At JFK funeral, bugler's broken note spoke for a grieving nation

Many saw it as a fitting symbol, but to the musician, it was simply a mistake

THE WASHINGTON POSTNovember 13, 2013 


Army Sgt. Keith Clark’s widow, Marjorie Clark, 90, holds a photo of her late husband. She remembers their children confronting him after the funeral, and one saying, “Why did you make a mistake?”

CARL D. WALSH — For The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - From the hillside grave site in Arlington National Cemetery, Army Sgt. Keith Clark could see John F. Kennedy's vast funeral cortege crossing Memorial Bridge toward him.

He could see the flag-wrapped coffin, the six white horses pulling the caisson, the endless line of black automobiles bearing the world's dignitaries.

It was Nov. 25, 1963. Clark, 36, the Army bugler assigned to sound taps at the funeral, had been waiting in the cold for hours. A perfectionist and superb musician, he had just played taps for the president on Veterans Day two weeks earlier.

Now he had the most important and solitary task of his life: Sound the 24 notes of the venerable melody that would close the nation's wrenching, four-day farewell to its assassinated president.

But the pressure, the cold and the wait told on Sgt. Clark that day 50 years ago this month. And with the whole nation and much of the world listening, Clark fumbled the sixth note of taps, which falls on the word "sun" in the lyrics, "Day is done. Gone the sun ..."

Some said it sounded almost like a sob, befitting the moment. Back home, in Arlington, Va., though, his wife and four daughters, watching TV in the basement, let out a groan.

Clark went on to finish flawlessly. His flub has gone down in bugling history as the poignant "broken note" of the Kennedy funeral. It was a testament to the anguish of the day, and to the human truth that under duress, even the best can make a mistake.

After the funeral, Clark got letters from all over the country, sympathizing. One was from a 9-year-old Ohio boy named Eddie Hunter, who played in a school band.

"Anybody is bound to make a tiny mistake in front of millions upon millions of people," he wrote.

Clark, who kept that letter, died in 2002 at the age of 74.

On Saturday, family and friends - including Hunter, now 60 - plan to join the U.S. Army Band and 100 buglers to pay tribute to Clark at Arlington Cemetery, where he is buried on a commanding hilltop.

It seems a fitting salute, one of his daughters said, to a dedicated musician who, had he nailed taps that day, might be utterly forgotten.

"The JFK funeral, the actual funeral ceremony ... involved some of the most iconic moments of the entire four-day tragedy," said James Swanson, whose new book, "End of Days," chronicles the assassination.

"One of the most memorable sights and sounds at President Kennedy's funeral was the broken note of the bugle," said Swanson, who is scheduled to speak at the Clark commemoration.

"That was really the climax of that weekend," he said. "Nonstop television for four days ... And after all the words - millions of words by commentators, published in newspapers, published in magazines, the tragedy ends with a single bugle call."

"That broken note sort of symbolized what that weekend meant to the American people," he said. "It's like a human cry. It's like the bugle was weeping. ... It was really the perfect ending to those four days."

But to Clark and his family, it was a mistake.

"My dad had played taps thousands of times, and I mean thousands of times ... and never missed a note," said his eldest daughter, Nancy McColley, 64. He "always strove for perfection."

She said she has a memory of him coming home and flinging his hat in frustration.

Clark, himself, later said: "I missed a note under pressure," according to a 1988 Associated Press story. "It's something you don't like, but it's something that can happen to a trumpet player."

"You never really get over it," he said.

In 1963, Clark was the principal bugler in the Army Band. He played Memorial Day ceremonies, Veterans Day ceremonies. He played at Arlington funerals and at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Despite his accomplishments, Clark didn't receive orders until 2:30 a.m. on the day of the funeral that he would sound taps. Amid the frenzy of making arrangements, organizers didn't realize until the last minute that they had no bugler.

But Clark, a balding man who wore dark horn-rimmed glasses, was ready.

He watched the cortege enter the cemetery, said Jari Villanueva, a retired Air Force bugler and bugle historian. He watched the body bearers lug the mahogany coffin to the grave and heard the gravelly voiced Roman Catholic Cardinal Richard Cushing pray over "our beloved Jack Kennedy."

The deafening rifle volleys were fired, and then it was time for taps.

"For any bugler, when the time comes ... everything stops," Villanueva said. "Everything becomes very quiet. It is just you."

Clark raised the sparkling bugle with gloved hands and began.

Villanueva said Clark often thought at such moments of the Bible verse from 1 Corinthians:

"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye ... the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."

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