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LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

Teen Age Idol

I’m too old for this. Teen age idol? Aw, c’mon.

I was madly in love with Johnny Mathis (who?) then traded him in for Marlon Brando who I thought was very cerebral and deep. I loved (still love) the Beatles. the Doors and the Stones, but they weren’t my idols … just great bands I enjoyed.

I had a bit of thing for Harry Belafonte, but he was hot.

72-Beatles-Imperial_02

it was more than 50 years ago. Seriously. That’s half a century.

If it was ever relevant, it has long passed over into mildly amusing trivia of the distant past.

 

DUST IN WHOSE WIND?

Dust in the Wind

Have you made your bucket list? Now’s the time — write about the things you want to do and see before you become dust in the wind.

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WordPress suggested we write about our bucket list (again). The subject alarmed me (again). I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve never had a bucket list. Until the movie of the same name came out in 2007, I’d never heard the expression.

Clearly I am and have always been out of touch with popular culture. When I was a kid, I always had my head in a book. When everyone else was dancing to the tunes on American Bandstand, I was practicing Chopin or Mozart on the piano. I didn’t have time or — if I want to be honest, the inclination — to spend afternoons watching something I found kind of dopey. I wouldn’t have admitted it under torture, but I never understood what they found so fascinating.

In elementary, junior high school, and even high school, I was so out of step that even amongst misfits I was a misfit. Yet by the time I got to college, there were enough people like me to form a sub-culture of oddballs who did their own thing. I finally fit in.

At some point in my life, I opted out of trends and fashions. I stopped reading reviews, cancelled subscriptions to fashion and home decorating magazines. I have no idea what’s in style. I’m wearing essentially the same clothing I wore in college. Or maybe high school. As for home furnishings, decisions are entirely based on back-friendly design and how well the upholstery can withstand and/or blend with dog hair.

Because I read a lot and enjoy movies, I poke around to see what’s coming out, but I have no idea what’s on any best-seller or most-popular list. I have favorite authors and genres. I listen to the same music I listened to 40 years ago. It wasn’t popular or fashionable then either, but I like it. Good thing my husband shares my lack of concern with what’s current, trendy, or “hot.”

The closest thing I have to involvement with The Latest Things is a passion for technology. From the day I first got my hands on a computer back in the early 1980s, a lightbulb went off and I said “This is a better way.” I never looked back. I’m not quite as on top of the techno wave as I was a decade ago when I was working in the development world, but I retain a keen interest and strong opinions about technology, operating systems, databases and software. My granddaughter makes fun of me … until her computer stops working and suddenly, I morph from granny to guru.

I enjoy donning my cape and mask and slaying computer demons. It is a rare Old Person who gets to be a heroic in the eyes of a teenager, even briefly.

I am most at home in the world of words. As much as I write, I read more. Obviously I don’t sleep much. This blog is my reward for spending my entire professional life writing about abstruse software and hardware. Now, finally, I get to write for fun.

Many of my favorite books and movies got lousy reviews. The books didn’t sell, the movies flopped at the box office. Garry still reads reviews and passes them to me if he thinks I’ll be interested. It is not uncommon for us to wonder if these reviewers watch or read the same stuff we do. It doesn’t sound like it.

Thus my lack of a bucket list. If I wanted to do something, I did it. If I didn’t do it, it was because it wasn’t all that important. Today I’m limited by money and health, but when I was younger, I did my own thing. I wanted adventure. A life composed of suburban predictability was much scarier than any risk I could take.

I wanted to live in another culture and I did. International moves with 10 year interruptions of career are not fiscally sound choices, but I wouldn’t trade that “lost” decade for anything. And who’s to say it would have turned out differently anyhow? I bet we wind up where we are supposed to be no matter what we do.

I don’t need to regret what I missed. I know it’s a cliché, but “at least we have memories” isn’t ridiculous or sentimental. It means you’ve lived. You can’t buy a life you missed. You have to be there, have been there. You had to choose the foolish, unsafe path to get the stuff that money can’t buy.

The whole idea of a bucket list bothers me. How can you codify life on a list? You get opportunities, see forks in the road. People come into your life. You choose to do it or not. If you say no, maybe you’ll get another chance, a different opportunity … but most people never accept any invitation to get off the path, even temporarily. They have lots of good reasons. Money, responsibilities, uncertainty. Fear.

