I kept wondering why I never saw a bluebird. Ever. Not here or in New York. And I know they live here. This morning I got up and looked out my back windows and the deck was full of bluebirds!
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.
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 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.
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.
I don’t know how they will get it done, but I’m sure there will be flags in the Revolutionary War cemetery in the middle of town. It’s directly across from the dam and it is beautiful especially in the autumn.
It is just a hundred or so yards from the river itself. Uphill, so it never floods, even when the rivers rush over their banks. The people who created that cemetery knew about the rivers and flooding. They picked a beautiful spot, but dry and safe for the bones and memories.
An old cemetery, dating back to the early 1700s. It contains traces of many generations of those who lived and died in this town, this valley. Folks who lived along the Blackstone and its many tributaries fished in its lakes and streams. They fought in our wars and are buried here — Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War veterans as well as those who fought in all the American wars since.
Every Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veteran’s Day, the cemetery blooms with bouquets and flags. The schools bring the children here, so they will remember too and traditions will be maintained. They bring bouquets of wildflowers or from the back garden. Lilacs and lilies, scarlet poppies … and always a miniature American flag. Even if there’s no special holiday, the cemetery always shows signs of caring, remembering.
Maybe it’s easier to remember here, with such a small population. Is that it? Or it’s just part of the air, the character, the history. Remembering is what we do in the Valley.
The cemetery is one of my favorite places. We’re newcomers after all, only living here 17 years. Our ancestors — Garry’s and mine — come from Sligo, Antigua, Minsk, Bialystok … from tiny villages in Ireland and the West Indies and the shtetls of Eastern Europe.
Valley people have been here longer. Many came from French Canada in the late 19th century to work in the mills. Another large group formed the dominant Dutch population. They built churches, businesses and factories, dairy and truck farms, shops, horse farms, and sawmills. Their names are prominent wherever the rivers run.
Newcomers, like us, aren’t quite as rare these days, and anyway, we’ve lived here 18 years, so we are no longer outsiders. Nonetheless, we have no ancestors in this cemetery.
The valley is the only place I’ve lived where the majority of families have lived in this town or in nearby villages for three, four, five generations.
“We’ve always lived in the Valley,” they say, meaning as long as anyone can remember. If gently prodded, they may recall at some point, long ago, they came from somewhere else … but some can’t remember when or if it’s true.
I point out they must have come from somewhere because unless they are Native American, they came to this place, even if a long time since. They get misty-eyed trying to remember old family stories handed down when they were young. Hard to remember, they tell you. “You know, that was 75 years ago … a long time.”
We nod. It was a long time ago. A year has passed. Little flags and flowers bloom in the cemetery. It’s a nice thing they do. Remembering.
But this is not like any other year. I wonder who remembers the holiday.
What a year! What a time for Mother’s Day!
What a time!
For all of us – mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. Let’s keep on keeping on. From the strange old world into the even stranger new one.
When you’ve been married for a long time, there’s nothing new you can say that you haven’t said on all those other birthdays. I know this isn’t a great time for celebrations, … but we are alive and so far, so good.
Whenever this siege ends, we will celebrate your birthday, probably Owen’s too. We’ll celebrate surviving, on managing to have sufficient toilet paper and with a little luck, not having you-know-who in charge.
Meanwhile, tons of love from everyone because you are just such a lovable guy!
St. Patrick’s Day usually is a cause for upbeat feelings around here. But the 2020 version brings no joy.
The Coronavirus aka “The Satan Bug” has thrown cold water on worldwide celebrations. Hell froze over in Ireland where all pubs were ordered closed as safety measures. It became clear the action was necessary when bleary-eyed celebrants seemed oblivious to the danger of public gatherings right now.
Irish Eyes are not smiling in Boston where the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has also been canceled. No parade. No boisterous parties with green beer spouting from spigots hither and yon. No one day Irishmen puking their guts on the streets of revelry.
