CAMPFIRE WITH LBJ IN VIETNAM, 1967 – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Location: A campfire in Vietnam near Saigon.

Year: 1967.

1967 and 1968 were very intense years for me. I had jumped directly from college and small time commercial radio, to ABC Network News. The time was right and the opportunity was there, but I was a kid thrust suddenly into the big leagues. My journalistic baptism started with the 6-day war in the Middle East which began on my first day at ABC. My professional life continued with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the volatile 1968 Presidential campaigns and a long visit to Vietnam, the first of several.

At headquarters in New York, my assignment was to receive reports from ABC’s field correspondents. I’d speak with them over static-riddled phone lines. Difficult to hear for anyone, harder for me. The daily MACV — or war front reports — were often significantly different from what the Pentagon reported. It was disturbing, worrying. Then, they sent me to Vietnam.

The sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam are still with me, 50 years later.

ABC needed a grunt to help the news team covering President Johnson’s visit to Vietnam. I was it. My job required I not allow myself to be distracted from the work at hand. I was a young reporter still learning the ropes. I had to stay focused on the story and exclude the other harrowing images around me.

LBJ vietnam 1967It was a typical evening, the never-ending noise of artillery in the background. It was what was called “down time.” Dinner around a campfire. GI’s, South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and news media, all hunkered down for chow. Everything was off the record. Chow was beans and some unknown local meat. Most of us ate the beans. Skipped the meat.

President Johnson or LJ as he told us to call him, squatted at the point of the campfire and told some colorful tales about dealing with his pals in the Senate and Congress. The stories were punctuated with smiles and profanities. LJ was drinking from a bottle which he passed around. Good stuff.

Halfway through dinner, the beans began to resonate. The smell was pungent! I must’ve had a funny look on my face because LJ gave me a withering stare and asked if I had a problem. I remember sounding like a squeaky 16-year-old as I responded “No sir.” LJ guffawed and passed the bottle back to me.

Before completing his trip, President Johnson confided to some of us that seeing Vietnam up close confirmed his worst fears. He broadly hinted he was unlikely to seek re-election, given the backlash of Vietnam back home in the States. I thought he sounded like one of my cowboy heroes putting duty above personal gain.

But it wasn’t a movie. It was the real thing. History in the making.

The following day was my final encounter with Lyndon Baines Johnson. There were handshakes, a smile about our campfire evening and LJ was again President Lyndon Johnson, one of the truly great American presidents.


Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th President of the United States, from 1963 to 1969. As President, he designed “Great Society” legislation, including civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education and the arts, urban and rural development, and a “War on Poverty”.

Johnson’s civil rights bills banned racial discrimination in public facilities, interstate commerce, the workplace, and housing. It included a voting rights act that guaranteed the right to vote for all U.S. citizens, of all races. Passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 reformed the country’s immigration system, eliminating national origins quotas.

Johnson was renowned for his domineering personality and his readiness to do whatever it took to advance his legislative goals.

WHY I LOVE LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the end of summer blues. Maybe it’s the lingering memory of last year’s winter from hell. Walter Houston is talk-singing “September Song” in my head and he won’t go away. A phone call from a dear friend who has received some bad news from his doctor just deepens my melancholy. I need to get out of this funk.

LUCILLE-BALL

Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. It suddenly reminds me of another August more than three decades ago. Late August and Lucy.

The assignment? Cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show. It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. Yes, I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by an entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signalled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second and she winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek..and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of the “I Love Lucy” reruns. I was just staring and marvelling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay. We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry look again. Lucy gave me that “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that wry smile again as she walked away.

AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn and I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Robert Mitchum on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) last night. We laughed a lot. It was a reminder of how good late night talk shows were. It also showed the legendary tough guy Mitchum as an affable and literate man who didn’t take himself seriously.

The Cavett show originally aired in 1970. I met Robert Mitchum the following year. Turned out to be a memorable encounter.

Robert Mitchum was in Boston to shoot “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, a film about small The_Friends_of_Eddie_Coyletime criminals. There was nothing small time about Mitchum. I lobbied for and got the TV interview assignment. Those were the days of “The big three” television stations in Boston. Two of the stations had prominent entertainment reporters. I was the “go to guy” at my station.

The established entertainment reporters had first dibs on Mitchum. Fine by me. I waited until shooting had wrapped for the day. I lucked out because they finished just before 1pm. The star was in a good mood because his work day was over. We shot one reel of film and I got everything I needed.

Mitchum seemed surprised we weren’t shooting more. Actually, he smiled when I said we had a wrap.

