Prewitt was the best bugler in regiment. He played Taps once in Arlington. But he quit the Bugle Corps to pull straight duty on principle. He had his pride. The year was 1941. One night long after he was in G Company, when Andy felt more like playing the guitar than Taps, he let Prewitt play. It went like this, in James Jones' From Here to Eternity:
Montgomery Clift as Robert E. Lee Prewitt
Prew took his quartz mouthpiece from his pocket and inserted it. He stood before the big tin megaphone, fiddling nervously, testing his lips. He blew two soft tentative tones, wiped the mouthpiece out angrily and rubbed his lips nervously.
“My lip’s off,” he said nervously. “I aint touched a horn in months. I wont be able to play them for nothing. Lip’s soft as hell.”
He stood there in the moonlight, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, fiddling with the bugle, shaking it angrily, testing it against his lips.
“Christ,” he said. “I cant play them like they ought to be played. Taps is special.”
“Oh go ahead, for God sake,” Andy said. “You know you can play them.”
“All right,” he said angrily. “All right. I dint say I wasnt gonna play them, did I? You never get nervous, do you?”
“Never,” Andy said.
“Then you aint got no goddam sensitivity,” Prew said angrily. “Nor sympathy, nor understanding.”
“Not for you,” Andy said.
“Well for Christ’s sake, shut up then,” he said nervously.
He looked at his watch and as the second hand touched the top he stepped up and raised the bugle to the megaphone, and the nervousness dropped from him like a discarded blouse, and he was suddenly alone, gone away from the rest of them.
The first note was absolutely certain. There was no question or stumbling in this bugle. It swept across the quadrangle positively, held just a fraction longer than most buglers hold it. Held long like the length of time, stretching away from weary day to weary day, Held long like thirty years. The second note was short, almost too short, abrupt. Cut short and too soon gone, like the minutes with a whore. Short like a ten minute break is short. And then the last note of the first phrase rose triumphantly from the slightly broken rhythm, triumphantly high on an untouchable level of pride above the humiliations, the degradations.
He played it all that way, with a paused then hurried rhythm that no metronome could follow. There was no placid regimented tempo to this Taps. The notes rose high in the air and hung above the quadrangle. They vibrated there, caressingly, filled with an infinite sadness, an endless patience, a pointless pride, the requiem and epitaph of the common soldier, a woman once had told him. They hovered like halos over the heads of the sleeping men in the darkened barracks, turning all grossness to the beauty that is the beauty of sympathy and understanding. Here we are, they said, you made us, now see us, don’t close your eyes and shudder at it; this beauty, and this sorrow of things as they are. This is the true song, the song of the ruck, not of battle heroes; the song of the Stockade prisoners itchily stinking sweating under coats of grey rock dust; the song of the mucky KPs, of the men without women who collect the bloody menstrual rags of the officers’ wives, who come to scour the Officers’ Club – after the parties are over. This is the song of the scum, the Aqua-Velva drinkers, the shameless ones who greedily drain the half filled glasses, some of them lipsticksmeared, that the party-ers can afford to leave unfinished.
This is the song of the men who have no place, played by a man who has never had a place, and can therefore play it. Listen to it. You know this song, remember? This is the song you close your ears to every night, so you can sleep. This is the song you drink five martinis every evening not to hear. This is the song of the Great Loneliness, that creeps in like the desert wind and dehydrates the soul. This is the song you’ll listen to on the day you die. When you lay there in the bed and sweat it out, and know that all the doctors and the nurses and weeping friends dont mean a thing and cant help you any, cant save you one small bitter taste of it, because you are the one that’s dying and not them; when you wait for it to come and know that sleep will not evade it and martinis will not put it off and conversation will not circumvent it and hobbies will not help you escape from it; the you will hear this song and, remembering, recognize it. This song is Reality. Remember? Surely you remember?
“Day is done . . .
Gone the sun . . .
Rest in peace
Sol jer brave
God is nigh . . .”
With thanks to our troops on this, the 68th anniversary of the end of World War II, my father's war.
--- SPOILER ALERT ---
READ NO FURTHER IF YOU ARE GOING TO READ THE BOOK
(or watch the movie, I guess)
600 some pages later, Pearl Harbor, Ford Island, Wheeler Field, Hickam Field and Barber's Point had been attacked. Prewitt, having gone over the hill, saw his chance to return to his unit without doing more time in the Stockade.
He left under cover of darkness. Eventually he crossed the golf course, and was spotted by the MPs. Taps had already been played that night. But as he laid face up in the bottom of a sandtrap, his chest all tore up from the Thompson gun, I wonder, if somehow, he still heard it.
OK that's not quite the end. Guess you'll have to read it after all.