They wind up with bucket lists which are a summary of regrets, organized statements of missed opportunities, paths not taken. Maybe that’s sensible, but I’d have hated it. So I don’t have a bucket list. Instead, I had a life.

MY BRIEF CAREER IN ANIMAL CONTROL

I live in a small town. Just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

Our closest neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.

Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss. When you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:

Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance.  If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.

There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville, spread out thinly.

Downtown Millville.

Perhaps 7 years ago — I don’t remember exactly — the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.

This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.

Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a full-time job elsewhere too. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer and would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the Bible. I promised to protect and serve.

A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. Since it was my first call — and a weekend — my “senior officer” thought maybe he should come along, show me the ropes as it were. Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.

Me: “Shoot it?”

Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”

Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”

Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”

Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”

Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lotta rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”

Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.

After we bagged the skunk — literally, using gloves and shovels provided by the town of Millville — to send to the Worcester county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need, like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.

My boss was unconcerned I’d never handled a weapon other than a Red Ryder Daisy BB rifle. I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed. Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.

When I was finally able to get to city hall, I demanded a rabies vaccination. No way was I going to handle rabid animals without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.

Me: “How much will it cost?”

Clerk: “Around $450.”

Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”

Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”

Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”

It turned out that the animal medical examiner could provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look alarmed – drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods. “Why,” he said, “Just the previous week they found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even possums get rabies.” The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.

The following day, I got another call. A really big snapping turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.

A common snapping turtle.

Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the river side of the road. That someone was me.

This turtle was not in the water, not docile. His beak was sharp. His neck was extremely flexible. Not my kind of nature pal.

So there I was, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of pissed turtle. He seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was determined to bite me.

Meanwhile, an entire construction crew, these big brawny guys who supposedly repairing the bridge, were watching. They didn’t seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.

I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation as to strength of gloves versus power of turtle’s jaws, decided the gloves weren’t all that sturdy.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road, was calling the clerk and resigning.

The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.

They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.

THE PORCH – Marilyn Armstrong

Across from the old barn is the house. Fully restored, it dates to the mid 1700s. The owner painted all the rocking chairs herself.

 

Woodcleft Canal – Marilyn Armstrong

Freeport, Long Island. It’s in Nassau Country, the closest county on Long Island to New York city. I grew up in the city … in Queens, which is a borough of New York. Each of New York’s boroughs has its own character and in many ways, is a city in its own right. Certainly people who grow up in Brooklyn identify themselves as Brooklyn-ites and if you come from the Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx, you will always identify that as your “home ground” rather than just “New York.”

Colorized postcard of Woodcleft canal with houses visible on the right side of the photo. Postmark: “” Merrick, N.Y, September 3, 1907″ Addressee and Address: “M.A. Hansen, 791 59th Street, Brooklyn” Message [on front]: “” Sept. 1, 07. Have a good time. May” – From the Freeport Historical Society Postcard Collection

Between the picture postcard and our visit lay almost exactly a century.

People from Manhattan have a strong sense of superiority because they come from The City. For reasons that are hard to explain, but perfectly obvious to anyone who has lived there or even visited for any length of time, Manhattan is the heart of New York in ways that cannot be simply explained. It’s not just because it’s the center of business. In fact, that really has little to do with it. It just is what it is. Even when I was a kid growing up in Queens, when we said we were going “into the city,” we  meant Manhattan. If we were going anywhere else in the five boroughs, we said we were going to Brooklyn or the Bronx or some specific neighborhood … but the city was Manhattan and no doubt still is.

I moved to Long Island in 1963 when I was 16 and had just started college. I never moved back to the city, though for many years, we went there for shows, museums, all the things available in a city and not in suburbs or other outlying areas. And of course, work.

A few years of my childhood, before I was 5 and moved to Holliswood, we lived in an apartment house — really, a tenement — on Rose Street in Freeport, near Woodcleft Canal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area near the canal was decrepit. Living “near the docks” was not a good thing, certainly nothing to brag about. My family was going through hard times and it was the best we could afford.

My mother hated it. It was the middle of nowhere and she didn’t drive. For her, born in Manhattan, a lifelong resident of New York, what was Freeport? Long Island? That was farm country where you went to buy vegetables at farm stands. My mother, an urbanite to her core, understood poverty but being poor in the country was her version of Hell.

