The High Note

The High Note

Bugle Border

A Marine Vietnam war veteran
has difficulty learning to play Taps.

A short story

by Floyd H. Smith, Jr.

The High Note

Clem parked his pick-up truck in front of the store and looked at the little sign that hung above the door. The sigh was a small piece of plywood painted white with black letters that read: Antiques. Hanging crooked, and faded with age, the sign matched the store. “This is my kind of store,” Clem thought, as he looked at all the junk laying everywhere. He got out of the pick-up and walked to the door. He opened it and hoped the sign didn’t fall as he went under it. “Good morning, young man!” said a voice coming from somewhere in the back of the dark room. Before his eyes could adjust to the interior darkness of the room, Clem tripped over something as he stepped toward the sound. He caught his balance and waited for his eyes to adjust. It seemed that the older he got, the more he heard people calling him “young man,” especially older men. He kinda liked it though, and it always made him grin. After all, he was fifty-nine years old. “Good morning!” Clem said as he made his way through the obstacle course on the floor. Now, he could see who had spoken. An old man with kind eyes sat in a rocking chair. “Have a look around,” the old man said as he spit tobacco juice into a spittoon sitting on the floor next to his chair. “Is there anything in particular that your looking for?” “No, I saw your store from the road out there, and my curiosity got the best of me,” answered Clem. “I don’t get many customers anymore since the new highway went through out at the edge of town,” remarked the old man. “ But every once in a while, someone like yourself will wander in.” Clem sensed that the old man was trying to strike up a conservation. He would talk to him after he had looked at all this stuff. Clem walked off down an isle, if you could call it that. It was more like a maze. When he reached the wall on the other side of the room, Clem noticed a box on the top shelf with something sticking out of the top of it in one corner. In the dim light, it was hard to make out what it was. He could barely reach it. But he managed to get it down and placed it on the floor. Clem squatted down next to the box. “Well, look what I’ve found,” he said as he took the bugle from the box. He couldn’t tell what kind of condition it was in, but it seemed to be okay. Clem put the bugle down and emptied the contents of the box onto the floor. “This stuff must have belonged to a Boy Scout,” he thought as he examined the contents of the box. There was a complete uniform, a back pack, a scout’s handbook, and a mess kit. “Be prepared,” Clem said aloud. He was once a Boy Scout. “That’s right, be prepared.” Clem put everything but the bugle back into the box and placed it back on the shelf. He picked up the bugle and made his way back to where the old man was sitting. “ I see you found something,” said the old man as Clem handed him the bugle. “Yeah, it’s an old bugle. I’ve always liked the sound of “Taps” played on a bugle. I guess it’s from my military days. The notes are sad, but at the same time, are very soothing.” The old man was examining the bugle and remarked, “This bugle has been back there for years. I had forgotten all about it.” He hesitated for a moment, then continued. “ There’s a story that goes with this bugle. They say it’s haunted. Well, maybe not haunted, but there is a legend behind it. This bugle belonged to a Boy Scout who had a merit badge in bugling. He was the Scouts’ bugler, and played at all the Scout outings. There was a tragic accident, and he was killed on his way to summer camp. Some say that they can still hear him playing “Taps” on this bugle late in the evening, out by the lake. Come over here in the light, and I’ll show you something”. Clem walked with the old man over to the window. Holding the bugle out in the light from the window so Clem could see it, the old man said, “See this big dent, here on the underside of the bugle. This here dent gives this bugle it’s own distinct sound. The people that have heard it say that is how they know it’s him. No other bugle sounds the way this one does.” Pointing at the bugle, the old man added: “You can hardly see it, but look at this.” Clem took his reading glasses from his pocket, put them on, and looked where the old man was pointing. Inscribed in the bugle, and barely visible, were the words- Official Bugle- Boy Scouts of America. “It’s a Boy Scout bugle alright,” said Clem. “But I don’t put much store in superstition. I can’t play a bugle, and don’t even know why I want it. But I’ll take it. How much do you want for it?” The old man handed the bugle back to Clem. “You seem to be a nice young man, I’ll take twenty dollars for it, and you can have the legend for free,” he said. Clem took forty dollars from his wallet and handed it to the old man. “That legend you told me is worth as much as the bugle, I’ll pay for it too.” Clem kept the promise that he had made to himself, and after talking with the old man for several minutes, he made his way to the door. “You know, you might learn how to play that thing some day”’, the old man said as Clem opened the door. “Yeah maybe, he replied,” and stepped out into the bright sunlight. Clem opened the door to his pick-up, laid the bugle on the seat, and got in. He glanced down at the bugle lying there