CAMPFIRE WITH THE PRESIDENT – VIETNAM, 1967 – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve shared this tale many times in conversation with family and friends, but never written it down. One reason is I have no pictures to go with the story. Another is the nagging feeling it might be somehow disrespectful.

Nonetheless, I am bowing to repeated requests to tell the story of my memorable evening with President Lyndon Johnson around a campfire in Vietnam. Near Saigon, 1967.

1967 and 1968 are blurs in my sense memory. I had jumped directly from college and small time commercial radio to ABC Network News. The time was right and the opportunity was there, but I was just a 20 something kid. Suddenly, I was in the big leagues. My journalism baptism included the 6-day war, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the volatile ’68 Presidential campaigns — and a trip to Vietnam.

Vietnam really is a blur. It was a blur even as it happened. In New York, I was used to receiving reports from ABC’s field correspondents. I’d speak with them over static-riddled phone lines that made it difficult to hear. The daily MACV or war front reports were often significantly different than what the Pentagon reported.

ABC needed a grunt to help the news team covering President Johnson’s visit to Vietnam. I was it. The sights, sounds and smells of Vietnam are still clear almost 50 years later. But, my job required I keep a very narrow focus. I was a young reporter still learning the ropes. I had to stay focused on the story and exclude the harrowing images around me.

LBJ vietnam 1967It was a typical evening with the ever-present sound of artillery barrages in the background. We were in what they called “down time.” Dinner around a campfire. GI’s, South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and news media, we all hunkered down for chow. Everything was off the record. Chow was beans and some unknown local meat. Most of us ate the beans and skipped the meat.

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

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

Before completing his trip, President Johnson confided to some of us that seeing Vietnam up close confirmed his worst fears. He broadly hinted he probably wouldn’t be seeking re-election given the backlash of Vietnam at home in the States. I thought he sounded like one of my cowboy heroes putting duty above personal gain. But it wasn’t a movie.

One last encounter with handshakes and a smile about our campfire evening. LJ again was President Lyndon Johnson.

ON THE WAY TO OUR DREAMS

He wanted to be a movie star, on the silver screen. I wanted to be an author. Somehow on our way to our dreams, we found our way to the college radio station. A puny thing, just 10 watts when Garry and I met in the tiny studios under the Little Theater. I was 17, Garry 22. He was a little older than most of the undergrads because at 17, he’d enlisted in the Marines and by the time he got out, a few years had passed.

Garry Clean Harbors-SMALLWe found the radio station by accident, but it fit. Garry stayed and became its Program Director. I hung around and began dating the Station Manager, who coincidentally was Garry’s best friend. Which is where our personal history gets a bit tangled and hard to explain, so I won’t. I was the Chief Announcer. Even though I knew I wanted to be in print, not electronic media, the radio station was a great place to try out new skills. There were scripts to be written, newsletters to create. And I had my own radio show and a whole bunch of great friends, most of whom are still great friends.

We were all oddballs. Creative and talented. Almost all of us went on to careers in media and the arts. We turned out a couple of authors, audio engineers, talk show hosts, DJs, TV and radio producers, news directors, commercial writers, college professors and Garry, a reporter whose career spanned 45 years, 31 at Channel 7 in Boston.

Surprisingly little footage of Garry’s on the air career  survived and until someone found this clip, we had nothing from his years at ABC Network. An old friend of Garry’s sent us this footage from 1969, the last year Garry was at ABC before he jumped to television. It’s a promotional piece for ABC News and features faces and voices from the past … and one young up and coming fellow, Garry Armstrong.

Let us return to those days of yesteryear, when television cameras used film and there was a war raging in Vietnam. 1969, the year my son was born, the year of Woodstock, the end of an era, the beginning of everything else.

Look at the equipment circa 1969. Antiquated by today’s technical standards, but the standards by which the news itself was gathered and reported were incomparably higher than what passes for news reportage today.