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Saturday, May 19, 2012
Alan Tolbert is not your average 13-year-old.
While other kids his age spent their Saturday shopping at the mall or tossing around a football, Tolbert traveled from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington dressed in a navy blue Civil War reenactment uniform and armed with a brass bugle.
Surrounding him at the historical site were nearly 200 other buglers and trumpeters from all over the United States, some even coming from as far away as California. A head shorter than his comrades, Tolbert’s costume was a tad too big—so big, in fact, that his mother had to roll up the bottom of his pants three times to make them fit. He didn’t seem to notice, though. All he cared about was playing the 24 notes that make up taps.
It is perhaps the most famous of military signals, and on Saturday it turned 150 years old.
Taps, traditionally played at military funerals and also known as “Butterfield’s Lullaby” or “Day is Done,” were born during the Civil War along the James River.
Gen. Daniel Butterfield, unhappy with the lights-out call, decided to change the nightly tune to a softer melody, ending up with the tune played today. Currently, taps are played at the cemetery about 30 times daily, most notably at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary, Buglers Across America, a nonprofit organization that seeks to play live renditions for veteran funerals rather than subject the mourners to a CD version, enlisted nearly 200 volunteer buglers and trumpeters.
The musicians joined together and played a united taps performance before they set off in search of a single soldier’s tombstone in the 624-acre burial ground. Some chose a spot simply for its convenient location. Others, like Tolbert, chose them for their significance.
One of the youngest volunteers, he selected the grave of Johnny Clem, a 10-year-old Civil War drummer who became a sergeant by the time he turned 12. Tolbert usually plays taps by himself but said it was a great opportunity to play with some of the best buglers in the country on the hallowed ground of the cemetery. He admitted he didn’t think a military career was in his future, though.
“I don’t think I want to be in the military one day, so the best I can do to serve our country is to honor those who are,” Tolbert said.
For those who did serve in the military, playing taps in Arlington National Cemetery is one of the greatest honors for a bugler.
Well-known bugle historian and 23-year veteran Jari Villanueva explained that for him, it’s his way of paying back those who fought for America.
“Whether it would be after a career, 20, 30 years, or even those who have died on active duty, it’s our way of officially saying to the military, ‘Thank you. Safely rest. God is nigh,’” he explained, quoting the final lyrics associated with the melody.
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