On a quiet hillside in the small coal region town of Pottsville in eastern Pennsylvania, just two days after America’s 2018 celebration of Memorial Day, three men stood over the grave of a WWII soldier. It was not very long ago that the soldier had been well known around town, but few from his generation remain now to remember him. The three men shared a few moments of light-hearted talk before the ceremony began. Two of them had traveled the long distance by air from Arizona to be there. The other had driven to the gravesite from outside Philadelphia. Their time together, albeit it very brief, would bring to closure the son’s need to pay a more meaningful final tribute to a father, two uncles, and the father of his best boyhood friend. All four of these deceased heroes had served their country during WWII.
The departed soldier at the grave, Edward George Zacko Sr. – born in 1909 and who had passed away in 1993 – had been laid to rest alongside his beloved wife Mary in St. Patrick’s Calvary Cemetery in the section of town appropriately called Hillside. In the mountainous area around Pottsville, the slopes of the Catholic cemetery touch the sky well above the daily bustle of the small town a distance below in the valley of the Schuylkill River. The omnipresent silence in the surrounding Hillside community is reminiscent of a time in America’s past when folks would pass by cemeteries with quiet respect.
But on this peaceful morning of May 30, 2018 the quietude of Hillside was momentarily interrupted by a lone trumpeter sounding Taps over the grave of this long-departed army hero of WWII. It was a highly emotional sounding of Taps, and without a doubt, on a level that had never been heard before in these surrounding hills and woods of Hillside. And then all went silent again, as only it should. The three men soon departed.
Edward George Zacko Jr., my boyhood friend, had contacted me several months earlier and asked if I would do him the honor of standing at his father’s grave while his friend, a fellow musician named Dan Reed, played Taps. It was a strange request to say the least, but how could I say no? Ed and Dan were flying in all the way from Arizona to the Pottsville area, so it had to be of some utmost importance. There was a personal connection here for certain, but as of yet I didn’t quite know exactly what. Ed’s friendship with Dan Reed is relatively new. Ours has endured since childhood. On the drive all the way up to our home town of Pottsville, I thought a lot about our lifelong friendship.
After WWII America’s fathers and uncles returned home to resume their interrupted lives in little towns all over the USA. Pottsville was no different than all the rest. In the late 1940s, babies like Ed and I were being born, and during the 1950s all life in America changed. In Pottsville, the fathers and uncles all had two things in common. They had served their country proudly during the war. And they never talked about it. Growing up in the coal region was all about family. All of us kids had a best friend in the neighborhood. Ed and I were best friends, and we all had our favorite “second” moms and dads in the houses where we played. My favorites were Mr. and Mrs. Zacko.
By life’s circumstances, Ed was one of many in the 1960s and early 1970s who missed serving in the military by a quirk of fate during those tumultuous years of Vietnam. Ed was called up in the draft in 1969 and reported for his induction physical exam, ironically on his first day of graduate school. He passed the physical and was told to wait for his letter instructing him where and when to report. He waited four years for the letter that never came. (Ed was told some fifteen years later that the office in California where his records originated was torched in a Vietnam war protest.) Ed finished grad school and pursued his professional music career. He was genuinely disappointed he never got to serve. But this never once diminished his sense of duty and patriotism and support of all things military. At the same time in 1969, I joined the USAF and went off to war flying combat missions in Southeast Asia. By the end of the Vietnam War era, we were both grown up and gone from Pottsville, taking far different paths through life over the decades to come. Ed is an extremely successful musician, and along with his musician wife, travel to many parts of the world sailing mostly on their sloop, but always engaging in both their musical and videography career. Somehow, Ed and I always managed to stay in touch through the years despite the contrast in our lives.
Ed not only has a successful career as a playing musician, but probably as much as a teacher and a musical arranger. Over his fifty plus year career, Ed has played, arranged, and toured with many famous names in the music industry all of you reading this would certainly recognize. I asked Ed about his trumpeter friend, Dan Reed. “I’ve played all over the world with the best trumpet players in the business. Dan is head and shoulders above them all. I wanted the best for my dad and uncles.” There had to be some deeper connection. As I was about to learn, there was indeed. And it all centered around the playing of Taps. Curious, I started to do a little homework.
