BACK IN THE SADDLE — BY GARRY ARMSTRONG

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“The Saddle” was a TV studio, WCCA-TV. Worcester Community Cable Access television. It was nirvana for a retired TV news reporter. I was the guest.

Getting ready for the show

The hostess was Liz Myska, a lawyer who is also severely visually-impaired and an advocate for the visually-impaired. Dressed in a bright summer frock which set off a charming and winning smile, I felt instantly at ease as with Liz as we met and chatted with our Covid 19 masks which made conversation a bit difficult before taping the show.

Liz asked if I could “handle the 26 minute interview.”  I smiled. I could hear Marilyn’s laughter off-camera.

It was a piece of cake. Liz, working off our pre-show chatter, dove right into the “what inspired you to pursue a career that obviously has been satisfying” question. A great lead off because it enabled me to go in many directions.

Satisfying versus successful. Satisfying is more personal. Successful means you assume something and are talking, perhaps bragging about “the greatest hits” in your life. That can be very uncomfortable unless your ego is in charge.

Liz’s question enabled me to double back to my childhood and the background for the learning I got from my parents. Their blue collar earnings never diminished their belief in right and wrong.

 

They believed in education We always had books, magazines, newspapers, reference material, a variety of musical instruments, and, of course, the radio. All of which allowed me to indulge my fantasies, something that has always been an integral part of my life as I close in on 80 years.

Liz shared stories about her youth and a similar incentive to pursue dreams. It became the foundation fabric of our lives. The interview had turned into almost an intimate conversation. That is the absolute target in a well done interview.

Liz listened to me, following as I digressed multiple times as is my habit. She smiled, anticipating a funny twist that would come as I wrapped up an anecdote. I relaxed even more.

Inevitably, the interview came to dealing with major disabilities in the professional world. I was and am the severely hearing-challenged guest talking to my severely sight-challenged hostess. It was a first for me.

I always had felt it necessary to explain how disability makes life difficult, personally and professionally. No need for any such “setup” chatter with Liz. I dove into stories about my difficulties covering trials because of poor amplification in aging courthouses.  Liz just nodded as I told about beseeching judges to make attorneys and witnesses speak louder and clearer.

She laughed when I told her about the ripple effect with veteran judges (who I also implored to speak louder and clearer) chastised prominent attorneys for mumbling. Liz (who is also a lawyer) and I were on the same page about really listening to people as a reporter and an attorney, looking for layers beneath the surface. Liz’ smile was infectious as she talked about the difficulty in getting reticent clients to be open and honest. We talked about the “trust trait” — how you must have it if you need people to believe and accept what you are saying.

Liz nimbly brought the trust factor issue to our current national state of mistrust, doubt, and cynicism. We shared sighs about how those in positions of power — including reporters and lawyers – must accept the challenge to do the right and moral thing. To alleviate the moral and ethical decay that challenges our lives.

I was about to offer another thought but the show was over. 26 minutes had vanished in a moment.

Marilyn gave me a thumbs up for my work. It felt good. Always does coming from Marilyn who doesn’t let love get in the way of critiquing my work.

Marilyn was a star too. She wasn’t feeling well but agreed to accompany me for the interview. She did it as my navigator and also as my loyal source of support. It was a long and difficult day for Marilyn just being on her feet. Her mobility issues were tested by walking to and from the studio, then immediately afterwards, a lengthy shopping trek to pick up groceries.

Two leftover cigarettes — she baked nine!

Finally, last night, Marilyn chose to make delicious pretzels. The soft, warm ones like you buy at the mall. It is one of my favorites, which meant more hours on her feet since it’s a yeast recipe.  Marilyn’s feet were not happy with her last night. Nor was her back.

The canes we used were helpful. Marilyn who really has trouble walking and, me, with simple old age pains have found the canes help steady us and keep  us from falling. Despite our efforts, our bodies were clearly not pleased with our day. It was long and for Marilyn at least, was one activity over the line. Maybe two.

Today, we are paying the piper for my star turn on television. It didn’t used to be this way. How did the years go by so fast?

THE WESTERN FILMS OF ROBERT MITCHUM By GENE FREESE

THE WESTERN FILMS OF ROBERT MITCHUM
Author: Gene Freese
Publication date: November 2019
244 pages in softcover, $39.95
pISBN: 978-1-4766-7849-8
eISBN  978-1-4766-3746-4
McfarlandBooks.com – 800-253-2187

McFarland, Publisher


Most biographies of Hollywood film stars are from the “print the legend” department. Collections of studio publicity releases, agents’ fact free notes and war stories from old Hollywood friends and foes. They’ve been repeated so many times by media outlets and film “historians.”  it’s hard to separate fact from fiction.

That’s Hollywood.

