Honor and respect: Buglers who play taps at veterans' funerals know there's no room for error

David Coates III plays taps on his trumpet during a memorial service for Ed Keohane at the American Legion in Goose Creek. Keohane was a long-time member of the legion and a Navy veteran.

Alan Hawes

If Memorial Day has a theme song, it's the haunting sound of taps.

The poignant tune will be heard in cemeteries and meeting halls around the nation today, as Americans pause to remember military men and women who have died in wars.

Taps also serves as the closing notes at the funerals of veterans.

A small cadre of buglers stands ready to make sure it is done right.

'Taps is that final call,' said David Coates Jr. of North Charleston, a bugler and captain of the honor guard at American Legion Post 166 in Goose Creek. 'Taps has to be right. It's the end; it's the finality. It's the last memory they (the family) have, and it is one song that makes women as well as grown men cry. It's not the song, it's what it stands for.'

While scores of veterans die each year in a military community like Charleston, only about a half-dozen buglers are available to honor them, according to Coates. He served at about 75 funerals last year and played taps at about 50 of them.

Coates, 53, is a Navy veteran who works full time as a welder and metal fabricator. He's been playing trumpet since the third grade and plays taps on the trumpet.

A trumpet has valves, while a bugle does not. Both are hard to play when it's hot or cold or emotions are running high.

"As a bugler, I have to tune all of the emotion out of it," Coates said. "More than once I have bugled for friends and acquaintances, and that is hard. Also, it's hard when the crowd is very emotional. In order to be professional, sometimes you have to mentally leave that service for a while and think about something else, bad as it sounds, because with a friend you want to be a part of it."

You wouldn't think such a short piece would present any problems.

"It's the hardest 24 notes in music," Coates said.

Coates will serve at another Memorial Day service today in Carolina Memorial Gardens. He's not sure if he or his son will play the trumpet.

Coates' son, 32-year-old David Coates III, also is a bugler with the honor guard. He's been playing trumpet since middle school and played in the band at North Charleston High School. His dad got him started playing an echo to taps during ceremonies.

"I really started doing it for him," said the younger Coates, who works for a well-water treatment company. "But then after you do the first funeral, it's more than that. I would do it even if he wasn't doing it anymore. It's my way of giving back. It's my of honoring veterans because I didn't serve."

Every veteran has the right to a military funeral, and the ceremony must include at least a flag folding and taps. If a live musician isn't available, taps can be played electronically.

"These men and women deserve more than that," the younger Coates said.

The most famous example of a missed note is the memorial service for fallen President John F. Kennedy. The bugler clearly flubbed, as can be seen in the video posted on YouTube. Of course it was freezing that day, and even the bugler was probably on the verge of tears, the younger Coates said.

"You don't want to mess up," he said. "It's more of a pressure that you put on yourself to give the deceased the best send-off possible."

Jay Walker of James Island also is a bugler. He's a retired SPAWAR engineer who served in the National Guard. He played French horn in The Citadel band and plays taps on a bugle.

Walker plays at funerals about once a month. He will bring out the bugle again today at a ceremony at American Legion Post 147 on James Island. He also played Friday during a memorial service at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston.

"It always has a power; it really does," he said. "You want to play it correctly and not screw up, so there's always pressure there. You have to practice and warm up. I do have to practice fairly often to keep my lips in shape."

Walker gets calls through Bugles Across America, a group committed to providing live buglers for the funerals of veterans. He said the group is always looking for more volunteers, male or female. A bugler does not have to be a military veteran and does not have to wear a uniform to perform the duty, he said.

Memorial events

Here are some of the scheduled events for Memorial Day today:

9 A.M.: Retired Marine Col. Myron Harrington will speak at the Vietnam Support Base at Patriots Point. Parking and admission will be free until 9:30 am.

10.30 A.M.: Retired Air Force Col. Gerald Musselman, Dorchester County Veteran Affairs officer, will speak at the annual Summerville Memorial Day Ceremony at Parks Cemetery on Boone Hill Road.

11 a.m.: Coast Guard Sector Charleston Commanding Officer Capt. Michael F. White will speak at a service conducted by American Legion Post 147 at 968 Folly Road on James Island.

Noon: Former Air Force combat photographer Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall, who was wounded in action several times, will speak in the chapel at Carolina Memorial Gardens at 7113 Rivers Ave. in a service conducted by Fleet Reserve Association Branch 50 and American Legion Post 166.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.