“Day is done. Gone the sun. From the hills, from the lake, from the sky. All is well, safely rest; God is nigh.” These are the words to the languid, melancholy tune we now know as “Taps.” Most commonly played on a bugle, it was introduced into the military manual by General Daniel Butterfield during the Civil War and was officially known as “Extinguish Lights,” the gentle call that ended the day and told the troops it was time to sleep. Years later, the melody became known as “Taps” because the original call ended with three taps on a snare drum. Those beats are now gone but their resonance live on. There are only twenty-four notes in the haunting bugle call; these days, all too sadly, we hear them played most often at military funerals as they float over the graves of the fallen, one last call before eternal sleep.
Our days are incredibly busy. We lurch from task to task, chore to chore, moment to moment. It’s hard to find any peaceful respite from all the hurly-burly surrounding us. That’s nothing new. More than two centuries ago, William Wordsworth penned the sad truth of this, writing of a world revolutionized by industry, one that “is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers… for this, for everything, we are out of tune.” Maybe Taps is the antidote to this addled state of mind: a calming, reflective, lyrical routine at day’s end to ease our tired brains and lull us to sleep.
I first heard Taps when I was a boy—a summer Indian—at Camp Iroquois, out in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania, not far from Lake Pymatuning. Every evening at nightfall, campers and counselors would gather around the flagpole and wait for the familiar first three notes of Taps to come over the loudspeaker, the signal to lower the camp’s flag. Day was done. Before Taps was played, there was still something running through our veins, some residue of energy that needed to be dispelled into the universe. But as soon as the last three notes sounded—God is nigh—all the air went out of the balloon and the camp quieted in an instant. The sound and fury of a hundred little boys just seemed to dissipate into the cool night air and we headed off to our cabins, tired, happy, and ready for bed. I imagine the banged-up Grumman canoes that lined the waterfront, the half-finished lanyards in the arts and crafts cabin, the tired canvas bases out on the softball field, even the scratched tables and chairs in the dining hall all breathed a sigh of relief, not to mention the weary counselors and staff who had shepherded us throughout the day.
That was a long time ago. But like so much lately, those scenes and sounds came back to me on a flood tide of memory while I was walking across the Eastport Bridge in Annapolis a few weeks ago. I was looking out on a peaceful evening scene: a sky aglow with color, the spire of St. Mary’s piercing the clouds, the reflection of the day’s fading glory rippling across the surface of Spa Creek. I thought I heard someone playing Taps but it was very faint, probably just a passing breeze. For an instant—just an intake of breath, really—I had the impression that maybe we really will find our way through this morass and everything will be alright again, the way it was back at Camp Iroquois when those last three notes sounded.
For that one fleeting moment, God was truly nigh.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com