Albert J. "Buddy" Madden stands erect and proud as he plays the 24 haunting notes of taps. His somber riff captures all the consolation of ritual and the lingering emotion of loss.
See also: 6 great ways to honor fallen soldiers.
At 92, Madden has played that solemn tune at more than 3,500 memorials, funerals and ceremonies. He has played it every Veterans Day since he was 6, missing only one because of injuries he suffered in a serious car accident in 1949.
Madden, of Hyannis, Mass., still gets emotional each time he plays. "It's a very moving call," he says. "I'm saying goodbye to heroes. I'm saying goodbye to my fellow soldiers." And, he quickly adds, "I'm also honoring their survivors. They deserve the same respect."
That honor extends to Madden's family. His father died in 1982 after a long illness. Madden tearfully remembers that day: "It was his dying request that I play taps at his funeral." When Rose, his wife of 71 years and mother of his four children, died in 2009 he went to her grave the day after her burial and played taps. Every Friday since, he visits the cemetery and leaves four fresh roses. "Even if it's dark," he says, "I know how many steps it is from the road to her grave."
Steve Heaslip/Cape Cod Times
Learned to play by ear
Madden picked up the nickname Buddy from his younger sister, Irene, when he was 4 and she was 2. She was unable to pronounce "brother" and would call Madden her "buddy." The appropriate moniker stuck. "Most people don't even know my first name," he laughs.
When Madden was 4, he was introduced to brass instruments by a neighbor, a retired minstrel, who babysat Madden and his sister. Later, that neighbor gave him a cornet. It was love at first note. He played by ear. "If I could hear it three times, I could play it," says Madden. He spent hours accompanying the music on the radio. He was so good that the firefighters at the station house next door would send over their requests. Jazz, dance and big band, he played it all.
When Madden was 13, he bought a brand new trumpet for the incredible price at that time of $85. He paid it off 25 cents a week. Later, he dropped out of high school and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps where he became the camp bugler. "I was on my way," he says.
Shortly after the start of World War II, Madden formed a dance band called the Midnighters. As the draft ramped up, the band dwindled down. When they shrank to a quartet, Madden decided it was time to enlist. So he joined the Navy in 1944. After four years there Madden transferred to the Army, "so I could be near my family," he explains.
Have bugle, will travel
During Madden's 27-year military career (he retired in 1971), he played in or led more than 19 Army bands. He performed at hospitals and bases all over the United States and abroad. And, he was part of a marching band that never marched. Instead the musicians paraded in jeeps three to a vehicle — an unusual addition to many military dedications, memorials and celebrations.
Throughout his military career Madden played taps at hundreds of war casualties' and veterans' burials. He remembers one day in August 1948, when he played at 13 interments in Burlington, Mass. Then he rushed to play at another one in Camden, N.J.
But the highlight of Madden's career happened in September 2010. He was invited to play during a memorial honoring the 3rd Infantry at Arlington National Cemetery. It was the first time he'd played there. "The crowning glory of my career," he says, proudly adding, "I was the oldest bugle player playing on the oldest bugle."
Madden, a member of numerous service clubs, loves to crochet, and is known to spontaneously break into Brazilian dance with his wife, Concala, whom he married in April 2010. "We have a wonderful time," he says.
Madden vows that he will play taps "as long as I can breathe." Because there are fewer and fewer volunteers to play at ceremonies, he occasionally wonders who will play those soulful 24 notes for him when he passes on. Not to worry, he says. "I plan to live to 125."
Karen Westerberg Reyes is a writer in Austin, Texas.