GROWING UP WITH McCARTHY – Garry Armstrong

This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.

I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.

I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal,  Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.

All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.

McCarthy is news again because of the current White House occupant and his apparent fondness for McCarthy’s tactics.

I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The Black List.”  I was still in grade school but a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines and the gold mine of books in our home library.

One of those books was “Not So Wild A Dream.” It was written by Eric Sevareid, a news commentator I listened to every evening on CBS Radio News. I loved Sevareid’s gritty voice talking about the evil in far-off places like Russia.

I was puzzled when Sevareid talked about how “we” were endangered by a politician named Joe McCarthy. I had seen the newspaper stories and headlines – famous actors and writers ‘outed’ as “Commies.”  I asked my parents about it but they told me “no worries,”  it didn’t involve people like us.

What did that mean? People like us?

I was fond of taking some of my grown-up books to school. I liked to show off the books I was reading. I was on first-hand terms with Sevareid, John Steinbeck, and the guy who wrote about “Crime and Punishment” in Russia.

While other kids bragged about their new cars, summer homes, and vacations in Florida, I only had books with which to earn bragging points. I didn’t always fully understand the books, but I liked how the words were put together. I enjoyed reading them aloud.

It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for words. The sound and feel of words.  Words that you can sometimes stroke because they touch your heart in a special way.

All of this was the prologue to a nasty wake-up call for my youthful innocence.

Garry receiving his Broadcasting Hall of Fame award – September 2013

We had an assignment in Composition Class. Probably the 4th or 5th grade. My heart was beating at double speed as I searched my treasure trove of books. I skipped past kid stuff like “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and my whole collection of baseball related material.

“Not So Wild A Dream” was the winner. I was just getting into some heady stuff by people named Odets, Miller, and Lardner. I liked what they said. I used to memorize sections to impress my Mom who was always proud of my ability to sound like a proper young man. I figured everyone would respect that ability.

I remember it was a warm spring day.  I was wearing my new spring outfit — LONG pants, crisp white shirt, and shiny new shoes. I was brimming with confidence in Composition Class. When volunteers were asked to read their homework,  my hand shot up faster than Big Don Newcombe’s fabled right arm.

My throat was dry but I plunged right in when I was selected. I read some passages from “Not So Wild A Dream” and a quote from Clifford Odets who was talking about social ills.  I didn’t understand much of what I said but it sounded and felt good to me.  I looked around.

Silence and a few nervous giggles. My teacher had a strange look on her face and stammered as she praised my work. She told me I probably would see the Principal later to discuss my impressive homework. I was beaming with pride!

The Principal seemed nervous as he talked to me. He hemmed and hawed. He even stammered. Where had I found the books I read? Who gave them to me?  I proudly told him about our home library and the magazines we got every week. I remember the Principal’s eyes arching in surprise.

What was the big deal,  I wondered.

All the joy of that morning came crashing down on me during lunch recess. The warm day meant we could open our lunch boxes outside in the play area.  I was munching on my sandwich when I saw kids staring at me.

I began to pick up the words.

“He’s a pinko.”

“His parents are pinkos.  I’m gonna tell my Mom. All his people are Commies, my Dad told me.”

The whispers grew louder. Finally, I was approached by a couple of the guys who used to pick on me because of the way I dressed, my glasses, and my stupid hearing aids which made me look a space villain.  Oh, yeah, they also picked on me because I was the shortest kid in the class.

What now? Were they jealous of my composition?  What the heck?

The biggest kid came right up to my face.  He had bad breath and smelled worse.  I don’t think he bathed often. I could see the red pimples sticking out on his face. “Hey, you four-eyed deaf midget nigg_r,  so you’re a pinko too, huh?”

Pimple face leered at me,  obviously daring me to get up and fight. I gulped hard.

His pal, beady-eyed, and sweating, taunted me, “I hear all you people are Commies. You don’t go to Church — you go to Commie meetings! All of YOU people. I’m gonna tell my Dad. You’re in big trouble, you lousy little pinko.”

