A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – Garry Armstrong

A friend took me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park. It was the middle of April, so there was a chill in the wind. I layered up and topped it off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt. It was Jackie Robinson day. Everyone was wearing the fabled #42.

red sox 42 jackie robinson day
April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park

April is the beginning of the new baseball season, when hope springs eternal. Anything could happen. The haves and have-nots are equally in the race. For me, it’s also when I open the cookie jar of memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when I listened to our boys of summer on the radio.

Vin Scully was a 20-something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.

The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news, which preceded the important stuff, baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of a sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.

Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince,” after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a teammate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.

I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and the dreaded New York Yankees. How terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown-up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting.

I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month.” I’d steal that line a zillion times.

A couple of decades later, chance opened the door to meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella. You gotta appreciate it.”

Jackie Robinson would glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”

72-Jackie-Robinson-Baseball-HOF_038

Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing, seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said.  Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener.

It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.

People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was an angry, complicated man on a mission. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration, and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early, at age 53.

1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.


Almost two years have rolled around. It’s the beginning of October and the playoffs are about to begin. Our team is in them. It has been a record-breaking year, so regardless of what comes, we’ll remember 2018.

Vin Scully retired last year. I keep thinking “Maybe we can bring him back, just for this one final set of post-season games … because we need his eloquence.” The world is not running short of baseball commentators, yet I feel we need him.

Depending on how the mid-term elections go, so will go this country. It’s no small thing. It’s possible the future — our future — depends on what happens during the next few weeks. It’s daunting and frightening.

Baseball has been a saving grace for me during this otherwise disgraceful year of political ugliness and international ill-will. Could a World Series win fix this?

Somehow, I doubt it. We need something bigger than a ballpark win this year.

REALLY THE PAST – Marilyn Armstrong

Trevor Noah did a long spiel on “adult summer camp” on “The Daily Show” which left Garry puzzled. He went to summer camp. He even liked it. I never had the chance, but I think I’ve gotten over my resentment. It was a long time ago.

Garry wanted to know why grownups — adults — would want to do that stuff?

I said that some people don’t actually have a clear understanding that the past as a memory is not the same thing as reliving it. Like this town where they are so determined to go back to a period in time that — especially for this town and valley — sucked.

It was a bad time. All the mills and factories closed their doors, then moved south. They left the river a stinking waste of hazardous gunk and everyone out of work. Half the population left because there was no work. The other half sunk into poverty. The train no longer stopped here and the buses no longer ran.

Why would you want to go back to that?

For that matter, why would an adult want to go back to doing arts and crafts and sleeping in cabins with mosquitoes?

We all want to get away. For this purpose, we have books and movies. And memories.

I loved the late 1960s, with 1969 officially my best year. Why? We had men walking on the moon and Woodstock. The Mets won the World Series and my son was born. All my parts worked. I was 22 years old, I had my first camera. I wore rose-tinted eyeglasses and bell-bottom jeans. It was an exciting time politically, socially … and I was young with a whole life ahead of me.

At 22, that world was mine and I loved it. We took drugs and the music was great. If I took one of those drugs now, I’d die. Immediately. Boom, gone, finished. Garry has fond memories from childhood, but that doesn’t mean he wants to be a child.

It would be especially awful going back because I would know that all the progress I thought we were making was going to turn out to be a sack of trash 50 years later.

We all want an interval in a different time. That’s why Garry watches old movies and I read time travel novels. I also understand this is entertainment.

And that is all it is.

TO MOM ON YOUR 101st BIRTHDAY

Today is “Flag Day” throughout much of the world.  Here, it is much more. It’s my Mom’s birthday.

Happy Flag Day, America

Esther Letticia Holder Armstrong left us 11 years ago. But for me and my family, she’s very much alive in spirit and 101 years young. They were singing “You’re A Grand Old Flag” and “Over There” when Mom was born on that June 14th in 1917.  Mom’s father,  my grandfather,  was over there. He was a sailor in the Danish Navy during World War 1.

Gramps, a Barbados native, saw plenty of action as he would tell us many times in the years to come.

Esther Holder, as Aunts and Uncles would gleefully tell me, was a feisty child and teenager.  “Smart as a whip,” friends said about Mom. She graduated near the top of her Julia Richmond High School class of 1935.  My Mother once described herself to me as a “Jazz baby,” showing off pictures of herself as a young woman who liked to dance. I’m not sure how that resonated with some of the older folks in the family but none of them lived in a glass house – if you get my drift.

