A PILGRIM’S TALE – Garry Armstrong

Our Arizona vacations were trips back in time to some of my favorite western movies and TV shows.

Those cactus covered fields and surrounding mountains evoked memories, especially of the John Wayne-John Ford classic Westerns and the areas around Phoenix are similar to some of the areas in Utah where Wayne and Ford made many of their iconic films.

In the aftermath of my first Arizona post, there were requests for my oft-told story about meeting Duke Wayne. So now, a few years after the second trip, here it is again. If you’ve heard it before, head for the nearest saloon, Pilgrim.

Forty-three winters ago, as I reckon, it was John Wayne versus the anti-Vietnam War crowd at Harvard and the surrounding areas of The People’s Republic of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Duke was cheered and jeered as he sat atop an armored “half-track” which moved slowly through the crowd as light snow fell. Some dissidents lobbed snowballs at Wayne as they shouted in derision. The Duke smiled and waved. At one point, everything stopped as the legendary star hopped out to shake hands amid a flurry of snowballs. It was a bad situation for a reporter attempting an interview.

I called in a few favors and somehow, Duke and his entourage slipped into an empty theater. What felt like an eternity to me, I waited alone on stage for John Wayne to appear. Suddenly, the stage lit up. I froze.

“Hello, Garry!” boomed the Duke in a friendly voice as he ambled in that familiar gait across the stage. After the greeting,  my TV persona kicked in. I shook hands with my hero, beaming with pleasure.

I was oblivious to the cameras and how much time had passed. Later, I would learn from the tape that it had been a pretty long interview. Me swapping stories with Wayne including some anecdotes about my stint in the Marine Corps which impressed the Duke. He laughed when I recalled how I’d upset several drill instructors during basic training with my irreverent behavior.

The interview ran long. Towards the end, a press agent had to pry Duke loose to resume his “march” to Harvard.

During a formal, group interview at Harvard, Wayne singled me out as “his pal and former Gyrene.” I remember basking in the glow of that moment as other reporters glared at me. Later, as the crowd dispersed, Wayne approached me and said, “Good to see ya again, Gyrene”.

I offered what must’ve been a dumb smile and said, “Good to see you again, Duke.” I could see, over my shoulders, my crew smirking and giggling. I didn’t care. This was the interview I’d dreamed about.

Back in the newsroom, I walked around the newsroom repeatedly asking everyone if they knew who shook my hand that day. Finally, someone told me to throw some cold water on my face and get on with my job.

They didn’t get it. I had spent “private” time with the Duke. With Hondo, Sgt. Stryker, Ethan Edwards, Capt. Nathan Brittles, and Rooster Cogburn … among so many others. Damn — I had swapped stories with the man who really shot Liberty Valance.

Sadly, there were no personal pictures from that memorable day. No autograph. I’d always felt uneasy about asking celebrities for these artifacts.

Ironically, this gesture apparently opened the door for more candid conversations and some unforgettable social afternoons and evenings with Hollywood legends, Royalty, Presidents, sports heroes, wise guys, godfathers and even Mother Theresa who singled me out from a crowd, chastising me about news coverage. I never figured that one out.

Topping all those memorable days and nights was my afternoon with the Duke. Back here in Arizona, where the Duke galloped through so many westerns, I think maybe … mebbe … I can top that encounter in the future.

That’ll be the day!

Categories: Celebrities, Cinematography, Garry Armstrong, Movies, Photography

Tags: , , , , , ,

35 replies

  1. This made me laugh, really, it did. Not in a derogatory way, just a happy (and partly non-understanding) laugh. Because in my long life I’ve never, ever met anybody who was ‘important’ enough to be interviewed and asked for an autogram. And there you go, proud and super efficient reporter, being on a friendly banter with ‘The Duke’! What made me laugh most, was the name; I now, finally, finally, know why you have a dog named The Duke 🙂
    And your photos made my eyes shine! I’m not an Arizona fan, although I have visited once and I even learned that the indigenous/natives (Indians?) used every bit of the Agaves and other plants growing in that hot and inhospitable land, but not only that, I also have not even the slightest idea about Western and old American films because it was never part of my upbringing as a Swiss girl of rather poor parents. We never had TV, so another chance passed unnoticed! But boy, do I remember the photos I took on that one occasion I visited these vast and never-ending country! All on film, of course, and now we come to my astonishment – the quality is outstanding. How did you get those done with what equipment one had at their hands! Even though if I got it correctly, you had a decent camera, but you were basically a reporter, not a photographer, and you did such terrific work?! Keep ‘The Duke’ anytime and just hand me the pics, I say.
    I don’t have many ‘stolen’ pictures/portraits. I see, wherever I look, for photos of beggars (we’ve got plenty of them in the Paris region), poors (ditto) and I find them SO invasive that my eyes are peeling over the lack of sensitivity. I couldn’t get any autograph, even if I should want any, because I’d fear to be a nuisance or intrude in their private space. Friends however get plenty of ‘my signature’, I write real cards and letters and nothing thrills me more than opening the mailbox and finding a greeting from someone I love. Usually well hidden amongst the invoices and rubbish—
    And thank you, finally, for this story – it showed me a Garry I’m getting to know better and better. I seem to have already a good grip of Marilyn, and I’m happy to get to know you too! I admire this wide-awake couple more than you can imagine. The world needs more Marilyns & Garrys.