My throat was dry and I was very scared. I couldn’t think. Then, the bell rang.  Lunch was over. I was (literally) saved by the bell.

That evening,  I recounted everything to my Mom and Dad. They listened without saying a word. Usually, they’d interrupt me, correct my language, diction or choice of words.  When I’d finished,  they looked at each other for a long time before speaking to me.

Mom and Dad were unusually patient in explaining things to me. I think I was a little put off by their civility. I tried to absorb what they said. It was hard.

I remember Mom telling me I’d have become more mature than my age. I was going to deal with more of these “things” as I grew up. She smiled wistfully as she tousled my hair.

And that’s how I started on the road to journalism. Suddenly, I understood something about the grown-up version of the truth.

Author: Garry Armstrong

As a reporter for Channel 7 in Boston for 31 years, I was witness to most of the major events affecting the region. I met a lot of people ... politicians, actors, moguls, criminals and many regular folks caught up in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, I write about the people I've met and places I've been. Sometimes, I write about life, my family, my dogs and me. Or what might otherwise be called Life.

66 thoughts on “GROWING UP WITH McCARTHY – Garry Armstrong”

  1. Amazing. I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought other kids would be impressed by the books I read. Turned out, I was incorrect. They were unimpressed. Very. And my parents WERE pinkos. They weren’t trying to undermine the government or move the family to Moscow, but they were passionate believers in equality and freedom and all that good old American stuff. Which in those days — and maybe THESE days too — was pretty far left. The good old days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, so much for the good, old days. I don’t like recollecting those ugly days. They’re buried DEEP in my sense memory. There’s no joy in sharing them but these are the times that try many souls – so why not share something that’s obviously timeless. UGH!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My mother was painting the living room during the McCarthy hearings — she had the radio on during the day when we were at school.
    She commented one day that the more she heard, the angrier she became and the thicker the paint that was slapped onto the ceiling!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My parents were scared. Being a socialist or communist in the 1930s had been no big deal. They were as much social groups as political, but McCarthy turned it all on its ear. And here we are. Again.

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        1. Oh, yes. Even with the greater range of emoticons on FB, it is difficult, and confusing. If the post is upbeat it’s easy; “like” means that one agrees with the post and is glad someone posted it. But if the post is negative, sad, or derogatory, “like” probably means that one agrees with the post, “sad” is for sympathy, but…. Does “angry” mean that one agrees with the anger, or is one angry that someone posted this drivel? “Haha” — is that sympathetic laughter, or the put down “laughably stupid.” “Wow” is even more confusing; I have seen it used two ways— “wow”, impressive, and “wow”, how could anyone be that stupid.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Carolyn, I understand the limits of “like”. Means we have to be more specific in our thoughts. Thank you.

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    2. Slmret, I can appreciate your Mom’s anger. I could barely fathom my Parent’s take on that ugly day for me. As I grew older, it became clearer to me. I’m saddened that it’s reared it’s evil head again.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What’s scary, though is that we seem to be repeating the story! I heard on the radio today that Mark Twain said the “history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes.”

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Perhaps Switzerland likes to be too kind to everyone, with its neutrality. We have our nutcases as well, but being a direct democracy everyone has their say.

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      2. Maybe send him a”Mad” subsription. Think he’d comprehend it?

        Alfred E. Neuman would be a good spokesperson for Cheeto Head.

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    2. Pat, it’s sad and ridiculous that it’s back again – especially given how it scarred so many people. We collectively have short memories. Then, there are those who don’t know history and are walking into the abyss again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this, Garry. 🙂

    I remember fondly the days we had Comprehension and Composition as English classes. I can identify with you innocently doing your best to show how good you were at studying only for it not to be received as well as you thought it would.
    I reckon it was about the time schools lost those two classes that the world started going to hell.

