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Army bugler Keith Clark waited for hours on that cold day in 1963 to play one last time for the president — his president.
This somber duty, the sounding of taps at military ceremonies and funerals, was a familiar responsibility for the principal trumpet player in the U.S. Army Band.
Just two weeks before, Sergeant Clark played at Arlington National Cemetery during a Veterans Day ceremony. That day — which to a grieving nation must have felt as if it belonged to a different, distant past — he stood near John F. Kennedy as the president stared straight ahead, shoulders squared, feet precisely placed.
On Nov. 25, 1963, the bugler returned to Arlington, awaiting President Kennedy’s funeral procession. His assassination three days earlier shocked a nation, which was still in disbelief.
After deafening volleys of rifle fire, the camera and the eyes of the country turned to Sergeant Clark, tasked with summing up the mournful occasion with a melody played not just for a nation but a widow.
He pointed the bell of his bugle to Jacqueline Kennedy and began. On the sixth note of taps — a catch, a warble, one slight crack.
The missed note would reverberate through history, encapsulating a nation’s pain.
“Most Americans have the sense that he didn’t do it on purpose,” said Sergeant Clark’s oldest daughter Nancy McColley, 64, who watched the funeral procession and her father on a television set in the family’s Arlington, Va., recreation room. “But it seemed to fit the feeling and the dynamic of the day. We were heartbroken as a nation.”
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Sitting in another house several states away, fifth-grader Ed Hunter watched on a black-and-white TV in Plymouth, Ohio.
Like so many children, Mr. Hunter, now 60 and living in Sylvania Township, learned about the president’s death at school. His principal came to the door and broke the news to his teacher. The class clustered around a transistor radio.
School was canceled the day of the funeral. Watching at home, young Eddie Hunter, who had a month before started trumpet lessons and playing in the school band, paid close attention to the historic ceremony at Arlington.
“The playing of taps was kind of interesting to me ... on the sixth note he didn’t quite hit it cleanly,” Mr. Hunter recalled. “He sort of cracked a little bit and, being a budding trumpet player, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, he must feel awful.’ ”
He wanted to console his fellow musician and took to his sister’s typewriter to punch out a letter addressed simply to the bugler at the president’s funeral in Washington.
“Anybody is bound to make a tiny mistake in front of millions opon millions of people. At first I did not notice it, at first untile they reran the picture. YOU SHOULD HERE SOME OF THE THINGS I PLAY,” wrote little Eddie.
Back in Arlington, Sergeant Clark received numerous letters, all positive, about his rendition of taps. The imperfect note touched listeners. Letter writers told him he expressed the sorrow of a nation, and urged him not to feel badly about the mistake.
“He was a man of great faith, so I think any personal feelings he may have had about the incident, he took those feelings to God and left them there. I don’t think he spent a lot of time worrying about it. Essentially his country called, and he answered the call,” said Ms. McColley, whose father died in 2002. “He did his best. …; that’s all that any country requires of its citizens.”
One particular letter provided Sergeant Clark some cheer. A short note, poorly spelled in spots, from a young Ohio boy.
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“My mom said he got quite a chuckle out of that. [It] added a little bit of levity to a really uncomfortable position he was in. It lightened the mood,” Ms. McColley said.
She now has the original copy of Eddie’s letter. Like the others, it will be passed down to future generations.
“When you are growing up and your dad makes a mistake on national TV, that is not your shining moment,” she said. “We realize now that dad has this very special place in history.”
No one would recollect a perfect performance.
Sergeant Clark will be remembered today during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the sounding of taps at President Kennedy’s funeral. Members of the bugler’s family, including Ms. McColley, will attend the event at Arlington, where the bugler also is buried. The ceremony will feature about 100 buglers from around the country playing taps together.
Mr. Hunter plans to attend.
He hadn’t thought much about the letter he wrote 50 years ago, though he kept photographs and a handwritten reply from Sergeant Clark, who hoped the boy was “practicing hard on your trumpet.” The young player wrote the bugler once more and reported he was trying “to be a fine musician like you.”
Taps historian Jari Villanueva, a Baltimore bugler who retired from the Air Force Band, discovered the letters between the bugler and the boy while doing research.
He corresponded with Sergeant Clark before his death, and knew he had received letters after the president’s funeral. Recently, Mr. Villanueva spent time with his family in Port Charlotte, Fla., where Ms. McColley lives, and saw some of those letters.
The child’s note struck Mr. Villanueva, who tracked down Mr. Hunter using Internet search tools and told him about today’s ceremony.
Mr. Hunter, who played the trumpet through high school and his first year of college at Eastern Kentucky University, is a freelance copy writer and voice actor who does commercial work and video narration. As a child he wrote letters to other notables, including astronauts. He’s still moved by the story that has reverberated 50 years later.
“This is not about a guy making a mistake. I mean, he did an otherwise flawless job,” Mr. Hunter said. “He served his country well, and I think that’s what the ceremony, you know, is ... the fact that he did what he did, and it touched so many people in so many ways.”
Sergeant Clark was asked again and again to explain that one lapse amid a lifetime of perfectly played notes. The day’s brisk temperatures froze his lips, and the strict requirements to stand at attention didn’t afford him time to warm up, his daughter said.
Add to that the enormous pressure of the occasion, the meddling of television crews catering to the at-home audience, and the recent roar from nearby rifles which made it difficult to hear.
“He was under this perfectly understandable amount of strain,” said Mr. Villanueva, who likens the broken note to the crack in the Liberty Bell.
When Sergeant Clark learned of the president’s assassination, he immediately got a haircut — anticipating he could be asked to play during the ceremony. He found out early the morning of the funeral that he would indeed sound taps as a nation watched and mourned.
“He taught us to be very patriotic, so this was his president just like it was everybody else’s. It wasn’t just a duty. He lost a president that day like everyone else did,” Ms. McColley said.