Two brothers, two instruments, two secrets revealed … Taps

Melvin and Clifford Talbot. Submitted photo.


Twenty-four notes. That is all that it takes to play it.
Those notes, however, can produce strong emotions in even the most stoic person. Many of our nation’s strongest warriors cannot make it through those 24 notes without shedding a tear. Most of those strong warriors will someday lay in repose as they are played over them.
This is the story about two instruments and two men, men who never served in the military but who had such great respect for service members and Taps that it caused them to take a family secret to their own graves. It will also tell how those instruments will be returned to the hallowed grounds in Merrill to sound at least one more rendition of those 24 notes.
The origin of the song known as Taps goes back to the Civil War. Brigadier General Daniel Adams Butterfield was not impressed by the buglers’ late-night sounds which told his soldiers it was time to turn in. He and bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton wrote Taps to honor the brave men who had just fought what was known as the Seven-Days Battle. When the bugler finished playing those new notes that night in July of 1862, the whole camp knew the day was done. Those sounds soon spread to other camps. and by the end of the war, even the Confederates were playing Taps to signal the end of day. (It should be noted that later research claims Butterfield just re-wrote an earlier bugle call.)
It is believed the first sounding of Taps at a funeral was during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War in 1862. A young cannoneer was killed, and fearful the traditional three volleys of fire over the grave would bring more fire from the enemy, Capt. John C. Tidball ordered instead that Taps be played.
Melvin F. Talbot was born in Merrill in 1903. Talbot was born to a devote Catholic family and lived in close proximity to the church, the Catholic School, and the Merrill High School, where he stood out in his class. At the age of 14, Melvin began playing the trumpet and later became a member of the Merrill High School orchestra and also began playing engagements with local dance bands. Melvin joined the Merrill City Band in 1918 and was a member for nearly 40 years, directing the band for almost 10 of those years and most of the time also directing the Wausau City Band. As president of the City Band, he was instrumental in establishing the Merrill High School Band and spearheaded the drive for new uniforms; this drive included the United States Marine Corps Band coming to Merrill for a concert.
The war, which would soon be known as the war to end all wars, was raging across the globe when the United States became involved in 1917. Like every town and city in America, men of the community went off to do their service for their country, and many did not return. In 1918, when the first native son came home to be buried after losing his life in battle, Melvin was called upon to come to the cemetery and play Taps at the young man’s burial. Many a solider was laid to rest with Melvin playing for their final call, with eventually Melvin’s younger brother Clifford joining in the effort. The two would play separately, or if they were both available, they would play together, with one of the two being off in the distance repeating the notes from afar.
When World War II broke out, our young men went off to fight again, and then the same with the Korean War. Each time the first local casualty was brought home from those wars, Melvin and his bugle were asked to sound Taps.
Clifford Talbot went off to college at UW-Stevens Point. While a student there, he contracted what we would consider a minor health condition, but in the 1930’s, it proved fatal. Clifford was brought back to Merrill in November of 1937 and buried in the Talbot family plot at St. Francis Cemetery. When he was buried, no one played Taps. As Clifford, much like his brother Melvin, had never served in the armed forces, that honor would not normally be afforded to the young man.
The evening Clifford was laid to rest, his brother Melvin excused himself and went down with his wife Marie to the cemetery, and over the fresh grave, Melvin played Taps for his younger brother. As they turned to walk from the grave, Melvin remarked, “There will be no one to play Taps at my funeral someday.” With Melvin’s great respect for the military, he swore his wife to secrecy that the ceremony was performed, as Melvin did not want to upset any members of the military by providing that honor.
Melvin became a well-respected businessman in the Merrill community. He had started working at the former Lincoln County Bank in 1921 where eventually he obtained the position of cashier and then executive vice president in 1953. He attended the University of Wisconsin banking school and had graduated as president of his class just a few years earlier. He went on to serve on numerous boards, commissions, and in local clubs.
In January of 1963, Melvin Talbot suffered a heart attack on a Friday evening. He was brought to Holy Cross Hospital where he died that Sunday night at the age of 59. After a funeral mass that Wednesday morning, Melvin was buried at St. Francis without Taps being played.
Or was it?
Monica Talbot, sister to Melvin, confessed later on in life that she tried to pay someone $20 ($200 today) to play Taps that day; however, the temperature was -25 and the musician told Monica his lips would freeze to the mouthpiece.
Many years later in life, Mike Talbot, who contributed most of the details to this story, was speaking with his grandmother Marie about her husband, his grandfather Melvin. Mike said it was a tragedy, that with all of the ceremonies Melvin performed, he never was able to get Taps played at his own funeral. It was then that Marie told her grandson the family secret regarding Clifford’s death. Mike then shared the story of Clifford receiving Taps, and how his grandfather Melvin had never received the honor, with his mother Mary. Mary told Mike that Marie’s story was totally true, and then she told him the story she had been sworn to secrecy about from 26 years earlier. Mary told Mike that his father, Jim Talbot, came home on February 16, 1963, Melvin’s 60th birthday. He told his wife, “There is something I must do,” and off he went to the cemetery. As he stood over the frozen ground that held his father’s remains, Jim played Taps with Melvin’s bugle.
At the time, Jim had no idea that his father Melvin had performed the same solemn ceremony for his brother Clifford years earlier.
Over the years, the solemn Taps ceremony has been repeated probably a thousand times in Merrill. Thankfully, for the most part, it was as we buried a member of the military who came home safely after their service. I doubt few are left who ever heard a Talbot sound Taps, as it has been more than 60 years since that bugle or trumpet has sounded a note.
This Memorial Day, Mike Talbot and his family will be present near the Veterans Memorial in St. Francis Cemetery. The military and members of the public will gather, as they always do, to pay respect to those who gave their lives for this great nation. When the time comes, Taps will sound over the grounds. And for the first time in nearly 90 years, those 24 notes will come from Melvin’s bugle and Clifford’s trumpet.
If you are present that morning, please not only remember the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in service, but also the love, respect, and honor that two Merrill brothers shared in being able to provide that tribute and that salute for many of them. In the end, the brothers received that same honor, as Taps were played for both Clifford and Melvin. But now, their being also honored for their dedication to honoring veterans with this solemn tribute, is no longer a secret.

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