    Funnily enough i was thinking to myself only yesterday how we don’t hear the word ‘Communist’ anymore ( at least i don’t down here in ‘Paradise’! 😉 ) Even with all the talk about (NO!) collusion with Russia and the Trade Wars with China and those ‘socialist Lefties’ in Europe, the C word is hardly ever raised anymore it seems??

    America now has two ‘linked’ enemies to replace the Cold War one these days – Immigrants and terrorists. 🙂

    I’m pretty sure the old enemy never really went away – they just learned a better way to win a war.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bob, I used to LOVE comp class. It gave me the chance to show off what I’d read and some of what I’d written. I was on an early start to my great American novel. It was all short circuited by the cold dashes of reality. I had the opportunity to share my experiences with Eric Sevareid when I got into the TV News Biz. He seemed bemused and a little sad.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahhhh… that reality thing.

        Reality will do it’s darndest to make us all see things it’s way and will always try to tell us what we Should do – according to it.

        As i recall you were never one to be told what to do by anybody?? 😉

        Who says you can’t fight ‘City Hall’?? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Bob, I was “advised” by people over the years. I butted heads with those tough “DI’s” during my brief USMC tenure but I got what they were teaching and preaching.

          Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey Garry! To be honest i could not remember seeing the guy before you mentioned him!?
        I’ve just been correcting my sadly insufficient education.

        You’d think i’d know more seeing as how he studied for his degree in music and theatre in my home town and that i love comedy and am in Australia where he was born but – meh! 😉

        In my defence he is nowhere near as well known here as he seems to be in the UK and in your homeland. He’s an expat Aussie who, unlike Hugh Jackman, hasn’t appeared in much we Aussies get to see.

        His character is the archetypal Aussie larrikin brought into the 2010’s; definitely not PC and seemingly very fond of an expletive or 26. 🙂

        He seems very culturally observant in his shows and takes quite a few risks for his art, pushing the limits to what an audience may find funny almost to the point where they could turn on him. (Seems at least once one of them did!)

        I’d watch a few of his shows before i could say if i really enjoyed his stuff or not, but from the little i have seen i’d probably enjoy his news analysis. 🙂

        Do you watch him often?

        Liked by 1 person

  4. It must have been a shock to find that your teacher and Principal reacted so negatively to your choice of book. Kids of course say things without really knowing what they mean but they were bullies and it was another excuse to give you a hard time. It does seem as if we haven’t really progressed doesn’t it? Bad governments love to have a group of people they can blame for everything whether it is a race, religious group, political group or whatever .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Tas, I was totally shocked by my teacher (who always encouraged us to read , write and explore new vistas). The principal was just some vague old cooter who spoke to us at assemblies. I was rarely sent to his office until “that day”. So, yes, it was a splash of cold reality for young Garry. I think I grew up a lot that day.
      It so angers me that it’s back again, churned out by that odious squatter in the Oval Office.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a scary experience. Regarding Bergen and McCarthy, aside from the entertainment value, wasn’t that a great sham? A ventriloquist on the radio. Only a few people present could see if his lips were moving. Millions of others in their homes just assumed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. D.C,, I was a radio days kid. I don’t think I appreciated the comedy of a puppet on the RADIO. But the show was funny. Charlie Mccarthy and Mortimer Snerd were favorites. It’s a bit ironic that Candice Bergen/”Murphy Brown” (Edgar’s daughter) is back to take shots, I hope, at today’s political puppets. Who’s the ventriloquist for the current doedoe puppet in the West Wing?

