63. The Story of Taps

The 24-note, melancholy bugle call known as “taps” is thought to be a revision of a French bugle signal, called “tattoo,” that notified soldiers to cease an evening’s drinking and return to their garrisons. Present-day taps was made during America’s Civil War by Union Gen. Daniel Adams Butterfield, heading a brigade camped at Harrison Landing, VA., near Richmond. Up to that time, the U.S. Army’s infantry call to end the day was the French final call, “L’Extinction des faux.” Gen. Butterfield decided the “lights out” music was too formal to signal the day’s end. One day in July 1862 he recalled the tattoo music and hummed a version of it to an aide, who wrote it down in music. Butterfield then asked the brigade bugler, Oliver W. Norton, to play the notes and, after listening, lengthened and shortened them while keeping his original melody.

How I Remember Taps as a Young Boy:
My oldest brother Morty was born in 1925 while I came into this world on July 25, 1933. This made me Morty’s kid brother being some eight years younger than him. It seems that I can recall that he and my brother Frank, who was two years older than me, spent a good part of their time teasing me when they were not thinking of ways to blame me for mistakes that they may have made and didn’t want the folks to find out about. With all this Morty had been always bigger than life, and my hero. I wanted to be just like him in every possible way that I could be. When I heard that he had grown to the height of six feet three I decided that is how tall I would be. I did reach that height. When WWII came about Morty was going to High School at Woodmere High. I can recall clearly that as soon as the war broke out he and the folks were in heated arguments concerning him leaving school and joining the Marines. Mom and Dad were very much against this since Morty was only seventeen at the time. He would soon graduate from high school. Being so young I realized that a war was going on, yet had little understanding of the nature of it. I can recall Morty tells the folks that he was ashamed to get on a bus or train seeing other young men in uniform and him not.

As soon as he got his high school diploma my older brother joined the Marines. The folks were very troubled, yet I’m sure that Dad was very proud of his son. During WWI Dad had been a Marine. Dad told us that he was in the 2nd Marine Division, and sent to Germany at the end of the war. He would tell us that he never did see any battle action since the Germans gave up as soon as they found out that he was there. Morty did end up while serving as a Marine in the 2nd Marine Division. This made Dad super proud.

I do remember Morty leaving to go to Paris Island for his boot training. Mom was very afraid for her son. You could feel just how terrified she was. It went right through our home, and even as a small boy it terrified me that my “big brother” might get killed and not ever come home. I was not at that time privy to the adult conversations that went on in the house, yet I do remember the folks speaking of Morty breaking his foot while on the train to basic training. This they found out after he finished Boot Camp. Morty told no one about his injury. He went through basic training with a broken foot. Years later, I was drafted into a peacetime army. I went through eight weeks of basic. That is the time when as a soldier in the Army or Marines they get you into fighting condition. I’m sure that the basic training at Paris Island was a lot harder and more physically difficult than that which I went through. For Morty to get through those eight weeks would be extremely difficult for a grown man. At that time he was nothing but a seventeen year old kid.

I do recall about the years that my older brother was away serving his country that Mom did a lot of crying, and Dad did a lot of letter writing. I was very proud of my brother. At that time most all the young men, and many older ones as well from our town were off some place that I knew to be far away fighting a hated enemy. We never knew where he was sent after his basic training. He spent a time in a radio school before he was shipped out overseas. All we knew was that Morty was some place in the Pacific.

I can recall that as I would walk to the Woodmere village passing house after house that had little flags hung in their living room windows. On these flags were stars. A blue star for each member of their family that was serving. We proudly displayed our blue star flag as well. As I strolled along on my way I would gaze up at these windows, and at times see that where yesterday on the flag in the window the star which had been blue had turned to gold. I knew what this meant was that in that home someone was not ever coming home again. I would look away quickly for I didn’t want to think of this. Even so, I couldn’t help but looking back at that window and its flag. Each time my heart would beat faster and a lump would form in my throat. There were few walks through town when you would not find that a blue star had turned into a gold one.

On the main street downtown next to the high school track, the town had put up a large wooden white honor roll. On this honor roll were the names of all the individuals from our town that were serving in the Army, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard. Just like the little flags in the living room windows there were stars next to the names on the roll. These stars were blue or gold. I would find excuses to walk past this honor roll and to gaze at my brother’s name. There it was Morton Presslaff. How proud was I. What was difficult to look at was how fast the blue stars were turning to gold. During this time the newspapers and radio were full of news about the war. When you went to a movie theater they always showed a newsreel concerning the war. It seemed to me that even if the picture being viewed was in black and white the newsreel would be in color. Now, as I am older and do see some of these newsreels on TV most of the war seem to be in black and white. It must have been the films shown in color when I was a child made such an impression on me that I remember them as all in color. It also seemed to me at that time that when the news of the fighting came on at the movies the sound was also turned way up. One evening while at the movies with the folks they showed a newsreel of the Marines landing on a Pacific Island. It was in color and I can still see the bodies of marines washing back and forth in the surf. As well as the many men laying still on the beach. Mom started to sob as did many others in the theater. At this time we knew the 2nd Marines were some place in the Pacific. From the news you could follow a Division. The 2nd had been on Tarwa during 1943, and in 1945 at Okinawa. It had also fought in Saipan as well as Iwo Jima. As I write this today I can still feel my mother’s chair in that theater rocking back and forth as that very vivid newsreel continued.

Each night Dad would leave us and go upstairs to his bedroom where he would sit at a little desk and write his son. Dad never missed an evening. When Morty did at last come home he told Dad that as he moved from island to island that many times the mail would not catch up to him. He told us that at one time that he received more than forty letters at once. I do remember those letters being mailed. They were a special type of mail called V-mail. All that is even today, so very vivid to me.

During these years the folks would send my brother Frank and myself to an eight week Summer Camp. For me the days were fun for it was there at Pine Crest Dunes that I first was able to ride horses. The nights were something else. When evening came we would go to our bunk houses. As a signal that no more talking would be allowed a camp bugler would play taps. In the still of the evening as the light became duller and duller I could hear the mournful sound of taps being played. I would think of my older brother who was my hero, and who I loved so much while I placed my head deep into my pillow and cried softly so the others in my bunk house could not hear me.

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