A GOOD INVESTMENT

Life inevitably involves making difficult choices, but when I
realized I wanted to playa musical instrument, the decision was
easy. It had to be the slide trombone. I think it was the baritone
register, the round mellow tone, the way notes could be "bent"
and the intriguing pumping action of a simple piece of brass
tubing that made it so appealing.

The fact that there was only one trombone player in our
high school band and orchestra, when at least two were needed,
may have also influenced my decision. The year was 1941 and I
was a sophomore.

Luckily a man who taught brass instruments lived in the
nearby town of Wilmerding, and my chicken and egg business
yielded enough profit to cover the one dollar cost of a weekly
lesson. Sometimes my father drove me to lessons in our 1938
Buick and sometimes I rode the street car.

I was also lucky to get an exceptionally good instrument,
one that was especially made for a trombonist in the Pittsburgh
Symphony. It cost $125, which in those days was big money.
Whereas the piano lessons I had taken earlier required
constant prodding from my mother, I practiced the trombone
willingly. The more I learned, the more motivated I became,
until I was practicing three or more hours every day. I often
wondered why the neighbors didn't complain.

From the beginning of my junior year I played in both the
high school band and orchestra. The Big Band Era, with Glen
Miller, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and many
more great bands, was at its peak. Duke Ellington was, and still
is, my favorite. My friends and I bought as many records as we
could afford, stayed up late nights listening to big bands on the
radio, and occasionally went to see one of them play at the Alvin
Theatre in Pittsburgh. When I was a senior, my teacher said that
at the rate I was progressing I would be ready for an audition
with a big band soon after graduation.

The way things were going, nothing could have gotten in
the way of my playing the trombone except one thing -- the
military draft. The year was 1943. World War I was raging, so
on my 18th birthday, July 31, I registered. Three months later I
packed away my horn, thinking I wouldn't see it until the war
was over, and left home for the Army.

Thirteen weeks of basic training was at Fort Benning,
Georgia. My next assignment was to the 86th Blackhawk Division
based at Camp Livingston, Louisiana. I was a lowly rifleman in
the 342nd Infantry Regiment, not an enviable place to find one's
self. But there I was, like it or not.

Whether by design or accident, many of the men assigned
to the 86th Division had scored high on their military IQ tests or
had attended college. It is not surprising, therefore, that a fair
number of us had music in our background. A few these fellows
began to "jam" in their off duty time and shortly decided to form
a dance band. When I heard that they needed a trombone
player, I phoned and asked my Dad to send my horn, which
arrived in a couple of weeks, and I joined the 342rd Regimental
Dance Band.

Being an unofficial band, we had to continue our regular
duties as riflemen, machine gunners or whatever, and rehearse
on our off duty time. We played for dances at the officers' clubs
and USOs, and gave occasional concerts for the troops. This
continued when our Division was moved from Louisiana to
California to train for amphibious warfare in the South Pacific.
Everything changed at one point in the winter of 1944
when, in response to the Battle of the Bulge in Germany, our
Division was suddenly assigned to the European Theatre. In a
matter of days we were issued winter uniforms and transported
across the United States in troop trains for embarkation out of
Boston. Oddly, we members of our still unofficial dance band
were allowed to take our instruments with us, making it possible
for us to entertain the troops aboard ship on our ten-day
midwinter crossing of the North Atlantic.

One day during our ocean crossing, one of the guys in my
platoon told me that my name was on a list posted on the
Regimental Commander's bulletin board. Wondering what kind
of trouble I'd gotten into, I went to the "Old Man's" cabin, read
the notice, and discovered that all of the names on the list were
fellows in the band. We were ordered to a special meeting.
At the meeting, we learned that the Colonel had ordered
his adjutant to form a military police unit to guard Regimental
Headquarters when we were in combat. The adjutant, a captain,
happened to have been a former professional trumpeter who had
occasionally sat in with our dance band. Knowing that we
musicians already constituted a "unit", although of quite a
different kind, he thought we were a logical choice to form the
regimental headquarters guard.

Being transferred from a rifle platoon to regimental
headquarters may have been the luckiest thing that ever
happened to me. It meant the difference between being shot at
by Germans at the front, and doing various military police duties
a mile or more to the rear.

Our Division entered combat in Cologne, crossed the Rhine
River on the famous Remagen bridge, chased the Whermacht
southeast across Germany to Munich, liberated the concentration
camp at Dachau, and were on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria
when the war ended in April, 1945.

About two weeks before the end of hostilities, I had been in
an accident when the truck in which I and several other GI's
were riding ran off the road and turned over. Knowing that
something was not right with my insides, I waited until the war
ended to report to sick call. The medics first sent me to a field
hospital, then evacuated me, by DC-3 ambulance plane, to a base
hospital in Paris.

My injury, whatever it was, healed without surgery in a
month or so, and I was discharged from the hospital. Because
the 86th Division had been reassigned to the South Pacific, and
because I had not accumulated enough combat points to be
discharged, I was required to return to Germany to serve in the
army of occupation. When the officer in charge of making such
assignments asked me what I would like to do during the year or
more that I would likely be in Germany, I replied that I would
like to play in a military band.

I didn't think that there was much chance of that
happening, and it didn't. In fact, something much better
happened. I was assigned to a new Music Center that was being
formed at the European Theatre Headquarters in Frankfurt,
Germany. Whether General Eisenhower had anything to do with
the formation of the Music Center I did not know, but the idea of
being based at his headquarters seemed like a pretty good deal.
Once again the trombone had brought me unusual good luck.

The USFET (U.S. Forces European Theatre) Music Center
was a pool of 150 musicians who provided entertainment to the
millions of troops who remained in Germany after the end of the
war. During the year that I was there, until May 1946, I played in
dance bands, the pit band of a Broadway musical brought over
from New York, The GI Symphony, and most proudly in General
Eisenhower's Marching Band.

For reasons beyond the scope of this story, I did not
continue to play the trombone after returning to the
U.S.A. Nevertheless, it is clear that the time, effort and money I
invested in learning to play the trombone led to many good
things that happened in the years that followed. No doubt it was
the best investment I ever made.

Ren Renshaw, December 20, 2006