May 30th, 2010
10:15 AM ET

Letters to the President #496: “The Sound of Taps”

Presidents always mark the passing of Memorial Day, and I do too in my daily letter to the White House.   

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Immediately after my father’s funeral, while folks were milling around the small country church in Alabama sharing remembrances and local news, a family friend walked up to my brother, his eyes still shining with tears, and said, “I almost made it through without crying, until that damn Taps was played.”

Taps is, of course, one of the most powerful pieces of music in our culture today; played at countless funerals for retired and active members of military each year.  Most times, in my experience, it is far more moving than any words that are said.

You’ve probably heard the more or less official story of how it came to be; how a Union General named Butterfield in the Civil War worked with a bugler to refine some old existing tune into a proper horn call to signal the end of the day.  The details are a shade murky, but then so are a lot of things that emerge from the din of battle.

What may be overlooked in the modern awareness of the song, however, may be its original purpose.  As I just mentioned above, it was not about death but rather about a day’s work well done.  Taps, sounding softly across an encampment at the end of a hard day told soldiers to quit their drinking, and talking, and restless movement.  It told them that the pickets were placed, the guard standing, and it was time for the fires to be banked and the bedrolls spread.

I have often thought that the time asleep must be the most double-edged of swords for the soldier at war.  Those few, fitful hours offer release from the worries of the day, and yet oddly enough expose the dreaming warrior to the greatest danger of all; being taken utterly unawares.  At such times, he or she has no choice but to have faith in the comrade standing watch, searching the inky night for enemies.  But Taps told soldiers long ago, and has ever since, that the fighting of the day is done. 

I take some comfort in that.  On this Memorial Day weekend, as we honor all those who have been lost in our military service, it is easy to dwell too much on their deaths.  However, when I hear Taps I try to remind myself of what these people died for…so that we can lay down at the end of day, knowing their comrades remain on guard, ready to defend not merely our soil, but also the ideals for which we stand.

Hope your weekend is going well.  Call if you get a moment.



soundoff (One Response)
  1. shane lyons

    Dr Mr President,
    you have nothing to be responsible for. BP is responsible and should pay for everything they have done, to include pay all of the fisherman in LA for the money they have lost. they should go bankrupt. I am a SGT in the marine corp and I am in Oahu, Hi. I have a boat and I am terrified of having a oil slick that would give me a five thousand dollar fine. The way I look at it if a guy with a 3 ounce oil spill and gets a five thousand dollar fine what happens to someone who has a million plus gallon oil spill.I am a conservationist and always keeping up to date with American wetlands and conservation. I am so upset with what is happening with the effort or lack there of in this clean up effort. It is hard to try and conserve energy and try to reduce carbon emissions when you know that BP is getting away with murder of millions of mammals and plants and getting away with it without losing sleep makes me sick. I realize writing a letter to you sir means I am wasting time because you are probably not going to read it. But if you did see this I just want you to know that the young generation like myself look to you to help us through this situation so please Mr President please help.... Shane Lyons

    June 1, 2010 at 1:58 am |