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.

THE COAT OFF HER BACK

The year I was 16, I entered college where I discovered the true meaning of angst. I’d had a difficult childhood, but no one except a teenager can fully engage in suffering. By the following summer, at 17, I was deep in the thrall of breaking up with my first love. I had become a moaning, weeping, sodden wreck for whom life was worthless. What stretched before me was a vast puddle of lachrymosity. Pathos. Loss. Oh woe was me.

Somewhere along the way, my mother thought a chat with Aunt Kate would help pull me out of the Slough of Despond. She gave me a few bucks for subway tokens and bus-fare and packed me off for lunch in Manhattan with my favorite Aunt.

Even a despairing teenager can’t avoid perking up a little at the prospect of an elegant lunch in New York. On someone else’s dime.

We met in front of the New York public library, our family’s traditional location for liaison. After ritual greetings and appropriately flattering commentary – “You look wonderful, Aunt Kate!” and “So do you, darling!” — we headed to a hotel for lunch.

In my sudden enthusiasm, I pointed out to my aunt that I was still wearing the fake fur coat she had give me many years ago because I loved it that much.

“OH!” she cried. “You’re still wearing that old rag?” And there, in the middle of downtown Manhattan, she pulled the coat off her back and said I had to have it.

“Aunt Kate,” I pleaded. “We are in the middle of 6th Avenue. And it’s the middle of winter. You’ll freeze. We’ll be mowed down by traffic! Can we at least discuss this indoors? Please?”

Acceding to my wishes, as soon as we got to the restaurant, she made me swap coats with her. Hers was nice, even luxurious. Also a fake fur, but plusher and 5 years newer. She wore mine (the one with the torn lining) home. You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something — or accidentally suggested you might like something similar — you would own it.

Spode Tower Pink

Spode Tower Pink

The ultimate example of family caring were the dishes. Blame me. I started it. I bought the dishes at a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of old pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition. For $30.

Of course I bought them, but they were delicate, so I never used them. They remained in the closet gathering dust. Years passed. One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them.

One day, Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need, the days of dinner parties being long past.

My mother also had no need for a large set, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.

Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave them back. Of course, we never used them. I eventually gave them to the kids, who sold them on eBay. They knew they’d never use them either.

In life you find kindness and love, sometimes in the form of dishes. And there is the coat off your aunt’s back, proffered in the dead of winter in Manhattan.


WEEKLY WRITING CHALLENGE - Honey versus Vinegar

FEAR OF FLYING (UMBRELLAS)

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Once upon a time, my father had a business partner. I don’t remember his name, but he was a big, bluff Russian who used to come over the house and make gallons of cabbage soup.

He must have thought there were a lot more kids than there were because my mother couldn’t figure out how to store so much soup, even though we had a 24 cubit food standing deep freeze in the basement as well as a huge fridge in the kitchen.

Bob and my father would go into the kitchen and produce these gallons of soup and laugh a lot. We all had to eat it for weeks until we were sure we were turning into little cabbages.

Bob (or whatever his name was because actually, I’ve forgotten) was accident prone and an enthusiastic teller of stories, most of them about his own misadventures.

“So I was at the beach, at Coney Island” he says, almost shouting because he never said anything except very loud. “Very sunny. Blue sky. A nice day to take my mother to the beach, let her relax in the sun by the water. She is just settling down with her chair. And she asks me if I’ll set up the umbrella for her. I mean, she didn’t have to ask. I always do it, but she always asks anyway, like if she doesn’t ask I won’t do it. I took her to Coney Island, what did she think, I’m going to leave her to cook in the sun?”

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We all nodded dutifully. Because he was my father’s partner and we were kids, so what else was there to do?

“It’s a big umbrella. With stripes. Red and yellow. I got it myself, on sale. Umbrellas are expensive and this was a good sturdy one and I paid bupkas for it. If you ever need an umbrella …” and he paused to remember what he was going to say. “Anyway, this was one of the good ones, with a heavy pole so it would stay put.”

We nodded some more. Our job. To nod. Look very interested.

“I opened the umbrella and had to find the right place to put it because, you know, if it’s in the wrong place, the shade isn’t going to be where you want it. So I walked around a bit until I found just the right place. Then I took the pole and a jammed it into the sand as hard as I could and it went pretty deep. Seemed good and solid.”

We were still nodding. I must have been — maybe 10? — and had been taught to be polite, no matter what, to grown-ups. We did not call adults by their first name. I think my teeth would have cracked if I had tried or my tongue would have stuck to the roof of my mouth.

“What with everything looking okay and my mother settling down in her chair with a book, she looked happy. So I figured it would be a good time to get something to eat and I told her I would go get us some hot dogs — and something to drink. She said that was good, tell them to leave the mustard off because — she’s always reminding me but I know, I know — she doesn’t like mustard.