Gene Freese, author

It’s not the case in “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” by Gene Freese. This book is one of the rare times when you get more than what the title suggests.

Author Gene Freese has done his work the old-fashioned way. Lots of grunt work and untold hours digging through library archives, multiple screenings of films and videos, myriad interviews — in person, on line, by telephone, and through letters from a cross-section of people who’ve given insight to the complex puzzle of the man who was Robert Mitchum.

If you’re expecting a glossy account of the rebellious Mitchum who earned his Hollywood spurs as a hero, villain and contrary old-timer of the west, Gene Freese gives you far more that you expect from a book about a film star. In this book, you get to know the man who inhabited Robert Mitchum’s body, soul, and screen persona.

Practically every would-be Hollywood trivia buff knows about Mitchum’s much-ballyhooed marijuana arrest in the ’40s.  It’s an incident that’s gained legs, often overshadowing the actor’s impressive body of work.

It took Mitchum a while to come to terms with his infamous marijuana legacy while striving to become a diverse and accomplished actor. As Gene Freese explains, Robert Mitchum was so fond of playing the maverick on and off screen, he was perhaps guilty of printing his own legend, an irony not lost on the man who told friends to call him “Mitch.”.

Gene Freese traces Mitchum’s rough and tumble beginnings, separating fact from fiction. They are no less fascinating without the Hollywood public relations excesses. In fact, they are more interesting given Freese’s matter-of-fact detail of “Mitch’s” harrowing years as a young man, bumming his way cross country with real life hobos during the great depression.There was nothing glamorous or romantic about sharing a railroad box car with grimy men who had little to live for and were quick with a shiv to quiet upstart youngsters like Mitchum.

As author Freese explains, Robert Mitchum’s tough guy persona was born during his formative years. Hollywood was far from Mitch’s mind when he decided to see the country on his own terms. It was Woody Guthrie wanderlust.

Gene Freese’s anecdotes are rich with detail as the youthful Mitch is schooled by real-life hardliners who brooked no fools. Mitchum would use the behavior of those tough guys in his actor’s toolbox. Freese describes how Robert Mitchum closely studied the people around him, grew to understand them and ultimately allowed them to inhabit his screen persona.

Many of Gene Freese’s accounts of Robert Mitchum’s life hit home. I had the opportunity to spend a long social afternoon with Mitchum in the early ’70s when he was filming “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” in Boston. I was a television news reporter and the lunch followed the interview I’d done with Mitchum. Our time was spent in a seedy bar where Mitch could relax without having to deal with gawking fans. Mitch was relaxed and I got to see many sides of his personality, so well described by Gene Freese.

Garry Armstrong and “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum”

The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” reads like a friendly chat by a fire in the evening. It’s conversational and comfortable. Gene gives you film details much like your favorite sports writer breaks down a game. I found myself slowing down to get all the details, my fingers tracing the information from title, producer, director, stars, right down to the extras and wranglers.  If you ever wondered who played the henchman, the bully or the bartender, Freese has the names and terrific back-stories to go with character actors like Ward Bond, Paul Fix, and Morgan Woodward — names you might recognize if you are a western movie fan.

Freese gives you a fresh and honest look at Robert Mitchum’s family life. Robert Mitchum was married to one woman for his entire life, something the tabloid people rarely mention. Mitchum’s father role, as Gene Freese tells us, was far more accomplished than most of his peers.There are plenty of family stories that I’m sure will surprise and delight you.

Robert Mitchum’s “noir” westerns finally get some long overdue attention. Films like “Blood On The Moon,”  “Pursued,” and “Track Of The Cat” played in theaters and television and never got proper critical appreciation. “Just another western,” many folks thought. Gene Freese conducts Film 101 and you’ll be surprised, I think, at how good those movies are.

Robert Mitchum’s non-westerns are not overlooked. Think about “Night of the Hunter” and “Cape Fear” to mention two of Mitch’s scariest villains. Gene Freese gives you a lot to chew on about Mitchum’s approach and work on those two classics.

As a western fan, you’ll want to know more about Mitchum’s work with John Wayne. Their relationship, on and off screen, is fascinating and funny. Drinking prowess was just a small part of it. If you recall “El Dorado,” Wayne and Mitch (aka “The big two”), is exhibit A and the book has all the details.

In his later years, Robert Mitchum made some questionable professional choices.  Some mediocre films were made and other excellent roles were turned down. He worked a lot and Gene Freese pulls no punches as he explains how it happened.

“Tombstone” was Robert Mitchum’s last important movie job.  He was the narrator. He could’ve been in the movie but chose instead to be “the voice.”  Gene Freese, again, gives information which is unknown, even to many “movie mavens.”.

