SERVING OUR VETERANS: Rugby’s ‘Mr. Taps’
As most Americans are aware, “Taps” is a bugle call played at dusk, during flag ceremonies, and at military funerals by the United States armed forces. The official military version is played by a single bugle or trumpet. The tune in its present form was arranged by Union Army Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, an American Civil War general and Medal of Honor recipient, in July 1862. Captain John Francis Tidball, West Point Class of 1848, started the custom of playing Taps at military funerals. In early July 1862, at Harrison’s Landing, a corporal of Tidball’s Battery A, and U.S. Artillery, died. He was, Tidball recalled later, “a most excellent man.” Tidball wished to bury him with full military honors, but was refused permission to fire 7 rifles three times (21 shot salute) over the grave. Tidball later wrote, “The thought suggested itself to me to sound taps instead, which I did.” The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.
The melody of Taps consists of only four notes and takes less than a minute to play. Yet, I would guess there is no other melody that has stirred our emotions to tears as often as this one. Yet, its hauntingly beautiful but solemn and sorrowful tune also provides great comfort to the families saying their final goodbyes to their loved one.
There is probably nobody in Rugby more familiar with the playing of Taps than Mr. Tilman Hovland. I recently had the privilege of visiting with Tilman. This past Memorial Day service was the 277th time he has done this. Early on he did not keep records of this. So, the number 277 is partly based on memory. After listening to his Tap playing history, I personally feel the number is probably higher.
Playing Taps for more than 70 years at military funerals, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day services is a proud accomplishment. As a farm boy growing up Lignite, North Dakota, Tilman first started playing Taps in 1946 while still in school. He recalls making the circuit by playing Taps as part of military honors provided at seven small church cemeteries in the local area. After graduating from Lignite in 1951, he quickly got his teaching certificate from Minot State and began teaching in a small one-room country school in the Columbus School District.
In January 1953 he received his draft notice into the US Army but enlistment was postponed until July 1953 so he could finish out teaching that school year. Tilman then was sent to Fort Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for basic training. Upon being chosen to the Ordinance branch of the Army, he was then assigned to a “rocketry” unit (which later became NASA) and sent to Redstone Arsenal at Huntsville, Alabama for seven months of extensive training. From there he was assigned to White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico where he assisted in designing, developing and assembling new test missiles.
Tilman was honorably discharged from the military in July 1955. He went back to Minot State and completed his music degree. He then started teaching in Towner in the fall of 1958. Four years later he relocated to Rugby and continued to teach there until he retired in 1993. During this entire time period he never took a break from playing taps. He stated to me the worst weather to play in is extreme cold. He recalled once when playing in high school, it was so cold his lips froze to his brass mouth piece. He solved this problem by purchasing a plastic one. The coldest condition he remembers was playing at a military funeral in Barton when it was negative 31 degrees with a 30 mph north wind. He didn’t think he would ever stop shivering after that one.
I asked Tilman why he is so committed to playing taps all these years. He said it is because “the veteran earned this and personally deserve at least this much.” I think it goes deeper with Tilman than just this. Respect for the sacrifices made by veterans is personal to him and has long been a part of his memory. It is about family. Four of his uncles on his mother’s side all served in the military at the same time during WWII. I find this to be an amazing fact, that one small farm family from Lignite, North Dakota would find themselves in this situation. These four uncles, Norris, Arthur, Orville, and Ernest Monson all enlisted, which again speaks highly of their patriotism and love of country. Sadly, Ernest was killed in action in France in 1943. When I asked Tilman if he was upset about being drafted during the Korean War, he said he wasn’t, but it really bothered his mother; understandingly so.
Tilman expressed to me to his desire to continue to play Taps as long as he is able. With all the accolades, awards, and recognition Tilman has received throughout his music career, I think his contribution of playing Taps has somewhat gone under the radar. Tilman has been a longtime member of Rugby American Legion Post #23 and a member of our Color/Honor Guard. As a fellow Post 23 member, I know I speak for all of our members who feel privileged to have Tilman provide his musical talent to our programs and funerals. It is our hope too that Tilman can continue playing taps ln the years ahead. We thank you, Tilman, for doing this these many years and we thank you for your service to our country. Hopefully, others in the public arena will take the opportunity to thank you as well.
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