I usually covered St. Patrick’s Day for the Boston TV station where I toiled for 31 years. Yes, I hauled out my green corduroy sports jacket, dark green dress shirt, plaid green tie, and loden green khakis. I topped it off with some awful green-tinged tobacco in my pipe which was constantly lit through the long, loud and off-key version of “Danny Boy,” “Galway Bay,” and “Wild, Colonial Boy” streaming out of myriad pubs I visited for stories.
Each stop required I share a pint or two with the regulars to confirm my Irish roots. The legend had become fact after our 1990 Irish Honeymoon where I learned, to my great surprise, that I indeed had Irish ancestors. It made me something of a local hero in Southie (South Boston) where Irish Boyos are regarded with esteem.
Our news “live shots” were always a challenge on St. Patrick’s Day. No way of dispersing the lively crowds who surrounded our camera and equipment, serenading me as I delivered my reports with exuberance. I frequently was doused with “good stuff” as I wrapped up my reports. I’m proud to say it WAS good stuff, usually Guinness. Sometimes Guinness and Irish Whiskey, depending on the crowd’s affection for me. Ah, those were the days.
All the old school Irish Pols showed up, telling the same tales about the good old days with “himself,” James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston Mayor of “The Last Hurrah” fame. Crime usually took a partial day off. Lots of drunks and disorderlies but few hardcore, violent felonies. There was a line you didn’t cross on St. Patrick’s Day in Boston.
Then – as now – I looked forward to the traditional viewings of “The Quiet Man”. I remember one year, Marilyn and I watched the John Ford classic about the ‘old country’ on several stations running the film simultaneously. You could catch John Wayne courting Maureen O’Hara for several hours all over the TV channels. When we watch “The Quiet Man”, Marilyn and I exchange smiles, taking in the places we visited on our honeymoon, including young Sean Thornton’s cabin which was still in decent shape in 1990. No, I never give Marilyn a whack on her backside. John Wayne could do that to Maureen O’Hara but not Garry Armstrong to his Marilyn.
“The Quiet Man” will air tonight at 8pm our local time and I wonder how it will feel on another day of the Coronavirus, the political follies and our general sense of melancholy. I’m putting my money on Young Sean Thornton, Red Will Danaher and all the rest of those folks from Innisfree to bolster our spirits on THIS St. Patrick’s Day.
Any question about who’s the best man in Innisfree?
It started snowing yesterday afternoon and hasn’t stopped yet. Sometimes, the snow has been mixed with rain and other times, it has been the “two inches per hour” blinding snow. It’s supposed to snow all night tonight with a heavy burst in the morning. I so badly wanted a nice cool snow-free winter. Oh well.
What’s your remedy for the Holiday blues?
I don’t have that problem anymore. Not since I stopped spending half my annual salary on gifts for people who didn’t appreciate them!
Your favorite beverage (if it differs) during the holiday season? If it doesn’t differ, just answer the ‘what’s your favorite beverage” part.
I used to love eggnog. Homemade. But Garry and I don’t drink anymore and it’s so fattening. And the stuff they sell in the grocery just doesn’t do it for me.
This one has been asked before, but what’s your take on pumpkin spice?
I like some. I don’t think it belongs in absolutely EVERYTHING. I love the smell of it better than the way it tastes.
Is there is a person or god connected with your holiday?
No. As far as how I feel about other peoples’ holidays, I absolutely do NOT care what you celebrate as long as you aren’t forcing it down my throat. Enjoy your celebration. I might be happy to enjoy it with you. I have nothing against Chrismas, Easter, or Ramadan. Or, for that matter, Hanukah. I love the food and the decorations. I even like church services and hymns.
I say “Happy Holiday” because I don’t always know what holiday someone is celebrating or not celebrating. We don’t wear patches that state our religious beliefs. When we do, we will all be damned.
Share a song that you enjoy during this Winter season (whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, The Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa and so forth.