful nation. And that is surely a fine way to think about it. In that Cold War period, when a horrendous act of political violence left an indelible wound in our collective consciousness, and President Kennedy’s optimistic dreams for the new generation to whom the torch had been passed seemed suddenly uncertain, Keith Clark’s poignant rendition of “Taps” should be a source of solace. It was imperfect, yes. But it was beautiful.

Keith Clark died in 2002. You can read his obituary at The New York Times.
And for an excellent, detailed account of Sgt. Keith Clark and the events of that day, and all things “Taps”, go to this article on TapsBugler.¬†Keith Clark’s bugle, a Bach Stradivarius, is on display at Arlington National Cemetery. By the way, if any of you find yourselves in the Washington D.C. area and have never been to Arlington, make a point of visiting. Its serene beauty juxtaposed with its heart-rending reality has a staggering effect I can’t fully describe.

On this Memorial Day weekend, in this Memorial Day-themed Music Monday, we pay tribute to all those who sacrificed their lives – the celebrated ones and the forgotten ones. The ones who faced fear, wrestled with moral choices, and now dwell in eternal rest.

“Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address
January 20, 1961