There is something almost unpatriotic about how easy it is for a trumpeter to play taps.
In fact, taps is probably the second thing I’d ever performed solo in public, after I objectively nailed the second phrase of “Ode to Joy” in a fourth-grade talent show.
Taps is easy because it doesn’t have any fingerings, which, contrary to how it may sound, is not a euphemism for something.
When you play taps, the only trick is to take a deep breath. If you have good posture, the rest takes care of itself.
When my middle school band director asked me to play at a neighborhood Memorial Day barbecue, I didn’t think too much of it, except perhaps as an opportunity to gain more experience as a player. Then, I was 11, and I didn’t have much of an opinion of our troops save that, of course, we should support them. My earliest taps-playing experiences have since faded into a blur of congratulatory middle-aged parents and steadfast nationalism that I was too young to understand, but just old enough to deliberately swallow.
It took me until age 16 or 17 to start dissecting what the hell I was doing at these functions, which ranged from informal gatherings to crowded ceremonies, and that was for a variety of reasons. With age comes wisdom, I suppose, but a more realistic theory is that I was beginning to develop a more defined – but not necessarily wiser – version of myself.
In a move that in hindsight was foolish for a feminist and a then-closeted queer woman, I hid myself in a movement of decades past, negating the progress the world had made in the past four or so decades. To cope with the frustrations I faced as an angsty high schooler, I absorbed myself in the 60s anti-war movement. I allowed myself to become obsessed. I collected vinyls and Yellow Submarine action figures. I wrote the lyrics of protest songs in Sharpie on my walls. I smoked pot. I wore flowy skirts and even tried to give myself dreadlocks. Where complex political ideals were lost on my adolescent mind, aesthetic remained.
I didn’t know much about war. I didn’t study my history. I just knew that I thought violence was bad, so I vehemently opposed war in all forms. I thought it was as simple as that, and I wondered why my generation wasn’t as “forward-thinking” as the Vietnam protestors.
So I told my classmates I was a hippie, but on Nov. 11, 2010, I was holding my trumpet, shaking onstage in the City Hall of Norwalk, Connecticut.
A trumpet player from my town’s other high school was in the balcony, watching me. Once I started playing taps, he was to echo me after each phrase. We both wore varsity jackets to signify which school we represented. As I waited for my cue, I fiddled with the buttons I’d placed all over mine, most notably of which included “Give Peace a Chance” and “Sweet ‘n’ Sassy Trumpet Chick.” Suddenly, I felt ashamed. I gazed at my audience, which was old and wizened and included a number of folks in wheelchairs. Many veterans proudly bore medallions and uniforms.
Under the spotlights, it hit me that these people had given parts of themselves for their country, parts they may never get back. I don’t love my country that much, I realized. I didn’t think there was any cause I could be that selfless for – and certainly not the bogus, dead movement I purported to be a member of. I felt wrong, and I felt young. I wanted to run off the stage.
I didn’t, because that action would have only solidified my position as a coward. Thankfully, I remembered to breathe. I played taps without a hitch. And I sat down. I politely listened to the rest of the service, which included speeches by veterans, remembering friends who had passed.
After the ceremony, there was free food, which I obviously took advantage of. Keeping my head down, I loaded a paper plate with various types of potato salads. I looked for the exit.
Before I could leave, I felt someone grab my free hand. A small elderly man was looking up at me, his eyes filled with tears.
“I cannot tell you how much it means that you took the time to play that today,” he said. “It brought me back … I really appreciate it.”
I smiled at him and tried to duck out of the door, but a slew of people followed. A bold, virile fellow sporting a cap with a bald eagle clapped me on the back, exclaiming how impressed he was with today’s youth. A woman, slightly hunched and wearing red lipstick, told me she loved seeing a girl take over what some would consider a “man’s job.”
“And you sounded much, much better than that boy in the balcony,” she added playfully.
I felt a twinge of guilt – as I mentioned before, taps is easy. I hadn’t done anything special, at least not in my eyes.
In fact, it was impossible to feel special at all around this group of people. These veterans were not heartless murderers. They were not bloodthirsty. And many of the people I met didn’t care too much for war – they just loved their country.
I don’t support war after this experience. I haven’t even played taps since that day. I did, however, come to terms with the fact that life isn’t made of adamant causes and their blind oppositions. Regardless of the institutions that govern us, we are all humans, flailing to find something that matters.
For some people, that something is war. For me, that something is blowing air into metal.
Grace Holleran can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @coupsdegrace. The Essayist is The Temple News’ recurring series of personal essays.