“I walked all the way over to Nathan’s — pretty long walk, all the way at the end of the boardwalk — because they have the best hot dogs” at which I was nodding with enthusiasm because Nathan’s does have the best hot dogs, “And fries. I got five, two for her — no mustard — and three for me. I was hungry,” and he paused to pat his substantial belly, “I started walking back. I could see where to go — I could see our striped umbrella all the way from the boardwalk.”

Nod, nod, nod.Nathans at Coney Island

“The weather began to change.  Suddenly. Big clouds coming from the ocean. And getting windy. This was all happening fast while I was out getting the dogs. Funny how weather changes so fast at the beach, you know? So now, I’m almost there when up comes a big puff of wind. That umbrella pulls right out of the sand and flies at me. Whacks me over the head. Boom. I thought my head was gonna come off.

“I dropped the food and fell over. Like a rock I fell and just lay there. My whole brain was like scrambled eggs. They had to come and take me to the hospital. I was completely compost for TWO DAYS! Two days! Compost!”

Be careful of flying umbrellas. They can turn you into compost, especially when your hands are full of hot dogs.

I CAN’T REMEMBER THE DETAILS

Back of the Queue – Is there something you’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to starting (an activity, a hobby, or anything else, really)? Tell us about it — and tell us about what’s keeping you from doing it.


I’m totally sure there’s something I planned — intended — to do with my life and didn’t get around to it.  The problem is, I can’t remember what that was.

Did I plan to get famous, write the great American novel? Yeah, that was one thing but you’ll have to forgive me. I think when this was my dream, I was 10, maybe 11. It didn’t even survive into my high school years. I can’t clearly remember If I had anything specific in mine or how I intended to reach my goal. It was a long time ago.

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When I was even younger, I wanted to be the Lone Ranger. Except the job was already taken. I didn’t have a horse, and (minor detail) I was (am) a girl. The details of this “plan” elude me now. I just remember the vague outline. Maybe this plan was never more than a vague outline. I was so young and it was a long time ago.

I was going to travel the world, live in another country, get absorbed in a different culture. Wait … I did that, didn’t I? I remember. A bit fuzzy, but these memories linger long.

I was going to be a working writer. A journalist. Run a newspaper, cover issues and events. Interview important people and see my byline on the front page. It’s coming back to me. I did that, though it was in another country and almost 30 years ago. I’m sure I enjoyed it a great deal, but time has softened the edges. Life does that. I may not remember every detail, but I know it was a great time.

So I’m looking back and I think I lived the life I wanted including pretty much all the stuff I wanted to do. It didn’t always work out exactly as expected, but that’s life. Man plans, God laughs.

Add another old saying: “Too soon old, too late smart.” If I could do it all over again … and believe me, I don’t want to do it again … I’d fine tune my plans a bit and maybe have a more profitable outcome. Because I had a good time. Even the bad times were good. I had fun. I laughed. I worked hard doing things I thought were worth doing. Some of my worst paying jobs were the most fun of all.

So maybe I wouldn’t do it differently after all. Because changing anything might ruin the experiences. The old butterfly effect, you know?

I can’t remember the details anyway, so this is my story. I’m sticking to it.


In real life, you have only two choices. They are fundamental, irrevocable, etched in stone.

You can die young … or you can grow old.

How you grow old — gracefully, grumpily, in good or poor health — isn’t up to you. But these are the only choices. I didn’t die young, so here I am. And I can’t remember a lot of detail, but I remember fun.

Laughter stays with you. I highly recommend not spending a lot of time grieving over what you missed and more time laughing with people you love.

 

SUMMER MOVIES, SUMMER NOT – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I just read an article about this year’s summer movies. Apparently, box office watchers don’t believe we’ll have any block busters. No matter because we don’t go to the movies very often these days. Chalk it up to boredom with product, exorbitant prices, and sheer laziness. But it got me to thinking about summers past.

This is nostalgia, the summer-themed films I remember seeing at the theaters during those lazy, hazy halcyon days. Some of them were fine movies, acclaimed cinema. Many were not. But it doesn’t matter because these are movies I fondly remember enjoying during the long, hot summers of youth.

JAWS

I covered the location filming on Martha’s Vineyard and did some of the “Great White” scare stories when the movie came out. I absolutely loved seeing the film — especially knowing the back stories. It still works for me!

Jaws-movie-poster

AMERICAN GRAFFITI

Saw it at a drive-in in 1973. The 50s — 60s nostalgia and music were terrific. I was driving my first convertible, a flame orange 1969 Dodge Challenger, fully loaded. You know what I was thinking

SUMMER OF ’42

I’m a sucker for summer romance stories. The ’42 setting (the year I made my début) made it extra special as did the gorgeous Jennifer O’Neill. Saw the film with friends from the small Connecticut TV station I worked at before coming to Boston. A special summer night

THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Saw this one summer of ’65 at the Syosset Theater on Long Island. My companion was the sweetheart of our college radio station. We sang the songs all the way home.

