Tacoma trumpeter's salute to veterans gains worldwide attention

DASH POINT, Wash. -- Most days, she hides upstairs in the shadows of an unused bedroom: silent, still, talent untouched - only accessed for less than a single minute.

Her price tag would make almost any man gasp; after all, you could buy a small used car for about the same cost.

The nearly $5,000 payment was a willing tradeoff, says the trumpeter of his instrument, as it glints in the sunlight and he prepares to play.

"This thing is loud, now, you realize where you're standing?" he asks, smiling, teeth as white as the pages of the music book. "It'll probably blow you right into the shower."

Don Brittain never intended to play for strangers later on in life. Born into a family of musicians, he started playing the trumpet around age 10 and continued with a concert band in high school. He eventually put the trumpet down, however, as parenthood and life and responsibilities got in the way.

Two daughters - and many decades later - Brittain spotted something on television that caught his eye. All dressed, in proper uniforms, the men with trumpets were playing at a 9/11 memorial service. It moved the retired Boeing worker - whose childhood battle with polio kept him from military service - to dig out an old horn and give it a whirl.

"I was 14 when I had polio, so that took me out of the running, but it didn't change how I felt about (serving)," Brittain said. "If it weren't for those folks, we may be living a completely different lifestyle than we're living right now, with a lot less freedom. They make the ultimate sacrifice."

Brittain's wife, Jan, downloaded the sheet music: 24 notes that haven't changed in more than a century. And then one day, as the sun was setting, Brittain stepped out onto his Browns Point balcony and began to play.

"He doesn't make any announcement or anything. He just comes out and you see him look. He'll look at the sky. He'll take a couple of big breaths, and then he starts to play," said neighbor Sunny Hansen, "and (the music) just kind of goes out over the water."

"We stand," Hansen said, "because one does stand for 'Taps.'"

Brittain's nightly tribute made national headlines about a year ago. Since then, the music notes have been replaced by handwritten ones. He keeps a stack of letters in an envelope, some of which come from half a world away. Many bring tears to his eyes.

"I've (also) had a couple inspiring things happen," Brittain said. "One man walking by - he stopped, he heeled his dog, and he slowed 'till I finished. What's that tell ya?"

On the pier down the hill from Brittain's house, fisherman often stand at attention. Children will stop and turn. "(The music) calms me down, kind of quiet time," said Army veteran Norm Redona of Federal Way, as he cast a line into the water. "It makes me think of people that have passed."

These days, Brittain's amassed a bit of a following in his Tacoma neighborhood. After losing his wife to cancer, the trumpet helps, he says.

"She was tenacious. She was tough. But she (was) stage four. It's going to win," he said. "It makes you stop and take stock about your life and what you're doing and what you should be doin' maybe."

"Sometimes I think, 'ah I don't think I want to do it tonight,'" he added. "(But she would say), 'You get your butt out there and you play.'"

Brittain said he's overwhelmed by all the recognition he's received.

"Very humble. Very proud. Very touched," he said, with tears in his eyes. "I can't do better than that. That's all I can do."