I liked him so much I named a dog after him. Now that is appreciation.
Our Arizona vacation is a trip back in time to some of my favorite western movies and TV shows. The cactus covered fields and surrounding mountains evoke memories, especially of John Wayne-John Ford classics.
The locales around Phoenix are similar to areas in Utah where Wayne and Ford made some of their iconic films. In the aftermath of two vacations in Arizona, there were requests for my oft-told story about meeting Duke Wayne. If you’ve heard it before, head for the nearest saloon, Pilgrim.
Forty-three winters ago, as I reckon, it was John Wayne versus the anti-Vietnam War crowd at Harvard and surrounding areas of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Duke was cheered and jeered as he sat atop an armored “half-track” which moved slowly through the crowd as light snow fell. Some dissidents lobbed snowballs at Wayne as they shouted in derision. The Duke smiled and waved.
At one point, everything stopped as the legendary star hopped out to shake hands amid a flurry of snowballs. It was a bad situation for a reporter attempting an interview.
I remember calling in a few favors. Somehow, Duke and his entourage slipped into an empty theater. Long moments — to me, it was an eternity — followed as I waited alone on stage. Suddenly, the stage lit up. I froze.
“Hello, Garry!” Duke Wayne boomed in a friendly voice as he ambled in that familiar gait across the stage and greeted me. My TV persona kicked in as I shook hands with my hero, beaming with a happy smile.
I was oblivious to the cameras and time. Later, I would learn that it was a pretty fair interview with me swapping stories with Wayne including some anecdotes about my stint in the Marine Corps. Apparently, that impressed the Duke. He laughed when I recalled how I’d upset several drill instructors during basic training with my irreverent behavior.
The interview apparently ran long because a press agent finally had to pry Duke loose to resume his “march” to Harvard.
During a formal, group interview at Harvard, Wayne singled me out as “his pal and former Gyrene”. I remember basking in the glow of that moment as other reporters glared at me. Later, as the gathering dispersed, Wayne approached me and said, “Good to see ya again, Gyrene”.
I offered what must’ve been a broad, idiotic smile and said, “Good to see YOU again, Duke.” I could see, over my shoulders, my crew smirking and laughing. It didn’t matter to me. Back in the newsroom, I walked around repeatedly asking people if they knew who shook my hand that day. Finally, someone told me to throw some cold water in my face and get on with my job.
They didn’t get it. I had spent “private” time with the Duke. With Hondo, Sgt. Stryker, Ethan Edwards, Capt. Nathan Brittles, and Rooster Cogburn … among others. Damn, I had swapped stories with the man who really shot Liberty Valance.
Sadly, there were no personal pictures from that memorable day. No autograph. I’d always felt uneasy about asking celebrities for these signatures and autographed pictures. Not asking did open the door for more candid conversations and some unforgettable social afternoons and evenings with Hollywood legends, royalty, presidents, sports heroes, wise guys, godfathers.
Even Mother Theresa who singled me out from a crowd, chastising me about news coverage. I never figured that one out.
Topping all those memorable days and nights was my afternoon with the Duke. Back here in Arizona, where the Duke galloped through so many westerns, I think maybe … mebbe … I can top that encounter in the future.
That’ll be the day!