THE GREAT ESCAPE

It was the summer of ’63. I lost count of how many times I saw this in first run. I tried to emulate Steve McQueen by wearing the cutoff sweat shirt. Matter of fact, I had that sweat shirt for almost 40 years. Just ask Marilyn. And, no, I never tried to mimic Steve on a bike. Never that crazy!

great-escape-poster

SUSAN SLADE

Summer of ’62. I had a BIG crush on Connie Stevens! I still do. In my mind, that wasn’t Troy Donahue romancing Connie on-screen. Of course, Troy is long gone, but hey, Connie, I’m still here.

A LOSS OF INNOCENCE

It was also called “The Greengage Summer.” I saw it at the Hempstead Theater, Hempstead, Long Island. Summer of 1961 and the beginning of my crush on Susannah York.

A SUMMER PLACE

One of the first films I saw at a drive-in. 1959 on Long Island. Saw it with my best buddy and a gorgeous redhead. Another special summer night. Marilyn and I saw this again the other night at home. It wasn’t quite the same.

HOUSEBOAT

Summer of ’58. I was madly in love with Sophia Loren. I didn’t think Cary Grant was good enough for her. Years later, I met Sophia and told her the story. She laughed and gave me a kiss.

PEYTON PLACE

Summer of ’57. I was a sophomore in high school and quietly, desperately in love. The object of my unrequited affection was a dead ringer for Diane Varsi who played Allison in the movie. I’d read the Grace Metalious novel, including “those” parts several times. It’s still a guilty pleasure.

PICNIC

Summer of ’56. My baby brother, Anton, was just a few months old. I was his primary baby-sitter. “Picnic” was my first movie night out that summer. William Holden was my favorite actor. His “Moonglow Theme From Picnic” slow dance with the lovely Kim Novak did something to my precious bodily fluids. Years later, I met Holden and he laughed at my recollection of the movie. He said dancing with Novak did something to his precious bodily fluids too.

picnic-55-holden-novak-poster-1-f15

 

THE ROAD TO DENVER

A “B” western with John Payne. One of a bunch of westerns I saw during the summers 1950 through 1954 at a local movie theater where tickets were 11 cents for kids. I saw all the Audie Murphy, Rory Calhoun, Rod Cameron, Roy Rogers, etc. westerns. The Universal and Republic oaters were my favorites because the good guys had nice outfits and handsome horses. The coming attractions were exciting. I couldn’t wait to see the next film. The women? Forget ‘em.

SHANE

A memorable summer night in 1953. First encounter with one of my favorite westerns. Saw it with Mom at the Loews Valencia in Jamaica, New York. The Valencia was one of those old fashion palatial movie venues. You sat under the stars while watching the stars on the big screen.

shane poster-2

HOUSE OF WAX

Summer of ’53. Saw this with my Mom at the RKO Alden in Jamaica, Queens. The original 3-D version with Vinnie Price. One of the few films to scare the bejesus out of me. We walked home. A long walk. Mom held my hand. Don’t tell anyone. Years later, I told Vinnie Price this story. He laughed at me too.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

Saw this with Mom during the summer of 1952. We sang the music walking home on a perfect summer night with the fire flies providing the chorus.

THE THING

Summer of ’51. Mom and me again. Scary, scary movie. Saw this at our neighborhood movie theater, The Carlton, in Jamaica, Queens. The short walk home seemed a little longer. I kept looking over my shoulder for things that go bump in the night.


Lots of diverse, fond memories probably enhance my recollection of these movies seen over the summers of more than half a century. I treasure the memories and the movies.

CATSKILL COMEDIANS

Maybe you remember the old Jewish Catskill comics. Some of them went back to the old days of Vaudeville. Others are more recent. A fair number are alive and well, and a surprisingly large number are still working. Except the center of the action is Las Vegas. Maybe the Catskills will rise again. There are people trying to create a revival, so time will tell. Meanwhile, the ghost hotels are still there. Empty of life, but packed with memories.

Red Buttons, Totie Fields, Joey Bishop,  Milton Berle, Jan Murray, Danny Kaye, Henny Youngman,  Buddy Hackett, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Allan Sherman, Jerry Lewis (mostly at Brown’s Hotel),  Carl Reiner, Shelley Berman, Gene Wilder, George Jessel, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Phil Silvers, Jack Carter, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Mel Brooks, Mansel Rubenstein and so many others … they were all there.

Grossinger’s in the early 1970s, the end of the good old days

There was not a single swear word in the ” family” routines, but on the road, these guys were (are) as blue as any other comics. Also, when the punchline was in Yiddish, you knew it was too blue for English.

I always tried to get my mother to translate for me, but she said the lines were “earthy” in Yiddish, but disgusting in English. So mostly, I never heard the punchline.


 For your enjoyment, a few oldies but goodies:

I just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.

I’ve been in love with the same woman for 49 years! If my wife ever finds out, she’ll kill me!

What are three words a woman never wants to hear when she’s making love? “Honey, I’m home!”