As a huge fan of old Hollywood, I loved the book. My heroes have really always been cowboys. Gene Freese’s “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum” not only left me better informed, it also left me smiling. We need more smiles.

“I AM SAMOAN!” DECLARES GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’m Samoan. You may not believe it, but a whole bevy of racists in the 1970s believed it and it has become an inside joke in local media  — or at least the retired members of local media.

Maybe you’ve heard it before and then again, maybe not. Back in the early ’70s, Boston was grappling with court ordered school desegregation and forced busing. It was an ugly time for race relations in The Hub of the Universe.

“The cradle of liberty” was under an international media microscope. Not pretty.

I was out covering the story and to my credit, everyone hated me. Black, white, politicians — everyone thought I was on the other side. I was proud of that. It meant (to me) I was on the right side.

One day, there was an incident in South Boston — also known as “Southie,” where all the action was taking place. A bunch of white thugs had cornered me and my crew. They were screaming the usual epithets, throwing rocks and bottles. They were on the move, coming in to give the hated, lying media a serious tune-up.

At that moment, I had what I call “A Mel Brooks Moment.” An veritable epiphany. The angry mob quieted as I raised my hand for silence. I spoke calmly, in my best (and most popular) soothing voice.


“Hey, I’m not a nig**r. I’m Samoan!”  


My crew looked at me dubiously. Surely, no one could be that stupid. Besides, I had that infamous ironic smile on my face. The angry mob was still quiet and obviously confused. So I repeated it again, slowly and louder, so the crowd could read my lips.


“Hey, I’m not a nig**r. I’m Samoan!”  


A brief pause and then … the crowd cheered. “He’s not a nig__r. He’s Samoan!!”  

They approached with broad smiles, offering handshakes. We got the hell out of there and pretty much ran for the truck. Yes, they were that stupid.  To this day, many colleagues call me “The Samoan.”

Now, that was real news!!

NAMES CAN NEVER HURT YOU – GARRY ARMSTRONG

A while back, Marilyn wrote a piece using the word chutzpah. This is a word I’ve always badly mangled when I try to say it. It’s just a word, what the heck? That was my take for many years until Robin Williams and Billy Crystal gave me a proper public whupping for butchering the pronunciation of chutzpah.  I don’t try to say it in public anymore. It’s a word. I respect it because it carries its own meanings and images.

These days, people often use words or phrases without understanding their origin or meaning. I hear political aspirants, celebrities, athletes and civic leaders say things that make me scratch my head and run back to my dictionary.  Words!  They can be powerful tools used correctly. They can be dangerous used in ignorance.

I grew up in a home full of books. Including dictionaries. Big ones and pocket dictionaries. My parents insisted on using proper language and crisp diction. Street slang guaranteed a head slap or a smack. My two brothers and I were warned about using prejudicial clichés. Since my head has never been properly wrapped, I’ve been guilty of violating those warnings because of my warped sense of humor.

Marilyn warns people that I have toys in the attic.True. And some of the toys are very old.

A friend and I were trading insults the other day. I snapped at him with, “That’s white of you”.  His smile said everything. Words!  You gotta know who, when, and where to use them.

Way back in olden times, I was 19-years-old and worked in a department Store in Hempstead, New York. I was the only non-Jew working in the children’s shoe department. I was waiting on a customer who drove me bonkers. I couldn’t take it anymore and told the parent he was a schmuck.

The manager quietly called me into the stockroom, explained what schmuck meant and asked me never to use it again — even if the customers were jerks. I think he was smiling although reprimanding me. It was a word I’d often heard used in friendly banter, but I didn’t know its origin or meaning. It was just a word. What was the big deal?  I was 19 and knew everything!  I used big words, “20-dollar” words to impress people. People often complimented me, saying I spoke very well. I didn’t understand the veiled insult behind many of those compliments.

After all, they were just words.

John Wayne, of all people, once commented on words and ethics.  It was movie dialogue but still reverberates a half century later. In the 1961 film, “The Comancheros,”  Texas Ranger “Big Jake” Cutter (John Wayne) is lecturing his younger sidekick, Monsieur Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman). Regret asks Big Jake to spin a lie to his superiors to alleviate a problem. Big Jake refuses. Regret doesn’t understand, saying they are just “words.”

Big Jake, with that iconic Wayne frown, says softly, “Just words??  Words, MON-soor, are what men live by. You musta had a poor upbringing.”  Regret looks puzzled, not fully grasping the ethical code of this rough and ready Texas Ranger.  It’s a sublime moment and perfect for the young 1960’s when youth was defying the older generation’s moral code.

I recalled the scene years later in an interview with John Wayne. He smiled, shaking his head because he was in the middle of on-going national dissent against the Vietnam War.  Wayne was one of the most visible and vocal “hawks” in the Vietnam controversy. He had been ridiculed by strident protesters at a Harvard University gathering earlier that day.