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    1. My mother eventually told me she had joined (but not SIGNED — big difference) the Communists, but she thought the guys in the Socialist club were cuter, so she changed affiliations. But my whole family was very big on “don’t sign anything.” For them, much of this was social, but later, it had darker connotations.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Martha, McCarthy was just a name on the radio and newspapers — until that day for me. It became personal very quickly. My Parents – My Family — were loyal Democrats. I recall vaguely the chatter about that Dewey-Truman headline. I recall Harry Truman’s radio addresses and commentary by Ed Murrow, Eric Sevareid and others. They began my romance and later my career in News. My Parents, as I recall, rarely discussed Mccarthyism until my school encounter. I relished the film bio, “Trumbo”. The elephant is back in the room, again, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I, on some levels was too young to understand mccarthyism and yet I did. There was a part of me that got it and understood it. It wasn’t until Ernest Borgnine did the movie that everything was cemented for me. Can’t remember the title, 3 brave men maybe? What a fine actor he was! You’ve certainly lived a life, full on many levels and ways. No wonder you became a journalist. It was I won’t say inevitable, but nearly! The world needed a man of honour who reported honestly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Covert, I also remember that Borgnine flick and, like you, can’t recall it’s title. McCarthyism didn’t mean much to me til the ugly school incidents. I never discussed it with anyone except my Parents. I never shared with ANYONE — until this week and the rehash by the White House Clown — we’re talking more than 60 plus years to bury ugly memories that won’t go away.

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  7. Incredible. It’s hard being different. I had the same problem. I knew things that other people didn’t – and didn’t seem to care about.
    I learned really quickly to keep my mouth shut. But it’s really tough in school. Fortunately I was good at some things that were ‘acceptable’. Like sports. But even in my own family I could never get the answers I was so fervently needing. That came later. At age 22 my Dark Night ended.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s good to know i wasn’t the only kid who had to deal with this stuff. Like you, I learn to keep my mouth shut. No way I wanted to share those experiences with anyone. Again, like you, my family was silent, furtive about that stuff. They were more forthcoming about racism but they could hardly dodge that bullet with me.
      I think I lost a bit of my innocence with the “Pinko” incident. But I plunged into the world of imagination to escape….for awhile.

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    1. Leslie, my Parents never tried to shut me up. My Dad distanced himself. Mom gave me her “take” but used movie images of bad guys versus good guys which didn’t jibe with reality. Yes, it served as encouragement for me to seek the truth. I didn’t think of myself as courageous. I was always the little kid. I didn’t like being pushed around or taunted. I’d take it until I saw “the red lights” and then — whammo — I defended myself. That’s the way it’s been for most of my life.

      My last physical brawls — Junior High School (’55) — I levelled the bully who wouldn’t leave me alone.
      First “Liberty” during Marine Corps Basic Training. Beaufort, small red neck town near the Parris Island Training Base. Fall of ’59 and Jim Crow was still alive. Red Neck Bar — refused to serve me because I was a “Ni__er”… My Marine buddies had my 6 and we had a real life, John Ford-John Wayne Bar brawl. Our “CO” called me in–asking why we’d busted up the bar and beaten up the locals. I just smiled. The C.O. looked at the few, minor scratches on my face and smiled, “You’re a Marine, Son”, he grinned.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Damn. To think courage blossomed in such a place as your grade school. Imagine someone of that age thinking the thoughts you had, and pursuing knowledge, even at the cost of being ridiculed and labelled like that. I cannot understand the total story because I’m of a different culture and ethnicity; BUT I am impressed by your courage and your resolve to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Your kind of journalism is very rare these days (IMHO) and America suffers for the lack.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A sad story that needed sharing, Garry… I vaguely remember those days when McCarthyism seemed to reign supreme. Although it didn’t affect me directly at the time, it was an era of the big Russian scare even for kids. When my daughters were school aged, I recall how proud we were of little Samantha Smith from Maine (our state) who dared to build bridges instead of burning them. She is remembered and missed by our family. I’ve been appalled by this era of fear and trepidation for decades and worry about its return. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s hard to believe that so soon it’s all back again. It’s like we’ve got a national case of dementia — we barely remember yesterday, much less 60 years ago. We are such a baby country. Not yet 300 years old and we don’t remember where we began or why or what we’ve gone through. OR why. I know that history repeats, or as Mark Twain said, “Rhymes,” but we need less rhyming and more motion forward!