on the seat beside him. “What if there was something to the legend?” Clem thought. “No, that was nonsense.” He started the truck, backed out, and with his new possession, headed for home. While driving home, Clem thought about the bugle. He would build a small shelf to set it on. He arrived about midday. Plenty of time before his wife got home from work. Clem immediately started building the shelf. It wouldn’t take very long. Just a matter of cutting a couple of boards and nailing them to the wall. After the shelf was finished, he put his tools away and sat down to rest. He was pretty tired from rearranging all the pictures on the wall to make room for the shelf. Feeling rested, Clem picked up the bugle and put it in its new place. He went back to his chair and sat down. Looking at the bugle, he thought, “That is a big dent, I guess it could alter the sound. Even so, that don’t justify the legend.” Clem couldn’t stand it any longer, he retrieved the bugle, sat back down, and put it to his lips. He blew, and got nothing but a puff of dust. “I guess I should have cleaned it first,” he thought. Clem carried the bugle to the kitchen and filled the sink about half full of warm soapy water. He put the bugle in and sloshed it around a few times. “That ought to do it,” he said. Clem didn’t know how to clean a bugle, but he figured that would get the dust out of it. He then dried it off and got his shotgun cleaning kit from the closet. Tying some bore patches to a piece of wire and pulling them through the bugle should get it clean. After cleaning the bugle, he was ready to try again. Clem took the bugle back to his chair, sat down and propped his feet up. Ready now to try again, he put the bugle to his lips and blew. No sound came from the bugle. Just the hiss of air. “This is not going to be easy,” he thought. He blew several more times, and finally managed to get a noise from it that sounded like something from a horror movie. “It’s going to take a lot of practice just to get a decent sound from this thing. I’ll try it again tomorrow,” thought Clem. He put the bugle in its place on the wall and decided to take a nap. Freda, his wife of thirty-five years, would understand about the bugle, but he wasn’t sure about the pictures being rearranged. If it didn’t please her, he would put everything back the way it was, and find another place for the bugle. Clem was awakened from his nap by the sound of a car pulling up in front of the house. His wife was home. When Freda entered the room, she noticed the bugle and the rearrangement of the pictures. “Hi!” she said. “I see that you’ve found yourself a bugle, but you’re going to have to find another place to put it.” Freda walked over and picked up the bugle. “It’s got a big dent in it!” She exclaimed. “Yeah, I know. But that’s not all. It’s also haunted,” replied Clem. “The old man I bought it from says that it plays itself.” After hearing this, Freda put the bugle down on the little table beside Clem’s chair and stepped back. “What do you mean haunted?” She exclaimed! Clem laughed at her reaction. “ It seems that there is a legend about this bugle. It belonged to a Boy Scout bugler that was killed in an automobile accident. Some say that they still hear this bugle playing “Taps” up at the lake, out by the Boy Scout Camp. The old man didn’t say the Boy Scout Camp, but that was where the boy was going when the accident happened. They say the dent in the bugle clarifies that this is the bugle they hear.” Freda picked the bugle back up and looked at the dent. “I don’t know that much about wind instruments, but a dent this big could alter the sound,” she said. Freda handed Clem the bugle and he put it back on the shelf. “You know how legends start. Somebody says something, then someone adds to it. The first thing you know, it’s blown out of proportion”, said Clem. “Yeah, I know.” Said Freda. “And we’re the owners of a Boy Scout bugle with a legend. Do you think you can learn how to play it?” “I don’t know,” Clem said. “I might with a little help from you. You’re the musician in the family. I”ll piddle with it tomorrow, after I put your pictures back the way they were.” Tomorrow was a long time coming. Several years had passed before Clem seriously tried to play the bugle. He had messed with it a few times, and had gotten a few decent notes out of it, but had never really tried to play any calls. Clem had become disabled by this time, partly from his “tour of duty” with the Marines in Viet Nam, and partly from ailments in general. One day, while being confined inside the house own account of the weather, Clem decided he would learn to play the bugle. He got very serious about it, and practiced almost every day. All he wanted to learn to play was “Taps”. There was a very high note in the call that he was having trouble with. No matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t get it right. Even with the high note being wrong, “Taps” was sounding pretty good. Freda was proud of his accomplishment. And Clem felt that he was going to succeed. He had came a long way since that first terrible note. Both were confident that he would eventually get it right. One Saturday, when Freda was at home, she and Clem were enjoying a leisurely morning. They were making small talk, and every once in a while, he would blow a few notes on the bugle. “Maybe this will help,” Freda said, as she handed him a sheet of paper.