I guess Mom left a trail of broken hearts when she and my dad, William Benfield Armstrong, married in 1941.  It was one of the biggest social events of the year. However, modesty aside,  the glittering affair was just the warm up to my début on the world stage in April of 1942.  A star was born —  at least that’s how I’d see it in my private fantasies which Mom frequently punctured.

Mom was a single parent during my early years because Dad was away — in the Army – seeing some of the heaviest action of World War 2 in France and Germany as a Sargeant in the still-segregated armed forces.

We looked like a Hollywood family when Dad finally came home from the war. At least that’s what I thought. Mom was beautiful and Dad was such a handsome guy.

Over the years, my Mother was “the voice” of our family. She clearly set the parameters for right and wrong, good and bad for my two younger brothers and me. I tested her many times, especially as I got older and became a “man” in my immature mind.  I always lost those confrontations.

Mom was tough! She was also tender, in her own way. She encouraged me to read and write.  She actually read my first attempts at fiction and assured me I had talent. She told me I should pursue my dreams.

We weren’t big on outward displays of affection,  something that I would have to deal with in later years. However,  Mom always found quality time for me. She knew I had a huge passion for movies.  We’d go to the movies, 3 times a week.  I was “Mom’s date.” She would explain who the people on the big screen were.

They were Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Cooper,  Grant and all the others who reigned over my fantasies through my many years of loving Hollywood.  Mom said she named me after her favorite star,  Gary Cooper.  There was a mixup in recording the birth certificate and Gary became Garry.

There would be frequent mixups later when I became a news guy on television. Actually, there are still frequent mixups. Some things never change.

I’m not sure my Mother was excited about my career choice.  She always said I should become a doctor, lawyer, or minister.  She agreed I talked well.  What she really said was,  “Garry,  you have a big mouth!”  I’d smirk when she said that.  The smirk usually quickly disappeared she gave me “the look.” Mom also thought I was too good for the women I dated. I think she left that impression with many of those women in my life. I got lots of feedback about it.

I remember Mom and Dad celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.  I saw a look in their eyes I hadn’t seen too often.  The look of love.

Dementia took hold of Mom in her last few years. Dad had passed away.  Mom was alone with my middle brother Billy in the old family home on Long Island. Anton,  my youngest Brother, was busy with his blooming career as director of the St. Olaf Choir in Minnesota. I was the married, busy TV news guy up in Boston.  Family get-togethers were difficult.

In what would be her last coherent afternoon with me,  My Mom floored me when she admonished me to be a good husband, to find quality time with Marilyn, to show affection and not stonewall Marilyn with internalized emotions. Mom held my face close with her hands like I was that stupid teenager. She smiled with patience and compassion, counseling me to “… be good to your Wife … you are lucky to have her. Show her you appreciate her, that you love her.”

I’m still trying Mom.  I’m not there yet.

In the meantime,  Happy, Happy Birthday.  Mom.  You’re the best!

RDP #7 – PURPLE FLOWERS, PURPLE HAIR, PURPLE HAZE – Marilyn Armstrong

PURPLE FLOWERS, BETTER SWEATERS

Purple is the color of half the stuff leftover for clearance sales! Enter the annual purple sweater of the year.

It really is. Orange and purple. I know because during the poorest years of my life, those were the colors of all my shirts and sweaters. They were the only things left in my size. Eggplant, aubergine, pumpkin … whatever it was called, it was orange and purple.

I’ve always like dark purples and sometimes, the more lavender or red-violet purples, but there have been a few that were just a bit overly intense for my neutral mind to fully grasp. Orange is an okay contrast color if the rest of what I’m wearing is dark brown or black, but other than as a nightgown, I have a little more trouble with orange.

To wear that is. I absolutely love it as a Jack O’Lantern!

Purple is the color of the Mayflower, the classic iris, lilacs (sometimes more lavender, but close enough), and the spots that float across my eyes if I look into the sun for a moment.

For a brief few days, I vaguely contemplated dying my hair purple, but fortunately, no one shared my enthusiasm for the project and it died off on its own.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/fjwWjx7Cw8I?rel=0

Let me add just a little nostalgia for long ago years when drugs were fun. Not something you took to make the pain in your back ease away. Not only was this quite the song of a generation (to be fair, it was not one of my favorites; I was more “Judy Collins” than “Jimi Hendrix”), but look how young they are! My granddaughter is older. I was that young too, but it’s hard to remember. Fifty years have passed. Fifty.

