IT STARTED BY A CAMPFIRE IN VIETNAM – Garry Armstrong

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the 36th President of the United States, from 1963 to 1969. As President, he designed “Great Society” legislation, including civil rights, public broadcasting, Medicare, Medicaid, environmental protection, aid to education and the arts, urban and rural development, and a “War on Poverty”.

Location: A campfire in Vietnam near Saigon.

Year: 1967.

1967 and 1968 were very intense years for me. 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 a kid thrust suddenly into the big leagues. My journalistic baptism started with the 6-day war in the Middle East which began on my first day at ABC. My professional life continued with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the volatile 1968 Presidential campaigns and a long visit to Vietnam, the first of several.

At headquarters in New York, my assignment was to receive reports from ABC’s field correspondents. I’d speak with them over static-riddled phone lines. Difficult to hear for anyone, harder for me. The daily MACV — or war front reports — were often significantly different from what the Pentagon reported. It was disturbing, worrying. Then, they sent me to Vietnam. The sights, sounds, and smells of Vietnam are still with me, 50 years later.

ABC needed a grunt to help the news team covering President Johnson’s visit to Vietnam. I was it. My job required I not be distracted from the job.

I was a young reporter still learning the ropes. I had to stay focused on the story and exclude the other harrowing images around me.

LBJ vietnam 1967It was a typical evening in Vietnam. In the background was the never-ending rumble of artillery. This was what we called “downtime.”

It was dinner around a campfire. GI’s, South Vietnamese soldiers, politicians, and news media were all hunkered down for chow. The conversation was completely off the record.

Chow was beans and some unknown local meat. Most of us ate the beans. We skipped the meat.

President Johnson or LJ as he told us to call him, squatted at the point of the campfire and told 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.

Good stuff.

Halfway through dinner, 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 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 was unlikely to seek re-election, given the backlash of Vietnam back 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. It was the real thing. It was history,

The following day was my final encounter with Lyndon Baines Johnson. There were handshakes, a smile about our campfire evening. LJ was again President Lyndon Johnson, one of America’s truly great Presidents.

I thought that ended my personal relationship with Lyndon Baines Johnson, but there was, it turned out, a lot more to it than I imagined. I’ve never written about this. In fact, I’ve never even talked about it, not even with Marilyn. It seemed too much like bragging, but today a very old friend of mine asked me if there was more to the story. He wanted to hear it. All of it.

This is the part I heard from “Tip” O’Neill and which I didn’t knew.

Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (December 9, 1912 – January 5, 1994) was an American politician who served as the 47th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, representing northern Boston, Massachusetts, as a Democrat from 1953 to 1987.


Your “LBJ IN VIETNAM” comment triggered something I’d forgotten for the past 45 years or more. You graciously inferred there should be “more to the story.”

This part of the story has been posted quite a few times, leaving me wondering whether people are tired of hearing it. Marilyn says she posts it every time she needs to remember we used to have “real” presidents in this country.

There IS more. I realized while I was shaving in my “thinking room,” but it doesn’t involve LBJ exactly. It involves Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill Jr., otherwise known as “Tip” O’Neill.

It occurred on a rare day when I have an actual photograph of Tip and me. It has been around this block a few times, but I don’t have a lot of pictures.

Garry with Tip O’Neill

I’m going to write this as I remember it, profanity and all. So, please don’t be offended.

Tip and I were having a liquid lunch at a bar we frequented. It was near the TV station that employed me and across the street from a funeral home run by the brother of a famous Boston mobster. That’s another story. Tip and I were swapping tales between long slugs of lunch. I told him I had an LBJ story he’d enjoy.

Tip interrupted me: “Hold on, Garry. Betcha I know the story. LBJ, Vietnam and you.” I stared at the venerable Speaker of the House and my fellow imbiber. He just smiled as I stared. I nodded, just a bit ticked off.