Notes for Taps

(These are the actual notes.)

Clem took the sheet of paper and looked at his wife’s handy work. She had written the call of “Taps” in huge notes shaped like letters in the key of the note. Clem studied the notes. “You know, with this, I just might be able to get it. At least, I can see what I’m supposed to do. If there was anything to that legend, the notes would jump off the paper and go intothis bugle. And it would play itself.” Freda replied, “Don’t you go getting silly on me here in your old age.” Clem hummed the notes to himself, “d-d-g, d-g-b, g-b-deee.” The note was high, alright. He didn’t even know the bugle had a note that high. Clem placed the piece of paper on the table and put the bugle on top of it. “I’ll give myself and you a break. The bugle can rest the rest of the weekend. When you get home from work Monday evening, I’ll play “Taps” for you, including the high note.” Monday morning arrived, and Freda went to work. Throughout the day, she thought about Clem sitting at home practicing on the bugle. She hoped that the music she had written had helped him. “Maybe I will call him,” she thought. “No, I will just let him surprise me.” That evening, when Freda arrived home, she made a startling discovery. Clem was slumped over in his chair. The bugle lay on the floor beside him. “Oh no!” She screamed. She ran to him. He appeared to be dead. Freda rushed to the phone and frantically dialed 9-1-1. After about ten minutes of pacing the floor, she heard the siren of the ambulance. She opened the door, “Over here, I think he’s dead!” The paramedics rushed to him. After examining him, one of them spoke, “We had better call the coroner. It looks like he’s had a massive heart attack.” The coroner arrived a short time later. He examined Clem and spoke to Freda. “I’m sorry Ma’am, but he’s gone.” The paramedics loaded Clem into the ambulance and took him to the funeral home. The coroner spoke to Freda, “Is there anything I can do for you Ma’am?” Through crying eyes Freda replied, “No, I just have to make a few phone calls.” The coroner left and Freda was alone. Really alone. Freda picked the bugle up off the floor. She held it out and looked at it. “I wonder if he blew the high note.” She said aloud. After a while, Freda had regained her composure. She made the necessary phone calls to family and friends. They all expressed their condolences. She then left for the funeral home to make arrangements. Freda called the Veterans Administration the next morning. They would be glad to give Clem a military burial. Complete, with the playing of “Taps.” There was just one problem. No bugler was available, and they were going to have to play a recording. This just would not work. “What can I do, Clem has to have a real bugler,” she thought. Then she remembered the guy from church. He could play “Taps.” Freda gave him a call. He offered his symphony and informed her that he could be available. There was to be no funeral. A graveside service with an Honor Guard was what Clem had wanted. The cemetery where he was to be buried is located out in the country. It is a peaceful place, with a nice wooded area just outside the fence on the north end. Freda scheduled the services to take place on Thursday. It would take place late in the day. Around sunset, at day’s end. The air would be still and the notes of the bugle could softly drift through the trees. Thursday arrived as a cool and calm day. Considering the circumstances, it was going to be a nice day. The day was long for Freda, but finally it was time to go. Upon arriving at the cemetery, she was surprised at the number of people that had come to the services. She saw the bugler standing off by himself. He was dressed in a nice black suit and holding a highly polished bugle by his right side. Freda walked over and hugged him. “I’m so glad you could come,” she said. The service was about to start and Freda took her place beside the flag-draped coffin. When the preacher finished with his nice sermon, the Honor Guard raised their rifles and fired three volleys. They walked over and took the flag from the casket, folded it, and the Marine handed it to Freda. At that moment, the soft and sad notes of “Taps” being played on a bugle went drifting through the still air. Freda had been holding up pretty well until now. She just couldn’t help herself. The long flowing notes of the bugle brought the tears to her eyes. Every note was perfect. Even the high note. Clem would have loved it. When the last note finished drifting through the still, evening air, another bugler started playing “Taps.” The sound was coming up from down by the woods. It was the “Echo.” But who could be playing it! She hadn’t made arrangements for someone to play the “Echo”. Freda raised her head with a start. “That’s Clem’s bugle! I would recognize that sound anywhere,” she thought. “The legend must be true. The Scout is down there by the woods playing “Taps” with Clem’s bugle.” Then she heard it! The eighteenth note, the high one that Clem had so much trouble with, was way off key. Freda thought about the conversation she and her sister had earlier. “My sister was wrong! She said. Clem “is” playing “Taps” at his own burial.”

Floyd H. Smith, Jr.
August 15, 2003

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