MEMORIAL DAY: THEN AND NOW, THE DAY AFTER – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Time changes everything. It’s a given. Memorial Day is no different and that’s a shame.

When I was a kid, Memorial Day was usually a family affair. It seems as if it was always sunny and warm for the gathering of several generations. I was fascinated by the stories told by the men who’d collectively served in two World Wars and the Korean “Peace Action.” The stories were funny and sad as were the memories of when they served our country.

How many 78-year-old men can still wear the same uniform they wore at age 17?

My maternal Gramps, a Barbados native, served in the Danish Navy during World War One, the war to end all wars.  His stories seemed to be from a distant time that I grasped only in a haze. I’d read about WW1 a bit. Dry accounts in those history books of the ’40s and early ’50s we were given in school. My personal library included books by Erich Maria Remarque who gave bittersweet accounts from the German perspective.

“All Quiet On The Western Front” was the most memorable. I don’t think Gramps or the other elders liked my interest in Remarque’s books. I didn’t understand their attitude. Not then, at least. There was music, including songs like “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” which elicited smiles. The music blended with the sounds of the parade outside all the open windows. I usually dashed outside for a glimpse.

Those parades included veterans who’d served in the Civil War.  I was always impressed and wondered how old some of those men were who marched with pride and crispness, belying their years. I felt a stirring in my heart. I wanted to be one of those men someday.

In my adolescent and early teen years, family Memorial Day celebrations changed. Some of the men were gone. So were their stories. There was still laughter, fueled by liquor consumed in prodigious amounts by uncles, cousins, and friends.

My father in uniform, World War 2

My Dad, Bill “Tappy” Armstrong, had been an Army Seargent in WW2. He had seen action in the Battle of the Bulge among other places.  He smiled at some of the war stories but never shared anything.   He never shared anything about his personal war experiences until the final year of his life.

Those accounts were harrowing and gave his three grown sons a better understanding of Dad’s quiet demeanor, moodiness. and reluctance to share his feelings. After Dad passed, we found many medals stowed away apparently for more than half a century. It was his legacy of the Greatest Generation.

One of the staples of those family Memorial Day celebrations was watching war movies. Even before cable, the networks and local TV stations ran a marathon of our favorite John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, and other Hollywood gung ho flicks that raised the roof with laughter from the real-life vets guffawing over the exploits of Hollywood heroes. There was derisive laughter for Wayne and Flynn who single-handedly won the war according to the heavy propaganda scripts.

I thought those guys were real heroes. Hell, I was gonna be a Marine like Duke Wayne’s Sgt. John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima.”  The parades outside now included WW1 Vets. The last of the Civil War heroes had passed. The music of Tommy Dorsey, Vera Lynn, and Glenn Miller permeated the celebrations. I loved their sad, sweet words and music. They would always be part of my musical collection.

My vow to emulate Duke Wayne’s Sgt. John Stryker was fulfilled as I enlisted in the Marine Corps right after high school graduation in 1959. I was a baby faced 17-year-old who needed his parent’s signature to become a gyrene.

Memorial Day 1959 was in my rearview mirror when I signed up. I had clear memories of that family Memorial Day. There were only a few WW1 Vets still around to participate. WW2 uniforms dominated. A fully integrated armed services participation brought big smiles to faces in my family. The music included new interpretations of war tunes offered by Elvis, Connie Francis, Paul Anka, and other fresh faces in the top 40-market.

My Dad cried when he saw me off to basic training at Parris Island where “boots” were turned in fighting gyrenes. It was the proudest day of my life.

I never became the new version of Sgt. John Stryker because my lifelong hearing affliction made it impossible for me to serve, especially as a Marine. Imagine crawling through the jungle, listening for any sign of the enemy. It would have been a catastrophe waiting to happen. I did get to “enjoy” a fair amount of basic training.

I left my mark with many a hard-nosed Drill Instructor frustrated when I laughed as they barked out intimidating orders. I drank homemade hooch (I’ll never give up the brewer), stripped and refitted my M-1 blindfolded, survived a few double-time forced marches, and had my first barroom fight with peckerwood Southern bigots in a nearby Beaufort gin mill.