“Words, dammit,”  Wayne looked at me, angry and sad. “My words! No damn Hollywood script. I have as much right as those damn college kids.”  Wayne was fuming. The Hollywood legend collected himself as I redirected the conversation to my time as a Marine. I had enlisted in 1959, fired up by the “Sands of Iwo Jima.

“Words. Good words,” I said to Wayne who smiled broadly.

Today, words are often tossed around loosely on social media with little regard to truth or the repercussions of ill-advised words. We have a president who uses words without thought in a daily barrage of tweets. Our media is engaged in a daily war of words, ignoring crucial issues facing our nation and world. Those of us of a certain age shake our heads as we watch young people immersed in tweets rather than direct conversation with friends in the same room. Words have become an endangered species.

I remember the good old days when me and friends went face to face with verbal jousts like “Your Mother wears combat boots!”

Words!  I love’em.

BACK TO THE CANAL AND THE BLACKSTONE RIVER – Marilyn Armstrong

I’d been itching to get outside, even for a little while. I’d been outside on my own property, but nowhere else except UMass hospital and I didn’t think that counted.

Garry took pictures. I took pictures. Together, it added up to quite a few pictures. I haven’t begun to process all of them … and a lot of them don’t need any processing. It was a beautiful day for photography.

Here are a few of my photographs:


And then there are Garry’s pictures. He was able to walk more and got some interesting people pictures.


Amazing how low the river is after three weeks of no-rain.

WALK LIKE A MAN – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Every day, every week, every month, ever year, every Father’s Day,  there are new memories about my Dad.  It says a lot about William Benfield  Armstrong who left us 18 years ago.

I’ve heard the question for years. In high school, Marine Corps Basic Training, college, Network News, 31 years at Channel 7 Boston, and, now, almost 19 years into retirement. The same question.

I hear the question and, involuntarily, ask,  “Huh”?

No, it’s not about coping with racism,  hearing affliction, or being just over 5 feet tall in a 6 foot tall world.  It’s about how I walk. Yes, you hear correctly. How I walk.

Growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, many kids used to mimic the walk of  John Wayne,  James Cagney,  Gary Cooper,  Robert Mitchum,  Cary Grant,  Burt Lancaster and other movie celebrities.

Minority kids showed off their “Diddy Bop” (long before the Rap artist) walk.  A street gait that puffed up your neighborhood creds with the boys and girls.  You’ve seen this “Bop” almost stereotyped on TV cop shows and movies.   Black-oriented comedy shows, played  “the walk” straight or played it for laughs.

These various copy cat walks were not for me. Early on, I found myself watching my Dad walk. Many times I met him at the bus or railroad station when we lived in Queens in the late 40s and early 50s. I had to sometimes skip to keep pace with his fast-paced walk. Dad walked ramrod straight with a steady rhythm.  Very military.  Very self-aware and self-possessed.  Some of it was Staff Sgt. Armstrong,  Army veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and other European action in World War Two. Some of it was Antigua-bred, his walk with pride of his bearing.

The sum total was unique.  So, the oldest of the three Armstrong sons,  chose Dad’s special walk over a mimicked Duke Wayne swagger.

I think I tried to explain it a couple of times but other kids didn’t buy it.  They were too much into bullying and making fun of me until I had my memorable Junior High battle.  The bully was floored by a Bill Armstrong taught southpaw punch instead of his stoic walk.  Actually, the walk preceded the punch.  What a 1-2 arsenal!  The schoolyard wanker never saw it coming.  Dad was as proud of me as if I had won the Junior Lightweight crown at Madison Square Garden.

My Dad’s amateur boxing status was very real. He was a champ in bouts staged during the War.  It was a welcomed sport to relieve tension among the GI’s fatigued from battle.

Dad in the field, black and white with some restoration.

My Dad knew his boxers the way I grew up knowing my baseball players. We bonded watching Gillette’s “Friday Night Fights”.  I absorbed Dad’s commentary as we watched Joe Louis, Kid Gavilan, Ezzard Charles,  Rocky Graziano, Rocky Marciano,  Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta and even a young Cassius Marcellus Clay.  Sometimes I muted the audio so Dad could do the play by play.  He always smiled when that was done.  Those were very special father-son evenings for me.

As usual, I digress.  This is about Dad. His walk. Dad was  versatile and talented,  a very talented man. He was a world class tailor and carpenter.  My father, at one point, worked for an elite Manhattan Men’s Clothier.  Very elite.  One evening, Dad took me to work. I was still an adolescent. 11, maybe 12-years-old and very naive.