My memories are limited but I see in my mind a big white stucco building with no architectural features. A large white box that didn’t fit into the neighborhood. It stuck out so that even by the less stringent standards of 60 years ago, it was an eyesore. It hasn’t lost that quality. It is still an ugly building, but I expect the rent is higher.

We drove down Rose Street to look at it. I was curious if I would recognize it, but I did. Instantly. I think early memories are deeply embedded in our psyches. Then, having satisfied curiosity, we found out way to the canal.

Reflections in the canal.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the canal lined with marinas and yachts. The road along the canal has the usual expensive restaurants featuring faux nautical decor. It was a trifle weird.

There were many huge Victorian houses in Freeport back in the 1970s that you could buy for almost nothing. A great deal if you had a lot of money with which to fix one of them up. Those grand old houses … there are still a few around there and here too, but restoring one is big bucks and maintaining them, even if you can afford the initial restoration, out of the range of most people. I’m glad that some have survived. They are magnificent, though even thinking about the cost of heating one is frightening.

Everything changes.

You can’t go back in time except in your memory. Sometimes, if you treasure the way it was, how you remember it, it’s better not to revisit places. Keep your memories intact because then, the places you remember will always be the way they were.

Portal – Marilyn Armstrong

Entry hall to the college … the portals of academia.

Bright sunlight through the arched glass doorways of the school turn the entry hall luminescent. It’s the way schools ought to look … the way such places always look in your memories.

AND STILL HE RIDES!

The original Lone Ranger and Tonto — Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore

I grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto racing around my bedroom. It was the wallpaper that informed me he was the “Lone” not the “long” ranger because until then, I was sure he was the Long Ranger … as in “he rode great distances.” Or maybe he was just very tall.

Other girls had Disney Princesses, but I had “Hi Yo Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides Again!” Although my walls did not play music, I could hum well enough and I had many a long chat with Lone and Tonto, Silver and Scout as I lay abed in the evening pondering the meaning of life and how I could convince my mother to let me have a horse.

Eventually, as I rounded the corner into adolescence, the Lone Ranger and his trusty Indian Companion (who had led the fight for law and order in the early west) returned to those thrilling days of yesteryear whence they had come. They were replaced by plain, off-white paint. I would have preferred Lone and Tonto, but felt it was time for a change. The paper was old and getting a bit tattered so it was hard to argue the point.

This did not end my allegiance to the first love of my life. I don’t honestly know what it is about masked men on horses that turns on all my lights, but both Zorro and Lone made me woozy with unrequited love. As the years rolled on, I became very attached to Tonto, not as Tonto, but as Jay Silverheels, the actor, whose career I continued to follow long after the Lone Ranger had disappeared from the airwaves.

I still love the Lone Ranger and I didn’t let Johnny Depp spoil it for me by the simple expedient of not watching the movie when it came out or since then.

The Lone Ranger fought the good fight. He never asked for thanks and would run away rather than have to accept them. He was the goodest of the good guys and whenever I’m not sure what to do in a morally ambiguous situation, I can always ask myself “What would the Lone Ranger do?”

Then, I send Garry to town because when in doubt, the Lone Ranger always sent Tonto, right?

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BERT LAHR – NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why?

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve travelled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

A LITTLE BIT OF SUGAR

Daily Prompt: Pour Some Sugar on Me

I’m not a big sweet eater anymore. It has nothing to do with discipline or self-control. It just happened. Especially chocolate. I was a fanatic about chocolate, but these days, other flavors have more appeal.

I can’t eat a lot of sugar anyhow. My blood sugar and I made a deal. I lay off the heavy sugar fixes and it won’t make me sick. It’s pretty basic. I know if I eat more than a little of anything sugary, I will pay and I won’t like the terms. It’s enough to make me think twice.

dessert Island

I can eat a little, more in the morning. It sits better early (rather than late) in the day. I’m sure there’s a reason for that, but don’t know what it might be. In compensation, I spend an inordinate amount of time planning to bake. But I don’t. I also plan to buy sweeties but inevitably forget to put them in the cart. If I bake or buy, I eat and grow fat. Which brings me to the next issue.

I’m watching my weight. Mainly, I’m watching it rise. I know for a fact (popular diet mythology notwithstanding) plans and intentions don’t make one fat. You have to really eat the stuff. Sniffing it, being near it, looking at and longing for it — all free. Despite my best efforts, I’ve been putting on weight slowly but steadily for a few years, ever since the drugs I took following breast cancer killed my metabolism. After the surgery and the drugs, my body changed. I eat the same — same stuff, same amounts — as I did before. It kept me thin for a long time, but now, not.

