Written by Garry Armstrong
Photos by Marilyn Armstrong
I often wonder if Jean Renoir, the acclaimed French film director, had me in mind when he made his classic movie, “Grand Illusion.” But that was 1937 and I was five years away from my debut on planet Earth. Still, it works for me and why let facts muddy my creative juices?
MY grand illusion came more than twenty years ago when we moved into our Uxbridge, Massachusetts home. We left Boston during the massive and chaotic reconstruction project known as “The Big Dig” for the serenity of country life in our fast approaching golden years.
Golden years? That was the grandest illusion of all.
The corner room in our new home spoke in tongues to me, “This will be your office. Here, you will write your great book and discover new outlets for your creative juices.” I saw images, a man soon to exit more than four decades as a television and radio news reporter for new glory as a literary lion. The formal TV attire would be replaced by the gracefully aging man in pressed jeans, a corduroy jacket with elbow patches and the signature pipe to complete the transition. The office would be neat with my manuscripts surrounded by shelves of books collected over the years. This would be my retreat from the outside world. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the glossy images of Ronald Coleman, Robert Donat, and Walter Pidgeon.
I saw a Hollywood image of the literary lion I would be in my office. Surely, it was not so wild a dream. Sadly, I didn’t see myself, the great procrastinator. You can hear The Platters singing my theme song.
My office was supposed to double as a guestroom for all the visitors, eager to spend time with us in our new home. Another grand illusion.
The walls became home for familiar faces. Marilyn, love of my life and keeper of the flame, a moment from her time as a star at the Shriner’s Rodeo. Shimmering and saucy as a saddle pal who could give the likes of John Wayne all he could handle and more. It was Marilyn who helped me live my dream of riding horseback.
Speaking of John Wayne, the Duke has a place on my office wall. This is the real life movie icon, circa 1974, when he visited Boston and did a one on one interview with me, still my favorite professional moment. Hey, do you know John Wayne shook my hand? That’s an inside joke. I peppered people about the Wayne meeting until good friends suggested I chill. Marilyn and Duke Wayne sharing the walls. They whisper volumes about things to come in my office.
There are snaps of my Granddaughter, Kaitlin in various early stages of her life. Kaity is now a 26-year old — a young woman but still the apple of Gramps’ eyes.
Mom and Dad are also with me, watching from the wall above my desk. I’m not sure they are pleased with how the great expectations have played out. Expectations I knew I could meet – as sure as the turning of the earth. The book shelves include tomes about old Hollywood, the studios, the stars. I used to devour these books in one or two sessions. When I met and often socialized with many of the Hollywood legends, I felt I already knew them thanks to my books. I particularly enjoyed the books about the tinsel town studios because they covered generations and offered insight into how the silver screen magic was created by impoverished immigrants who pursued their dreams which would make them legends.
The office walls contain the works of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck among other writers of note. My personal dreams had me mingling with the men and women from these books. I would sometimes wake up looking for Jay Gatsby, Tom Joad, and Papa Hemingway’s people. These dreams fueled my aspirations.
The thing I had not counted on was one of the perks of retirement: unlimited free time. On one level, it was a blessing, but on another? It would prove a curse. How was I to know? I thought I’d begin the book tomorrow. After all, tomorrow was another day. Sure, kid, sure.
There are no real deadlines in retirement. None of the dreaded wee hour of the morning calls forcing me to hustle out to cover some calamitous “breaking news” event. This work had dominated my life for more than forty years. Its hurry-up mindset let me be a highly dependable reporter who rarely missed a deadline, no matter how daunting.
I assumed those same skills would serve me in retirement except finally, I could work at my own pace without the newsroom pressure and high anxiety which left me with ulcers by the end of my professional life. Such a grand illusion!
Reality has bitten hard. The transition from decades of highly motivated and competitive work to laid back no pressure retirement robbed me of the fire in the belly that served me so well in the news and public arena. It’s ironic. I looked forward to my current life, thinking I would blossom without executive suits and constant pressure. Yet another variation on the “be careful of what you wish for” theme.
These days, I stay up as late as I want, watching all the old movies I love. I also sleep late, sometimes into early afternoon. Sleeping late was something I dreamed about during my sleep deprived working years. The result? I have very short days to pursue creative projects. The days are even shorter if you deduct the time I spend reading sports and other “non-essentials.” I should probably point out I’ve always considered baseball very essential news. Marilyn points out that many of my aborted projects are the result of my retiree attitude. She reminds me I don’t have to take on projects if I don’t want to. I reject Marilyn’s remarks, but she is on target.
As this miserable excuse for a year slinks away, I’m faced with a hard reality. I’ll be 80 in a few months. Time is not on my side for creative aspirations. My resolutions are like punctured balloons. My office needs to look like an office, not a dumpster. The collection of old magazines, faded news scripts, memos. and clothing from another era need to be trashed. If I can browbeat myself into doing what needs doing, my office could at least be my place to pursue my grand illusion and dreams.
Maybe I’ll discover it’s not an illusion. Even if it becomes a room where I can finish something, thus ending the empty promises of “I’ll do it tomorrow.” I’ve been promising to clean up the mess for more than a decade. Maybe the time has come.
After all, that’s not such a grand illusion.