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.
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!