Someone stole all my credit cards but I won’t be reporting it. The thief spends less than my wife did.

We always hold hands. If I let go, she shops.

My wife and I went back to the hotel where we spent our wedding night; only this time, I stayed in the bathroom and cried.

My wife and I went to a hotel where we got a water-bed. My wife called it the Dead Sea .

She was at the beauty shop for two hours. That was only for the estimate. She got a mudpack and looked great for two days. Then the mud fell off.

The Doctor gave a man six months to live. The man couldn’t pay his bill so the doctor gave him another six months.

The Doctor called Mrs. Cohen saying, “Mrs. Cohen, your check came back. ”  Mrs. Cohen answered, “So did my arthritis!”

Doctor: “You’ll live to be 60!” Patient: “I am 60!” Doctor: “See! What did I tell you?”

Patient: “I have a ringing in my ears.”  Doctor: “Don’t answer!”

A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says, “You’ve been brought here for drinking.”
The drunk says “Okay, let’s get started.”

The Harvard School of Medicine did a study of why Jewish women like Chinese food so much. The study revealed that this is because Won Ton spelled backward is Not Now.

There is a big controversy on the Jewish view of when life begins. In Jewish tradition, the fetus is not considered viable until it graduates from medical school.

Q: Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? A: Alcohol interferes with their suffering.

A man called his mother in Florida , “Mom, how are you?”  “Not too good,” said the mother. “I’ve been very weak.” The son said, “Why are you so weak?” She said, “Because I haven’t eaten in 38 days.” The son said, “That’s terrible. Why haven’t you eaten in 38 days?” The mother answered, “Because I didn’t want my mouth to be filled with food if you should call.”

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he has a part in the play. She asks, “What part is it?” The boy says, “I play the part of the Jewish husband.”  “The mother scowls and says, “Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part.”

Question: How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: (Sigh) “Don’t bother. I’ll sit in the dark. I don’t want to be a nuisance to anybody.”

Short summary of every Jewish holiday – They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

Did you hear about the bum who walked up to a Jewish mother on the street and said, “Lady, I haven’t eaten in three days.”  “Force yourself,” she replied.

Q: What’s the difference between a Rottweiler and a Jewish mother?
A: Eventually, the Rottweiler lets go.

Grossinger’s – 2008

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

I didn’t grow up poor, but when I was young, my father’s business was new. Money was tight. It got looser with the years, but by the time he started making serious money, I was gone from the family nest.

stick and ball

As a child, toys were few and far between. I always got one really nice doll every year. Usually for my birthday in March. My mother had exceptional taste in dolls and I have carried on the tradition and passed the taste for (now) antique dolls to my granddaughter.

Other toys, though … we didn’t have much. No one did. Everyone had a bicycle, even the poorest kids. Whether we got them brand new or third-hand, all of them were equally beat up. A shiny bike was a bike nobody rode.

Someone had a badminton set. Someone else had an old swing set. One of the girls had an inflatable pool. Monopoly was ubiquitous. We all had a set and we played it relentlessly for hours on Mary’s front porch on hot summer days.

We had decks of cards and learned to play bridge and poker. Someone could usually scrounge a length of rope for jumping. We built “forts” out of old crates. Otherwise, it was tag, stoop ball, stickball, hide n’ seek. Anything you could do without mom and dad supplying the tools. Because they didn’t. Wouldn’t. We were expected to make our own entertainment.

Creativity was our main weapon against boredom. We weren’t allowed to sit inside when the sun was shining. I wasn’t allowed to watch television at all. Sometimes I got a temporary pass to stay in if I was immersed in a book, but eventually, mom took the book away and told me to go out and get some exercise.

monopoly

Fresh air and exercise were deemed more important than another book. If given my druthers, I would have spent all my time reading — which was considered unhealthy, so out I went.

The other day in Walmart I saw a boxed “stickball” set. It included a special stick, and a couple of hard rubber balls. And of course, logos. You gotta have the logos, right?

A stickball set? I don’t know why I was shocked, but I was. To me, it signaled the death of youthful invention and imagination. No one would again sneak into the kitchen to try to steal mom’s broomstick. Or resurrect a nearly dead rubber ball for “just one more game.”

Why bother when you can ask your folks to buy a set at Walmart or order it from Amazon? Which doesn’t seem (to me, anyhow) to leave a lot of room for fond childhood memories. I’m glad I’m not growing up now.

The freedom of childhood has been collateral damage in the advance of technology. I don’t think I’d like being a kid now.

IS IT STICKBALL SEASON YET?

It’s heading toward the middle of June, the heart of baseball’s season. The Red Sox are in last place — I think. The Rays and the Sox have been duking it out for bottom of the Eastern Division all year. Garry would normally be obsessively glued to the television, but it’s a bad year. Very bad, so he has only been watching pieces of games. It’s less painful that way.

The sportscasters were talking about somebody getting stuck with an error because he couldn’t catch a ball on a bad bounce and how hard it is to catch them when they take an unpredictable bounce.

