Minister of Music honors the fallen on Memorial Day
On a late spring day two years ago, Robert Hughes went for a morning run.
There was a blue sky over his head and a gentle breeze at his back. It was a day he described as being “right out of the Crayola box.’’
As he approached a hill on Rivoli Drive, south of Bolingbroke, he heard the sound of a trumpet.
It was a Monday, but not an ordinary Monday. It was Memorial Day, a holiday with a special meaning and reverence for Hughes. He is a retired Army major general and a veteran of Desert Storm. He served 37 years in the military alongside men and women who gave their lives to defend our freedoms.
His feet followed his ears to the cemetery at Mount Zion Baptist Church, where he expected he might see a crowd gathered for a Memorial Day ceremony or perhaps a military funeral.
Instead, he noticed a man at the far end of the rows of headstones. He was playing taps in memory of the five veterans interred there, their graves marked with small American flags.
The man’s name was John Prettyman. His wife, Katherine, was with him. They had spent the morning at rural cemeteries along U.S. 41 north of Macon, his Bach Stradivarius paying tribute to gunnery sergeants and chief petty officers he never knew.
It was an emotional moment for Hughes, and the tears fell at this feet. When he returned home, he reflected on the experience and wrote an appreciation of what the day had meant to him.
Prettyman is the minister of music at Central Fellowship Baptist Church in Macon. He has been playing the trumpet since he was 10 years old.
He never served in the military, but he has been surrounded by uniforms his entire life. He was born on July 5, 1941, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. He was a high school track star in Wilmington, Delaware, and participated in the school’s Air Force ROTC program. After attending the University of Maryland on a track scholarship, he worked at a middle school in Annapolis, Maryland, the home of the Naval Academy.
From his church office on the campus of Central Fellowship Christian Academy, he can hear planes taking off and landing on the runways at nearby Robins Air Force Base. Central Fellowship is across Ga. 247 from the Middle Georgia Regional Airport, once the site of Cochran Field, which was used for fight training during World War II by the Army Air Corps and British Royal Air Force.
Prettyman has lived in Macon since 1974. He and Katherine will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in August.
He first began playing taps in cemeteries on Memorial Day when he was in high school. He and his older brother, Robert, would be invited to ceremonies in the community. Robert played lead trumpet, and John would “echo.’’
A few years ago, Prettyman began visiting area cemeteries with his wife. They started near their house on Houston Road. They made random stops along Sardis Church Road and Hartley Bridge Road and stopped at more than a dozen graveyards between Macon and Lizella.
At one cemetery, they did not have access to the gate and had to stand behind a chain-link fence.
“We couldn’t get in, so I played through the fence,’’ John said. “This fellow stopped and rolled down his window. I didn’t know if he was going to throw mud at me or what. … He was crying.
“What we learned from the tears of that first man is that a lot of people’s hearts are wrapped up in those little church cemeteries,’’ he said. “They have a loved one a relative or someone in their family who is buried there. Many of them fought and died in the war. Many of them finished and lived out their lives, and they still were buried as a vet in those cemeteries. They’re all over the state. Guys like me could do this … and we don’t get paid anything. We do it for the pleasure of being a blessing.’’
Sadly, Memorial Day has lost its meaning for some. It is nothing more than a three-day weekend. The official start of summer. The banks are closed. There’s a sale at the mall. The fish are biting at the lake. The grill is ready to fire up on the deck.
Prettyman missed his Memorial Day tradition last year while recovering from knee surgery. This weekend, he is traveling to his grandson’s college graduation in Virginia but plans on taking his trumpet with him. He can always find a country church cemetery, where he can honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I think it serves the Lord a little bit,’’ he said. “He gave me something to do on Memorial Day.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.