Alabama taps player hangs up his horn after 54 years

SELMA, Ala. -- Jesse Sanchez has lost count on the number of times he's played taps at important military observances, but there's one at which he has not played yet.

It's about him, but he won't be around to hear it because it'll be played on a recorder at his funeral.

"I thought I'd tape myself playing taps," he said. "I can't think of a better way to have it done one last time."

At 84, Sanchez can still reach the right notes even if all of them may not be as crystal clear as they once were. The best part is the emotion from his horn and the man playing it.

"I have listened to him play taps for years and it always gives me chill bumps and makes me feel patriotic," said Charles Pollack, once a tank commander who saw his share of combat during the Korean War.

Sanchez's rendition of taps Monday, for Memorial Day services at Memorial Stadium in Selma, was his swan song. Just like an old soldier who's been around the horn so many times, he knows it's time to hang up his horn.

He's had remarkable careers in military and civilian venues dating to 1949 when he enlisted in the Army. He first played taps at Memorial Stadium in 1962 and this year marked his 54th consecutive appearance.

Come rain or shine, he arrives early and takes his position near a monument to Navy Cmdr. Howard Gilmore, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.

Gilmore surrendered his life to save his submarine crew when, mortally wounded topside, he ordered his next in command to "Take her down."

As Sanchez waits to play his trumpet, his mind drifts back to his boyhood days in Baytown, Texas, where his parents couldn't speak English and he was required to keep mastering 60 words a day of his new language.

Faith has helped him over the rough spots, too, and it's apparent he's covered just about all of his "Good Book" bases.

"I was born a Baptist, raised a Catholic and married a Methodist," he said, with a grin. "On top of that I was also the cantor at Selma's synagogue for several years,"

He became so proficient with his trumpet and vocal chords he used them to bring home the bacon as a young man when he formed his own band, The Showmen. The pay was all of $20 a night.

His accomplishments as a civilian could hardly compare with his achievements in the military.

Sanchez spent 36 years in the regular Army, Army Reserves and the Alabama National Guard. His highest rank was enviable, Army Command Sergeant Major -- testimony to a man on a mission to succeed in life.

He retired from the Army many years ago, but keeps his military connection by playing taps.

His routine has always been the same, beginning at home where he loosens his lips, especially if the weather's chilly. Then it's off to Memorial Stadium to wait for the call.

He and wife Betty have been married for 65 years and have two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

At a time when most men his age are in rockers, he seems as energetic as a kid.

Vietnam veteran Rayburn Hill leads the local American Legion chapter that sponsors the annual Memorial Day program and is one of Sanchez's biggest fans.

"He's done a wonderful job for us through the years and we're really going to miss him," Hill said. "Jesse and his trumpet have helped bring back the purpose of Memorial Day and Veterans Day."

Sanchez is proud to say he once played taps four times in one day, at different military programs, and was happy to do it. He and his trumpet are inseparable.

The two have that one big mission ahead of them, but Sanchez isn't about to rush things.

"I'll get it done one day," he said. "Until then, I'll just keep blowing my horn and filling in if somebody else needs me."

It's his way of paying his respects for those in uniform who have served their country in times of war and peace.

"They deserve every bit of recognition they never got before," he said.