A Bugle Call Remembered: Taps at the Funeral of President John F. Kennedy
By Jari Villanueva
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Every American born before 1955 can tell you where they were and how they felt when they heard the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Friday November 22nd , 1963. Three days later millions around the world listened as Army bugler Keith Clark sounded the solemn twenty-four notes of Taps, concluding the state funeral held at Arlington National Cemetery.
On the afternoon of Kennedy’s assassination Clark, Principal Bugler of the United States Army Band, was going through his collection of rare books on church music with a friend when his 11-year old daughter, Sandy, called up the stairs with the news.1 After the initial shock subsided, Clark immediately went to the nearest barber for a haircut, thinking he might be asked to sound Taps should Kennedy be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Clark thought it likely that a Navy bugler would be chosen since Kennedy had served as a naval officer during World War II but, “Just in case, I wanted to look my best, and I went out to get my haircut.”2
Sergeant (Specialist 6 in the military ranks of the time) Clark was a trumpet player with the Army Band (known as “Pershing’s Own”) stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia. Among his musical duties was sounding Taps at military funerals held at Arlington National Cemetery adjacent to the post. Keith Collar Clark was born on November 21st , 1927 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His father, Harry Holt Clark, was a professional musician who played flute and violin in several orchestras. When Clark was three, his father placed a toy trumpet on the fireplace mantel hoping to spark his son’s interest in music. Clark asked everyday if he could play with the trumpet. The answer was always the same: no, not until he would make a promise to take it seriously. It did not take long for Clark to make the promise to practice an hour everyday and his father replaced the toy with a real instrument.3
At age nine he debuted as a trumpet soloist in a radio contest, and while still a high school student he soloed with the University of Michigan Band, under Dr. William Revelli. Clark took lessons from trumpeter Harry Glantz in New York City, later stating his concepts of tone, style, and musicianship were influenced by Glantz’s playing.4 He also studied with Clifford Lillya, and Lloyd Geisler. After graduation from Interlochen Music School in 1944, he performed with the Grand Rapids Symphony. In 1946, he enlisted in the military to play trumpet in the Army Band. In 1951 he married Marjorie Ruth Park and together they raised four daughters in the Arlington, Virginia area, not far from Fort Myer.5
Clark performed at hundreds of funerals in Arlington and had played for President Kennedy many times, including sounding Taps at The Tomb of the Unknowns less than two weeks prior to his death during Veterans Day ceremonies. He also performed for President Eisenhower and recalled that Vice President Nixon once winked at him during a ceremony.6
The decision to place the president’s remains in Arlington National Cemetery was made on Saturday, November 23rd . After reviewing possible locations with Arlington Superintendent John Metzler, the Kennedy family chose a site on a slope just below the Arlington House (the Custis-Lee Mansion).7 The selection was appropriate as the president had visited Arlington House earlier that year and remarked “I could stay here forever.”8 According to William Manchester in his book, “Death of a President”, it was not until early Monday November 25th , 1963 around 2:30am during a final briefing for military officers, that it was realized a bugler had not been requested for the funeral. In the overwhelming details that the Military District of Washington had to contend with over that long, sorrowful weekend, it had forgotten one of the fundamental elements of a military funeral: a bugler.9 The basic honors would be the ones that followed military tradition: the firing of three rifle volleys, followed by the sounding of Taps , the folding of the flag and its presentation to the next of kin. It was decided that the Army would provide a bugler. Clark was contacted immediately by his commander, Colonel Hugh Curry, with information regarding the ceremony. As with many things that day, the information Clark received was confusing. Clark, in a telephone interview, indicated that Curry, “like any good Irishman, was mourning the loss of his Commander-In-Chief with spirits.”10 Clark reported to Arlington at 6am on Monday November 25th “all spit and polished,” only to find that he and the groundskeepers were the only ones there. The crew was laying down fake grass in the 30 degree weather, he recalled. After waiting for a period of time he moved to the Army Band building at Fort Myer to try to get some sleep. At around 9am, a call came wondering where the bugler was, and Clark was informed that he had missed the rehearsal for the graveside ceremonies. A colonel asked him if he had ever played Taps , to which Clark replied, “I cannot remember a time when I did not know Taps .” He was told to report back around noon. After going home briefly to watch part of the funeral on television, he returned to Arlington around 11:30am.11 Clark described the scene that met him at the cemetery. There were marks for him to stand upon that placed him ten paces from the rifles of the firing party, and a microphone for which he was to play into. “I’m not playing for the mike. I’m playing for Mrs. Kennedy,” he told the television soundman, who assured him that the volume would be adjusted: It never was.12 Clark waited in the cold for three hours for the funeral mass to finish at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington. He remained calm despite the cold air and mounting tension: both enemies of any brass player. An apple brought from home provided some lunch during the wait and he occasionally warmed the bugle “to take the edge off”. At 1:30pm, the funeral procession left St. Matthew’s and began the solemn trip to Arlington. The march took over an hour. As the funeral procession approached, Clark turned to his religion. He remembered his beloved hymns, of a choir singing Amazing Grace , and of favorite bible passages.13 The magnificent, solemn pageantry of the state funeral of John F. Kennedy was unfolding before his eyes, and from his position on the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion, he had the perfect view to watch the military procession as it crossed the Memorial Bridge and wound its way into the cemetery.
