Narratively

 

The Lady at the Piano

Every Tuesday morning at a quiet veterans hospital in Portland, the daughter of a World War II airman dons an old Army uniform for a throwback performance like no other.

By | November 10, 2014

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.

Play

The Grieving Mom Fighting for a Healthcare System That Actually Works

Amy Vilela lost her daughter when she couldn’t afford the medical bills. When her Congressman told her he wouldn’t support universal healthcare, Amy said, “I’m running.”

Play

This Ferguson Activist Wants to be Missouri’s First Black Congresswoman

Cori Bush is a registered nurse, a pastor and a mom. After taking to the streets to protest police killings, she looked in the mirror and said, “why not politician, too?”

Play

The 28-Year-Old Latina Challenging New York’s Most Powerful Congressman

“The Boss of the Queens Machine” hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years. But an underfunded upstart is suddenly giving him a run for his money.

Play

This Coalminer’s Daughter Is Mad as Hell—And Running for the U.S. Senate

Paula Jean Swearengin has seen West Virginia’s land exploited, its people fall ill, and its politicians do nothing. So she decided to do something herself.

Play

These 4 Women Are Taking on a Politician Near You

The coalminer’s daughter. The bartender. The police brutality activist. The grieving mother. Each looked at the man representing her in Congress and said, “I can do better.”

Play

The Collector of Time

As Mark McKinley puts it, “no collector ever says, ‘I’ve gone too far.'” After 27 years and an official Guinness World Record, he stands by that statement.

Play

The Saviors of Saffron

Three young Spaniards are reviving the farming tradition that flourished in their grandparents' generation.

Play

An Aging Mother’s Animated Love Letter to Her Autistic Son

“Who would look after him if I wasn’t here?” and other questions this mom asks herself every day.

Play

Courvosier Cox Knows He’s a Superstar

Meet a teenage actor-singer-comedian with absolutely no doubt that his tumultuous adolescence will soon give way to Hollywood fame.

Get your Narratively Neverending Storytelling Swag Bag. Become a Patron today. ×