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Former resident plays TAPS at Arlington Cemetery

May 31, 2012

John Blair, 43, is the state director of Bugles Across America for Virginia and the District of Columbia. Photo courtesy of Bugles Across America and John Blair

To prepare for the day he’d been waiting for, John Blair, formerly of Clayton, donned a white and black civilian service uniform. He polished his silver trumpet, the one he first played back in 1985 as a high school junior. He packed the instrument carefully in its leather bag and drove through a clear May morning to Arlington National Cemetery.

There, he joined about 200 other buglers and trumpeters who gathered Saturday, May 19, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composing of taps – the spare, melancholy call that has long been a traditional part of military funerals and services and is used to signal “lights out” at U.S. military bases around the world.

The buglers had come from across the country for the simple ceremony. For many, including Blair, it would be their first and perhaps only opportunity to sound the famous melody on Arlington’s hallowed ground.

Blair, 43, is the state director of Bugles Across America for Virginia and the District of Columbia. He is devoted to the nonprofit organization’s goal of ensuring that all veterans have a bugler to play at their funerals, in part because he was unable to play for his own father’s memorial service in 2000.

Thanks to a local high school trumpet player, Blair’s family was spared having to play a recording of taps at the service. But Blair was distraught that he couldn’t sound the call for his father himself.

On Saturday, Blair and his fellow buglers sounded taps three times: twice all together at the cemetery’s Old Amphitheater and once from various stations across the grounds, just after the noon chimes.

Blair stood in Section 34, at the grave of Frank Buckles, the last U.S. veteran of World War I to die. The grave was more than a thousand miles from where Blair’s father, a decorated Korean War veteran, was buried 12 years ago in Clayton, Okla. But Blair was sounding the call for him, too.

“For him and for all the heroes everywhere,” Blair said.

By 10 a.m. Saturday, onlookers filled the sunny center of Arlington’s Old Amphitheater, high on a hill overlooking the monuments and landmarks of Washington. Buglers circled the perimeter, men and women of all ages, instruments in hand. They were clad in formal attire from different chapters of history – modern and historical military uniforms, Boy Scout uniforms, police uniforms.

Together, they became one voice during the first mass sounding of taps, and then a chorus of harmonized instruments during the second. The notes soared, strong enough to drown even the sound of a low-flying jet.

On most days, a passerby at Arlington might hear the singular call of taps echoing from one corner of the cemetery or another, among the rows of white gravestones.

But just after noon on Saturday, something remarkable happened: The stillness gave way to the plaintive calls of hundreds of distinct brass voices, the familiar notes rising from every acre of the sprawling grounds.

In Section 34, facing Buckles’s headstone, John Blair whispered a prayer and pressed his trumpet to his lips. He sounded the simple lines of music with even breaths – for the last known U.S. veteran of World War I, for the fallen in the surrounding fields, for his father.

The calls came rolling over the hills in gentle rounds, each one slightly different, reflecting the subtle variations of instruments and their owners. For several minutes, the place was overwhelmed by the sound. Then the last, faint notes dissolved in the soft afternoon breeze, and quiet fell again.

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