Taps as we know it today originated with Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield in 1862 during the Civil War. His arrangement for a single bugler was used to replace a former French army bugle call version of “lights out.” Within months after it was first heard to signal fallen comrades in burial, both Union and Confederate troops embraced the sad and moving melody. The U.S. Army officially recognized the tune in 1874 to conclude a military funeral. It has been played to honor all deceased U.S. military personnel ever since. But what did Taps have in common with Dan Reed? A whole lot, as I soon came to discover.
Dan Reed is a trumpeter extraordinaire. There are few other words I can use to describe his remarkable musical talent. Few of you have ever heard of him. I certainly hadn’t. Dan has been playing music his entire life and currently plays along with Ed in the popular Phoenix-area group “The Arizona Swing Kings,” where Ed and Dan first met. I asked Ed to tell me more about him. Ed’s reply was not quite what I expected. “You have to understand that Dan is unique,” Ed started. “Anyone can play Taps and do it well. But when others do it day after day, it becomes ‘just another one’. The difference is that when Dan plays it, he puts a hundred per cent of himself into every single note, and he plays a lot of notes. Nothing is ever thrown away mindlessly, even after catching an early flight east across the country, driving three hours, then nailing it at the gravesite! With Dan, it is never ‘just another one’. He and his playing are constant motion. Playing with him is like going to a bull fight. Never for an instant take your eyes off the bull, because if you do, you will miss something extraordinary. Every time I play with Dan I know if I take my eyes off him for an instant, I may miss something and the band will pay for it.” Personally, I know nothing about music. I am merely a listener and appreciator, and I enjoy music immensely. If I hadn’t heard Dan Reed play Taps I wouldn’t have understood what Ed meant. But Ed was right. Dan’s version of Taps was one where every single note was filled with refined emotion, and I had never heard that before.
Dan Reed’s musical resume is impressive. For twenty years he was Musical Director for Princess Cruise Lines, specifically on the cruise liner Pacific Princess, which was the primary ship used for the well-known popular TV series, The Love Boat. You may even have seen him in the background in a few episodes. As Ed, Dan, and all musicians will attest, they must follow the sun. You go where there is work. As I further came to find out, Dan Reed the trumpeter had arrived at his newest musical domicile in Arizona following an interesting part time job that had lasted for three years in St. Louis, Missouri. To me, it was the most interesting page on his resume.
Dan Reed is a native of St. Louis. Back in March of 2005 when Dan was still living and playing in the St. Louis area, Dan performed his own unique version of Taps at his uncle’s military burial at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. The commander of the barracks at that time heard Dan playing it. He did not forget and took Dan’s name. Two years later, Dan again played Taps at the military burial of a cousin in the same national cemetery. The commander at that time, a Major Smith, who also heard Dan playing Taps, approached him immediately after the ceremony. Dan was handed an application, then asked if he would like to work for the National Cemetery Administration on a part time basis. Dan filled out the application, submitted it, and was hired immediately. For the next three years, Dan Reed played his distinctive version of Taps over hundreds of military burials all over the state of Missouri.
It begs the question… why was Taps only being played by live musicians at the national cemeteries in the State of Missouri? During that era, then-Missouri Republican Governor Matt Blunt had declared that all Missouri veterans being buried in the state would have Taps played at their graveside burial by a live trumpeter, NOT by electronic recordings. Dan was assigned to the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, but played primarily “off campus” around the state for those not being buried in a national cemetery. Dan played at hundreds of burial ceremonies until he relocated to Arizona in 2011.