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me. Nothing, I told him. I was through for the day unless I was called for a breaking news story. I also assured him I probably would not be reachable. He smiled. He asked if I knew any quiet places where he could have lunch without being bothered. I nodded and he invited me to join him.

It was a small, dark place. It could’ve been a setting from one of Mitchum’s film noir of the 1940s. He smiled approvingly as we walked in. Several people greeted me. No one gave Mitchum a second look. We settled back with the first of many rounds that afternoon. At one point, Mitchum took off his tinted glasses, looked around the place and said I should call him “Mitch”. I nodded. He wanted to know how I could just disappear for the rest of the day. I told him I had recorded my voice tracks, shot all my on camera stuff and relayed cutting instructions after the film was “souped”. Mitch smiled broadly and went to the bar for another round of drinks.

robert_mitchum_by_robertobizama-d4ktib7We spent the next couple of hours talking about sports, music, women, work and celebrity. He noticed how people would look and nod but not bother us. I told him this was one of my secret places. Blue collar. No suits. He wondered why I hadn’t asked him about the “Eddie Coyle” movie or shooting in Boston.

Not necessary, I told him. Everyone knew about that stuff and it would be mentioned by the anchors introducing my stories. He smiled again, lit one more cigarette, and ordered another round.

It dawned on me that Mitch was leading the conversation. Talking about me. How I was faring as a minority in a predominantly white profession. Just like the movies, I told him. I explained I did spot news stories to get the opportunity to do features which I really enjoyed. He laughed and we did an early version of the high 5.

We swapped some more war stories, including a couple about Katherine Hepburn. He talked about working with her in “Undercurrent” with Robert Taylor when he was still a young actor. Mitch said Hepburn was just like a guy, professional, and lots of fun.

I mentioned meeting the legendary actress after I was summoned to her Connecticut home during my stint at another TV station. Mitch stared as I talked. I had tea with Katherine Hepburn who had seen me on the Connecticut TV station. She liked what she saw but had some suggestions about how I could improve what I did. I never could fathom why Katherine Hepburn would choose to spend time with this young reporter. No modesty. Just puzzlement. Mitch loved the story and ordered another round.

I glanced at my watch and figured I couldn’t stay incognito much longer. This was before pagers, beepers and, mercifully, long before cell phones. Mitch caught the look on my face and nodded.

Mitch walked me to my car and asked if I was good to drive. I tried to give him a Mitchum look and he just laughed. We shook hands and vowed to do it again.

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

IT CAN’T BE THAT BAD, CAN IT?

Can’t Watch This — When was the last time you watched something too scary, cringe-worthy, or unbelievably tacky to continue?


Almost everyday, I am offended by appallingly cliche-ridden, derivative shows proffered as “the next new thing” for us, the obviously dim-witted audience. Not to mention the “reality shows” like “Marriage Boot Camp” which has offended me merely by its advertisements. No, I haven’t watched one of the shows. If I become that senile or desperate, please shoot me.

Form unimaginative scripts, to the failure of the writers to do even the most basic research about the subject matter, to the inevitable use of tired old lines we hear thousands of times — “Stay in the car!” “Be careful out there!” “You’re off the case and on desk duty!” — to which we all say a weary, “Yeah, right, sure,” because no one stays in the car or on desk duty. And wouldn’t you think being careful would not be something of which you needed to remind police officers who’ve been doing it for years?

However, standing out from the crowd of mediocrity is a movie we had never seen. Was it an instinctive knowledge it would be terrible? Presenting (drumroll) …

WUSA (1970) 115 min – Drama | Romance – 12 March 1971

From the IMDB, a plot summary:

Rheinhardt, a cynical drifter, gets a job as an announcer for right-wing radio station WUSA in New Orleans. Rheinhardt is content to parrot WUSA’s reactionary editorial stance on the air, even if he doesn’t agree with it. Rheinhardt finds his cynical detachment challenged by a lady friend, Geraldine, and by Rainey, a neighbor and troubled idealist who becomes aware of WUSA’s sinister, hidden purpose. And when events start spinning out of control, even Rheinhardt finds he must take a stand.

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Robert Stone (screenplay), Robert Stone (novel)
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins and more.

WUSA_(movie_poster)It looks good on paper, doesn’t it? I mean Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, right? How bad could it be?

Bad. Very bad. The script starts off slow, but degenerates with each passing minute until it is so stunningly awful, so over-the-top hysterical and preachy, you find yourself glued to the screen, mouth hanging open, bits of drool falling from your slack jaw.

If, by some bad juju, this movie is showing on a television near you, save yourself! Find an oldies station and watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

There are probably worse movies lurking in the vaults of Turner Classics. I just hope we have the good sense to not watch them.

