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.

72-Rt-16_Snow-Roads_026

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.

72-Traffic-Main-St-Uxbridge--120315_040

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!

COLUMBINE ARE UP AND ROSES ARE ON THE WAY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

FOTD – May 31 – COLUMBINE

I went into town to take pictures of Owen at work, stopped to pick up some stuff to drink, then came home to take flower pictures. I haven’t conquered macro pictures of flowers yet. I think I need some instruction. Meanwhile, though, the Columbine is big and beautiful.

The red berries are part of the big Holly tree we are growing.

The cut-down roses from last year decided to start growing like mad. Lucky for us, the Rhododendrons are finished, so I guess it’s okay if the roses trap them against the fence. Again.

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!

ALMOST INTERVIEWING JIMMY STEWART – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Full disclosure upfront. I never met Jimmy Stewart. No interviews. No emails. No phone conversations. But I’ve got Jimmy Stewart in my brain, maybe because Stewart is TCM’s “Star of the month.” They’ve been airing most of the legendary star’s films from the ’30s through the ’80s. There was a masterful Stewart profile hosted by Stewart’s good friend, Johnny Carson. He made it feel like two buddies reminiscing about the best years of their lives.

Stewart, (center) with Amos on his right, and the B-52 crew moments after safely landing at Andersen. Before leaving Guam the next morning, Stewart again thanked Amos for his professionalism during the emergency and presented him with signed prints for each of the crewmen. (Courtesy Bob Amos)

The other night might have been my first (Yes!) viewing of 1954’s “The Glenn Miller Story.” Somehow, “The Miller Story” escaped me during those years when I went to the movies 3 or more times a week. I absolutely enjoyed the warmth and nostalgia of the movie in a way I rarely feel about contemporary films. I’ve been steadily humming “Moonlight Serenade” for the last two or three days.

Jimmy Stewart is stuck in my mind. I’m doing an interview with him — but it never really occurred. I’ve been digging through my mental folders and files for why I feel this link to Stewart. I’m aware of all his unforgettable film performances, from “Mr. Smith” to “Wonderful Life” to “Harvey.” And all those rugged 1950s and 1960s westerns — including “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

I couldn’t find that link.  It’s more than just the fan and movie maven thing going on.  What was it?

It hit me as I was cleaning my hearing aids. The answer!

During the late 1980s — maybe 1988 or 1989 — during Ronald Reagan’s second term in the White House, life was changing for me. Marilyn was back in my life after spending almost a decade in Israel. And I finally was able to wear the new, smaller hearing aids that are nearly invisible to onlookers.

I was elated!  No more of those ugly, big hearing aids. I was always sure people stared at them while I worked on local TV News. That was when I remembered — a conversation I had with a colleague. She was the station’s entertainment reporter and had noticed me talking to myself as I checked the audio of my tiny new hearing aids with a big smile on my face.

I was in the middle of covering a major trial that was getting international attention. I saw my image on network news shows. No hearing aids were visible. Oh, the vanity! I explained to my colleague what the tiny hearing aids meant to me. How I’d coped with a major hearing loss most of my life and the adjustments I had made to succeed in TV News.  She was genuinely surprised and smiled with an appreciative tap on my shoulder. We’d sat close to each other in the newsroom for months, talked about business and personal things — but I’d never mentioned my hearing loss.

That was also the summer Marilyn and I entertained actress Patricia Neal and legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstadt at our Martha’s Vineyard cottage, a rented place we shared with other TV news friends. Word of our friendship with Neal and Eisenstadt made the rounds in the local entertainment news world. I remember sharing stories with my entertainment reporter colleague. Sometimes name dropping can be a lot of fun … and this was one of those times.

“I met Jimmy Stewart at a Washington, D.C. cocktail party,” my colleague told me one afternoon. She had my complete attention.  “Poor Jimmy. He was struggling with his gigantic hearings aids.”

I listened with fascination. I didn’t know Jimmy Stewart needed hearing aids. It never showed in his movies or TV interviews. I listened closely for details on Stewart’s dilemma.

“Jimmy couldn’t hear what was being said at the party,” my colleague told me, “He kept looking at me awkwardly and fumbled with the conversation.”

I had an epiphany.  Jimmy Stewart fumbled with a conversation because he was trying to absorb and register what people were saying to him. The famous Jimmy Stewart verbal fumble was his way of coping with hearing problems. I probably smiled to myself as my colleague went on with her description of Jimmy Stewart’s cocktail party struggles. Fascination turned to compassion as I imagined myself in Stewart’s place, trying to filter our multiple conversations, loud music, and ambient background noise.

The Stewart story quickly faded out from my mind as I returned to my story and a pressing news deadline.

There was a letter on my desk a few days later. I was running late for the trial and was worried about getting a good seat so I could hear the lawyers and the judge,, so I didn’t get to it that day.

Trials were always a major headache for me. Years earlier, I’d taken my situation to myriad judges, court officers, and lawyers. I wanted everyone to know I was working with this handicap and wanted to be sure I got all their wise words accurately. They appreciated my candor and efforts were made to make sure I could get the information accurately and efficiently.  My best, most sincere face helped my cause. If you’ve heard this from me before, know it was the prologue for my relationship with Jimmy Stewart.

I finally opened the letter a day or two after it arrived. I was immediately suspicious. Phony, threatening, and suggestive letters are common for a TV news reporter. This one wasn’t in thick crayon or illegible ink scrawl, but I was still suspicious.


“Dear Garry,

I hope you don’t mind my assumption of friendship since we’ve never met. I deal with this business of celebrity all the time and it is presumptuous.”


I continued to read with skepticism until I realized this missive was from Jimmy Stewart. He went on to explain his cocktail party hearing problems, his encounter with my colleague who apparently talked about me and my hearing problems. Jimmy Stewart heard about this Garry Armstrong guy who was a success on Boston television news despite hearing problems. I blushed a little as I read Stewart’s account of my bravery. Most of the letter, however, dealt with Stewart’s details about his hearing aids, its components. He wanted my take on the efficiency of these new little hearing aids.

I put the letter in my desk, planning to take it home and show to Marilyn because I wasn’t good at holding on to such possessions in my professional life. My attention turned to the trial and my report for the six o’clock news.

Fast forward several hours, including my ritual, stop at the local bar before heading home — without the letter. Out of sight and mind.

I did manage to write Jimmy Stewart a few days later. I spent most of the letter talking about how I struggled with my hearing and the use of the aids. I must have appeared awfully vain, talking about overcoming my reluctance to wear hearing aids because I thought it was a stigma. My vanity was probably also obvious when I mentioned some of Stewart’s colleagues I’d met in my career.  I was young and lacked humility, telling Stewart about time I’d spent with Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Cagney, Gregory Peck, and other stars. I forgot to mention the other stars, like Albert DiSalvo, Whitey Bulger, and Tip O’Neil.

In retrospect, I can only wonder what Jimmy Stewart thought as he read this silly, name dropping letter from a young Boston reporter.

Another Stewart letter arrived several days later. No indication of displeasure in my letter. He asked lots of questions about my hearing aids, my interview tact, and how I handled myself in large crowds. There was a hint of getting together when he came east again.

The meeting never occurred. Perhaps that’s why I’m now having these dreams about the sit-down interview that might have been.

Me and Jimmy Stewart. It never happened, but it could have. It almost happened.