My platoon mates and I cleared out the place with just a few scratches to show for our brawl. Now, I was officially a Marine!   Our C.O. smiled when he chewed us out for drinking and fighting. His main concern: Did we leave any of those miscreants standing?  Hell, NO!  The C.O. gave us a sharp salute and a night off to soothe our bruises.

A few days later, thanks to my hearing problems, Pvt E-1 Garry Armstrong was mustered out and headed home. in uniform.

My Dad cried again when I arrived home in uniform. Yes, he saluted me.

OO-rah!

This past weekend’s Memorial Day celebrations were lost in the COVID-19 headlines. A sad sign of the times for those who served and still serve our country. I salute all who put their lives on the line and am proud I still have my Marine Corps uniform. It fits better than ever.

I’ve never marched in a Memorial Day Parade. I leave that to those who’ve spent full tours in service and beyond.

Semper Fi!



Categories: American history, celebration, Family, Garry Armstrong, hearing aids, Military, Photography, Portrait

Tags: , , , , ,

57 replies

  1. Hello Marilyn and Garry!

    I am so behind to respond to your piece on Memorial Day and much more! You set the tone quite well, given what passes today for your column remembrance for those who gave their lives. Plus, you had me going on a Google search, think Erich Maria Remarque. I even checked out Osnabrück on GoogleMaps to give me a better sense of it all. Nice work Armstrongs! Ron H.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, Ron.. Good to hear from you. How are YOU doing in these crazy pandemic times? I hope all is okay.
      I never talked much about my military time during my 31 years at Ch-7. Given the brevity of my actual time in the Marine Corps., it didn’t seem proper for shop talk. Privately, I was always proud I made it into Parris land and “Boot” Camp, wore the uniform and actual won a bar room brawl with some of those damn peckerwood bigots. My platoon mates and I cleaned out the place like we were in a John Ford-John Wayne movie. Ron, it felt so damn good. My first real encounter with segregation and racism in good, ol ‘ Dixie. It began when the bartender refused to serve me because I was a N___ger. My platoon mates jumped in, had my 6 and we floored those suckers in quick time. We finished our beers (on the house!!) just as the MPs and local law showed up. The MPs trumped (yes!) the local smokies and whisked us back to Parris Island where we chewed out by our C.O. who couldn’t help smiling. I was wearing the same uniform that I wore 61 years later for this piece.
      Ron, I’ll catch you up next time we’re together via Zoom or in person.
      The only folks I recall sharing my story with was Berge Avedanian and the other D-Day vets — at the Portland Exchange. They loved my story, shared their barroom brawl stories and I felt so damn proud.

      Take care. Stay safe and sane..
      S/F!
      Garry

      Like

  2. Touching post – and a history lesson too! Thanks for sharing, Garry.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You were a Marine, but I spent my service riding submarines. Good on ya Garry. My 13 button pants are long gone. Still have the 32 inch waist – shoulders are a bit broader though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nat, right back at ya! Gotta tell you that barroom brawl was unreal. It was my first real taste of segregation in Dixie-land. I was a Yank and the wrong color in that bar that smelled of urine and dead rats. I couldn’t believe when I swapped punches with guys bigger than me and they fell quickly. It was a life lesson for me.
      S/F!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Know about brawling and acting the fool… came home on leave and got my ass kicked… when I was discharged I was a different person. I’m a lifer brat and grew up on Army posts before joining… didn’t know people didn’t want to join until I was in… wouldn’t have missed it, very proud I served, and wouldn’t give you a nickel for it and I’ve made my living serving or writing about the military service most of my life. You had an interesting experience… sure a lot of pain for nothing… just making it through boot camp is an achievement. I didn’t know the Marine Corps let people out… If I understand what I’ve read, you were in TV, yes? Me too… I was the assignment editor for the ABC affiliate in St. Louis until they sold it to Fox and I got fired… about five years… definitely different. Were you on air?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, he got fired because he was too old and they wanted young, perky reporters. Worse, Garry had a tendency to feel that facts were more important than he was, so a lot of the time he did whole story and only did a final standup. And he ran overtime. A lot. He didn’t feel he could so a history of Boston busing in under two minutes. I’ll remind him you wrote. He didn’t even open his computer today — it was a long, hot day and the pollen is going berserk. it looks like it’s snowing pollen.