96-OragnesHannaford_12

I made peace with my rounded self. I can’t eat much less. The injustice of it keeps hitting me. If I’m going to grow round anyhow, shouldn’t I get to have an orgiastic eating experience?

In lieu of other sweets, I eat fruit. With or without Splenda, depending on season and fruit. This time of year, the only good fruit we get is citrus. Grapefruit and oranges. I eat a lot of them. Fortunately, I love fruit. And vegetables.

My non-standard digestive system doesn’t like this stuff nearly as much as my mouth does, so I have to be careful. Moderation. I keep it down to two pieces of citrus and one order of veggies per day. That same picky system also doesn’t care much for carbs. It’s okay with modest quantities of rice and potatoes, is intolerant of pasta and bread. I can eat some. One slice of bread. A few forks of pasta. More gets dodgy.

Beverages? Nothing with sugar. Make me sick. Fast.

In self-defense, I’ve learned to enjoy a little bit of whatever I want. A tiny amount of jam on an English muffin. A dribble of syrup on a waffle. A half a cookie. A bite of cake. If I ate more, it wouldn’t taste better, right? And — I eat desserts ever so slowly. When everyone else has washed the dishes and gone off to watch TV or whatever, I’m still working my way through a dollop of pudding.

Our bodies are forever changing. This is Truth today, but who knows what it will be in a few weeks? Everything changes. If we aren’t dead, we are changing, metamorphosing into whatever we will be. I can handle it.

Well, I think I can. I am definitely going to try.

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1969 – MY FAVORITE YEAR

1969 was the year I learned to fly. The world spun faster on its axis. Everything changed.

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July 1969. I watched it unfold. I was a new mommy with a 2 months old baby boy. Home with the baby and not working or in school, I had time to see it happen.

English: Neil Armstrong descending the ladder ...

I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Imagine, a real live man on the moon!

We viewed it on CBS. It was obvious Walter Cronkite wanted to be up there too. Up there, with Neil and the rest of Apollo 11. He could barely control his excitement, almost in tears, his voice breaking with emotion.

The great Arthur C. Clarke was his guest for that historic broadcast. Neil Armstrong died last year. He had a good life. Unlike so many others who fell from grace, he remained an honorable man: a real American hero.

How I envied him his trip to the moon. I always tell my husband that no man will ever take me away from him, but if the Mother Ship comes and offers me a trip to the stars, sorry bub, I’m outta here. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth, but if they could do it on Cocoon, maybe there’s time for me, too. Maybe Garry can come with me.

Woodstock was just a month away and there were rumors flying about this amazing rock concert that was going to happen upstate. I had friends who had tickets and were going. I was busy with the baby and wished them well.

There were hippies giving out flowers in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. But I didn’t envy them because I was happy that year, probably happier than I’d ever been and in some ways, happier than at anytime since.

I was young, still healthy. I believed we would change the world, end war, make the world a better place. I still thought the world could be changed. All we had to do was love one another and join together to make it happen. Vietnam was in high gear, but we believed it was going to end any day … and though we soon found out how terribly wrong we were, for a little bit of time, we saw the future brightly and full of hope.

I had a baby boy and I sang “Everything’s Fine Right Now” which I first hear sung by the Holy Modal Rounders at a local folk music club. They had been the stonedest group of people I’d ever met, but the song was a great lullaby and made my baby boy laugh. 

It was the year of the Miracle Mets. I watched as they took New York all the way to the top. A World Series win. 1969. What a year. I rocked my son to sleep and discovered Oktoberfest beer. New York went crazy for the Mets. It should have been the Dodgers, but they’d abandoned us for the west coast.

I wore patchwork bell-bottom jeans and rose-tinted spectacles. I had long fringes on my sleeves and a baby on my hip.

Music was wonderful. How young we were! How sure we could do anything, everything.

We were going to end war … end THE war … right every wrong. As we found the peak, we would almost immediately drop back into a darker valley. But for a year, a happy year, the stars aligned and everything was good.

Decades passed; youth was a long time ago. The drugs we take control our blood pressure, not our state of consciousness. They aren’t any fun at all.

I worry about Social Security and Medicare and I know I’m not going to fix what’s wrong with the world. I’ve lived a lifetime. My granddaughter is barely younger than I was then.