Spalding Hi-Bounce BallWhich got me to thinking about stickball. These guys are paid gazillions to play professional baseball. They have parks with groundskeepers, bases, uniforms, baseballs and even bats! How would they do without all that fancy stuff, huh? We didn’t have any of that. No siree.

We had old broomsticks and pink rubber Spalding balls. The broomsticks were worn out. If it was any good, your mother was using it and it had a broom attached. Try to take that broomstick and she’ll beat you with it. The ball? Half the time, they weren’t even round, just lumps of old pink rubber which had once, long in the past, been balls.

In hometown stickball, assuming you actually hit it (dubious), you had no way to predict where it would go. All bounces were bad. Crazy. The bases were “the red car over there” and “the big maple tree in front of Bobby’s house” and everyone agreed the manhole cover was home because it was more or less in the middle of the road. Third was the drainage grate over the sewer

It left the game wide open for serious disputes about fair versus foul. The team who was most vigorous in pursuing fairness or foulness got the call, especially since we were our own umpires and decisions were voted on (but the bigger team always won).

Stickball-Brooklyn-1989-8000-copy

Photo credit: mattweberphotos.com

If those super highly paid athletes had to play stickball, how well do you think they’d do? I’d just like to see those tough major leaguers playing stickball with a worn-out broomstick and an old pink Spalding ball bouncing all over the place.

That would teach them humility in a hurry.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

Today is Flag Day for those of a certain age. But in my family, it’s Esther Armstrong’s birthday. Mom has been gone seven years now. Gone but not forgotten.

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Esther Letticia Armstrong was a special woman. Wife of William Benfield Armstrong. Mother of Garry, Bill, and Anton Armstrong. I get top billing because I’m the oldest. Mom and Dad were married 61 years until Dad left us in 2002. They were a handsome couple!

I called my parents Mommy and Daddy for most of my life and it always seemed natural. Even when I was a veteran TV news reporter with decades of experience it seemed natural.

One evening I was preparing to do a live news report in the TV studio. It was the lead story. A big deal. Breaking news! My thoughts were interrupted by a colleague who said I had a phone call. No way. Put it on hold. Garry, it’s your MOTHER!  The newsroom grew silent.

I took the call. The story waited.

My Mom was a force of nature. I had no sisters, so I learned to do household chores early in life. Whenever I objected, Mom stopped me dead in my tracks with a strong, clear voice. Baseball and other critical things were secondary no matter how strongly I felt about my manhood.

My Mother was always supportive of learning and creativity. We always had books and records. Lots of them. I read books that I wouldn’t fully understand for years. But somehow I felt comfortable with Eric Sevareid’s So Well Remembered.

Decades later, Mr. Sevareid was impressed by my adolescent tackling of his book. The books and music fired my imagination. Mom would smile when I played big band music or vocals by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes she would sway in time with the music as if remembering a time when she was dancing.

I was Mom’s favorite movie date. Dad was usually tired. He often worked two jobs and just wanted to rest. So Mom and I went to the movies. Often three times a week. Yes, that’s how my love affair with movies was born and nurtured.

Mom seemed like a different person during our movie dates. She smiled and laughed. Those were the days of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly and other legends who were still in their prime on the big screen. I remember Mom giggling when we scored big on dish and glass night events at our local movie theater.

I know we tend to look back on our youth with rose-colored glasses. It’s normal. But there were lots of good times.

So, today as I remember Esther Armstrong’s birthday, I wish I could crank up my hearing aids and hear it again …

Garry, your Mother is calling you!

OUR TOWN IN THE VALLEY

Blog Your Block

In this week’s writing challenge, you are invited to write about the block on which you live.


We don’t really have blocks or sidewalks. Or streetlights. We have trees, rivers, lakes, ponds and a rich variety of wildlife … but blocks? That’s a city or suburban thing.

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This is the Blackstone Valley, part of the Blackstone Valley National Historic Corridor. Where America first built working mills using the Blackstone River to power them. Eventually we also had a canal, then a railroad. Stuff made in the valley was carried to the world. Then, as the 20th century dawned, the mills closed. The work went away and so did many people. The town went to sleep.

Our town hasn’t made it into the 21st century. It never entirely accepted the previous century either. It crawled forward — unwillingly – until the mid 1950s, then dug its heels in and said “Hell no, we won’t go.”

There we stayed. A pretty, quiet town. Very few shops, no movie theater or bowling alley. No public transportation — not even a taxi . No cute little coffee shops or sidewalk cafés.

Canal in spring - May

If that’s not enough, Boston’s an hour and a bit away. Worcester is just up the road. You can get to Providence in about 45 minutes. Depending on traffic. Other than natural beauty, an abundance of churches and a beautiful if underfunded public library, whatever you want probably isn’t here.

We have a new high school. Twenty years of arguing about it and after allocating millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school — and having those funds vanish with nary a trace – we were told we had to build a real High School or lose accreditation which would have made it tricky for our grads to get into college. So we built a high school — and our taxes have gone sky-high.

