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.

Younger Marilyn and books

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.

Divot with Kaity and Garry at River Bend

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.

Unique portrait of John Wayne in Boston during Vietnam war

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.

Categories: #Photography, Anecdote, Books, Celebrities, Garry Armstrong, Hollywood, Humor, Movies, Remembering - Memories, Retirement, Western movies

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32 replies

  1. I can relate all too well, right down to the unfinished book and the lack of structure that somehow mever changes even with every type of effort or every type of lassitude. Oh well. Maybe next year–! Best wishes–

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, the perks and good intentions of retirement… We’re all in it together, Garry! ๐Ÿ’ž

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bette, thanks so much. I appreciate the understanding. I know I deserve the cynical responses after so many promises of “I’ll do it tomorrow”. It’s hard to break bad habits. But I hear the clock ticking. Truly, I do.

      Happy New Year, Bette!


  3. I’ve been finding the same gems. Took some letters 54 years old for my sister to read. She loved reading them as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t regret most of the things I tossed during our various moves, but I dumped old letters between Garry and me and I really wish I’d saved them. I don’t think either of us has written a real LETTER — you know, paper and pen and a stamp and all that — since I came home in 1987. Nor has Garry.

      Garry’s got a lot of really INTERESTING stuff back there so I’m hoping he really does dig through it. There’s so much material buried under other stuff!

      Have a wonderful Turning of the Year and maybe the next one will be better, if not worldwide, at least personally. Hugs from both of us!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t written a letter in 20 years–since I moved to Mexico.
        I’ve written some mighty long emails, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think for me, blogging IS writing a letter, which is why I like it so much. I always thought that letter writing was my strongest writing. The length and format of blogging is to me much like a letter, but written to everyone and it plays to my strongest writing skill — 500 to 2000 word stories and thoughts. These days, the problem is that I’ve gotten a bit restless and want to do some other stuff too. Not instead of, but “also.” I think for many of us, blogging fills that space in the writing world for short pieces that make a point or describe something or are anecdotal. I don’t think there is any other outlet for this kind of writing.


    • Life, thank you. I appreciate the support. Now, let’s see if I can kick myself in the tush and get moving.

      Happy New Year!


  4. I think this goal is doable, and perhaps the book too. Start with one chapter

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dig out. You’ll find new gems, things you forgot you knew or did. I’m in the middle of that right now. It’s a major effort but worth it. And, for heaven’s sake, write that book! Never a better time.

    Liked by 1 person


    Liked by 2 people

    • Kids are shockingly unimpressed by parents and grandparents. Excessive familiarity? Or maybe watching these old guys hang around the house in pajama bottoms?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, I was in the legion of boys-young men who admired Wayne’s screen persona. Even after I learned about some of the less flattering things, including his dubious WW2 exemption while playing THE cinema war hero, I was still a Wayne fan. In fact, Wayne’s Sgt. John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima”, was a primary incentive in my enlisting in the USMC right out of high school. It shows the power of the Hollywood legend building machine.


    • I met him also, at the airport in Laramie, Wyoming. I’ve told the story in another blog so won’t repeat it here. At one point, he was in my car, ready to come back to campus with me for Sigma Chi Derby Days, (his old fraternity) but his manager caught us as we were driving out of the parking lot, so instead he scribbled a message and signature on the back of his card which I still have. We’ve traded these war stories before. Couple of old farts!!!!


  7. When we lived in Southern CA we would, from time to time, encounter John Wayne at the “El Rancho Market.”
    The first time, I didn’t recognize him. At least, not until he started speaking to the cashier. That voice – unmistakable!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I have great hopes for the clean out. I had given up hope of ever seeing the furniture in that room again or being able to walk without stepping on something potentially breakable. The old newspapers and magazines are wonderful so keep digging. Even if you never reach the bottom, there are gems amidst the rubble. I can hardly wait!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Baby Sister, I don’t think I can procrastinate this time. Words are what men live by.


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