I’ve remarried, lived in another country, owned houses, moved from the city to the country, and partied with a President … but 1969 remains my year.

REMEMBERING RICHARD JAECKEL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Boston, 1973.

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was warm. We shot in shirtsleeves in the lobby of the TV station. I couldn’t get a studio and was being urged to get the shoot finished as quickly as possible. The “suits” were unimpressed with Richard Jaeckel. James Coburn was the hot interview on the circuit as “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” was being pushed by publicists. Richard Jaeckel was very pleasant and friendly even before we rolled the camera.

jaeckel -1He asked about what I did. I gave him a snapshot biography back to my radio days and shooting my own film at a previous TV station. He grinned and said it was good to be working with a “grunt”. The rapport was established.

I mentioned having interviewed Gregory Peck a decade earlier, how well we got along. Jaeckel segued into working with Peck in one of his earliest films, “The Gunfighter” (1950).

As Jaeckel talked, I nodded for my cameraman to begin shooting. He smiled. He’d been shooting since Jaeckel and I began swapping war stories. The interview flowed smoothly.

It was more like a conversation between friends than an interview to promote a film. We chatted more than 10 minutes before I mentioned “Pat Garrett” and Jaeckel again smiled, saying he’d forgotten he was supposed to be promoting the film.

He discussed working with the quirky Sam Peckinpah and scene-stealers like Chill Wills. I asked about Bob Dylan, also in the film. Jaeckel’s smile got bigger as he recalled the folk singer’s kid-like behavior working with “movie stars”.

About 20 minutes later, we wrapped the interview. I asked Jaeckel what was next on his schedule. He said he was free for the afternoon. I suggested a pub near the station might be fine for lunch. He quickly agreed.

Drinks and meals ordered, Jaeckel and I began a three-hour conversation touching on family, movie making and the business of promoting movies. We found a common thread in our roots in New York, in our frustration with management and “the suits.”

I mentioned how I was always “the kid” at every stop in my career. He nodded and jumped in with stories about working with Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Karl Malden and Richard Boone in some of his very early movies. He said they all treated him well but he was always called “the kid”.

richard-jaeckel-dirtydozen-7Jaeckel broke into guffaws when I asked about working with character actors like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Lambert — all well established screen villains. He said they were the easiest and nicest people to work “jobs” (films) in the business. Jaeckel slid into a brief note about his son, Barry who was a rising tennis player. I quoted some stats which prompted a very pleased grin and a final round of drinks. We ended the afternoon with him picking up the tab, saying he had really enjoyed the day and would check me out on the tube before leaving Boston.

The next evening, just after the 6 pm newscast, I got a call. It was Richard Jaeckel. He’d caught me doing a news piece.

“Good job, Kid”, he said.

“Thanks, Kid”, I replied. We both laughed and wished each other well.

More

“Chisum” is a goodie directed by Vic McLaglen’s son, Andrew. Jaeckel had made it 3 years before “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was, he said, fun working with Wayne and a many from the John Ford stock company.

BanacekS1During our lunch,  Jaeckel recounted the off-camera sparring between vets like Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson,  Forrest Tucker and Duke Wayne versus “kids” like Andrew Prine, Geoff Duel and Christopher George. There were drinking contests with the old guys daring the younger guys to match them shot-for-shot of the hard stuff. The old guys won.

Jaeckel said by the time he made “Chisum” he was regarded as a “tweener” by Wayne and his buddies. He wasn’t harassed like “the kids” but wasn’t quite accepted by the old guys.

Jaeckel said Bruce Cabot was a mean drunk and was reprimanded by Wayne, who himself wasn’t always friendly when he was loaded. Ben Johnson was a friendly, easy-going guy who wasn’t intimated by Wayne who tried to goad his old pal. Christopher George who I met on another occasion confirmed Jaeckel’s stories.

Another Meeting

The second meeting with Richard Jaeckel occurred when “Banacek” was shooting in Boston. We used to have a charity softball game on Boston Common. This time, it was the media all-stars versus George Peppard, the “Banacek” crew and the Playboy Bunnies.

Kegs of beer were set up for both benches. The drinking began before the game and never stopped. Before the first game, the flacks were introducing Peppard to media folks. Jaeckel was a guest star on the “Banacek” series. He pulled Peppard over and introduced me as his buddy, a “grunt” who knew his stuff a holdover from our initial meeting.

