Mark Hayward's City Matters: 'Taps' is soundtrack of summer ceremony
The world’s speedometer slows down in cemeteries.
Steps are slow and measured. Motormouths and loudmouths drop their volume a few notches. What seems like a half hour turns out to be only 10 minutes once a mourner hits the road and resumes his daily routine, leaving the world of eternity for one where minutes fly past like a fastball.
So it’s not surprising a brief ceremony at Mount Calvary Cemetery to honor the war dead crams so much dignity and pride into four minutes every evening at 7 p.m.
Snapped to attention, two uniformed men face one another and turn toward a small crowd of graying veterans and their spouses. One salutes, the other lifts a bugle. Taps wafts across the monument-lined terrain. The second soldier then retreats behind the Calvary monument and produces a softer echo of the original tune.
Every summer night for the last five years, the ceremony has taken place at the West Side cemetery, the burial spot for more than 2,000 veterans. Two student-cadets enrolled in the West High School Navy Junior ROTC program perform the ceremony.
It is sponsored by Catholic War Veterans, which purchased the bugle and gets a few members to show up regularly. Some nights, the ceremony draws two onlookers. Others nights, there can be more than two dozen on hand.
Sean Liles, a Junior ROTC lieutenant who will be a senior at West in September, signed up for two weeks this summer.
“I got my grandfather in the mausoleum; he was in World War II. Being around all these vets makes me proud,” he said.
“It’s for the ROTC,” said Don Labrie, a Korean War veteran who explains why he comes. “They’re going to fight for our country some day. We’ve got to support them.”
The gatherings have been going on at Mount Calvary since 2009.
“I just felt strongly this was the right thing to do,” said Noel Taylor, a Vietnam veteran and former Manchester resident who started the event, called 100 Nights of Remembrance. It resembles a similar ceremony he launched in 2007 at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen.
One Hundred Nights of Remembrance begins on Memorial Day and ends Sept. 11. Participants say it goes on despite the weather, although a thunderstorm will confine all but the hardiest to their vehicles.
Veterans come dressed in summer wear. Most wear a cap that denotes their service. They banter among themselves or with the two West High ROTC students, who fill weeklong duty shifts during the summer.
As the hour approaches, the veterans and their wives line up. The youths walk to the base of the Calvary monument and begin the ceremony.
The veterans hold a salute, while wives place a hand over their heart.
The event is solemn in its simplicity. There are no speeches or cheers. No rifles or color guards. No marching rhythms barked out by a sergeant.
And the world continues on. Noise from the traffic on Goffstown Back Road filters in. A slight breeze bumps into a tree laden with soggy leaves, which drop rainwater on us. The saturated air muffles what could be a bright bugle call.
If there is one disappointment, it is the bugle. Most nights, the music emanates from a small digital device placed in the bell of the instrument.
Taylor said it’s a compromise he had to make. “A ceremonial horn or boom box is not correct at a military funeral. It drives me crazy,” said Taylor, a former member of the Manchester Muchachos, a drum and bugle corps.
But there aren’t enough buglers available, he said, and the bugle recording gives the ROTC program the chance to distribute the duty to all its cadets. (A few are actually buglers, and they play the bugle on the weeks they’re signed up.)
Whether recorded music or the real thing, the Manchester event has forged bonds: Veterans from different wars, wives from different sides of town, and members of different generations.
They share their respect for those who fell in battle. And they develop friendships. For example, the Korean War veteran Labrie drove the Junior ROTC cadet Liles to and from the cemetery on Tuesday night.
Old soldier and future soldier, the country’s salvation and its hope, honoring one another on a soggy summer evening.
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org