TAPS FOR VINCE
by Stan Mays
Two men in stiff military uniforms impatiently waited in the hallway outside my seventh-grade band class. They alternately looked at their watches and at our school principal, who was leaning into our practice room and looking solemnly at Vince Lucas, our first-chair trumpet player and my best friend.
“Vince,” the principal said. “We need a word with you.”
It was not unusual that the principal wanted to speak with Vince, who probably held a world-record for number of visits to the principal’s office for audacious acts. That the principal wanted to speak to Vince flanked by two soldiers, though, looked like a declaration of war. Everyone paused from practicing their scales and stared at Vince.
Vince shrugged and brushed his hand through his untamed blond hair.
“Looks like I’m being recruited,” he muttered to the girls in the flute section as he strolled past the principal. “The Army can always use a few good men.”
Through the glass window of the classroom door, I could see the soldiers doing most of the talking and Vince mostly just shaking his head. When the school bell rang five minutes later, the soldiers shook Vince’s hand before leaving, and Vince fought to get back to his chair through the exodus of kids hauling instruments.
“What’s that all about?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, lifting his trumpet and fingering the keys absent-mindedly.
“No way. You’re so in trouble.”
“I wish. Trouble I can handle. But this…I don’t want to talk about it.”
We packed up our trumpets, and I waited until we got to our bikes before I brought up the subject again.
“Are you going to tell me, or do I have to beat it out of you?” I asked, trying to look serious. Vince was a foot taller than me, a star halfback, and could pummel me into the ground easily if he wanted to.
“Okay, chump” he said, smiling. “But you can’t tell anyone. My reputation’s at stake.”
Vince sat on his bike and rested his trumpet case on the handlebars. “There’s a funeral in an hour, and they want me to play Taps.”
“No joke. And you’ll never guess who it’s for. He paused before answering himself: “George Roe.”
It took a second for the name to register. “The old homeless guy? From under the bridge on Second Street?”
“The drunken bum,” Vince said, as he shoved off with his bike.
“Wait a minute. Why would they want you?”
Vince gave me a hard look.
“I mean, you’re our best horn player and all, but the Army has trumpet players—buglers—who do that stuff.”
“Not enough of them,” Vince said, picking up speed on his bike. “Every day, lots of old soldiers die off, more than the military has real buglers who can play at their funerals. That’s what they told me in the hallway. Sometimes they just play a recording. Imagine that. A boombox at a funeral. Seems cool to me. But some families want the real deal. They insist on it. So the military scrounges around looking for someone to play Taps. They called our school, and the principal suggested me.”
Vince’s house was in the middle of his block, and a back entrance to the town cemetery was at the end of his street. When Vince pulled into his driveway, I stopped at the curb and looked toward the graveyard.
“Think the principal is punishing you for something?” I asked.
“Hard to tell,” Vince said. He jumped off his bike and let it roll into his bushes. “All I know is he cleared it with my Mom first, so I have do it. Principal said my Mom’s got a white shirt and tie already waiting for me. I have to be there in fifteen minutes.”
Vince set his backpack and trumpet case down at his front door and walked up to me. “I’m serious what I said about you not telling anyone. You know what’s worse than playing Taps at a homeless drunk’s funeral?”
“Screwing it up. What if I bust a note? Or forget part of it? The last time I played Taps was, what, last Veteran’s Day? You remember. We played it for the old timers in the school auditorium.”
“Sure I remember. Me, you, and Delbert played it. We were awful.”
“That’s right. All those old timers sat there, some of them in tears, wearing their uniforms and hats and medals.”
“All sitting in the front row.”
“Yeah. And do you remember who cried so much it was embarrassing?”
“Yeah. George Roe.
“I think he was drunk.”
Vince sucked in a big gulp of air. “I gotta go practice it a couple times. This is not going to be pretty.”
I watched Vince go into his house, but instead of turning to head home, I turned toward the cemetery. There was no way I was going to miss this performance.
The cemetery was quilted with oak trees and gray headstones, and as soon as I passed through the rusted wrought iron gates I ditched my bike behind some bushes and ducked and darted toward a blue funeral canopy. It felt creepy to be among the grave markers, some dating back to the 1800s. I did my best not to walk on top of the graves, not so much from fear of a dead man’s boney fingers grabbing my ankles, but from not knowing if it was impolite to walk on top of someone who was stretched out in a permanent sleep just six feet below.