          Garry REALLY didn’t want to be an assignment editor. That was a murderous job. He was pretty cozy with the one who worked there most of his 31 years at channel 7 and he said it was actually harder than reporting. Why is it that people we are guaranteed to like always live somewhere really far away? Some kind of Murphy’s Law.

          I think you two might have a lot to talk about.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You ever come west come on by… would love to meet your husband and you. His circumstances sounds about right in my experience. On air was a glamour job until somebody prettier, or younger or more attune to “today” showed up and then the whacking process began. From days and the 6pm prime news to nights and weekends, dull features, what I called infomercials… going to some restaurant or whatever and plugging it as news… and then suddenly for reasons with nothing to do with quality… whack. My best friend was a very popular local personality and former newspaper man with me… had a brain tumor that caused his voice to slur a bit. He was eased out because a few viewers decided he was drunk… heartbreaking. Station manager didn’t care it wasn’t true… news was first entertainment so he had to go. On another note, sickened by what happened in MN. Makes me ashamed I was a police officer. I never thought I would cheer for destruction and unfocused rage but somehow it seems fitting… so tired of black men getting murdered by badge heavy, racist assholes egged on by Trump and his minions.

            Liked by 1 person

        • Hey, Nat! I see my wife, Marilyn, has already responded to you as I sign on here. She’s covered the basics.
          Yes, I was on TV News. On? In? Whatever. 41 plus years. Started as a grunt behind the camera with ABC Network News in NYC. Timing, as usual, was everything. First day on job, Israel’s 6 day war had just broken out. Gotta tell you, Nat, I was a bit petrified. First day in the “show” for news and I was in the middle of a major war story. A veteran newscaster noticed my face, took me over to the wires and gave me a few tips about “ripping the wires”. He also quietly said, “Stay calm. It’s always crazy around here. You’ll be okay”. Nat, that was such a swell gesture by the newscaster whose career dated back to the Murrow boys and WW2. Nothing really rattled me after that. I produced and edited scripts for some heavy hitters like Don Gardner, Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Mort Crim, Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel, just to name a few. There were even newsroom cameos by Paul Harvey and Howard Cosell who usually worked elsewhere. Those fellas gave me some hard learned lessons never forgotten. I tried to give as much as I got. My brashness fueled my ambitions to be “talent”, on camera.
          With help from one of the newscasters and friend, Sam DePino, I landed an on air gig at a small Hartford, Ct TV station. Short stint there included writing half hour newscasts, hosting other TV shows (including nightly movie host) and shooting my own film. As a cameraman, I was less than successful but I learned the ropes.
          Boston came calling soon and I was off to begin a 31 year career with Channel 7. That’s another story with MANY exciting and often unbelievable stories covered, legends met and yada, yada, yada.
          Nat, that’s the SHORT, edited version.

          As for my Marine Corps exit, they had an internal problem. My hearing had never been properly tested. Not by the recruiter or in the early days at Parris Island. I had a naive notion that somehow I could bluster my way through. It never occurred to me that I would put other Marines in harm’s way with my hearing problems. I wanted to be a gyrene so badly I let my self interest cloud better judgement.
          Thank God for everyone, I was tested and honorably discharged. At least, I’ll always have Parris Island.
          OO-RAH! Nat.

