The sound of a bugle echoed over the graves of soldiers, playing the familiar 24-note call of taps.
Rising senior Alex Hessler, 17, is just one of the many people who volunteered to participate in "One Hundred Nights of Taps." Since Memorial Day, buglers and trumpeters have performed taps nightly at the Soldiers' National Cemetery at 7 p.m. sharp. Wendy Allen, vice president of The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, founded the event to honor those who fought for their country.
Nearly halfway through the 100 nights, Hessler volunteered for last Monday evening, his second time this summer. This National Honor Society student will be a senior at Gettysburg Area High School, where he performs in the marching band, jazz band, concert band, and orchestra. He picked up the trumpet in fifth grade and never looked back. Playing in "One Hundred Nights of Taps" was a way for Hessler to get involved in the community, he said.
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"It means that I get to honor everyone who sacrificed their lives for our freedom," Hessler said.
When he isn't creating music, Hessler participates in Boy Scouts, skis at Liberty Mountain, or studies computers. Hessler hopes to major in computer science at Drexel University or Carnegie Mellon University.
"I've always had a fascination and an affinity for computers," Hessler said.
He's taken computer programming and computer science principles classes at school, in addition to a rigorous course load of Advanced Placement classes.
His mother Michele read about "One Hundred Nights of Taps" in the newspaper and thought her son would enjoy it. Michele and her husband Jim are big fans of the historic battlefield. Jim is a Licensed Battlefield Guide.
"To have your son come out here and play and be a part of it is pretty special," Jim said.
"One Hundred Nights of Taps" moves on a strict schedule. Performers have to report to the cemetery gatehouse by 6:30 p.m. When the clock neared 7, Hessler and a group of family and friends walked to the Soldiers' National Monument.
"I find the cemetery just kind of an amazing place," Michele said.
She and Jim moved to Gettysburg when their son was an infant, so he grew up surrounded by history.
By the time Hessler and his fans reached the monument, a crowd of tourists had gathered around curiously. Hessler stepped over the low chain surrounding the monument and stood at its base, seemingly unfazed by the onlookers staring at him. Christopher Gwinn, of the National Park Service (NPS) and Lincoln Fellowship, waited for his wristwatch to strike 7 o'clock before saying a few words about Hessler and the program.
"We meet here in Gettysburg National Cemetery so we never forget our veterans," Gwinn said.
On Gwinn's signal, Hessler started to play. Each note echoed loud and clear across the cemetery.
"It's very gratifying to come out and see young people like Alex who donate their time," Gwinn said.
Allen said the eldest performer so far in the "One Hundred Nights of Taps" was 82 and the youngest was 11. They've had performers from the local area, plus people from Texas, New York, Maine and more, according to Allen. Some of the buglers and trumpeters are military veterans, too. Renowned bugler and bugle historian Jari Villanueva recruited buglers for the program, Allen said.
Gwinn, who is chief of interpretation and education at the park, said each night's performance reminds everyone why Gettysburg is special. He said he's seen people even turn out in the rain to hear taps.
"One Hundred Nights of Taps" will continue through Sept. 4. The program is sponsored by the NPS, Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, and Taps for Veterans. For more information and a list of performers, visit tapsbugler.com.