We walked past limousines parked outside and into the store where apparently wealthy gentlemen, all white, were surrounded by staffers. Also all White.  Dad was greeted as if he was a senior executive. I followed his ramrod straight gait – past the salesmen, customers and coat-holders – into the tailors’ area where Dad was greeted like the CEO. I blinked like I understood.  Dad obviously was a VIP – a man among his peers.

A couple of young men, blue eyed with crew cuts, collegiate sweaters, khakis and loafers — swept up clothing parts and shared giggles.  They spotted my Dad and quickly blurted, “MISTER Armstrong, Sir, How are you?  This is your son, right?  Obviously cut from the finest cloth, right, Mr. A.”?  My Father responded with a smile that clearly wasn’t a smile.  The college boys shrank back to their duties. Nearby, there was light, nervous laughter.

I was introduced to pipe smoking men who looked like British actors from my favorite movies. They referred to my Dad as “Bill, best man in the company”.  One compliment after enough as Dad showed me his working place.  His tailor’s work tools.  I just kept blinking as a couple of co-workers came over to seek his advice on a “special job  that needed to be finished right away”.  He gave them that impatient sigh I’d heard at home. But he also smiled and gave the advice so badly needed with  minimum words and a quick show of hands how to best tailor the suit for the V.I.P.  Sighs of relief from the co-workers who almost bowed to Dad.

Later, there was an echo of “Goodnight, Bill!”  as we left the ritzy store.  Dad merely smiled and nodded as he walked proudly out of the place.

All the way home – on the subway and bus – I wanted to ask questions. But Dad was very quiet, almost bemused, I thought.

Finally, striding down 177th street, Dad slowed his pace a bit and offered, “Garry,  don’t be misled by those men you met tonight. We don’t live in their world. But, at work, I make sure they know I am their equal. My work speaks for itself. I don’t have to do any shouting or boasting”.   I looked up at Dad as we approached our house.  In the receding light of that summer’s evening, he looked more than 6 feet tall.

As we walked into the house, I mimicked my Dad’s gait.

Walk like a man!

TREES BY THE RIVER – FOTD – GARRY ARMSTRONG

FOTD – June 18 – Trees by the river


Down by the river, Garry took some pictures. I keep hoping we’ll get a little bit of rain to clear the air of the pollen. Because tree pollen would normally be gone by now, but it has been so dry, it’s still lingering around.

The river, some kids, and wildflowers across the water

And some loverly reflections

And then there are leaves and trees, and some really pretty violet wildflowers growing wild along the Blackstone River.

Trees framing the river

Wildflowers

AND THAT’S WHY I LOVED LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the blues. I need to perk up.

LUCILLE-BALL

Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. Suddenly, it reminds me of another time, an assignment more than three decades ago.

The assignment? To cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show.

It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by her entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signaled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second. She winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek … and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of “I Love Lucy” reruns.

I was just staring and marveling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay.

We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry smile again along with a “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that smile again as she walked away.

The blues just vanished. How about that!

WHEN MOVIE MAVENS MEET – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Movie Trivia, once a parlor game among friends, has grown into a worldwide, billion-dollar industry including databases, online fan clubs, and television stations like Turner Classic Movies, The Movie Channel, and American Classic Movies.

Gene Freese

People, like me, fancied themselves as experts on classic movies. Over the decades, I’ve devoured dozens of books on films, the stars, the old studios, the Hollywood power brokers, and, yes, the juicy gossip about legendary actors, actresses, and directors.

During my TV News career, as many of you know, I had the good fortune of meeting many of the old Hollywood legends who shared stories with me. Inside stories. Stuff that prompted me to proclaim myself as the movie maven. My knowledge has often been tested over the years by prominent public figures. movie stars and friends.  The queries sometimes included dead of night phone calls for trivia that had stumped someone.

The Superstitions

Social media and online fan clubs have recently dimmed the luster of my maven title.  Lots of folks know their movie trivia and are quick to share. A little humility — this know-it-all doesn’t go down easily.

Gene’s dad Marty Freese in Old Tuscon

One of the traits of a genuine movie maven is knowledge of character actors, the names way below the title in a movie. You’ve seen them often but can’t remember their names. I always could, dating back to the first movie I saw as a 4-year-old in a first-run theater.  It was “The Best Years Of Our Lives” from 1946.  I quickly picked up names like Steve Cochran, Ray Teal, Gladys George, and Roman Bohman. They played small but vital roles and I looked for them in future films.

Sedona from Schnebly Hill

Three years ago, I wrote a piece about Richard Jaeckel, a character actor whose face you probably recall if not his name. Jaeckel played “the kid” in numerous war and western films, he was perpetually young for almost four decades in films like “Sands Of Iwo Jima”, The Gunfighter” and “Comeback Little Sheba” which was an “against typecasting” role.

