In his 96 years, Sid Gussaroff has bossed around the commander of the Fifth Army and arranged music for big-band legend Jimmy Dorsey. He's got a treasure chest of war stories, tales from the music world and some golden moments from the golf course.
Gussaroff, now a Roslyn resident and avid golfer, was a battlefield medic for the Army during World War II. "Many times we operated on a litter in a tent right off the battlefield," he said.
One day, near Viareggio, Italy, in a scene repeated many times before and after, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) team was working on a seriously wounded soldier.
"If we didn't operate on him, he would have never made it back to the hospital," recalled Gussaroff, then a technical sergeant. "It took about 2 and a half to 3 hours. All of a sudden, I feel pressure on my back. This guy was pressing up against me . . . He kept pressing and I said, 'Could you stop pushing me? I have important work to do. I can't concentrate. Please stop. I don't want to ask you again.' He kept doing it. I got so angry, I started to curse him."
When the operation was over, the patient saved, the surgeon passed along this bombshell:
"You know who that was? ... That was General Mark Clark, the commander of the Fifth Army."
Taken aback, Gussaroff said his response was, "There goes my tech sergeant. I'm going to probably be a private now."
Don't worry; he wasn't busted down in rank.
"On my way to get a sandwich, I see General Clark coming up my way, in the same aisle. I salute him, he has to salute me back. He says, 'Good job sergeant.' I tell you, that was the biggest surprise of my life."
Gussaroff grew up in Brooklyn, took up the guitar as a teen and went to work at Franklin Simon, a Manhattan department store, after graduating from James Madison High School.
In his spare time, he studied music arrangement with composer Otto Cesana, who had an orchestra and taught in a studio on West 57th Street. It was there that he began getting gigs as a musical arranger from big-band leaders.
"They all had regular arrangers but they had a lot of songs coming out, and one guy couldn't do all of it," Gussaroff said. " They'd call and I'd come and help." Among the songs on which Gussaroff is listed as arranger is "If I Were You and You Were Me"
Then the Army called and World War II interrupted his life for 4½ years. He left with seven medals, including the Bronze Star.
At war's end, Gussaroff said, he was offered a scholarship to go to medical school in Virginia but turned it down because he couldn't afford room and board.
Plus, he had a new wife, Alice, whom he met at a rehearsal at Nola Studios above Lindy's restaurant.
Gussaroff said that when he tried to start his own band, he received some advice from a big-name acquaintance who would someday own the New York Jets.
"Sonny Werblin was the CEO of MCA, which was the biggest booking agent in the country. He lived one block away from me in Brooklyn. He said you can't use the name Gussaroff. He gave me two names we chose one, Sid Russell and His Orchestra.
Big-band music faded away with the war and Sid Russell got into publishing after studying advertising and public relations on the G.I. Bill.
"That name stuck with me in the publishing business," he said.
After some time in sales, he co-founded "Materials Handling Digest," then sold his interest in that and founded "Area Development," which is still publishing, 50 years later.
Nowadays, Gussaroff helps care for Alice, his wife of 69 years, and plays golf when he can.
He said he has shot his age -- a difficult feat -- numerous times, although he does not have a precise count. He does know that he did it first when he was 72 and last when he was 91. "Then I quit putting in scores," he said.
Gussaroff also has made four holes-in-one, two of them in Florida and two at the Muttontown Club in East Norwich, where he has been a member for the past 52 years. He is so valued, in fact, that last year he was named Muttontown's first and only honorary member, meaning he has full privileges without having to pay dues.
The distinction was partly in recognition of being the club's entertainment director for 16 years, attracting Woody Herman and other big names he knew from his days in the music industry, along with his military service and his tenure with the club. He also makes a moving speech in the clubhouse every Memorial Day, one full of personal perspective from a man who served his country at Anzio and other battles.
"He has done a lot of interesting things and I think he has enjoyed every moment of it," said his daughter, Randi Shea.