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Berger’s Burg: Civil War officer finds ‘TAPS’ in son’s pocket

Day is done. - Gone the sun - From the lakes - From the hills - From the sky.

All is well - Safely rest - God is nigh

Fading light - Dims the sight - And a star - Gems the sky - Gleaming bright -

From afar - Drawing nigh - Falls the night.

Thanks and praise - For our days - Neath the sun - Neath the stars - Neath the sky.

As we go - This we know - God is nigh.

I first heard the playing of “Taps” at the age of six, when I attended Camp Recro, a summer sleep-away camp tucked away near Bear Mountain in the Hudson Valley area of New York.

Every evening, usually around an outdoor camp fire, we campers dutifully sang the first verse of “Taps,” accompanied by the sounds of a crackling fire and chirping crickets, before retiring for the night. The camp counselors never explained the history of the song, why we sang it at day’s end, nor why it was called “Taps.” To us it was just a nighttime lullaby. But I enjoyed singing it. When I grew older, I finally learned the significance of this beautiful, simple melody and I loved it even more.

Last year Gloria and I took a cruise to Hawaii. One of our stops was at Pearl Harbor, the American naval base bombed by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 194l, igniting World War II. On the bottom of the bay lay the mighty battleship, the USS Arizona, sunk by the Japanese during the horrific attack. The fallen ship still was weeping oil after 60 years. Its full crew of sailors, mostly teenagers still at their posts, was entombed within their beloved ship.

As we drew nearer to the vessel, the passengers were given memorial wreaths. At the captain’s command, and with the sound of a doleful, lone bugle trumpeting “Taps” in the background, the flowery remembrances were thrown into the water. As the floating flowers began to encircle the ship, the passengers, including many of the Japanese aboard, wept unashamedly at this watery graveyard. Gloria and I never will forget that poignant moment. It made us proud to be Americans.

Every reader should know the haunting melody of “Taps,” which is played at the funerals of military, police, firefighters and other deceased persons. It is a song that usually produces lumps in the throat and tears in the eyes of every attendee. But do you know how it originated?

Reportedly, the story behind the dirge began in 1862 during the Civil War, when Army Capt. Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing, Va. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who was severely wounded on the field. Not knowing whether he was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention.

Crawling on his stomach through the gunfire, Ellicombe reached the wounded soldier and began pulling him toward the encampment. When he finally crossed his own lines, he discovered it actually was a Confederate soldier, but the man was already dead.

The captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army.

The following morning, the broken-hearted father requested permission to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. Ellicombe had asked if he could have a group of Army band members play a funereal dirge for his son. The request was denied since the soldier was a Confederate. But, out of respect for the father, they did permit the captain to pick one musician. He chose a bugler.

He then asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he found in the pocket of the dead youth’s uniform. This wish was granted. The haunting melody we know of as “Taps” was born.

On May 27 another Memorial Day will be observed. It is a holiday to remember and give thanks to the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, doctors, nurses, police, firefighters and statesmen, as well as everyone else who had given his life in the defense of this nation and the principles for which it stands.

Since the Civil War, “Taps” has been played over the coffins of hundreds of thousands of our fallen heroes who bravely fought during the Spanish-American War (1898-1902), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (194l-1945), the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1964-1975), the Persian Gulf War (1990), as well as in Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, and, presently, the war against terrorism.

So, on this Memorial Day, there are many ways we can remember them. We can visit cemeteries and place flags and flowers on the graves of those who have fallen, we can fly the flag at half-mast, we can participate in a National Moment of Remembrance to pause and think about those who have fallen and we can play “Taps.” In addition, we also can renew our pledges to aid our disabled veterans and the widows, widowers and orphans of those who have died. It would be a “mitzvah,” or good deed.

Do you know that on an average day, more than 42,000 veterans are checked into beds at VA medical centers and nursing homes? And, the Veterans Affairs Office projects that more than 572,000 veterans of all wars will pass on during 2002 — 401,000 of them will be the “Greatest Generation” veterans of World War II. Imagine what kind of man or woman will be lost when these last, magnificent, veterans are gone? Think not only of all they saw and experienced, but of the clarity they brought to the battlefield and the burdens they successfully carried to victory.

Yes, we owe a lot to these, and our other warriors. And forever may “Taps” be played for them on America’s Memorial Days!

By the way, does anyone out there know why “Taps” is called “Taps?”

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, ext. 140.

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