There is a mythos surrounding small towns. Cue “The Andy Griffith theme. On TV and in Hollywood, people disagree but everyone has the best interests of the town at heart. Good will always wins the day.

Here, the combination of nepotism, bullying, and a willingness to make life impossible for anyone who gets in their way has enabled a few families to keep a stranglehold on the town.They take what they want and the rest of us can stick a sock in it. Town meetings end in fistfights and verbal brawls that generate enough bad feeling to last into the next decade.

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I didn’t understand the intensity of the acrimony until I covered — for a local paper — debates preceding town council elections. The level of venom was a wonder to behold! Each candidate was nastier than the next – closer to Stephen King than Andy Griffith.

Yet, I love the valley and our strange little town. Our village is home to many wonderful people. Caring, smart, and good hearted folks. Sadly, they aren’t in charge. The other wackos run the place.

And life goes on. White picket fences and green lawns. Big shade trees, lots of room for children to play and safe streets. Only two traffic lights in town, one of which is probably redundant. It’s a pretty place to live. Just avoid the politics and enjoy the scenery. Things are not quite what they seem.

HOW TERRIFIC WERE THE GOOD OLD DAYS?

Once upon a time, I cooked rice in a pot with a lid. I used a manual typewriter and if I wanted a book to read, I had to go to a book store or the library. Televisions received (maybe) half a dozen channels — fewer if you lived in the country — and none of them came in clearly.

For your listening pleasure, you bought vinyl records and played them on tinny record players or, if you were lucky, on a hi-fi. You had to defrost the freezer and when the temperature rose in the summer, you turned on a fan. And sweated.

When you were away from home, you were out of touch. Completely. Nothing beeped, rang, dinged or vibrated.

iPhone 4There were good things and bad things about those pre-gadget days. The best part was not having a cell phone or beeper because if you got on your bike and rode off with your friends, you were free. Until you came home. Which better be in time for dinner or you’d be in big trouble.

The other stuff? The first time I got my hands on a computer — really, it was a dedicated word processor — and realized I could correct mistakes without re-typing the entire document (again), I said to myself: “This is a better way.” Almost 40 years later, no matter how annoying computers can be, I haven’t changed my mind. It is a better way. No way do I want to return to carbon copies and changing ribbons. And endlessly re-typing drafts.

About 12 years ago, I got my first rice cooker. I had a Chinese friend and she said that if I cook rice often and like it a lot, I simply had to have a rice cooker. “What’s a rice cooker?” I asked. And she told me. My first rice cooker did exactly what you’d expect: it cooked rice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy latest rice cooker is also a slow cooker and will perfectly bake cakes, steam veggies and who knows what else. Mostly, I use it to cook perfect rice, every time, without needing to stand over the stove-top with a timer. It’s my all-time favorite kitchen appliance. I can imagine — remember — life without it, but it’s better with it.

Televisions are much better than they were and certainly the quality of the video is light-years ahead of those old TV sets. I’m not convinced the quality of television shows is better. My 1000 channels gives us about half a dozen channels we really watch. Just like in the old days, but now we can record stuff and zap commercials. That’s big! Commercial clusters have gotten increasingly annoying and intrusive, but DVRs and TIVOs let us ignore them. It’s an ongoing war between viewers and corporate owners.

TV equipment at home

The best part of today’s television are movies. Sure, we got movies in The Old Days, but they were usually of poor quality, frequently interrupted by commercials. As often as not, they were chopped up by bored engineers who mindlessly removed chunks of film. A lot of the movies I saw as a kid, now that I’ve seen them again … it really is seeing them for the first time.

My least favorite modern development is the ubiquitous mobile “device.” You can’t really call them telephones because they aren’t any good at making phone calls. They do manage to be extremely intrusive. You never get to genuinely disconnect from the world because buzz, ding … it’s the phone. A text? A reminder of something you need to do? Whatever it is, most people are electronically leashed.

It’s just like 1984 … only we did it voluntarily. Pity because we’ve surrendered our privacy. We gave it away for toys.  We’ve lost the rapture of silence, the pleasure of being far away and out of touch. Sure it’s nice having emergency communications, especially when you are on the road, but I’m not sure it was a good trade. We need time to be disconnected, unreachable and unavailable. A time to recuperate from the endless noise of the world where we can rediscover ourselves and enjoy the moment undisturbed.

That being said, I can’t imagine going backward and doing everything “the old way.” I love computers. Probably that’s why I have so many of them. I love my Kindle, my big screen high def TV and so many other things. Life is easier with technology. Maybe what I’d like back is just being young. I wouldn’t mind a bit of that.

KINDNESS FROM STRANGERS — WHEN IT MATTERS

The Kindness of Strangers

When was the last time a stranger did something particularly kind, generous, or selfless for you? Tell us what happened!