Tip began to talk, savoring lunch — and the story. “LJ told me about the night in Vietnam, the night he was pondering whether to run again in 1968. LJ told me he was confused, torn by the decision he didn’t want to make.”

I nodded. Tip continued. “So LJ’s nipping at his bottle around the Vietnam campfire with you guys. He wasn’t pleased about the local civvies and the Washington coat-holders being there. He did like having the GI’s, the Vietnamese and our guys.”

I was staring at Tip who was clearly just warming up, a smile spreading over that big Irish “boyo face” that intimidated so many D.C. Pols.

“Anyway, Garry, LJ told me about spinning stories, ragging on about the same bullshit I deal have to deal with in the House and Senate. It’s like dealing with hacks and amateurs, lemme tell ya, Garry. But you know this shit, Pal. I don’t hafta tell ya.”

I smiled and he went on. There was no stopping Tip now.

“Garry, Gar? What the hell do the guys call you? I heard some calling you “Ka-Ching” and “The Samoan.” What’s with that crap, Garry-O?”

“More stories, another time, Mr. Speaker,” I answered.

Tip said: “Cut the Mr. Speaker, crap, here, Garr-ree.” I smiled and saluted as he continued.

“So, where was I? Oh, yeah. LJ is regaling you guys with the beans, that ‘Nam meat crap and his hooch. LJ sez he was really rolling, having his jollies and you were possibly the only guy really listening to him. He sez cut loose with a couple of BIG farts. Those beans can kill ya. LJ sez it felt so good to fart, but you were almost holdin’ your nose. He figured he’d have a bit of fun. He remembered you as that polite, young colored reporter. No disrespect, Garry. That’s how LJ described you.”

“Did he call me SHORT too?” I interrupted.

Tip guffawed. “No, he said you had nice hair with a silly part in the middle — old-fashioned. Nothing about being short. But, hey, kid, you’re not exactly John Henning (NOTE: A local, respected journalist who stood 6’5″ and a helluva good guy.) No disrespect, Garry. Hey, what about Billy Bulger? (ANOTHER NOTE: He was the State Senate President and brother to the noted mobster Whitey Bulger.) Billy’s a little guy but talks big. Okay, where wuz I? Oh, yeah, LJ tells me about facing you up about your stinko look. You apparently backed down and LJ loved it. You, I believe, got him with stuff about cowboy movies?”

I nodded, trying to remember.

Tip says: “LJ sez he told you that cowboy campfires didn’t smell pretty. LJ liked that ole’ Gregory Peck “Gunfighter” sweatshirt you wore. You impressed him with your interview with Peck.” (THIRD NOTE: I’d interviewed the star a few years earlier at my alma mater, Hofstra University. Peck gave me the sweatshirt.)

Tip continued, “Garry, you told LJ that Gregory Peck turned down “High Noon” because he’d just done “The Gunfighter” and didn’t want to do another western so quickly.”

I nodded and Tip continued. “LJ was really fascinated about that little piece of Hollywood information. He loved westerns and boy, I got to tell ya, LJ was impressed with your knowledge of westerns, good and bad ones. He remembered from his days growing up in Texas. LJ was looking forward to seeing you again, to talk about cowboy movies. Dammit, Garry, YOU had a fan in LJ”.

I just sat there. stunned, as Tip O’Neill rambled on, his smile getting bigger and bigger. We stared at our now empty glasses. Tip sighed heavily, shoving my hand aside as he paid the tab.

Tip at Boston Statehouse

He got up slowly, Tip patting me on the shoulder: “Garry, I love these chats. So much better than the crap I gotta listen to most of the day.” We walked out into the sunlight, cursing its brightness after our time inside the darkened bar.

Tip looked down at me: “See ya, Pal. Have a good day. Don’t let the bastards get ya.” Before parting company, Tip and I were photographed. I was showing him my new wristwatch. It looked like I was selling him some hot merchandise.

It was a long, long way from our college days and that little radio station where we all got started.

