On most evenings when the weather is decent, Stanley Wertheimer, 86, steps out of his family room and raises one of his three trumpets or his bugle to his lips to blow the 24 notes of taps. From his hill, the melancholy strains of the Civil War-era tune float out plaintively over the waters of Centerport Harbor.
"I do it as an honor to recognize the military," Wertheimer said of his nearly nightly rendition of the 1862 melody that began as a signal for lights out but quickly became a tribute at military funerals.
It's been his habit and tradition to play all sorts of songs while standing outside since his children were small, when each knew a particular tune meant time to come home for dinner.
Wertheimer estimated he's been playing taps across the harbor for 25 or 30 years. A retired Centerport firefighter and house painter, he and his wife, Gloria, married 61 years, have lived in their hilltop house since 1957.
"On a calm night, it's pretty effective," said Jim Feeley, 72, of Centerport, who's worked with Wertheimer as a Centerport firefighter for 40-plus years. "You can hear it at the [Mill Dam] bridge. He does a very good job at it. He's a dedicated guy."
That dedication is clear in Wertheimer showing up every year to play taps at the East Northport Fire Department's 9/11 ceremony, at both the morning and evening services.
It’s also evidenced on Memorial Day, when he plays taps twice for the Centerport Fire Department, first at the Grant Street substation then at the main firehouse. As part of the National Moment of Remembrance on Memorial Day, he plays the song again at 3 p.m. to honor those missing in action. By request, Wertheimer also plays the song at the funerals of firefighters who were veterans.
"He's been there for all our memorials," said Bob Sagistano, a firefighter and EMT with the East Northport department. "We're so grateful to him. He shows up every year, you can count on him."
During football season, those out and about around the harbor may hear another song floating over the water on Sundays at 1 p.m.
"I play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' to recognize that everyone's watching football," said Wertheimer, who served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War. Christmas Eve, he said, often finds him playing "Silent Night."
Wertheimer said he’s been blowing his horn since he was a 10-year-old schoolboy in Syosset.
"My father got me started," he said. "He used to play the clarinet and he wanted me to play the clarinet, but they were out and a friend loaned me a trumpet."
Wertheimer remembers practicing outside in good weather at his house on Jackson Avenue, in a then-rural area off Jericho Turnpike surrounded by potato fields.
"I'd play taps as I practiced. Then, when I finally got the notes right, the farmers that lived nearby all said, 'Yeah! Now you can play something else,' " Wertheimer laughed. "I played taps when I first started. And I guess the good Lord has seen to it that I'm still doing it."
These days he practices at a small music stand inside his house, playing "Ave Maria," "Hello, Dolly" and "When the Saints Come Marching In" among other tunes to keep his lips and facial muscles in shape and his fingers in sync.
Daughter Krista Barton-Arnold, 55, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she always knew it was time to head home when she heard "Snowbird," floating out over the neighborhood along Centerport Harbor.
Her older brother Mark and sister Karen shared a song, the Army camp mess call, "Come and Get Your Beans, Boys." For younger brother Paul, it was "What's It All About, Alfie." Even Sheeba, the family dog, would come running when the trumpet sounded.
As she was growing up, Barton-Arnold said, her father also played lots of Herb Alpert and Frank Sinatra.
Wertheimer has other fans, like Patricia and Mike Coyle, who live across the harbor, and young children in his neighborhood, among them the toddler who lives at the bottom of the hill.
"He loves it," Wertheimer said. "His parents recorded it one night — he told them, 'I'm not going to sleep until I hear taps.
Fishermen have come to rely on Wertheimer’s call to know it's time to head home, he learned. Wertheimer tells the story of two fishermen who were boating in the harbor when one was reluctant to return to shore because they hadn't yet heard taps. It turned out one had gone to school with his daughter Krista, and when they learned from Krista it was her dad playing they came to the house to meet him.
To keep on schedule, Wertheimer uses a weather app to track the time of sunset on the iPhone his kids recently got him. "It's a little different each day, about a minute," he noted.
When Patricia Coyle hears taps on a fall afternoon and it seems early, she said she sometimes wonders, " ‘Why's Stan playing taps now?’ Then I look at the clock. He's accurate."
"It's just a sweet, special little touch," said Coyle, 61, who's heard him play from across the water for 20-plus years.
"Whatever you're doing, you just take a minute out and listen. When he finishes, you can hear people applaud," Coyle said. "A lot of people in the community have remarked about it. People just stop and say, 'I hear taps.. It's a very cool thing."