First Person: Taps in the Distance

In our neighborhood, it’s easy to forget how close we live to a military base. But sometimes on a quiet night, there’s a reminder.

By: Jack Curry

I’m sitting with my partner, Chris, on the front porch of our house near Clarendon late in the evening. It’s the nicest house I’ve lived in, in the nicest neighborhood. It’s close to 11, and people are walking to and from the nightspots on Wilson Boulevard. Through the quiet of our street, I hear a plaintive melody in the distance.

“What’s that?” I say.

Chris cocks his head to hear better. “It’s taps,” he says.

We recently moved to Lyon Village, an Arlington community so close to the District that it boasts “urban village” amenities. That location also puts us about a mile from Fort Myer, home of thousands of US military personnel.

I know little about living conditions at Fort Myer—its Web site says there are three swimming pools—but I know that being an American soldier still means service and hard work and sacrifice.

Taps, the bugle call played at lights out on every US base in the world, means rest for the men and women who have elected that hard life. On a still night, you can hear it around Clarendon.

It’s a cozy life here. Starbucks, Crate & Barrel, the Cheesecake Factory, Whitlow’s. Double-wide strollers, well-kept lawns, Honda Accords. Children and more on the way. Rarely does the rigor of Fort Myer intrude on Danville Street. Once, a runner in Army gym shorts asked for directions. When I drive home from work, I pass the Iwo Jima memorial. When I come back from National Airport, I pass Arlington Cemetery.

You sort of have to listen for taps; the bugle call is intended to lull. It’s familiar enough that even civilian ears can follow it to its muted conclusion.

The music I hear is actually a recording, one of four bugle calls that, by tradition, are played daily. Arlington residents have been hearing bugles since 1861, when Fort Cass, a Civil War defense installment, was established. A recent sound check—prompted by a disgruntled Arlingtonian—measured Fort Myer’s current taps at 69.1 decibels. Reveille exceeds it at 74.2. Both, a base spokesman says, are well below the county’s 90-decibel maximum for recurring noise.

On a Saturday afternoon, Chris and I are preparing the garden for new boxwoods. We’re proud of our front yard. We spend many weekends breaking up the clay and planting something hardy.

I hear in the distance three dull thuds. Soon I hear it again. And again.

“What’s that?” I ask.

Chris lifts his head from the garden and says, “It’s a 21-gun salute.”

We’re close enough to Arlington Cemetery to hear the burial rituals, which can number up to 25 a day.

As we plant our boxwood, we take a moment to think about that soldier, unknown to us, who is being honored.

The official policy of the armed forces doesn’t hold people like me and Chris in very high regard. Yet their men and women defend our right to live in Clarendon or anywhere else. They fight for the freedom and privileges everyone in my neighborhood enjoys.

The war, its execution, its politics—there are thousands of ways to spin an argument for or against it. But when you hear taps on a quiet night or a funeral volley over the laughter of the kids next door, there are no politics, just respect.