The last time I heard "Taps" played was at my uncle's military burial. Civilians hear Taps and think of burials and memorials, for that is the only time they hear it. To a soldier, it's always identified with the end of the day, especially the end of the week. The last formation of the day, the flag detail hauls down the colors, and Taps is played.
I always loved Taps. Contradictory feelings surge through me every time I hear it. While I was in service, it came to mean many things. In Basic Training, it meant the chance to lie down for a while, recuperating from the madness of the day. I never heard it much in the field, heard it a few times at larger installations, but it meant the end of nothing then. In Germany, it represented the end of the day's charade on base, all that make-work in the motor pool, the hours in the squad room looking at field manuals we'd all read far too many times. From our formation at HHB , we could see the flagpole by the gate. Taps is eight bars of music, just enough time to lower a flag. The DIVARTY usually got flag duty, though sometimes we got it and I pulled flag detail duty a few times.
Taps also represented the beginning of the weekend, a bit of freedom. You're a soldier, 24 hours a day, but after Taps and the formation is dismissed on Friday, it was a pleasant enough life in Germany. Our old barracks, built before WW1, were noisy. Men get out of uniform and into their civvies. You'd smell boots and deodorant, cologne, hear the hiss of showers. Walking past the bays, you'd hear the thump of someone's loud-ass stereo they'd bought at the PX. Groups of men (jesus we were young then) would muster up, walk together through the gate, down into the town, most of then to blow their money on pizza and beer. Me, I'd usually have my bag packed, ready to make a run for the train station, maps and camera stowed, off to Munich or somewhere fun.
The last time I heard it in uniform was at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I'd been discharged, had my plane ticket in hand, my duffle bag packed. Most of my stuff had been shipped home ahead of me. In the evening fog, waiting for the bus taking me to Newark, I heard Taps played one last time. It had been a hell of a day anyway, when the Army discharges you, it really spits you out like an orange pip. I thought I might shed one little maudlin tear, but quickly corrected myself, for I was glad enough to be out from under a world where I'd been treated like Pavlov's Dog. For years, my life in uniform had been so regimented I knew within ten minutes exactly when (just after breakfast) my bowels would move. Taps was just another stimulus, as Reveille had been another, one to release me and the other to wake me, all in a seemingly endless cycle which had come to an end. Now I wake to the alarm on my wristwatch and my day ends with the slam of my truck door and the click of my seat belt.
Now I only hear Taps at funerals, and there are more of them these days. At my uncle's funeral, it had been played by a fairly competent bugler. I was moved to tears, not by maudlin sentiment or even much grief, for my uncle Dick died old and full of years. I thought of him as he was, at the controls of a B-24 Liberator, making a final approach, his wheels and flaps out, touching down, rolling out after his last mission.
Dick was a hilarious, deeply pious man, a good cook, a good father and grandfather and his funeral brochure is still in my Bible at Romans 8, which I read over his coffin, there in the military cemetery.
Now Taps was played for him one last time, he was at last a free man, walking through the gate, laughing in his civilian clothes, on his way to somewhere beyond the seemingly endless cycle of his days which came at last to an end.
Taps has no official lyrics, but these are what I remember.
Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.