Memories of a Taps player: Bennington's Mo Rancourt plays on
BENNINGTON -- Decades of playing Taps at military funerals teaches one a few things: A bugle is best, you won't be struck dead for playing in another denomination's church, cows are fascinated by the tune, and being late to the cemetery isn't always a bad thing.
Maurice "Mo" Rancourt, 72, of Main Street was born and raised in Bennington and started his Taps playing career at an early age while attending Bennington Catholic High School, which would someday become Catamount Elementary before closing and reopening as a soccer facility.
His first gigs were through Mahar and Son Funeral Home. Ed Mahar would call him when he needed a bugler for a military funeral, and the school would give Rancourt a pass so long as his grades were good.
"He would send somebody over in a limo and take me over the cemetery, and drop me back off at school," said Rancourt. "And he always slipped me $5 in cash, which in the late 50s was a lot of money."
Rancourt, an active musician fluent in the trumpet, cornet, flugel, and of course the bugle, had fun playing Taps at the funerals and making money, but he also felt responsibility.
"One day I was called for a funeral, and we went over here to the Baptist Church, and the weather was kind of iffy, and I was to play Taps inside the church proper," he said. "And man, I thought lightning was going to strike me dead, because this was before the Vatican Council...Catholics did Catholic stuff and Protestants did Protestant stuff, and here I was playing Taps in a Baptist Church."
He suffered no repercussions for playing in a Baptist Church.
"When I was a kid, somehow a bugle turned up in the neighborhood and I just loved music. I had a dad who played fiddle, and he would have guys over to the house on a Sunday afternoon," Rancourt said. " I just immediately loved that whole thing."
He especially loved experimenting with his bugle.
"I just loved getting different sounds out of that mouthpiece. One day when my mother wasn't around I took the agitator out of the washing machine, it was an old ringer washing machine, and put the mouthpiece in there," he said. "That was wild."
Somehow the bugle vanished, he doesn't know how or to where, but by age 12 his parents enrolled him in violin lessons, which he quickly determined was not the instrument for him.
Once, on television, he saw a horn playing on a step in New York City, playing alone. The image stuck with him all these years.
"So, I started taking lessons at age 12, and we didn't have a lot of money," he said. Rather than a bugle, this time he learned the trumpet.
That trumpet, God, it was a $10 trumpet my mother and father sprung for," he said. "It had more solder than brass, but it worked."
Rancourt left Bennington for St. Michael's College in Colchester, where he graduated in 1966 with a B.A. in English. He worked in the Burlington area for General Motors, playing in a quintet on the side, for about three years before coming back to Bennington.
Almost immediately he began getting calls to play Taps again.
"The situation changed a few years ago," he said. "Funeral directors, when they get a military funeral, they call someone in Burlington, and I'm not sure which branch it is, they jump in and arrange to have a detail sent down. The detail usually has a couple of flag folders and a ‘bugler.'"
Rancourt's job has become automated.
"I remember the first time I saw this automated bugle. It was in North Adams, (Mass.) First of all, it's not a bugle, it's a flugel. A bugle it ain't," he said. "It has a little player, it's probably digital, in the bell. The guy holds it up, presses a button, and it plays Taps automatically. It's a good version. I understand that version used for that horn is a recording of the guy who plays Taps on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Doesn't get much better."
The live version, at least. Rancourt said that according to a friend of his who plays Taps at the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery, the automated Taps is faster than what regulations call for. Taps, Rancourt said, is a slow, mournful tune. "It's a tough thing to do, there's a tendency to rush," he said.
Rancourt played Taps on the trumpet for years until one day when there was a military funeral being held in the winter. The mouthpiece fell out and became lost in the snow. He found it, but the rendition of Taps he gave was not so good. "It was pathetic," he said. "If there had been an open grave, I would have jumped in it."
The bugle is a much simpler instrument, he said, so there's less chances for things to go wrong.
On one occasion, he was to play at a cemetery that the planners assured him would not be easy to find from the church. Rancourt said he rode with someone who was supposed to know where it was, but after about 10 minutes it was clear they were lost. The arrived late.
"I got the bugle out to play Taps," he said. "Just as I was about to play, this big freight train starts going by the cemetery."
He learned from the deceased's son that this was far from a bad thing, for his father had been fascinated by all things trains.
Rancourt has witnessed Taps silence herds of noisy cows, and says the song tends to make everything within earshot stop and pay attention, even birds.
While he never served in the military, he considers playing Taps at military funerals a deep honor. Despite the automated flugel, he still gets calls to do so.
"I'm still an active musician," he said.
He'll be playing at the Bennington Town Office along with the Mo Rancourt Quintet as part of the First Friday celebration on Aug. 1 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On vocals will be Leah Carroll.
"She's from Cambridge, N.Y.," he said. "She's a sweetheart, to hear her is to love her immediately, so it should be a good night."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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