I met Jaeckel in Boston in the early ’70s during a film promotion tour. The interview turned into a long afternoon of social chit chat which was the basis of my piece.

One of the online responses came from a gentleman very familiar with Richard Jaeckel. It turns out Mr. Freese was writing a book about Jaeckel.  I easily shared anecdotes about Jaeckel with Gene who, in turn, shared some of his stories.  It turned out Gene, an Arizona native is a prolific author with a keen knowledge of many of the character and stunt actors whose faces are familiar — if not their names.

Many of you, of a certain age, recall TV series like “Yancey Derringer” and “Laredo”. The former starred Jack (Jock) Mahoney as a gambler and upholder of the law. The Latter,  William Smith as one of a quartet of happy go lucky Texas Rangers.

I was thrilled to be the recipient of numerous anecdotes from Gene Freese about the likes of Mahoney, Smith, L.Q. Jones, Leo Gordon (remember the bad guy in the mudslide fight with Duke Wayne in “McLintock”?  Leo V. Gordon was the dean of bad guys in many films over four decades. He was a scary dude.

As was the previously mentioned William Smith who often played vicious psychopaths — you may recall him as the sailor thug in “Rich Man, Poor Man.”  Gene Freese floored me with tales of the real William Smith, a gentle poet, and a folk singer.

If you love old westerns, you’ll find Gene’s books take you to the locations of films like “Winchester 73,” “Pat Garrett And Billy the Kid,” and “The Last Hard Men,” as well as TV series like “The High Chaparral” and “Have Gun, Will Travel.”  Gene has walked the desert trails and climbed the mountains of films like “3 Godfathers,” “3:10 To Yuma,” and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”

Gene Freese is an avid outdoorsman. He and his family share a love of hiking and mountain climbing.  Gene is an “always there Dad” for his children’s sports and social activities. His dad set the tone for movie stunt and character work. They are familiar figures at Arizona’s old west venues that draw many fans.  Freese has the sensitivity to give fan besieged western actors space and garners many wonderful anecdotes from movie people who are normally reticent. Stunt actors are especially wary of “Pilgrims.”

I just finished “The Western Films of Robert Mitchum,” Freese’s latest book.  It gives you a fresh look at “Mitch,” an actor with whom I spent time and whose professional legend is too often reduced to tawdry gossip and an over-hyped drug arrest early in his career.  You’ll appreciate Mitchum’s work ethic as well as his varied talents which included writing poetry and composing music.

Gene Freese got to the heart and soul of Robert Mitchum as no else has.  It’s a tribute to Gene’s ability. Yes, there will be a review of the Mitch book — coming soon at this address.

Thanks, Gene. I look forward to our next share.

SLOWLY DRIVING ACROSS NEW ENGLAND – GARRY ARMSTRONG

We can still remember the good old days when we were one of the kids in the back seat pinching and punching a sibling while whining: “Are we there yet?” How come our parents didn’t kill us before we grew up?

It’s a question that has taken on considerable depths of meaning with the passing decades

Those of you who wax poetic about the wonderfulness of slowly trundling down America’s scenic back roads should take a car trip across New England.

New England roads — the good roads, the paved roads, the roads with passing lanes — run north and south. Although no one can explain why — lack of money? no interest? not enough tourists? — so only small local roads go east-west. If, for example, you are traveling the 231 miles from Jackman, Maine to Danville, Vermont, you will experience some of the nation’s most beautiful scenery. Slowly.

These are classic roads. They have not changed and in many cases have not been repaved in your lifetime.

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No limited-access highway will sully your pure travel experience. You won’t be tempted to eat fast food from familiar chains. No driver will tailgate to make you or honk for you to speed up. The car ahead of you — what we sometimes refer to as our “pace car” — will be an aging pickup truck rattling down the mountain. One of the driver’s feet will be glued to the brake pedal while he or she engages in a lively conversation with his or her partner while the truck weaves left and right and an occasional fishtail.

You’d be hard put to figure if the vehicle has a steering problem, rowdy children, or the driver is doing it on purpose to make you crazy. Whatever the reason, you are not going to pass that pickup.

You won’t find fast-food chains on this route, but you won’t starve, either. There’s plenty of good food and gasoline to pump as you pass through the quaint New England towns. Classic towns with white clapboard churches and at least one or two pizza joints. Fresh baked goods for sale. Chilled pop in bottles and cans. Clean bathrooms.

TRUCK ON ROUTE 201 IN MAINE

It’s a breathtaking journey through the mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes. Magnificent and surreal. For the entire trip, directly in front you — on every road — will be a poky driver who will never exceed, or even approach, the speed limit. He or she would not consider letting his vehicle get within 10 miles of whatever that silly sign says is a safe, legal speed for traveling those roads.