THE GARNER FILES: A MEMOIR – JAMES GARNER AND JON WINOKUR (2012)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Jim, we already miss you!

Originally posted on SERENDIPITY:

By James Garner and Jon Winokur – Release date: October 23, 2012

garnerfiles

From the first time I saw James Garner on TV as Bret Maverick, I was ever so slightly in love. I watched the show faithfully whenever Garner starred in the episode. They tried adding more Mavericks, but for me, there was only one. Apparently that’s how most viewers felt — when Garner was gone, the show was gone.

When I saw him in “The Americanization of Emily,” our relationship was sealed. I was a fan  for life. Although I have not seen every movie he ever made, I’ve seen most of them. I’ve liked some, loved most. Whenever one of his movies shows up on cable, it goes on the DVR. Fortunately Garry is a fan too.

Now, about the book. If you had the impression that Jim Garner is a plain-spoken guy with strong…

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CLEARANCE TIME AGAIN

It’s final clearance sale time. It may be the middle of summer according to the calendar, but in retail, summer’s over. Time to clear out and make room for the new fall fashions. Which is why I’m wearing my new orange dress from J. Jill.

Given my druthers, my entire wardrobe would be neutral. Dark, preferably black. Orange makes me feel as if I’m wearing a neon sign, though Garry thinks it looks cute. Not that he would ever wear this color. He’s even more New York than I am. His favorite color is (wait for it) … gray.

When I said I can’t go out in public in anything this bright, Garry said “This is Uxbridge.”

Uxbridge. On the way to the grocery store, we spotted her. A lovely, plump young thing. Wearing very short, tight, purple spandex shorts. With an over-sized bright yellow tee-shirt. Large bouncing breasts and obviously, no bra. But the thing that brought it all together, that made her larger than life, was her long, electric-blue hair.

She was walking while texting, the epitome of fashion in Our Town. Garry and I discussed the possibility she didn’t own a mirror, but decided she probably thought she looked really cool. I suppose that’s why Garry thinks an orange tee dress is no big deal.

The two colors you can always get at clearance sales are orange and purple.

purple and orange sweaters

End of the season shopping provides a limited choice of colors. Purple, orange. Beige. Ghostly white and unhealthy green. Also special colors which were supposed to be hot but weren’t. Named after food, you’ll find cantaloupe, mango, kiwi, aubergine, honeydew, sugarplum, pumpkin, mocha, and vanilla bean. In other words, purple, beige, and orange. Renaming does not a fashion trend make.

I shopped final sales and closeouts long before I was strapped for cash. It’s tradition. My mother raised me to hold fast to one unyielding principle: “Never pay full price.

You aren’t supposed to brag about how much you pay. You’re supposed to brag about how much you didn’t pay. The less you pay, the greater your bragging rights. I was astonished to discover some people are proud of paying a lot when they could have gotten for half off if they’d waited a couple of days. They might have had to get it in purple or orange, but think of the money they’d save!

Would I have different attitude towards shopping if I were richer? I don’t think so. To put it in perspective, in the early 1990s, I got into a tug of war with Carly Simon for possession of a 70% off final clearance silk blouse in a chi-chi shop in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Neither of us was poor. It was principal. It was orange. I won. It was a fantastic blouse.

Bargain hunting is not just for people on a tight budget. For some of us, it’s a contact sport. Somewhere in the ether, Mom is smiling proudly.

NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK?

Way back in the dark ages, the third week in February (an otherwise dreary and neglected month) was designated National Brotherhood Week. As designated special weeks go, it was never a big hit with the general public. In the 1980s, it disappeared completely. Probably because it failed to sell greeting cards. Which is, I believe, the point of such created events.

brotherhoodweek-624x446

The National Conference for Christians and Jews (NCCJ) came up with the idea of National Brotherhood Week in 1934. Given the current political climate, maybe we can agree more brotherhood year round would be an improvement. Sadly, we no longer have even that one, measly week.

February is now Black History Month which seems to mean movie channels run films featuring non-white stars. Unless you watch PBS or the History Channel where you might see a documentary or two.

The man who took it seriously — even in the old days — as he took all politics seriously, was Tom Lehrer. He taught math at Hahvid (Harvard, if you aren’t from around here). He didn’t write a lot of songs since he, till his dying day (which hasn’t occurred yet as he’s alive and living in California), thought of himself as a math teacher who wrote silly songs. Not as an entertainer.

Despite this unfair self-assessment, I’ve always felt Tom got this particular holiday dead to rights. Ya’ think?

He got a lot of stuff right. Check him out on YouTube. He only wrote about 50 songs and most of them are posted in some video or other. Me? I’ve got the CDs. (Remember CDs?)