Two gravediggers stood at a respectable distance from the gravesite, their backs to me, leaning on their shovels, smoking cigarettes. I skirted around them and settled in behind a tree about a hundred feet away that was ringed with thick hedges. I would be able to see and hear Vince struggle to play Taps for George Roe, and Vince wouldn’t know I was there. I hadn’t decided what I would do with the knowledge of this rare moment, but I knew it would be rich with possibilities.
A funeral procession consisting of a hearse and one car pulled up. George Roe’s coffin was wheeled over to the gravesite by a funeral director and a pastor, followed by three men wearing military uniforms. Two of them were the soldiers I had seen earlier at school, when Vince got his marching orders. The other man made my heart palpitate like machine gun fire and made me cringe for Vince. It was mean old Dirk Pendleton, the retired bank president who never returned the baseballs we hit over the left field fence into his backyard, and whose face was permanently encrusted with a scowl that would have frightened Saddam Hussein into submission. Dirk shuffled to the gravesite with his cane, wearing the same uniform and medal sash that he had worn on Veteran’s Day. He looked even more corrosive and flinty than he did back when my trumpet section had played its miserable rendition of Taps.
As the smallest funeral procession that I had ever seen began to settle in around the hole in the ground, Vince arrived on his bike. He looked nervous walking toward the gravesite, and I saw his eyes bulge like blimps when he spied old Dirk, the only mourner who wasn’t there in a professional capacity as were the pastor, the funeral director, the two enlisted men, and Vince, a twelve-year-old conscripted Taps player.
The soldiers draped an American flag over the coffin and the pastor motioned for Vince to stand to his right. The pastor read a brief passage from his bible and then said a few kind words about homeless George Roe, the gist of it being that he was a good man who had served his country well in a time of great need, and that he had struggled with demons unknown to most of us but would now rest in eternal peace, amen.
The two soldiers then stepped with precision to the coffin and folded the flag. Vince raised his trumpet tentatively and was about to play, but the pastor paused from his official duty of watching the folding of the flag and motioned for Vince to wait. Old Dirk cast a glance at Vince, and I noticed that the damp circles under Vince’s armpits seemed to double in size instantly. He began to take quick, short breaths and nervously finger the keys to his trumpet.
The humor of Vince’s assured screw-up had now left me, and I, too, began to sweat and fidget in concert with him. I prayed that his performance would be flawless, a virtuoso masterpiece. Taps consists of only 24 notes, and I wanted each and every one that Vince played to be perfect, to resonate with sad remembrance so as to wipe the scowl from old Dirk Pendleton’s face and deliver Vince and me from this torment.
The flag had been folded into a tight triangle bundle and placed on an empty chair next to Dirk. It suddenly hit me that homeless George Roe had no family, and that the request for the live bugler must have come from old Dirk. I wondered if Vince had figured this out, too.
The pastor nodded to Vince, letting him know that Taps was the next item on the program.
Vince stood there, frozen.
Come on, Vince, I thought. Play it. Play it sweetly and beautifully. I know you can do it.
Vince didn’t breathe. He didn’t move a muscle.
One of the young military guys faked a loud cough, and then both of them crisply saluted.
Vince took a deep breath and raised his trumpet to his trembling lips.
As Vince played, I closed my eyes and silently played along side him. Vince began wonderfully, and as he held the sixth note, an E, I held it with him and worked my fingers on my imaginary trumpet as he worked his. I hummed along silently as Vince played flawlessly through notes 13, 14, and 15, G, C, and E, and I had to restrain myself in order not let my humming escape the private music chamber inside my head.
Then disaster struck. Vince hurried notes 16, 17, and 18. He let notes 19, 20, and 21 crack and peel away from the structure of the piece like paint from an old house. And the final three notes, G, G, and C, meant to be played with slow, pure sorrow, Vince simply spit out quickly, sounding as though he was trying to remove a piece of hair from his mouth.
Vince lowered his trumpet and trudged away, right toward my hideout, sobbing. The pastor quickly concluded the service, and old Dirk lifted his wet-eyed grimace from his chair and limped with his cane over to Vince.
It looked as though old Dirk was going to lay into Vince big-time, and I hoped Vince would stop crying long enough to see the cane flying at him so he could duck. But old Dirk didn’t yell at Vince. He put his arm around him.
“Very brave, son. Very brave.”
Vince looked up through his tears and stammered, “I blew it.”
“Blew it? That’s bunk, son, and don’t ever let anyone make you feel otherwise.”
Vince wiped his nose on his sleeve. “But it’s a funeral. Even George Roe deserved better.”
Old Dirk looked back at the coffin, now being lowered into the ground by the gravediggers. “Son, maybe you know George Roe as a drunk and a panhandler, and that’s what he became, no question. But let me tell you about my best friend, George Roe.”