          NAT: Just read your comments about TV news more closely. I LOVED it but it was a grind. Guess I was/still am..bit of a ham. Show me a mic and a camera, I can jabber forever. Street reporting was my forte. Always loved being with people and, usually, it was mutual. I had a running battle with the TV “suits”. In my 40 plus years, I had maybe 3 or 4 decent bosses, only ONE who was a genuinely nice guy who had our “6”. Ironically, racism was a touch of luck for me. Stations were scrambling to cover their asses with one reporter of color to fend off the FCC, NAACP and other organizations who threatened to pull their license. So, I landed in Boston at a most fortuitous time. Reporter of color with network pedigree (I’d already done a stint in ‘Nam for ABC) brashness, attitude (After those Parris Island Drill Instructors, no TV News “suit” was gonna intimidate me.) I volunteered for EVERYTHING which ticked off veteran reporters. So, I got lots of face time and talent fees which other reporters didn’t know existed. I got the good gig in Boston’s School Desegregation era — able to talk with White and Black folks — which earned me reporter “spurs”. Nat, the rest of the story — again, lots of yada, yada, yada. It’d be great to catch up with you or maybe do a “Zoom” thing down the road. FYI: I did a couple of submarine stories. Not sure if would have had your grit and staying powers. S/F-NAT.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I did three tours in ‘Nam… ’68/69/70 j= was a sgt/ swuad leader and RTO/FO… just my luck to be opconned to 26th Marines, 3rdMarDiv for nine months of first tour hunting NVA arty on DMZ in ’68 before volunteering to be a door gunner to get away. Wouldn’t want to go in a submarine, no thank you very much.Was on a few cruisers and LPHs when flying. Didn’t like being a doggie in a Marine infantry battalion… my boss was a gunner from the Frozen Chosin… he directed the guns on counter-battery fire… That’s why I write books about Marines… much more colorful than army unless you got to be one. I was the Globe-Democrat cops/aviation, military writer and federal courts reporter among other beats… then when it folded CBS radio, Defense Watch, Soldier of Fortune and War Chronicles… rode lots of planes and went on lots of maneuvers and missions and operations with army and coast guard as well. Last big assignment before iraq War was riding 44″ crash boat in Mobile Bay looking for bodies after Katrina… My favorite service was USCG… talked my son into joining it… he spent almost four years on an ice breaker. I was on two cutters and two ice breakers doing stories… I wish I had heard of it when I enlisted. In St. Louis TV race wasn’t a big deal… we had a racially integrated staff and on air team. Everybody got along except for the suits… must be TV in general. Reporters we good people… had one weather guy… Dave Murray, the former weather guy at Good Morning America… who was a self-inflated fellow… but otherwise most folks were doing their job and didn’t need much direction… except a couple of anchors… one of mine on the MC Birthday said “Semper Fee Marines… instead of Semper Fi. Phones lit up for two days…. you got a email for personal stuff> Mine is nathanielhelms@att.net. I got TONS of stuff = video, stills of Bosnia, Iraq, Panama, Central America, etc. you might like seeing… my old man was a RCAF light bomber pilot before US came in World War II and then flew the Hump… my stepdad was a sgt maj from WWII stock stayed in 33 years. In the blood.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Nat, sorry about the Sub confusion. It was another fellow commenting. YOU sure as heck have had a helluva military and professional life.
              Thanks for including your email address.

              Gonna switch over to that now.

              Have a terrific weekend, Nat.

              Liked by 1 person

              • You too. Got up about 3am (CT) and watched events in Minneapolis… saw Trump’s threat… the saw CNN new team get arrested… from strictly news perspective it may be the absolute game changer for that idiot… he finally shot himself in the foot big time. I think he has melted down.

                Like

  4. What a guy! So little I really knew of you when we worked together in those broadcast trenches! So pleased that your writing skills are put to such good use in the telling of your true grit story. I love you Garry Armstrong!
    Susan

    Hey, Susan. Thanks for the kind words. I never made much of my military service because my hearing problems limited me to a chunk of basic training. But I have been told I am still a legit Gyrene. OO-RAH.
    Hope all is okay with you. Please drop a few lines in email.
    I am kachingerosa@gmail.com

    Love,
    Garry

    Like

  5. Tremendous experience! Thanks for sharing Gary.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m reading Homer’s Iliad and it seems like war is eternal. Can you imagine such a loss of life over a woman – Helen of Troy?
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences, photos, and interesting observations, Garry. Yes, I would certainly guess you are the ONLY one whose uniform still fits after all these years!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love that right next to Garry’s photo on your page it said “Freshly Pressed.” And he was!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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