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.

31 thoughts on “IT STARTED BY A CAMPFIRE IN VIETNAM – Garry Armstrong”

      1. Marilyn, *I” am amazed when this stuff comes back to me…like important flotsam floating upwards in the mental swamp.

        Like

    1. Becky, thanks. It is amazing how my mind was wriggled/triggered by the compliment by an old friend from our college radio days. He’s the one who said “there should be more” to the LBJ in Vietnam story. As I shaved, my mind — like an old computer — starting whirring loudly and came up with the Tip O’Neill “follow up” part of the story. Yes, Tip’s conversation was buried in the inner limits of my memory — after some 40 years or so.
      I almost cut myself shaving as I remembered the Tip lunch conversation

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Marilyn, we need to find that ’02 film and the NEW LBJ in Vietnam film that’s due out any day I think. I am very curious.

        Like

    1. Leslie, thanks. The stories tell themselves. I just have to remember….After so many stories covered over decades, it isn’t always easy — even when they are BIG stories like LBJ in Vietnam. You’d probably hear the same thing from other ol’ fart reporters.

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      1. Hi Garry, I don’t think it was me. I know we talked about LBJ – I think the last time I saw the beans post I had just read an article about him, but I didn’t see the movie. There is a long shot possibility that they mentioned the movie in the article and I repeated it, but if so, I don’t remember it. I think someone else must have brought it up.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Okay, Trent. Thanks. Maybe someone else will remind me they reminded me — about the movie.
          Dammit, where’s the sniffin’ glue?

          Liked by 1 person

  1. You can say with no artifice at all that ‘you were there and you did all that.’ No need to feel modest about that fact. I’ve met some name droppers in my time, and honestly most of them weren’t believable. Seemed to be trying to impress because they’d perhaps met “super star so and so” or “Mr/Ms Celebrity thus and so”…I tend to turn off my figurative ears when such people get going. BUT. You just keep telling your tales and you drop your names. Because YOUR stories, Garry, have the quality of realism to them and perhaps most important – sincerity. You’ve lived a grand life. I’d celebrate!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Me — with a swelled head? Don’t think so, Baby Sister.

        Then, again, I may still be in sombody’s cross-hairs. No, not paranoid. Just VERY careful about history repeating myself.

        I remember my colleague who bragged about being tight with the mob. He wound up as a bloody bag object in the Blackfriar’s Massacre — back in the day.

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    1. Melanie, THANKS so much for those words. I happen to be in/retired from a profession where name droppng occurs a lot — so I try to be very, very careful about the stories I share. I’ve seen colleagues sandbagged by their “print the legend” tales just to impress folks when there is no need. It can be very embarrasing.

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    1. Thanks, Covert.
      Tip O’Neill used to like sharing stuff (“off the cuff”) with me. Guess he liked me. Tip also relayed to me knowing about my lunches with John McCormack who preceeded Tip as Speaker of the House. I used to encounter Speaker McCormack when having lunch at an old and prestigious restaurant near Boston Harbor. McCormack, sitting alone, would beckon me to join him. Good times!
      I never shared these stories during my working days. I think they would’ve come off as “bragging, war stories” to some of my colleagues. There were some who told stories that left you wondering about their truth. So, it paid to be discreet. But — some of my peers DID see Tip amd Me — having our liquid lunches. They were curious — wondering if I was getting a “scoop”. I am not sure they believed my denials — that the Speaker of the House and me — were just sharing stuff. The print media — who still didn’t respect the “Pretty Boy” TV newsies — were always a bit suspicious of me. Loved it.

      A BTW: I think some Pols were curious about how I (a minority and reasonably sane) survived so long at a TV station with a “curious” reputation and history. No disrespect intended to former and/or current emloyees.

      Like

        1. He was. AND he knew how to work with the “other side.” That’s what all the old — good — ones knew. It was how we got business done because rarely does one party own house AND senate. Almost never.

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