  2. Pretty momentous if you ask me!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve read your story before and enjoyed reading it again.
    Meeting all of those famous and interesting people was a nice benefit from your job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Omni, thank you. I’m glad people enjoy the stories. My only fear is that I’ve told the story too many times and eyes are rolling.
      In the classic film, “The Petrified Forest”, there’s an oldtimer (Charley Grapewin) who hounds customers at his diner – telling everyone about his encounter with Billy the Kid. Obviously, regulars have heard the story many times. They smirk and roll their eyes when “Pop” asks, “Hey, did I tell you about the time I met Billy the Kid?”. I feel sorry for the old guy. Hey, I’ve seen the movie myriad times and really enjoy the old guy’s story.


  4. Those were the days Garry.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great story and stunning photographs. I have never asked for autographs mainly because a lot of the celebrities I knew were either family or work friends and,frankly, I never wanted autographs. Like you, I prefer the stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, I would ask YOU for a pic and hope you would understand.
      Patricia, you’ve been so much a part of the scene yourself, you well understand how and why these folks treasure their privacy even though they are public figures.
      You are right — I do prefer the stories over the pictures. The pictures don’t give you a sense of all the moments you can recall with words. The words are so much more personal.
      A word picture?

      (All that said, I would love to have a video of young Dobe Carey, riding along and singing arias (??). I think of your Dobe story whenever I watch “3 Godfathers” or “Wagonmaster”.


      • Word pictures do carry the day. Yes, Dobe did sing arias. I don’t remember his ever singing popular songs at that time. At Christmas time, the Sons of the Pioneers would often sing carols at retirement homes, and Stan Jones(songwriter…..”Ghost Riders in the Sky, etc.) Frank Miller(songwriter …”Memories are Made of This,”) Dobe, and I would join them. Incidentally, Stan also wrote music for John Ford westerns, most notably the theme for “The Searchers.” Rex Allan was a friend and neighbor. His son gave my daughter a pet hamster that we had for years until he escaped into the garden one day.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great story, and stunning pictures, Garry. I know what you mean about asking for autographs. I don’t do that either, so I tend not to come away with any solid proof I’ve met someone I admire. The only time I am happy to do it is when they sign a copy of a book they’ve written for me – that’s slightly different as it’s somehow a more acceptable tradition. But the most important thing is that you came away with indelible memories of meeting the Duke, and you’ll have those for ever. And that’s worth more than a scribble on some paper. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alli, thanks. You get my dilemma. I wince when I see people harassing celebs for pics and autographs. Fans/admirers can be insensitive in their pursuit for autographs. Maybe you have seen the news clips of the College scandal celebs, Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, entering/leaving court — obviously not good moments — they’re surrounded by fans screaming their names and begging for autographs and pictures. It’s the down side of celebrity.

      Personally, I’m always flattered when people ask for my autograph or a picture. I’ve been retired 18 years now and people still remember me. It’s enormously flattering. The downside: There have been incidents where Marilyn and I have been in heated arguments in public. Not our finest moments. We’re approached by fans — and I have to a quick switch from angry husband to charming TV person. I do it automatically. Marilyn and I usually laugh in the aftermath of such incidents. It IS funny.

      Back to the Duke and me. Yes, that day — that on stage moment — when Duke ambled across the stage and greeted me — That ALWAYS leaves me beaming. Hell, the Duke shook MY hand. That’ll be the day—it sure was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I get that completely. People can be and often are insensitive when it comes to people in the public eye. I tend to try and treat them the same as I would anyone else in the street, and not take any special notice of them. I once had a taste of how awful it can be when I visited a friend who was an actor for a few days. Everywhere we went, someone would always come up to us and ask if it was him, then launch into some long chat about something he’d done or been in. I found it a hideous intrusion into our privacy, and I’ve always remembered that.
        But of course that day on the stage was very different, and it must have been an awesome moment. And what a wonderful memory. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ali, you understand the scenario. Sometimes it sounds hypocritical when you’re with your peers.
          One night, I was having dinner with some TV news colleagues. As we were leaving, one fellow said to me, “Garry, you’ve been made”. I was confused. My friend said, “You’ve been recognized”. I didn’t know what to say. I was too busy chatting with others. So, I just nodded and walked out, hoping others weren’t upset because they hadn’t been “made”. Silly stuff, eh?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Silly indeed. Completely ridiculous. Of course people are in the public eye so will be recognised, but they’re still just people and they deserve a private life like the rest of us. I tend to ignore any famous people I come across, not because I’m rude but because I realise they’re ‘off duty’, and having experienced what it’s like to have people interfering with your everyday pursuits I’d never want to inflict that on anyone. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • Ali, that’s a good, reasonble attitude to have. I read a bio about the old comic Bert Lahr. In his later years, Lahr grumbled when he wasn’t recognized on the streets. He worked so long and hard to be a big success. Fame is a bittersweet thing. Marilyn and I laugh about people who use the “Do you know who I am?” line.

              There was the recent story involving Bill Murray who was at a Martha’s Vineyard cafe. The Vineyard is a “haven” for stars to relax and be treated like normal people. Anyway, a photog snapped some pics of Murray in the cafe. Murray got angry and yelled, “Do you know who am?”. Apparently, the photog responded. “Yeah. But do you know who *I* am?” He apparently was one of the Taylors (James Taylor, etc) and he was a respected, well known photographer who snapped pics of visiting celebrities. Much ado about nothing.

              Liked by 1 person

              • That’s a great story, Garry. Yes the, ‘Do you know who I am’ line is kind of the flip side of the coin, and it shows the arrogance of fame. Not the best PR tactic… 🙂


  7. that is so cool and I love the pics

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You have had the good luck to meet and talk to so many people you admire.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Although it would have been great to have a photo or autograph I think a memory like that is far more precious. That story is never going to get old and the photos are just fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

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