They get around with canes and prosthetics. Some are bound to wheelchairs, oxygen tanks in tow. Those who carry these reminders of aging and affliction seem to be the ones most drawn to the woman at the dusty grand piano, her nimble fingers striking notes that stoke nostalgia in the lobby of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Portland, Oregon.
The olive drab of Judy Gascon’s throwback Army service uniform nearly matches the dull brown of the old grand. Her makeup and long, golden hair —mostly white now — are carefully done up in the style of the Andrews Sisters, a popular singing group during World War II. At sixty-six, she has kind eyes and a warm smile that underscore an air of graceful beauty for which the old-timers often swoon.
For more than ten years, Gascon has volunteered once a week at the hospital, lending her musical talent from about nine a.m. to two p.m. The meticulous detail of her vintage look requires at least two hours of preparation for which she wakes at 5:30 every Tuesday.
Gascon says she was inspired to volunteer at the hospital after finding a bag of her father’s letters from World War II not long after he passed away. He served in the Army Air Corps, and the corporal insignia and ribbons she wears are those her father earned during the war. The people she entertains are often surprised to discover she’s not a veteran, but she usually finds a way to connect with them anyway.
“It’s nice to see somebody in uniform,” says Lance Mousel, who stopped by the piano to speak with Gascon after an optometry appointment one day. Mousel tells Gascon he served in Vietnam as a member of a naval construction battalion — a Seabee. Gascon quickly thumbs through her thick binder of sheet music to find the “Seabee Song” and play it for him. He hadn’t heard it in forty-two years.
“It’s calming to hear her playing here,” Mousel says. “Makes you not so stressed out.”
“It’s good for the soul,” adds Mousel’s wife Edith.
Mark Musick is an Army veteran who stopped at Gascon’s piano on his way to an appointment related to a hip replacement. He served as a military policeman in the Army in the ’70s, and he asked Gascon to play the British tune “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” because he has fond memories of singing the song with British troops he met during a combined training exercise in 1975.
“You’ve got a lot of veterans that are hurting for one reason or another, and Judy’s presence puts smiles on their faces,” Musick says. “She’s almost like a saint for us. If you look around the lobby while she’s playing you’ll see it. She makes people smile, and those smiles mean a lot.”
This pattern of warmth and charm plays out again and again during the hours Gascon volunteers: A strapping young man with a high-and-tight haircut smiles sheepishly and asks if he can take Gascon’s picture. An Air Force vet from the Vietnam era parks his wheelchair a few feet from the piano, applauding reverently at the end of every song. A bearded old-timer sits down in a nearby chair, offering a wide smile as he strikes up conversation with Gascon between songs. Here and there throughout the lobby, fingers and toes tap to the rhythm while she plays.
Gascon has regulars too. Navy veteran Nadine Jensen is around Gascon’s age, and she sometimes keeps Gascon company for hours, even on days when she has no appointments at the hospital.
“We met in the elevator one day,” says Jensen, who had major back surgery not long after meeting Gascon. “I was curious about her uniform, and we started chatting. After that, I started looking forward to appointments. We’ve become good friends.”
Gascon suffers from severe back pain of her own, which is related to an injury she sustained after being thrown from a horse many years ago. The pain got so bad that Gascon had to take some time off from playing at the hospital over the past year, but after undergoing surgery recently, she’s back to playing for veterans every Tuesday.
“Some veterans ride the bus here and just sit in the lobby to hear the music,” Gascon says. “One World War II vet used to come every week for about three years.”
Each week Gascon plays military and popular music from the 19th and 20th centuries, playing mostly what she calls “America’s greatest hits” and anything the vets request.
“The people who gather around the piano when I’m here are like a band of brothers. You can really feel it — what this means to them. It takes them back and reminds them of the camaraderie they had in the military. They’re all strangers, but you wouldn’t know it when you see them talking to each other like old friends who go way back.”
At the hospital, a place that can easily drape the spirit with thoughts of sickness and uncertainty, Gascon and her music have become a fixture a spot of brightness and beauty. Every Tuesday she is there at the piano, serving those who have served with her own brand of healthcare.
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Ethan E. Rocke is a multimedia storyteller and artist in Portland, Oregon. A thirteen-year veteran of the Marines and Army, he specializes in narrative journalism about military and veterans issues and is host of the just-launched YouTube series The Subordinate, a digital space where veteran artists speak up.