Marine veteran teaches Bigfork teen ‘Taps’
“Day is done, gone the sun from the lake, from the hill, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.”
So go the lyrics to “Taps,” the reverent tune played on a horn as a final farewell at military funerals.
After 46 years of playing the trumpet for the U.S. Marine Corps and for military funerals, Marine veteran Timothy “Merk” Merklinger, 55, felt the need to pass his skills along to the next generation.
Enter 13-year-old Dale Relyea, a Bigfork Middle School student.
When the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America began working with Merklinger to launch the music lessons program this year, Relyea was the first to step up to the plate.
Relyea said he was inspired by the various military memorial assemblies he attended at school over the years. Each one, he said, featured a student who would play “Taps,” but this year, that student will graduate and leave.
“I really wanted to learn to give back to the veterans who have served,” he said.
A trumpet player of three years with his school’s band, Relyea had the instrument and some of the training needed to learn the historic melody.
He first began meeting with Merklinger for lessons about five weeks ago.
From the beginning, Merklinger said he refused to make it easy for Relyea, giving the teen as many as three new skills to learn at each hour-long session.
To make things trickier, Merklinger never wrote anything down, insisting Relyea work harder in order to retain the information and reproduce it from memory.
“He’s a good instructor, no nonsense,” Relyea said.
For Monday’s lesson, the last before summer break, Relyea showed off his skills before three members of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter that helped sponsor the program.
Merklinger played “Taps” in stages, pointing to Relyea after each rift to have him echo the piece on his own.
The room burst into applause as the duo finished.
“When he first came, the sound just kind of came out of the bell and plopped on the floor,” Merklinger said of Relyea. The difference he heard on Monday, he said, was night and day.
According to John Burgess, president of the local Vietnam veterans chapter, the only time “Taps” is played is at the end of every day on a military base and at a military funeral.
The Navy veteran praised Relyea for shouldering the sometimes heavy call to send off a veteran.
“You’re the one paying that person the utmost respect,” Burgess told Relyea. “You are giving them the best farewell you can give military.”
Merklinger knew from experience the importance of having a live musician in the shadows paying homage to a veteran and their family.
In the last year, Merklinger said he has played “Taps” for five of his friends’ funerals.
Though he’s played his horn out of sight of the family, he said each time he works to keep himself from getting too emotionally involved in the gravity of the tune.
Once the funeral ends, he said it might take him a month to approach the family of the deceased.
Though he said he tries to keep the fake bugle recordings out of the valley as much as possible, as one of a handful of “Taps” players in the valley, he’s limited by his schedule.
“I can’t play them all,” Merklinger said.
Young musicians like Relyea, he said, are the ones who will carry the tradition forward and, he hopes, fill the gaps.
“I’m not here to recruit for the Armed Forces. I’m here to teach a kid to play ‘Taps,’” Merklinger said. “I’ve been playing for many years, and I just want to pass it on.”
Labeled “Number One” for his willingness to be the first to learn from Merklinger, Relyea said he looked forward to continuing his lessons and to one day playing for a military funeral.
“He’s got what it takes,” Merklinger said of his student.
Next fall, Merklinger said he plans to start another round of lessons for everyone and anyone interested in learning to play “Taps.”
Home school, public school and private school students of all ages and levels of experience can take advantage of the free lessons he teaches in a room at Flathead Valley Community College.
For more information about taking classes from Merklinger, call 406-871-3745.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.