The Broken Note

Nearly all Americans older than 45 can tell you where they were, how they felt and what they did on hearing the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

Sergeant Keith Clark, principal bugler of the U.S. Army Band, was going through his collection of rare books when he heard the report on the radio. He immediately went to the nearest barber for a haircut, thinking he might be asked to sound taps should the president be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Clark had played for hundreds of funerals and ceremonies at Arlington and had performed for Kennedy several times, including sounding taps at the Tomb of the Unknowns just a couple of weeks earlier during Armistice Day (Veterans Day) ceremonies.

Never did that eloquent melody, created 100 years earlier during the Civil War, have a larger audience than on November 25, 1963, when world leaders and dignitaries gathered at Arlington to mourn the president. Millions worldwide watched the proceedings on television.

That November day was unusually chilly, and Clark was in place hours before the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery. From his position on the hill in front of Custis-Lee Mansion, he had the perfect location from which to watch the funeral cortege as it approached the cemetery.

Kennedy's casket was borne to the grave as 50 jet fighters flew in formation overhead, followed by Air Force One. A corps of military cadets from Ireland executed a silent drill, and then Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing began the commitment rites.

Cushing led the mourners in the Lord's Prayer, then stepped back as military honors began. The command “Present Arms” was followed by the firing of three volleys, traditional at every serviceman's funeral. Clark raised his bugle to sound taps. It was the final movement of the musical honors accorded all military funerals.

“Day is done, ” Clark started the bugle call as he had done so many times.

He thought, he says, of the words of I Corinthians 15: 51-52, “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

The notes resounded over all assembled, though in Clark's mind the call was sounded only for the president's widow, Jacqueline.

“Gone the sun . . . ” On the sixth word (“sun”), Clark cracked the note. It was, as recalled by author William Manchester, “like a catch in your voice or a swiftly stifled sob.”

The broken note was considered the only conspicuous slip in the otherwise ornate and grandiose ceremony. Some thought it was deliberate. It was not. The cold temperature was not conducive to musical perfection.

“From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”

Clark finished the rest of the call perfectly. He saluted his commander in chief as the casket bearers folded the flag, which then was presented to the widow.

“I missed a note under pressure. It's something you don't like, but it's something that can happen to a trumpet player. You never really get over it,” Clark told the Associated Press in 1988 on the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's death.

In a later letter to me, Clark said, “I feel the thought behind the playing and feeling used in the performance are the most important parts of each sounding of ‘Taps.' ”

In the weeks after the state funeral, the broken note took on a life of its own as it was missed by other buglers at Arlington.

“We all thought that it must be psychological,” Clark recalled. Like the crack in the Liberty Bell, that broken note has become part of our history.

After retiring from the Army in 1966, Clark went on to a successful career of teaching, performing and writing. The bugle on which he performed was used for the funerals of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower before it was lent by the Army to the Smithsonian Institution in April 1973.

The bugle was moved to Arlington in the spring of 1999, where it now is on display in the visitor center. Keith Clark passed away on Jan. 10, 2002, at the age of 74 and is buried in Arlington.

— Jari Villanueva

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