But how is it that he can make this simple tune, which has been around since the Civil War, so exceptional? Not being a musical person myself, I asked Dan that very question. His response was very straightforward. “I play it a little slower in vibrato.” As I came to understand, “vibrato” is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch. It adds expression to vocal or instrumental music. It is expressed in two ways, one by the amount of pitch, the other by the speed in which the pitch is varied. That was Dan’s technique. Purely his and his alone. I remembered how slow and how perfectly the notes flowed when he played that day over the grave of Ed’s dad. It was Taps played in its purest form.
I still had one more unanswered question that really should not have been mine to ask. But I asked my friend Ed anyway… why this? What was it that compelled him to make this far-reaching journey, not to mention such an expensive arrangement for something that lasted but a few moments? Ed explained to me that it was a deep personal need to bring closure to something that had been bothering him ever since his father’s and both uncles’ passing. Taps was played at all their burials, but was nothing more than cursory soundings, “just another one” as they say in the music business. Ed always felt his father and both uncles deserved much better than that, and it preyed on Ed’s mind for years. While working with Dan and hearing Dan’s version of Taps the very first time, something clicked and the path to closure was charted. Ed finally made the arrangement and made the journey. It was heartfelt to learn that his thoughts not only included me, but also Ed’s fond remembrance of my father and mother, both buried at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where Taps was played for my father. Ed and Dan both made the long journey from Arizona. I was deeply honored to have been asked to join them at the gravesite of Mr. Zacko, my boyhood second dad.
I drove early that morning from my home to meet Ed and Dan at St. Patrick’s Calvary Cemetery on Hillside. When I left, the weather was overcast, and I encountered a few showers enroute. I initially thought what a shame that it wasn’t going to be a nicer day for Ed. But miracles always seem to happen at the most needed times. When I arrived at the cemetery around ten o’clock, the sky had already turned blue accented by white, puffy clouds. That area of Pennsylvania remains as un-polluted as any in the state, and the view from the top of the hill in St. Patrick’s cemetery is a pure panorama. I was introduced to Dan, and the three of us chatted for a while. Ed and I reminisced about some of our childhood days growing up in the 50s and 60s, as we hadn’t seen each other for some time. Ed and Dan had both just come from one of the other three St. Patrick’s cemeteries in another part of town where Ed’s Uncle Bob was buried, and where Dan had already played Taps an hour earlier. Uncle Salem Robert Zacko was an army medic at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned home very damaged from the experience following the war. (Nobody had yet understood the impact of PTSD in those days.) It was now time for dad and uncle Phillip Zacko, who is also buried in Calvary in a nearby family plot. Uncle Phil was another of Pottsville’s well-known residents who was a professional wrestling promoter in the 1950s, and who was later in partnership with the founder of what ultimately was to become World Wrestling Entertainment.
This particular day, May 30, was chosen by Ed primarily because it was Edward Sr.’s birthday, but it was also the 75th anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands where my own father had made his contribution to America’s freedom. Dan commenced with his playing of Taps over Edward Sr.’s grave as Ed and I stood silent, hands over our hearts, and perhaps a tear that we tried to keep hidden in our eyes. It was just the three of us alone there on the cemetery hill. My thoughts momentarily drifted to my own father’s passing back in 2011. Although I had already published a military history book as a tribute to my father’s harrowing WWII experience at Attu, it paled in comparison. Ed’s arrangement with Dan was the most fitting tribute to a father – and all those fathers and uncles who served in WWII – that I could ever imagine.
I returned home later that day, and on the drive back I thought to myself that this was a story that should be told. Our Baby Boomer generation is forever indebted to our parents for what they sacrificed for us to have the lives we have today. The generations behind us need to be reminded constantly of the extent of those sacrifices, and it continues incumbent upon us to find ways to help them understand. Perhaps this simple story might help.
For a brief moment in time on May 30th of 2018 – a moment that no one else may ever remember – a loving son, a loyal friend, and a magical trumpeter stood over the forgotten grave of a WWII father hero, thanking him and all the others for what they did for us. For me, it was a most moving experience. In the eyes of some, perhaps a most perfect arrangement for Taps.