Since this is a rerun of a prompt that’s been run I don’t know how many times, I thought I’d publish a rerun of the last piece I wrote on the subject. With some editing, of course, so it isn’t exactly the same.

It was a good post and frankly, I don’t have a new answer to the same old question. Happy Mother’s Day all you moms out there!

 


It was an ordinary day in the suburb of Jerusalem where I managed a weekly English-language newspaper. I had fallen into the job when the previous editor quit — after his paycheck bounced. Twice. Me too, but I wanted the paper to succeed, and was willing to work for free if we might save it. Most of us kept working without pay. We were optimists in the midst of disaster.

Israel was in turmoil, Years of bad blood between Arabs and Jews, an awful economy, soaring temperatures. The predominantly Arab areas were seething. The Jewish population was none too happy either. It was bad, but when has it been otherwise?

Jerusalem’s diversity is part of what gives it its unique character. The Jewish population is diverse — from secular and anti-religious, to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between. There are also Christians of every stripe, every flavor of Islam. Bahai, Samaritans … and sects I never heard of plus more than a few wannabe Messiahs. I sang along with the Muzein when he called the faithful to prayer. I loved the chanting, loved the traditions, the clothing, the markets, everything. Not everyone loved me.

The newspaper was broke and the Israeli economy was a disaster. Trying to keep the newspaper alive, I volunteered to take the pages from the office to the typesetter in Givat Zeev which was right next to Ramallah.

There’s a rumor that Jerusalem has just one road, but it winds a lot and if you keep driving, you’ll get there eventually. That’s not quite accurate. You can get close — but close can be very far when I’m the navigator. I have no sense of direction. When I hear the fatal words “You can’t miss it,” I know I will miss it. Which is how I wound up in downtown Ramallah in the middle of a small riot in late August 1983. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was pretty sure I shouldn’t be there.

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I had no idea how to get back to French Hill and going forward wasn’t an option. So I pulled to the curb and sat there, wondering what to do next.

A few moments later, two Arab gentlemen jumped into the car with me. No, the doors the doors weren’t locked. If they wanted to break into my car, they might as well use the doors as break the windows. Was I about to be murdered? Abducted?

“You are lost,” the man in the front seat said.

“Oh, very much,” I agreed. The two men conferred in Arabic. I picked out a couple of words, one of them being “American.” (That’s the easy one as it’s the same in almost every language.)

“Okay,” said the man in the front seat. “You need to leave. Now.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I responded. We swapped places. He took the wheel and drove me back to French Hill.

“You must be more careful,” he chided me. “You must not go to dangerous places.” I thanked him with all my heart. He smiled, and the two of them headed back, on foot, to Ramallah. Offering them a lift didn’t seem the thing to do.

As a final note, their act of kindness was a genuine act of bravery. They could have come to real harm for their generosity. They didn’t have to help me, but they did … at considerable risk to themselves.

HAPPY MOTHERS DAY!!

To all the mothers, to my mother and all those whose mothers who have passed, let’s get a little maudlin and cry a few tears for the mothers who raised us, the surrogate mothers who nurtured us.

From left to right, my Aunt Pearl, Mom, Aunt Ethel, and Aunt Kate,

From left to right, my Aunt Pearl, Mom, Aunt Ethel, and Aunt Kate,

COME BACK, MR. CHIPS! – Garry Armstrong

No more classes, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks!

The refrain will be familiar if you’re of a certain age. The end of another school year is imminent in the United States.

There are still final exams, prom plans and other rites of spring, but many students have already packed up their computers, iPads. Stored away their shoulder and back packs. They’re ready for summer and memories of the academic year are quickly becoming a blur.

While a number of students relegate the past year to computer trash bins, some teachers wonder if there’s any point to returning for another year. Many feel their courses are doomed for those trash bins before the next class or new year.

Those of us who remember wooden desks, ink wells, pens, pencils and composition books also recall at least a few teachers who made school interesting. They took us beyond dull text books to bring to life flesh and blood people, characters who were part of the past. If the teachers were really good – and some were — we could imagine ourselves living in those days, usually seen only in movies.

Marilyn 6th Grade class

I called one of my teachers Mr. Chips. He reminded me of the idealized teacher in the movie, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr. Rich was my Mr. Chips. He was my history teacher for several grades in elementary school. Mr. Rich would frequently have us close our text books. Then he would tell us stories about George Washington and Abe Lincoln’s struggles with other politicians and the news media. He shared stories about the Civil War, the Great Depression and the two World Wars as if we were sitting in our secret club house talking about sports and girls.

It was stuff I’ve never forgotten. Like the fictional Mr. Chips, Mr. Rich inspired me to read almost anything I could find about history. My grandfather, per Mr. Rich’s suggestion, filled me in on lots of first-hand historical events and the surrounding social climate. The early part of the 20th century became very real to me.

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Sadly, the time came for me to say goodbye to Mr. Rich. We were cutting the cord as I moved on the exciting new world of junior high school. I would return to see Mr. Rich several times over the intervening years. He never forgot me. He said I was one of his boys, part of his family. There was no underlying cynicism about those words when my world was still relatively young.

