I heard TAPS for the first time this past Tuesday. Now, I am familiar with TAPS. I, like many of you, have heard it before in films and television. The notes are something that you cannot escape from - when you think of the Military, TAPS will pop up. But until we buried my father, I had never really heard the song. It sounds vastly different when accompanied by death and sadness.
A military burial involves a honor guard from the respective branch (in my father's case, the Air Force). They showed up well before the burial was suppose to start and stood at attention for over half an hour. When it was time, they marched toward the casket and took it out of the hearse with the commander stating his drill commands with a stoic but soft voice. Upon placing it on the daïs, they folded the flag on the casket, handing the flag down the line until the commander folded it into a triangle. Mechanically, he creased it into the shape that it will remain for the rest of time - a triangle of Stars and Stripes representative of my father's time on this Earth.
He then marched up to my mother, genuflected, and handed her the flag. Shifting his eyes from the flag to look her in the eyes, he started to state what he had said many times before, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Air Force, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."
But when he got to "faithful", he paused for a moment. There was a visible struggle as he held back tears fighting for release. A crack in his voice demonstrated just how much the loss of a fellow airman meant to him, and his holding back of the tears spoke to his desire to not cause my mother more grief than she was already feeling at the loss of someone who she held so dearly in her heart. After the pause, he stood up, silently saluted all that was left as a representation of my father, and marched away.
Then, one of the members of the honor guard held up a trumpet and began playing TAPS. And I honestly heard it for the first time, because it seemed so alien and different from every other time I had heard it played. And there was a distant echo of the song that stood out - because there was another funeral happening at the exact same time not 30 feet away, and their trumpet player's TAPS was bleeding onto ours.
It dawned on me that these men had done this every day for however long they had this post, and had to hold their composure every time. Every night, at the end of their shift, they go home to their significant others. They give them a kiss, smiling, and freshen up in the bathroom. They look in the mirror, and see themselves as a soon to be buried corpse, knowing exactly how the ceremony will go. Knowing how their loved one will be absolutely racked with loss and sorrows, and given nothing more than a folded piece of fabric to remember them by.
That's what I came to understand when I heard TAPS for the first time, and that was when I cried at my father's funeral.