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Bugler’s error suited tone of slain president’s funeral

A missed note in taps created iconic memory

Marjorie Clark displayed a photo of her late husband, Army Sergeant Keith Clark, a virtuoso bugle player who missed a note while playing taps at President Kennedy’s funeral.

Carl D. Walsh/Washington Post

Marjorie Clark displayed a photo of her late husband, Army Sergeant Keith Clark, a virtuoso bugle player who missed a note while playing taps at President Kennedy’s funeral.

WASHINGTON — From the hillside gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, Army Sergeant Keith Clark could see President 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. He could hear the cadence of the muffled drums.

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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 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.

‘It’s like a human cry. It’s like the bugle was weeping.’

James Swanson, author of ‘End of Days,’ about the Kennedy assassination 
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Back home, in Arlington, Va., though, his wife and four daughters, watching television 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.

Recently, family and friends — including Hunter, now 60 — joined the US Army Band and 100 buglers to pay tribute to Clark at Arlington National Cemetery, where he is buried on a commanding hilltop.

It was 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.

‘‘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, of Port Charlotte, Fla. He ‘‘always strove for perfection.’’

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

Clark’s wife, Marjorie, 90, remembers the children confronting him, and one saying, ‘‘Why did you make a mistake?’’

Clark himself 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.

After the funeral, Clark recalled, Arlington buglers missed the jinxed note regularly.

In 1963, Clark was the principal bugler in the Army Band.

Clark played Memorial Day ceremonies, Veterans Day ceremonies. He played at Arlington funerals and at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

There, on Nov. 11, 1963, he sounded taps a few feet from Kennedy — 11 days before the Nov. 22 assassination in Dallas.

Clark, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., ‘‘was a prodigy,’’ said Jari Villanueva, a retired Air Force bugler and bugle historian.

Clark’s father was a professional flute player. And Clark attended the University of Michigan and the Interlochen Arts Academy, near Traverse City.

He joined the elite, Fort Myer, Va.-based Army Band, ‘‘Pershing’s Own,’’ in 1946. He met his wife, and they raised four daughters in Arlington County.

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