Peppard grinned broadly, shook hands and led us behind the bench where he had a carton of his private stock of “the good stuff.” I don’t remember much about the game. I do recall we did justice to the carton of the good stuff. The following day, Peppard –notoriously difficult with the press — turned up for an interview I hadn’t scheduled.

Richard Jaeckel was his driver.

LIBERATION – A MUSICAL THAT ALMOST WAS

“Just imagine how awful we’d feel,” I told Betty one day, “if we got to the end of our lives and never produced our play. Especially if we really could have.  We’d always regret it.”

That’s how I convinced Betty to produce Liberation.  We’d update the story. Tell it as a flashback.  I knew she wasn’t entirely convinced,  but that was her way.  She was critical, skeptical of everything. It was her strength.

Twenty years earlier we had been in summer stock together.  After rehearsals,  we’d adjourn to Betty’s apartment to tell jokes, sing songs and laugh our way to midnight.  Those summers doing our best to entertain an audience and ourselves would become our “good old days.”

We worked on a variety of projects and developed a talented circle of friends.  Betty was 2 years my senior, always the stage manager and sergeant-at-arms.  She kept us in line during our silliest youthful moments.

Rich and Betty at Pajama Game rehearsal

Rich and Betty at Pajama Game rehearsal

We decided it would be a great idea to write our own musical, a big production like those we had been part of in the past.  Betty and I would write the book.  Michael, who had overwhelmed us with a beautiful original song about our group called “Friends,” would compose the music.  I had already worked on a Christmas song with Michael and thought I could write the lyrics.

Maybe in a year or two, we thought, it could become our very own summer theater production.  What a terrific idea it seemed.  All we needed was the right story. It didn’t take long to come up with what we thought was a good one.

It was the middle of the Women’s Liberation era and we decided to use the movement as the setting.  We did not envision a drama but rather a lighter treatment, the story of a strong woman being kept from advancement because she was a woman. In our minds “Jackie” was like Mary from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not quite as outspoken as the leaders of the women’s movement, but determined to succeed.

Betty and I went to work on our outline.  We needed the “who, what, where, when, how.”  “Why” was easy. We wanted to do it and didn’t need a better reason. You can guess who crafted the strong-willed women in the story.  Of course we used people we knew as models for some characters, but I can never reveal that information unless we win a Tony. Then we can do whatever we want.

As we wrote the story, I handed off lyrics to Michael for various songs we wanted.  We weren’t sure how all the songs would fit — or even if they would fit, but we knew what we wanted to say.  After seven months of working on the story, with more than half a dozen songs in hand, Betty and I dumped everything and started over. It had become a complete muddle.

Starting over, we knew what we wanted. We defined each character and his or her role in the story.  We had the setting, the conflict, the resolution.  No phony Hollywood love-story ending with characters living happily ever after, but nonetheless a happy ending — differently happy.

Soon we were writing scenes in order.  The title tune became a collaborative effort as Betty and I tossed ideas back and forth, then threw them at Michael while he pounded out chords on Betty’s piano.  A second act song was written first.  A comedy song was a labor of love. The song we envisioned for the main character was Betty’s favorite.  At a critical juncture in the first act, the main character declares alone on stage, “I Believe.” It took over a year to write but when it was finished, we were proud of the book and its songs.  It was what we wanted.

Sadly, when it came to marketing, we fizzled. We showed the book to a few people we thought might help us, but nothing came of it.

It had been a labor of love for all of us, but for Betty, it was real labor.  She was a fast typist.  While I thought out the story and we talked through it, Betty typed out the drafts.  This was before personal computers, so she typed and retyped copies using carbon paper (look it up!).  I have no idea how many times she retyped scenes to incorporate changes.  I will never in my life spend as much time typing as Betty did on Liberation.

Twenty years later, I told Betty the play would not be dated if we told it as a flashback. The main character would have again hit the glass ceiling and would be inspired to move forward by remembering what had happened twenty years before.  We needed a new opening, ending and one more song.

She agreed to give it a go.  We had developed relationships with people we thought might help us.  Betty and I toured theaters, met with theater companies, brainstormed strategies to raise money.  We wrote new material, polished old material.  We went to plays and worked as ushers.

Michael had moved on and was reluctant to revisit the show, but we needed him.  We not only wanted him to write a new song, but to score the show. That meant arrangements, scene change music, an overture.  We worked hard on convincing him. He eventually gave in to constant nagging reminders about “the good old days.”

