Lawhorn’s Lawrence: The music and mission of Clyde Bysom
It was a world of open windows back then.
Clyde Bysom, a Lawrence grade-schooler, walked by one of the tea rooms on Kentucky Street and heard the fine sounds of a clarinet being played by the proprietor’s nephew.
“It sounded good, and I thought it would be really neat to learn how to do that,” Bysom said.
Before long, Bysom was in a Lawrence school band with his own clarinet. Surely he had the same dreams that musicians have had since reeds first touched lips: adoring fans, Carnegie Hall concerts and a blockbuster hit.
After years of playing local dance halls and university socials, Clyde Bysom and the Jayhawkers had a chance for all that, it seemed. In 1940, the band was on the front cover of Downbeat magazine.
“Then along came the draft, and everybody went somewhere,” Bysom said.
To the top of the music charts was not the destination for most. But Bysom did get his blockbuster, of sorts. It was five-and-a-half tons and came out of the hatch of a B-29. The crew called it a blockbuster for obvious reasons: It would destroy about 18 square blocks of any Japanese city you aimed it at.
The war also taught Bysom that there are performances even rarer than those at Carnegie Hall. After all, thousands have played there. Only eight men played at the base of the Enola Gay when it safely landed in Tinian in August 1945. Bysom was part of the group on hand to play celebratory music as Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew descended from the plane.
“It was a one of a kind concert,” Bysom said. “The world sure had changed.”
The world’s first nuclear bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and the men who dropped it deserved a celebration.
“They were met,” Bysom recalled, “by all sorts of generals and admirals.”
And by Bysom and his saxophone.
Yes, it was an odd day. The banner headline news was that the world’s worst war was one giant step closer to being over. But it wasn’t lost on Bysom and his fellow airman what had just happened. As a member of an elite squad, Bysom and his colleagues knew about the Manhattan Project long before most of us.
“One of the Manhattan Project men had told us once that if there was an accident, there would be a hole about the size of Utah,” Bysom said.
So yes, Bysom knew there was tragedy that had come with this victory as well. But he also knew what he needed to do next: Play some beautiful music.
“It just felt natural,” Bysom said.
For Bysom, it always has.
A rendition of “Moon River,” played by memory, comes from the tenor saxophone. Bysom needs no sheet music, and it would be impossible to count how many times these exact notes have flowed from this horn. Bysom started playing the saxophone in high school, and he has had this particular instrument since 1938.
Bysom is now 96 years old, and his membership in bands has dropped to one, the New Horizons band, which plays at nursing homes and other such places every Friday of the school year.
But Bysom plays more than that. He still practices about four days a week.
“My doctor said he’ll start worrying about me when I quit blowing this horn,” Bysom says.
Bysom certainly believes a lifetime of music has played a role in his longevity. There’s the workout of the lungs, the workout of the mind and the joy of traveling the country with groups like Lawrence-based Paul Gray and the Gaslight Gang, which Bysom did after retiring from Reuter Organ in the early 1980s.
But don’t discount another benefit: It is quite possible that when you blow into a horn, you are pushing out as much worry as you are air. Bysom is convinced that music helped him get through the war. It appears that’s a feeling that went both ways.
“When an officer would find out that a few of us were musicians, he would have us come over to the officers club, and we would have beer and sandwiches and play music for them,” Bysom says. “It helped everybody relax. It gave us a chance to be away from our duties for a moment.”
On this day, Bysom’s duty was to either drop a five-and-a-half ton bomb in the ocean or on a Japanese city.
It is easy to forget that World War II did not immediately end after the bombing of Hiroshima and then of Nagasaki three days later. There still had been no Japanese surrender, and now it was time for Bysom and the crew of the B-29 “Some Punkins” to deliver its bomb, a nonatomic one destined for an arsenal in Nagoya. Sgt. Bysom was a command gunner, the fellow who sat in the tail of the B-29 during missions.
“Before we took off, they told us if the war ended before we got there, to drop the bomb in the ocean,” Bysom said.
But no such word of a surrender had come over the radio, so they dropped their bomb on the arsenal. A few hours later, it came over the radio that the war was over. There are some history books that say the bomb by “Some Punkins” was the last one dropped in World War II. Bysom has never bragged about that.
“If it wasn’t the last one, it had to be one of the last ones,” Bysom said.
It certainly was the last one Bysom dropped, and he was glad of that.
“When the news came over the radio, it was great,” Bysom said. “We were all ready to celebrate.”
Perhaps play some music, upon landing?
“Actually, I think it was mostly drinking that night,” Bysom said with a laugh.
Fair enough. The war had been won. Clyde Bysom was coming home, and he would spend the rest of the days making sure there was beautiful music.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.