Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series on the pillars of the USAF Band of the West.
An extraordinary thing happened to me recently as I was driving to work. It isn’t uncommon to encounter a homeless person begging at an intersection in San Antonio, and it isn’t unusual for me to rummage through my things to try to find something to offer. That morning I had nothing, so my head and eyes remained straight forward as the man positioned himself between the two lanes of cars to saunter toward us with his cardboard sign. When he spotted my uniform, he stopped, took off his hat and rendered a slow, tentative salute. After I graciously acknowledged, the light changed and my direction of traffic resumed. As I reflected on that somber salute, I found that I had to turn off the radio—that man’s image in my mind tore me up! Even this homeless American recognized the honor of the uniformed services, and what we all collectively do to allow him to be free to supplicate on a street corner.
What we do as Airman musicians, though much more formally, produces similar feelings in those for whom we perform. I never tire of playing the service songs in various concerts, from brass quintet to full concert band, and seeing men and women stand proudly as their song resounds through the air. The enthusiasm is electric, and tears tend to come easily. Patriotic tunes and meaningful messages in songs also instill a deep sense of honor for our great country and the freedoms we enjoy. But of all the millions of notes I have performed in uniform, one “simple” composition consisting of 24 slow notes trumps all: the poignant solo bugle call, “Taps.”
Of course, as a civilian musician for many years before joining the Air Force, I was able to play Taps on many different occasions. But, to perform it in uniform in an official capacity, fulfilled a childhood dream I harbored since I was a Boy Scout.
I’ll never forget playing for my first active-duty funeral in uniform. Joining 23 honor guard members from Randolph Air Force Base, we rehearsed the honors a couple of times before patiently waiting for several hours for the family and friends to arrive from the funeral service. We were given a 20-minute heads-up to get in our places. As people began to arrive, I stood at attention with as little motion as possible. The mosquitoes were terrible, and I felt one land on my cheek as I heard my MTI’s voice echoing from the not-too-distant past, “You don’t move at the position of attention!”
The flag-covered casket was extracted from the hearse and a lump formed in my throat. This was real! I absorbed all the details I could without moving my head: the unison steps of the honor guard pallbearers, the color guard’s call to attention, the firing team’s well-rehearsed movements to my left, etc. The seven riflemen fired three volleys, and after the last volley, I slowly raised my trumpet and sounded the military swansong—the final farewell to this Senior Airman whose name I never did learn. To me, this became the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, so to speak. My attention to detail in every note’s length and dynamic, the precise moments of vibrato, the drawn out decay of the final note, the deliberate final salute with my white-gloved hand, all were calculated to honor him by saying, in essence, “Thank you for your service.” I am confident that if he were there, he would have graciously accepted that honorable tribute on behalf of all who serve, have served and especially the millions who paid the ultimate sacrifice so I can freely sit here and write this without fear.
PHOTO: Senior Airman Daniel Thrower, USAF Band of the West bugler, performs “Taps” for Memorial Day at the Texas State Cemetary in Austin, Texas, May 27, 2013. (Courtesy photo)