20 years later

L to R: Betty, Rich, Michael, the Liberation writing team

Betty, as always, was fueled by cigarettes and diet cola.  Again she typed all the drafts and burned up hours on the phone with me discussing the new material.  When I finished crafting an original speech for the main character, in true Betty fashion, she said, “Richard, that’s a great speech.  No women would ever say that, but it’s a great speech.”

“OK”, I replied, a little deflated, “What would she say?”  Betty again gave voice to the main character and hero of our story. In the end we were more than pleased.

The story of the Liberation’s production by a local theater company on a large stage with an orchestra is a sad story you’ve heard before. We had no control of the final show. The company mounted a political drama with music. It wasn’t the musical comedy we’d written.  On my own, I agreed with the theater company to scale back the musicians for the third weekend and cancel the fourth and final weekend.  I didn’t consult my colleagues; we were losing money we didn’t have.

It had taken a couple of years from when I revived the idea to getting it produced. The work we did the second time around was just plain work.

Betty and I drifted apart after the show closed. She was terribly disappointed that my salesmanship did not put her dream on stage. She had dedicated a big part of her life to a youthful dream and it had come to nothing.

A few years ago I learned Betty had emphysema.  No surprise really. She had been a long time chain smoker.  Recently, I got an email from Michael. He told me Betty passed away.  He had read the news in an alumni newsletter and was crushed no one had informed us.

I was stunned.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I always believed I’d give Betty her show, the show we originally envisioned.  I imagined I’d drag her away from her typewriter and give her the spotlight she’d never shared when we performed.

Maybe now she’s been liberated from her suffering, but it is not the Liberation she deserved.

Find the lyric to the song today on Sunday Night Blog here.

YOU MADE THAT YOURSELF?

When I was a young mommy working full-time and raising my son, I thought I should make my own clothing. It would save a lot of money. My mom made all my clothing when I was a child. She continued throughout her life to make her own outfits and they were gorgeous and classy.

Now that I was grown up with a job and a toddler, she occasionally — if I begged and pleaded — made something for me. Things I wanted but couldn’t find in the store, or afford if I found them.

I waxed nostalgic about the days when Mom made my clothes. I didn’t appreciate how beautifully everything fit. How special the outfits were until I was much older. When I was a kid, I wanted was to look like everyone else. Kids are dumb that way.

sewing susan

I spent my entire childhood watching my mother sew things on her magic Singer. How hard could it be? I picked up a second-hand sewing machine. Took a sewing class. Bought a few patterns. Acquired fabric, zippers, buttons, threads — all those little widgets and doodads sewing requires.

There were a lot more than I imagined possible. And I made some spiffy new outfits. I was thrilled at how much clothing I could make for a pittance, especially compared to buying it at Macy’s.

People stared at my clothing. Admiration, I figured. They must be impressed. I was right.

Long pause. “You made that yourself?”

“How did you know?”

“Just a lucky guess.”

It turns out that you have to set both sleeves the same way so one isn’t puffy and the other flat. There’s pattern matching too. Oh, and buttons, which are supposed to line up. Zippers are not supposed to stick out and be all bunchy. Also, they are supposed to close so it’s level when zipped.

Details, details. Hems? One length all around. Those pesky collars? Hated collars. They never came out right.

Even is a big word in sewing. Both sides of a garment should be as close to exactly the same as possible. Unless you are oddly shaped or making a costume for a party and intend to look weird.

I took a another course, this time in tailoring. It didn’t go as well as sewing had. You had to use padding and stuff that stiffens fabric. I was never patient enough to get it right.

I gave up making my own clothing and returned to holding my little plastic card and yelling “CHARGE!” as I went into the mall. The sewing machine grew dusty. It is still gathering dust in my dining room.

It’s all closed now. But not wasted. It’s a lovely spare table on which to display dolls. I collect dolls. And no, I do not make their clothing.

I do many things myself. I get up and out of bed by myself. I wash dishes. Write, edit, take pictures, process photos. Pass out treats to dogs. Manage our so-to-speak finances.

singer sewer 2

Take more pictures. Water plants. Maintain this blog.

That’s pretty good, isn’t it? All by myself I mean?

Oh, and I fix computers, install software and if you need anyone to explain how to use something? I’m your gal. Does anyone need an older, but barely used sewing machine?