Let’s not forget the neverending construction. It is one of New England’s seasons: winter, sort-of spring, and construction. Oddly, if you go back the next year, the construction will still be ongoing with little sign of progress. After four or five of the dozen hours of the drive, the urge to get your car up to ramming speed and push the slow drivers out of the way becomes obsessive.

Slow drivers lurk on side roads. Do they use spotter craft (drones?) so they know when we are coming? We try to pass, but they appear out of nowhere. They pull out and immediately slow to a crawl. If by some miracle, we briefly break free, another slow driver is poised for action at the next intersection.

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Supposedly Dwight D. Eisenhower built the interstate highway system in case of an emergency, so military vehicles could get where they needed to be.

Maybe there was a hidden reason. Ike came from farm country and had been traveling glorious back roads his entire life. The great general he was, he knew defeat when he saw it. Never could he or his military \ever defeat the slow drivers. And that is the real reason he built interstate highways across America, all of which currently need paving. But that’s another story.

Enjoy the beauty of New England. Just remember to enjoy it slowly. If you have a specific arrival time? Leave extra hours. Many extra hours. And remember to take a lot of deep breaths.

DRESSED TO KILL? – Marilyn Armstrong

Garry used to be the best dresser in Boston. He spent a fortune on clothing. He loved looking good. His father was a tailor and for him, a suit that fit perfectly was like a hot sports car — and he had one of them, too. Did I mention his 1969 hot orange convertible Challenger? He actually had a matching wristwatch — gold with an orange background. That’s what he was showing Tip O’Neill in this now almost-famous photograph.

Garry wanted to be debonair. Like Cary Grant. He loved the way Cary Grant wore clothing and over time, Garry became quite a clothes-horse. You’d never know it from his stretchy pants these days, but in his time, he was quite the dresser. He still irons a crease in his jeans because they need that crease or they don’t look right.

Except he almost never wears jeans anymore. He is retired and so is his wardrobe. But he keeps a few things because every now and then, he has to stand in front of an audience and look good.

He looks good!

Recently – Photo: Garry Armstrong

I always felt slightly underdressed in his company — even when he was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. Even my father — who rarely noticed anything other than himself (a consummate narcissist) — remarked that Garry looked better dressed in a grungy pair of shorts and shirt than most people looked in a tuxedo.

It was hard for me to live up to that, but Garry was a big help to me in finding clothing that looked good on me. He had an eye for drape and line. Even our granddaughter wouldn’t go shopping for a prom dress without his help. That is something!

At Broadcasting Hall Of Fame, September 2013

He never managed to help Owen much, though, but Owen was allergic to nice clothing. Greasy jeans and tee shirts with holes were his thing from very early on. Clothing that didn’t have paint stains on them wasn’t worth wearing. I guess that’s the flip side of debonair? Anti-debonair?

These days, it’s all about comfort. Elastic. I warned him, though. Once you discover elastic, you’ll never go back. it’s true. After you have learned to love stretch, nothing else feels right.

Yoga pants forever!

BY RIVER AND CANAL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

TIME OUT FOR SQUIRRELS!

I took a lot of pictures along the river. Marilyn is processing a half dozen at a time.

Meanwhile, some squirrel and bird news! In the last week, our deck has been covered by dozens of baby squirrels. I think that the mamas and papas took them as soon as they could climb to our deck and said to them: “Be joyful children for on this deck, there is always food.”

The road between the river and canal

Both Owen and Marilyn have gotten up early enough to see the madness. At six-thirty in the morning, they are on the feeders, on the steps, climbing up the pole and down the banister and across the beam. Chasing each other around the deck and actually fighting each other for a place on the feeder.

This morning the decision was made. The feeders will stay empty for a few days. The squirrel babies will have to discover the forest and the trees. The birds haven’t even had an hour when they could feed. I have a feeling (but no pictures) that we’ve been massively hit by flying squirrels all night. They too have probably been breeding up a storm and are bringing their floating kidlings to the deck for seedy delights.

I feel sorry for the birds who looked downright mournful when they couldn’t get any seeds. They sat on the railing looking at the empty hooks.

We didn’t mind some squirrels, but this was a three-ring squirrelly circus. All they needed was a marching band.

And some of those squirels fly!

If we feel things have calmed down, we’ll try putting the feeders up next week. This is the time of year when you can see birds you’ll never see the rest of the year. Maybe the break will calm the creatures. We’re also going to try and buy a lot of corncobs for the squirrels. Maybe if they get something they like better, they’ll leave the feeders?

Of one thing I am sure: all the feeding has raised the squirrel population here from a few squirrels to an awful lot of squirrels, both leapers, and flyers!