I would think about Mr. Rich often in the years to come. His words fueled my passion and curiosity for knowledge beyond books and newspapers. Mr. Rich was with me as I pursued my career as a radio and TV news reporter. When I was praised for my diligence in dealing with formidable establishment figures, it was really Mr. Rich whispering in my ear.

It never gets old.

A few years back, working as a substitute teacher, I was appalled at the lack of interest and knowledge in students. To be fair, the curriculum was less than interesting and the text books were very old. I dodged the usual fate of sub teachers and morphed into my engaging TV reporter character. Recalling Mr. Rich’s approach from long ago, I shared the story of the Pilgrims’ transatlantic voyage to young America. It was ripped from today’s headlines!

I spun a tale that could’ve been boat people trying to make it to U.S. soil from Cuba. Some of the pilgrims might have been aspiring baseball players, driven by the lure of free agency and the fabled streets of gold to be found in the new land. I whispered gossip about some of the folks aboard The Mayflower. I also told the students that descendants of those pilgrims try to cover up what happened. Just like TMZ. Mr. Rich would have been proud!

Alas, my sub efforts were not favorably received in some administrative quarters. But, to this day, former students stop me and thank me for getting them interested in history. That’s just from a handful of sub classes.

It’s sad to see young people with little interest in history today. Sadder still to see talented teachers give up in frustration and move elsewhere. Every time I watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I think of all the Mr. Riches in the world. I think of today’s young people and the generations to come.

Come back, Mr. Chips!

HAVE YOU CONSIDERED MARIJUANA?

“Have you considered marijuana?”

My head spun. Twilight zone? No, just my doctor suggesting pot as the right drug for me. It would deal with a variety of issues. He wasn’t even suggesting “medical marijuana” because though theoretically we have it, actually we don’t. Yet.

marijuana in my dreams

“Uh, yes,” I said. “The downside, other than the price tag, is coughing. Right now, coughing is a bit rough.”

“Take in more air when you inhale,” he said. “You’ll cough less.”

Right.

I grew up in a world where getting busted for having a couple of joints in your pocket could land you in jail for a very long time. A world in which marijuana was the gateway drug to a life of dissipation and degradation. Which would end with you face down in a gutter in some part of town where even the cops won’t go.

Now I live in a world where one’s doctors recommend smoking pot.

My mother was born in 1910 and passed in 1982. Growing up, horse-drawn carts were far more common than automobiles. She was a child during World War I, a married woman and a mother in World War II. She survived — somehow — the Great Depression and marched with friends and family in a spontaneous parade of celebration when the New Deal passed. Even though the Depression didn’t really end until the war came and brought employment to everyone who wasn’t fighting.

antique car

By the time she passed, there was cable television and home computers, two cars (at least) in every driveway. One day (I was a kid) I shouted “Oh look, a horse and cart!”

She looked bemused. “When I was your age,” she said, “We used to shout “Look, a motor car!”

And today, my doctor suggested I smoke pot. What a world, eh?

TIME TO CELEBRATE!

It’s going to be “one of those days” for little old Serendipity. Today I pass the 150,000 hit mark and I’m not at all sure what that proves, if anything. I missed the day when my blog followers (not counting followers through other channels) topped 3000 … I think I was busy being sliced and diced. Something like that.

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It’s also my son’s 45th birthday. Aside from any other sentiment … how did I get old enough to have a middle-aged son? I remember one day I was sitting with my mom and she looked at me … got this weird look on her face … and said: “You’re going grey!”

“Yes,” I admitted. “I’ve been going grey for quite a while.”

“But,” she said, “You’re my daughter.” She looked sort of stunned and I didn’t understand, but I do now. I have a giant son. Tall and big, going grey and bald and looking so much like his father sometimes it catches me unawares and spins my brain around like clothing in a dry cycle.

It’s also the day the leaves are finally going to pop. I can see it from my window. Green fuzziness atop the maples. Spring is finally — about a month and a half late — springing forth. I think it may be too late for a lot of the flowers, but maybe not. I hope not. We don’t get a big spring around here, but however brief, it is the showiest time for flowering trees and spring blooms.

Apple Blossoms

I’m in favor of all seasons. When I was living in Israel, more than anything else, I missed seasons. Autumn especially, but also the rhythm the seasons make. When you grow up in a 4-season world, you body synchronizes itself to the seasons and it make the passage of time orderly. It feels right.

So, here we are, still on Serendipity. Garry and I need to get out today with a couple of cameras. I’m not up to anything strenuous, but we both need an airing, me especially. We are in the grip of cabin fever and only a trip into the world will help.

Thanks to everyone who has passed this way for making this such a fun place to hang out … and to everyone who has become a friend and supporter through some very rough times. I couldn’t have made it through without your help!

And happy birthday, son! The torch is definite in the hands of your generation now.