GUESTWORDS: The Accidental Trombonist

By Janet Goleas

    Lillian grabbed my forearm and locked her eyes on me. “Your life is gonna change now,” she said, staring into me as her grip tightened for a few long seconds. “You know that, right?”
    Her husband stood with hands clasped at the French doors that closed around the hallways of Glueckert Funeral Home. She loosed her grip and walked away toward him.
    “Bye, honey.” She waved. “I loved your mom.”
    Her words hovered in the air.
    Across the chapel, my 85-year-old mother lay in repose alongside huge sprays of flowers, black-and-white portraits, and open scrapbooks. The weather, appropriately dismal, seemed to deter not a single friend or acquaintance. They arrived in oilcloth hats and dripping ponchos. Some were tall and robust; others were drooped across wheelchairs. The elderly show up for the dead.
    “I was with Lois that day — the day she joined the band,” said one.
    “Oh, goodness — the trombone. . . .” Those who could shook their heads and giggled.
    “But it suited her, didn’t it?”
    They wagged their heads back and forth, drifting into the past.
    In a twist of fate, by the time my mother was 14 the slide trombone had come to define her. She wanted to play something more feminine, like the saxophone or clarinet, but the bandleader at Foreman High School had other ideas.
    “You have long arms and a straight back,” he said. “You’ll play the trombone.”
    So, she did. Eventually, she would become the trombonist for the Sharon Rogers Band, an all-girl swing band that joined the U.S.O. and ended up touring the South Pacific, performing for thousands and nearly dying together when their cargo plane ditched in the sea at the end of World War II.
    “Oh, you mean your mother was one of those girls who entertained the troops,” said Jake.
    It seemed so much more glamorous to me than that. Until our basement flooded when I was in kindergarten, most of my free time was spent dressing up in the fancy ball gowns and high heels I found in the cellar. I managed to save a single pair of strappy shoes that I wore all through college — clear acrylic stilettos with white ostrich feathers wrapped around the toes.
    At home we were surrounded by U.S.O. memorabilia, Japanese knickknacks, and group shots of the girls. They were all beauties in one way or another. My mother wore her platinum hair like Veronica Lake back then, and this in combination with hazel eyes and an imperfect nose, the fixing of which occupied her thinking almost full time until she had it “done” in 1985, conspired to take one’s breath away. She stood a statuesque 5 foot 7 inches, tall enough to be tall in the 1940s. But as I tucked my little head in the folds of her apron, to me she was more Donna Reed than Rita Hayworth — cast as the lead in my own primetime drama, capri pants and all.
    By the time she became a mother, the trombone had been long packed away. She’d say, “That was then,” as she wiped her hands with a wet kitchen towel. Still, she regaled us with stories about lugging her trombone to and from school — some 12 ungodly blocks — performing at Chicago’s Wilson Park with the Melody Maids, and meeting a handsome Greek boy one night after a summer concert. I still imagine their eyes meeting under the dim of a street lamp. The fact that he took off that night with the bandleader, Sherry, was not lost on my mother. But in the end, this was the Greek boy who would become my father.
    Her dreams of attending university were squashed by my grandfather, a real-life cattle roping cowboy-cum-car mechanic who insisted college was no place for a girl. But when her gal pals moved to the Big Apple to become famous musicians — that was okay. And so, on a clear day in the spring of 1943, my mother boarded a train to New York City. She had just turned 19.
    When she disembarked at Grand Central Station, she was met by two musicians from the Betty McGuire Band, who whisked her off to Red Norvo’s Jackson Heights apartment. “Mr. Swing” was on tour, and his home was filled wall to wall with performers. My mother’s quarters would be a patch of floor in the dining room.
    The band was rehearsing for the U.S.O.’s Victory Circuit and the schedule was grueling. In between long sessions at Nola Studios they met and sometimes jammed with the greats — Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and the Dorsey Brothers. My mother quickly changed from a teenager into a full-blown jazz musician — slang, smokes, and slippery handshakes inclusive.
    But the New York gig eventually went belly up, bouncing her from stardom to starvation. She returned to Chicago, her tail between her legs. In the 18 months that elapsed between her New York adventures and the band’s tour through the Pacific, my mother traded in her satin gowns for the jumpsuit she wore while cracking rivets and plugging weld holes at Douglas Aircraft outside Chicago. She became a “Rosie,” building C-54 Skymasters, transport planes that helped win the war.