PRIVILEGED IN THE PARK – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It was really a lovely day. Cool, bright, not humid. The car, after these months of sitting under the trees which, these days, are covered with the remnants left by Marilyn’s birds. Our Renegade was not looking her best. And, there were a lot of medications waiting at the pharmacy.

We had gotten up early because Marilyn thought we had a doctor’s appointment, but it turned out to be next Tuesday. Since I was up already, I bravely ventured out. Mailed a long-delayed letter. Picked up medications, got the car washed, bought Marilyn a bouquet of white roses, then went down to River Bend.

I found a great spot for photographs, an old Andy Griffith, Mayberry scene. And there was a mom and her two little kids playing in the river. I was also wearing both mask and gloves with my USMC T-shirt and an NCIS vest (bought directly from the CBS online shop).  I guess I didn’t look dangerous enough to call the cops.

I asked permission to take pictures of her and the kids. Eventually, I asked why none of them were wearing masks. She told me, “Thanks for asking permission for pictures. Yes, you can take them. As for no masks and gloves, I think the media is blowing this out of proportion. The President knows what he is talking about.”


Long pause from me. “Hey, ” she said, “You look familiar. Didn’t you used to be on TV? Oh, don’t tell me. I know! I grew up watching you on TV. You have a nice day, now.”

I also guess no one told her about the literally thousands of snapping turtle who live in that area of the river. That’s why you aren’t allowed to swim in it or even dangle your feet off the dock. They like to munch on toes and fingers and have the jaws to for it.


Her 5-year-old is in preschool. The 4-year-old is in nursery school. And mom watches Fox News. You can’t save them all.

BAD BEHAVIOR TRUMPS RACE, CREED AND GENDER – GARRY ARMSTRONG

What our Coronavirus and riot-plagued world does not need is even more pointless intolerance. There’s no excuse for not using a modicum of civility when dealing with others, especially in the workplace. It doesn’t matter how bad a day you’ve had. Do you know how bad the day of the person you are working with has had? Did you ask? Did you even think about him or her as a person?

We have all been living through the tensest, most frustrating, angst-riddled period since the Civil War. With the way things are going, we could be rerunning the Civil War soon.

In my 40+ years on the TV news trail, I’ve been verbally assaulted by every kind of minority. I understood it was part of my job. Many people seemed to figure it was okay to shoot the messenger.  Early on in my career, I was warned to have thick skin if I wanted to succeed.

That thick skin was tested many times. I was taunted by Black people who called me Uncle Tom or house boy. Labeled by religious fanatics who called me a Christian stooge. Feminists who tagged me as chauvinist. I sucked it up and plowed on to report the facts.

The gasoline bays.

Facts usually silenced my assailants who then wrote hate letters in red crayon.

My good stories were balanced by controversial reports that fanned the flames of ill-tempered people. I probably made it worse by writing the haters “thank you” notes. It further angered the wankers. Civilians who have never worked as journalists are surprised by how often people behave badly toward people who are merely trying their best to do their jobs.

Uhaul for the haulers

So it was that my stepson came home with a story that sounded painfully familiar. Owen manages a local garage which does repairs, inspections and has a mini-mart. He’s known for his work skills. pleasant manner, and humor. He manages to be cordial in the worst of scenarios.


Yesterday, Owen was in the middle completing one job when he was besieged by a man who jumped out of his Mercedes demanding instant access to a Uhaul truck.

Owen tried repeatedly to pacify the agitated fellow, explaining he would not be able to get his Uhaul for a few more minutes until he finished the inspection on which he was working. The customer not only refused to accept any waiting but left his car so it blocked all the gas pumps. When asked to please move his vehicle, he launched into a profane tirade topped by the ever-popular race card.

Owen is white. The angry one was a man of color.

Given several volatile national stories, this local incident had the makings of getting serious. The indignant Mercedes driver was sure the “race card” would pay off.  It almost always works. Owen has heard numerous stories about racism from his step-father (me) who specialized in covering race riots and protest marches dating back to MLK and the Freedom Rights movement. Thanks to his parents and stepdad, Owen is more than typically sensitive to anything that smells of racism.  We joke about it at home — but that’s a different story.

Today’s potentially race-toxic incident was defused by Owen who stood his ground and convinced the angry gent to leave the shop and take his business elsewhere. Eventually, the ante was upped in include a full volume and very firm suggestion that he leave and never return. No Uhaul for him.

Owen in the shop

The race card didn’t end in a riot or even police intervention. Owen is of the opinion that the fancier car he or she is driving, the more arrogant and mean-spirited is the driver. Especially those who drive Mercedes’s and BMWs.

Owen is my step and godson. I’m proud of him. He’s made of stern stuff. This country could use more of him. Way to go, O!