One of the perks of being a retired TV news reporter are invitations for speaking to various groups, small and large. I enjoy them. It gets me “out” and I meet new and old friends. I must admit these invites do wonders for my ego. As Marilyn frequently says, “Garry never met a mic or camera he didn’t like.”
It’s my wife’s not so sly reminder that I’m a ham. I plead guilty.
Recently, I was invited to speak to the Mens’ Club of Sharon, Massachusetts. No heavy lifting, I was assured. I like it that way. It means no great expectations and minimal pressure for the speaker.
I didn’t drink tea at the morning gathering. I just wanted to use that phrase, playing off one of my favorite movies, “Tea And Sympathy.” Hey, remind me to tell you my Deborah Kerr story – another time.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the large gathering at the Mens’ Club. Sometimes you puff yourself up for a big audience and only a handful of people show up. It’s happened to many people, including the guy in the Oval Office. I was a little anxious because heavy rain and rush hour traffic made early arrival difficult with the clock ticking.
I surveyed the gathering as I was introduced. For once, I wasn’t the oldest person in the room. Nice. Very nice. Obviously, in a gathering like that, my reputation preceded me. I wore a USMC sweater to give myself more legitimacy in an audience which included many veterans.
I began by pointing out my cochlear implant and talked about dealing with hearing impairment for most of my life. People are always surprised when I say poor hearing has been a bigger obstacle for me than the racism which is the runnerup hurdle in my life. I scanned the audience and saw heads shake in acknowledgment about hearing woes.
I tried to spot who was wearing hearing aids. I shared a few anecdotes about my uphill battle with hearing. It prompted me to get judges to give me advantageous seating for trials and advise attorneys to speak loudly and clearly. Some counselors didn’t appreciate being told to “speak up and scuttle the show biz asides.” The Sharon men nodded and laughed.
Yes, too much mumbling from high-priced lawyers and doctors. Everyone could relate to that.
I segued from the courtroom back to my short stint in the Marine Corps. I shared a few stories about life at Parris Island in 1959. I saw more smiles in the audience. Later, there would be shared stories from fellow gyrenes who made it through the rigors of basic training. We laughed about how we provoked the patience of steely-eyed Drill Instructors. I “killed it” when I told about laughing in the face of a “DI” who was trying to scare the bejeezus out of we motley recruits. There would be stories from the other Marines of a certain age. Lots of smiles and laughter.
I backed into my bag of war stories about favorite interviews over the years. My John Wayne story always brings smiles. The recollection works because it’s more about me behaving like a fanboy than getting the Duke’s interview. Almost 50 years later, I’m still elated over meeting Duke Wayne. Hey, he shook MY hand. My hand!
There were anecdotes about coverage of the volatile school desegregation years in Boston. I could see the concern – then disbelief as I recalled my confrontation with anti-busing activists who threatened my crew and targeted me with racial epithets. It was a surreal moment as I silenced the angry crowd, assuring them, “Hey — hold on! I’m not a “ni__er — no, I’m a SAMOAN!”
It was a pre-Mel Brooks moment as the crowd dispersed, murmuring, “Wow, He’s a Samoan, he’s not a ni__er.” Belly laughs from the men of Sharon! I assured them the story was true if hard to believe.
I wrapped my talk with a few anecdotes about the downside of being the famous “blizzard reporter.” People always remember seeing me in lousy weather at dawn’s early light. They smile when I tell them about close calls with nature when I was beckoned for yet another live shot about the weather. They appreciate the kindness of strangers letting me in to use their bathroom and then calling friends to boast that I was sitting in their throne room. Very descriptive, boastful calls.
My voice was turning into a whisper, a clue for me to wrap it up. There was a comment from the audience that I‘d forgotten over the years, “You always looked bigger on TV..”
It was the “Alan Ladd” syndrome. For over 3 decades, many people thought I was at least a 6-footer in my TV appearances. In reality, I’m always the shortest man in the room.
The men of Sharon loved it. I enjoyed my time with them. It was good to see people my own age out and about and interested. We move slowly, but we still move!