Shortly before 3pm, the Kennedy family, accompanied by heads of state, prime ministers, and United States officials; gathered by the gravesite as the U.S. Marine Band struck up Ruffles and Flourishes and The National Anthem . The casket was borne to the grave accompanied by the strains of Mist-Covered Mountains played by the U.S. Air Force Pipe Band.14 Overhead, fifty fighter jets flew in formation followed by Air Force One. A corps of Irish Cadets, brought in at the request of the family, executed a silent drill as Cardinal Richard Cushing began the traditional Catholic commitment rites with “O God, through whose mercy the souls of the faithful find rest, be pleased to bless this grave.”15 Clark, with his perfect view of the proceedings, looked over the assembled mourners and saw a bevy of prominent world leaders. Presidents, kings, prime ministers, and elected officials stood elbow to elbow without consideration to rank. The service continued. “I am the resurrection and the light…” The sky above was bright and clear on the crisp autumn day and the solemn pageant was quickly moving towards its conclusion. Cushing finished the burial rites and led the Lord’s Prayer, then stepped back as the military honors began. First came the twenty-one gun salute fired by cannons from Fort Myer. The sound thundered through the silent hills of Arlington. Cushing then finished with a final blessing. “Present arms!” came the next command. This was followed by the order, “Firing Party, Fire Three Volleys.” The command was executed by the seven members of the Old Guard (Third U.S. Infantry) firing party. Three separate volleys of rifle fire is customary for militaries around the world, deriving from the ancient practice of calling the name of the deceased three times, followed by the word “vale”(farewell).
Clark raised his bugle to sound Taps . The moment had come. The final movement of the musical honors accorded all military members at a funeral. Taps had been used since the Civil War, when General Daniel Butterfield penned the music while in camp at Harrison’s Landing during the Peninsular Campaign in July, 1862. It had begun life as a signal to extinguish lights but had transformed into the call heard at U.S. military funerals. The melody is simple, yet not easy to play with the appropriate combination of beauty, emotion, and serenity demanded by solemn occasions. As author and collector Roy Hempley stated in his online articles on Bach bugles, “Each bugler develops his or her style within limits defined by military custom and good taste. A not-so-obvious fact, however, is that buglers sometimes must render this solemn symbol of mourning under the most difficult circumstances, which might include hot or cold weather, rain, etc. There is no room for error regardless of the demands.”16 Now the whole world listened. As the three volleys finished, Clark raised his bugle and began Taps . “Day is done…” as he had done daily in Arlington, he started the call, this time pointing the bell at Mrs. Kennedy believing that a bugler should only sound Taps for the widow. He had thoughts of the bible passage from I Corinthians 15:51-52: “…We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” The notes resounded over the heads of all assembled. “Gone the sun….” On the sixth word, he cracked the note. “It was like a catch in your voice, or a swiftly stifled sob,”17 Clark stiffened his embouchure and without pause finished the rest of the call flawlessly. “From the lake, from the hill, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.” He brought the bugle down and saluted his Commander-in-Chief. The casket bearers folded the flag and it was presented to Mrs. Kennedy, as the Marine Band played the Navy Hymn Eternal Father, Strong To Save .18 Clark stated, “I feel the thought behind the playing and feeling used in the performance are the most important parts of each sounding of Taps .”19 “I missed a note under pressure. It’s something you don’t like, but it’s something that can happen to a trumpet player. You never really get over it.” Clark reminisced about the performance in an Associated Press report in 1988 on the 25th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. “It’s like the speaker of the House saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.’ That is not at all hard to say,” Clark remembered. “But to do it then, and do it there–that’s when the pressure comes: that’s when it becomes difficult all of a sudden. A lot of people can sing in the shower, you know.”20