PATRIOTISM FILLED THE AIR of New Concord, the small eastern Ohio town where I grew up. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Armistice Day were flag-waving holidays of parades and salutes to the United States and to the soldiers, living and dead, who had fought for freedom and democracy.
My father was one of those soldiers. He served in France during World War I, delivering artillery shells to the front on trucks and horse-drawn caissons, and he came home partially deaf from a cannon blast but otherwise unharmed. He also was a bugler. He blew the bugle for reveille and taps, for mail call and mess call, and when the flag was raised.
At home, on those patriotic days that I remember, Dad was again called upon to play the bugle. He marched in the parade formations when the local veterans from the Thirty-seventh Ohio Division marched down Main Street on Armistice Day, and played the colors when they raised the flag at the American Legion hall at the end of the parade. But the bugling I remember best was the taps he played on Memorial Day. It was still called Decoration Day then, and families dressed in their Sunday best would regather at the town cemetery after the parade, carrying bundles of gladioli, irises, and peonies, red, white, and blue the dominating colors. The marching soldiers also would regather. They presented arms and fired three volleys in salute as the flags flanking the Stars and Stripes were dipped. Then my father raised his war-battered brass bugle and played those drawn-out, mournful notes in memory of the soldiers killed in action, and the sound drifted across the gravestones and sent chills up my spine. As the last notes faded into silence the families of the soldiers and descendants of men who had died in other wars moved among the gravestones and placed flowers on the graves.
We had a town band in New Concord. I was nine or ten when I joined the band and learned to play the trumpet. At home, Dad taught me the military calls. And one day after I learned to play them well enough, he came to me with a request. "Bud," he said, "Decoration Day is coming up, and I want you to play taps with me."
I hardly knew what to say. Dad was my hero. He had fought in the war. The playing of taps was a special moment in the ceremony, a final, haunting valediction for the men who had made the supreme sacrifice. To play it was a great responsibility. Dad obviously had a lot of confidence in me. That meant a great deal, but it meant even more to participate as a young boy in the remembrance of men who had fought and died for our country. It was something bigger than I was, something momentous.
Dad and I practiced at home as the end of May approached. He played in the kitchen, and I stood in another room. When the day came, I was a little scared. Before, I had always watched the parade with Mother and my sister, Jean, or marched in the band. But this spring day I went alone to the cemetery, ahead of the others. I walked across the sloping grounds, and waited out of sight in the woods where the terrain fell away beyond the graves.
Soon I heard "Present arms" as the soldiers' honor guard re-formed. Peeking through the leaves, I saw them raise their guns to fire the three volleys in salute. Then my father lifted his bugle, and the first sad notes rose in the spring air. The first phrase ended, and I was ready. I put the trumpet to my lips and echoed the clear notes. We played through taps like that, my trumpet echoing his bugle phrase by phrase, until the last notes died.
That impressed me then, as a boy, and it's impressive to me to this day. Echo taps still gives me chills. It recalls the patriotic feeling of New Concord, the pride and respect everyone in the town felt for the United States of America. Love of country was a given. Defense of its ideals was an obligation. The opportunity to join in its quests and explorations was a challenge not only to fulfill a sacred duty, but to join a joyous adventure. That feeling sums up my childhood. It formed my beliefs and my sense of responsibility. Everything that came after that just seemed to follow naturally.
Excerpted from John Glenn: A Memoir by John Glenn. Copyright© 1999 by John Glenn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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