To her neighbors, Carla Beaudoin is the friendly woman in her early 50s who works 37 hours per week as a “center store associate” at the Hannaford supermarket in Gorham.

Or, as she put it Tuesday, “I stock shelves … and help people find things.”

That she does – although this isn’t about Carla’s day job.

This is about Carla’s trumpet.

And her lifelong love for music.

And her deeply held belief that no military veteran in this country should go to the hereafter without that 24-note, lump-in-the-throat farewell commonly known as “Taps.”

“It gives me goose bumps when I play it,” Carla said Tuesday during an interview in her home in Gorham. “It’s a very haunting sound. And it’s the end. It’s the very last thing these veterans get.”

Just over two weeks ago, Carla traveled to Arlington National Cemetery. There, she joined in a celebration of the 150th anniversary of “Taps” by Bugles Across America, an ever-growing corps of volunteers who have over the last 12 years provided the mournful notes at thousands of military funerals nationwide.

Carla has been a member for the last 10 years, although she never spent a day in the military. Some things are simply meant to be.

Carla first picked up the trumpet when she was a fifth-grader at Rumford Elementary School. Both of her older brothers, Dane and Randy, had played before her – until Randy hit his head on a gymnasium radiator while playing basketball and, not long after, handed her the beat-up old instrument.

“Here, you play it,” he told Carla. “Whenever I blow it, I get a headache.”

And play it Carla did – all through high school and at the University of Maine, where she spent two years with the marching band.

“I wasn’t always one of the best players,” she recalled modestly. “But I had tenacity. I’m a practicer.”

Her trumpeting fell off after she married Marc Beaudoin, had two kids and moved to southern Maine. Then, one day, Carla heard on the radio that the Fanfare Concert Band in Standish was looking for horn players. The next thing she knew, she was first trumpet.

That gig came and went. But Carla went on to join the Italian Heritage Center Concert Band in Portland, the Alumni Band in Biddeford and Quintessence, a quintet based in Falmouth. She performs with all three to this day.

But it was a funeral back in 2002 that changed everything. An old friend from Rumford named Steve Brooks, who’d served for years in the military, had died in a snowmobile accident.

Carla called the family a day or two before the service to ask if Brooks was “getting everything” in the way of military honors. Yes, they assured her, he was.

It was his legal right. Two years earlier, Congress had passed a law requiring that every deceased military veteran receive a two-person honor guard, if requested, to fold and present the U.S. flag to survivors, and that “Taps” be sounded at the funeral or burial site.

Brooks got the honor guard and the flag. And “Taps”?

“To my horror, they went down and turned on a boom box,” recalled Carla. “And I said, ‘Oh, if only I had my trumpet with me! I could have played.’ “

A day or two later, a new issue of People magazine arrived in Carla’s mail. And there, jumping right off the page, was a story about the fledgling Bugles Across America and its founder, Tom Day.

A longtime drum-and-bugle-corps enthusiast, Day hadn’t bought the Defense Department’s claim that there simply weren’t enough horn players around to provide a live rendition of “Taps” for every family that wanted it. The Pentagon, he argued, just wasn’t looking hard enough.

Eight thousand (and counting) volunteers later, Day appears to be right.

“To me, it’s been like a miracle,” Day said Tuesday in an interview from his home in Illinois. “The government told me it can’t be done – and that just gave me the impetus to get it done.” 

The service is completely free. And if anyone within 100 miles of Carla’s home logs onto the Bugles Across America website and requests a playing of “Taps” – she and the other volunteers in the area are notified automatically by email – she’ll do her best to see that their wish is granted.

Carla has played for at least two dozen veterans so far – she’s eager to play for more, but has had trouble (at least until now) spreading the word. Her boss at Hannaford, she wants us all to know, has been “hugely supportive” about giving her the necessary time off.

She’s never, not once, missed a note. And even with a three-valve trumpet, that’s no easy feat – as with a bugle, Carla plays the entire song without touching a valve.

“These people, some have given their lives,” said Carla. “Some have come back and led very successful lives. Some have come back broken – and you can’t fix it. So the very least I can do, since I have this talent, is use it. That’s the very least I can do.”

She played at the burial of her father, who served in the Army during World War II.

She once played for a soldier who’d gone years without seeing his estranged father – as the notes poured out over the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta, the old man stood near Carla and wept.

Then there was the time Carla watched with one eye as the young grandchildren of an old veteran dropped spoonful after spoonful of dirt onto the urn containing Grandpa’s ashes – how Carla got through that one, she’ll never know.

“I just had to keep saying, ‘He’s not my grandfather. He’s not my grandfather,’ ” she recalled. “I’m there to give them comfort – they’re not there for me. This is my turn to be strong for them.”

But nothing quite prepared Carla for her trip to Arlington on May 19 – one of many celebrations planned for the sesquicentennial of the creation of “Taps” per order of Union Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield at Harrison’s Landing in Virginia in July of 1862. (Within days of Butterfield’s order, Union and Confederate buglers up and down the Potomac River had adopted the new, haunting-yet-comforting call for “lights out.”)

Dressed in her crisp new uniform – donations from appreciative families helped to pay for it – Carla and 200 other buglers fanned out all over Arlington National Cemetery and, one after another, blew the notes that inevitably stop everyone, everywhere, in their tracks. 

Carla played in front of her husband and several family members who made the trip, along with a reporter from a local radio station who videotaped her entire, pitch-perfect performance.

As the last note hung in the air, Carla turned to her older brother Dane, himself a Vietnam veteran, and nodded. Then, just this once, with the camera mercifully turned off, she burst into tears.

“Taps”? From that lady down at the grocery store? Who would have thought?

“Of all the trumpet playing I do,” Carla said, “this fulfills me the most.”

Echoed Tom Day, “It’s her breath. But it comes from her heart.” 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]