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  10. Wow, Garry, I am sorry that you had this experience, but glad at the same time. I was one of your biggest TV news fans, and was also a “pinko” in my youth. (for real. I joined the Communist Party in college). Your story has special resonance today, obviously. I hope that there is another young, brilliant, curious student out there who will grow into a smart journalist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And for this, we also live in hope. It’s why we keep writing.

      Garry finds this difficult to write about, but it’s important. Youngsters don’t understand the world from which we came or how we got to be who we are. Maybe we should start telling them. Our parents were the silent generation and I don’t think they did us a big favor by never talking. We’ve returned the favor by telling our kids that “Everything will be FINE,” even when we have no reason to believe that it’s true. We always acted like we fixed everything, but no generation fixes everything.

      They won’t either, but they need to start giving it a try.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Garry, this is so fine. I remember responding the same way to Eric Sevareid. In previous posts on Views from the Edge and in a chapter of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017, Wipf and Stock), I’ve recounted my memories of watching the McCarthy hearings, the “witch-hunt” that turned our generation and our parents into Commie hunters and suspects. It’s all too familiar, my friend. It’s enough to make me believe the theory that history is cyclical. Joe McCarthy is not dead. He’s alive and well. I hear his voice and see his face — and the voice and face of Roy Cohn, the lawyer McCarthy and Trump shared — every day.

    Thank you for sharing the memory you wish you could forget. — a brother who’s taken more than one punch in the nose for standing up to bullies. Grace and Peace!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gordon, glad to hear there’s another Sevareid fan out there. His “Not So Wild A Dream” certainly struck a chord in me as a kid. Decades later, when I met him, life sort of had come full circle for me.

      Grace and peace, to you, also, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Gordon, CBS News really was the “Tiffany News Shop” back then. I listened to their “World News Roundup” on the radio, day and night, for many, many years. I got such a big kick out of meeting some of them when I grew up and became a newsie. One of the top CBS News producers, whose name temporarily escapes me, sat me down – early in my career. He began with a scathing reprimand because I was 5 or 10 minutes late for the interview.. I’d run into Subway problems but that wasn’t an acceptable excuse. I sat there, red faced and just listened to the reprimand and then the kinder, gentler advice for a young newsie. It’s etched into my sense memory.

          Daniel Schoor, Malvin Kalb, Richard C. Hottelett and others were regular visitors to the Boston TV station because of their many lectures at Harvard. They shared many terrific war stories. Earlier, during my stint at ABC Radio News, I used to work with Howard K. Smith, John Scali (The U.N. Correspondent), Mal Goode and Ted Koppel who was a bright, young reporter cutting his teeth in Vietnam, Moscow and other places. Ted used me to vent about his workplace problems. Sam Donaldson and I used to butt heads because I proofed and edited his radio news scripts. Ditto Merrill “Red” Mueller and Don Gardner among others I remember. Steve Bell, who was just yards away from RFK when Sirhan Sirhan opened fire, was another ABC colleague. I was a few feet away from Steve Bell when the shooting occurred. A nightmarish incident.
          It felt so natural to be sitting with these guys. I didn’t have a full grasp of how fortunate I was.

          Gordon, I gonna send you an email about a couple of ’68 incidents that are more private.

          Stay well, friend.

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  12. I have reached a point that I hope it’s no worse than McCarthyism. There are many resemblances to the run-up to Hitler in Germany. What if…… Random: courts packed with Trump picks, especially the Supreme Court; gerrymandering; voter purges; xenophobia, American exceptionalism; use of twisted religion; “I alone can fix it.” There are more. Too old to emigrate — no country wants a 75 year old with medical problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Trust me that you are far from alone in noticing the terrifying similarity between Hitler and Trump. Sometimes, I hate being old … but right now, I’m glad I am. If this is how the world is going to be, I don’t want to be part of it.

      Liked by 2 people

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