Old Dirk recalled the day long ago, during the Korean War, when he and George Roe served in the Army together behind enemy lines.
“Our company was being hammered fierce. Never seen the likes of it. Suddenly, me and George and ten others are trapped. Snipers all around us. Just pickin’ us off, one by one. Three of us are dead, now four. Radio’s out. Don’t know if backup is coming. Bullets inching closer to each one of us. We’ve got no way out.”
He poked his cane into the ground, paused, and shook his head.
“Then George looks at me and shouts, ‘Pick ‘em up and let’s go!’”
“’What?’ I said. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“He picked up one of our dead boys, Terkowsky, and slung him over his shoulder. ‘Pick ‘em up and let’s go!’ George shouted again at the rest of us, this time with his machine gun in his free hand. He jumped out of our foxhole, gun blazing, and zigzagged his way toward an enemy position atop a small hill. It was suicide, for sure. But George kept running and shooting, and we followed his lead.
“I got clipped in the leg and fell, and the dead boy I was carrying, Bell, he fell right on top of me. I look over and see George Roe wipe out six enemy troops and take over the hill. George doesn’t know if I’m dead or alive, but he keeps shouting at me to stay down, he’s coming to get me. Next thing I know our boys on that hill pepper the enemy with gunfire while George comes zigzagging back down, his machine gun blazing, until he drops beside me. ‘Dammit, Dirk, tell me you’re alive!’ he shouts at me. I said, ‘What, you’d be mad at me if I was dead!’ He smiled, and then we both felt the ground near us explode from a hand grenade. George ignored it, and slung Bell over one shoulder and me over the other, and carried us both up that hill. We held that hill for four hours until reinforcements finally came and got us.”
Vince looked at old Dirk and all the medals he wore and said, “Wow. I never knew.”
“George Roe saved the lives of seven men that day, including mine,” Dirk said. “He was a hero.”
Dirk closed his eyes and pursed his lips in dark remembrance. “Before they took those dead boys away in their coffins, George felt it was important that we honor them by playing Taps. We couldn’t find a bugler in the entire regiment, so me and George, well, we stood there and sang it.”
He rubbed his puffy eyes and managed a sad chuckle.
“Neither one of us could carry a tune. It was the worst rendition of Taps in the history of the Army. But it didn’t matter. George just belted it out as loudly and proudly as he could, and I just followed his lead. It gave us the peace we needed at that moment. After the war, though, George never could find peace with himself. He never could hold a steady job, and eventually he just gave up.”
The two young Army guys came over to escort old Dirk back to the car. “I tried to help George, but he didn’t want it. I gave him money, and offered to let him stay with me. But he preferred to sleep on the ground. He once told me that the smell of the earth so close to his nose made him feel alive.
He looked back at the coffin and patted Vince
“He’s feeling alive now, that much I know. I’m here to tell you that George Roe cherished every note of Taps you just played, and he probably sang along with you. Thank you for playing. Thank you very much.”
Vince watched old Dirk and the Army guys drive off with the pastor, and then watched the gravediggers cover the coffin with dirt. I was itching to leave but I didn’t dare reveal that I was there; I had to wait until Vince left. But Vince went over and stood over George Roe’s grave for a long, long time. Finally I saw him lift his trumpet to his lips again and he played Taps once more, this time with more feeling, more depth, and each note was wistful, sweet, tender, and melancholy. Perfect.
Goosebumps up and down my arm rose up and saluted Vince. I was awestruck.
I never told Vince that I was there that day, but the very next Sunday he called me and told me to bring my trumpet over after dinner. The sky was turning orange and purple as the sun began its slow decent toward night, and a warm, gentle breeze greeted me as I rode my bike. Vince rolled out of his driveway on his bike, holding his trumpet, and silently gestured for me to follow.
I knew where he was going and I didn’t say a word.
We stopped at George Roe’s grave and I followed Vince’s lead as we played Taps for the war hero. My version wasn’t nearly as smooth as Vince’s, but Vince nodded and said “sweet” before we rode back to his house to play video games.
The following Sunday at dusk we returned to the cemetery, but this time we played Taps at the grave of a different soldier. The granite military grave markers were easy to spot, and we continued to play Taps every Sunday at dusk until we had honored all the buried veterans, then we started the cycle again with George Roe.
One Sunday we saw a fresh grave marked by a military headstone and discovered that old Dirk Pendleton had died. Vince was so choked up he could hardly play. I carried the tune for us that day, and I played Taps as well as I had ever played it, in honor of old Dirk and my old pal Vince, the bravest kid I’d ever known.