    As the Melody Maids (now, the Sharon Rogers Band) marched into fame, she must have felt left in the dust. Even my father, with whom she eventually forged a lusty summer romance, seemed preoccupied with the French girls he was meeting as a staff sergeant in Patton’s Army. Fewer and fewer letters arrived. At best, their future was uncertain.
    Providence intervened when the band lost its trombonist before a gig at Coney Island’s Club Atlantis. They called my mother, and I envision her tearing off that sweaty jumpsuit and racing to the train station with her trombone.
    The Atlantis was a wild place — a backdrop for Al Capone and performers the likes of Bob Hope and Jimmy Durante — and the Sharon Rogers Band presided over its stage through Hitler’s suicide, the Russian capture of Berlin, and V-E Day.
    They performed along the East Coast while being vetted by the War Department for overseas deployment. When the green light came in July, they joined the Foxhole Circuit. At every destination en route to their tour abroad — all of them top secret — the girls were met with gushing enthusiasm. The band was tight, the show sizzled, and the troops adored them.
    They boarded the U.S.S. Fallon on Aug. 3, just three days before Hiroshima was gutted by the atomic bomb. Later that week they were advised by sealed envelope that the band was headed to the Philippines, and they would fly the 5,300 miles military style — without creature comforts, seat belts, or oxygen.
    Manila had been liberated only some four or five weeks before, and fighting still raged nearby. The country was awash with carnage. The girls were billeted in bombed-out quarters that lacked much of anything — even rooftops — and they routinely slept under soaking tropical rains.
    But did they perform.
    Their third day in Manila, 14,000 soldiers crammed into the landmark Rizal Stadium to hear them while thousands more were turned away. As the world watched Japan’s surrender, the girls traveled over washed-out roads and mountains of rubble to reach Army hospitals and base camps. They served meals to P.O.W.s and visited with soldiers, entertaining the troops aboard ships and on makeshift stages across the islands.
    At the request of General MacArthur, they would become the first U.S.O. group following the armistice to enter Japan. They packed their bags and headed to Nichols Field.
    Across Japan they performed in elegant theaters and opera houses, sightseeing by private car in between shows. In December, just four months after the atomic bomb, my mother and some of the other girls traveled to Hiroshima. They were the first American civilians to see its ravaged landscape, and it left them speechless. The city, effectively vaporized by the bomb, was gone. It would be decades before they would speak openly of the experience.
    The band, exhausted, continued to perform across the Pacific. At least the end of their six-month tour was in sight.
    On Jan. 22 they departed from Kwangju Airport in Korea for Tokyo on a C-47 equipped with little more than life jackets. The story of this tortured flight could fill a book, so let’s just say that, like war, it was hell.
    By the time they neared Japan’s coastline they had been frozen and flying blind for some four hours. Now in a constant descent the airplane shaved over mountaintops, skimmed bombed-out airstrips, and twice dodged high-tension wires with only moments of fuel left in the tank. Miraculously, the pilot was able to land somewhat gracefully amid the mine-infested waters of the Shimonoseki Strait, a scant 50 feet from an ammunition barge. As the plane sank into darkness, the girls waved their Zippos in the hope of salvation.
    They were rescued by Japanese fishermen and soon returned stateside as heroines, their studio shots splashed across the front page of The Chicago Tribune. They were famous — and now they were home.
    My father had also survived the war and was back in town, too. He would always say he called my mom because he saw her picture in the paper. Whatever the reason, their passion was rekindled. They were married soon after.
    I keep a picture of my mother in a spot that is always in my direct sightline. Like so many veterans, she was an ordinary girl in an extraordinary position. All-girl bands were popular in the 1940s and they flourished in the U.S.O., but the story of the Sharon Rogers Band is extraordinary to me. My mother — the woman who brushed out my knots, taught me to cook, and wiggled her hips to the radio — really did, for a moment in time, become Rita Hayworth.
    And the rest, as they say, is history.

    Special thanks to my brother, John Goleas, M.D., for sharing his insights, research, and memories.

    Janet Goleas is an artist, curator, and writer who lives in East Hampton.