Purple Haze! Not just a song, but a crazy, mad state-of-mind … for about 12 hours with a residual fade of four more, give or take a couple. Oh, those really were the daze.

ONE WONDERFUL MOMENT

1968 Edition, by Rich Paschall

Many musicians toil away at their craft hoping to break through the mass of musical acts and reach success with a hit recording.  Following endless rehearsals and low paying jobs, some of the best, or most interesting, will land recording contracts.  These artists wait eagerly for the day when one of their songs will be heard on the radio and climb the pop charts.  In 1968 there was no shortage of new acts to reach the Top 100.

Success may mean interviews and television appearances.  In an era with many television variety shows and, of course, American Bandstand, a chance to show off in front of millions could be at hand.  After finally having made it, performers looked for the next hit.  For many it would not be.  They would go down in music history as “one hit wonders.”

Just one hit song

Some golden songs will be 50 this year but will anyone come to the party?  As a one time triumph, the tunes may have faded from memory.  Some of you may still have the vinyl recordings on hand and listen to these songs with great fondness, despite the pop and hiss on your old record player (Millennials should go look up “record player” before reading on).  Others of you may have forgotten these completely.

In order to bring back some memories, I will give you my top 10 “one hit wonders” of 1968.  I promise you all of these really did hit high on the pop music charts and they are songs I still like.

Some of these songs sing out “Give Me One More Chance,” so come over because it “Ain’t Nothin’ But A House Party.”   You will find us “At The Top Of The Stairs” where “Sally Had A Party” with the “San Francisco Girls. ”  You might discover the “Smell of Incense” at our “Soul Meeting,” “Thank U Very Much.”  Don’t worry, “I Got A Sure Thing.”

10. Fire, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.  This song charted in many countries and sold over a million copies.  If you see the video, you will think Arthur is indeed in a Crazy World.

9.  In A Gadda Da Vida, Iron Butterfly.  The album version of this psychedelic hit played over 17 minutes.   The song was edited down to 2:53 for the single.  By the way, the song was supposed to be “In The Garden Of Eden,” but the drummer could not understand it when the singer first played it for him (he was drunk, apparently), wrote down the wrong thing and the title stuck.  It’s just another strange rock legend.

8.  Green Tambourine, The Lemon Pipers.  The song was released in late 1967 and hit number 1 by February 1968.  Status Quo, also on this list, covered the song on their 1968 album. It was not their one hit wonder.

7.  MacArthur Park, Richard Harris. The Irish actor and singer had his one big hit with this Jimmy Webb song.  The tune was written with the group The Association in mind.  They did not do it, but there were many covers, including a disco hit by Donna Summer.

6.  Nobody But Me, The Human Beinz. This was a cover of the 1963 Isley Brothers tune which failed to hit the charts.  Released late in 1967, the song made number 8 for The Human Beinz in 1968.

5.  Pictures of Matchstick Men, Status Quo.  This psychedelic rock tune was the only song by the group to chart in the US.  The group did have some later success in the UK.

4.  Classical Gas, Mason Williams.  The instrumental piece was composed and performed by Williams.  Fun Fact: Williams was the head writer for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and premiered the piece on their program.

3.  Angel of the Morning, Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts.   A number of artists found success with this composition.  Rush received a Grammy nomination.

2.  Soulful Strut, Young-Holt Unlimited.  It’s another instrumental piece for our list.  The jazz musicians Isaac Holt and Eldee Young from Chicago had no further success with their trio and gave up by 1974, although they still played around town.

1.  Grazing in the Grass, Hugh Masekela.  It is another jazz instrumental. This time South African trumpeter Masekela takes the lead.  The Friends of Distinction would add words and have a hit with the song the following year.

Click on the title of any song to go to the video, or hit up the entire playlist here.

Are we missing any goods ones?  Check Billboard or wikipedia for one hit wonders of 1968.
Sources include: 1968 One Hit Wonders & Artists Known For One Song, hotpopsongs.com

See also: “Those Were The Days, My Friend,” The Golden Age of Rock Turns 50.

BRING BACK BELL BOTTOMS – Marilyn Armstrong

Mostly, I miss the pants. The big wide bell bottoms were the most flattering jeans I ever had. They made my legs look longer and my hips narrower.

From the year my son was born — 1969 — and for the next few years, fashion and I were simpatico.

It was the hippiest of times … and I was as much as a hippy as I would ever be.

I was young. I wore big bell bottoms. The  patchwork jeans were my favorites, although at the end of the day. I looked like I had been sitting on a waffle iron.

My shirts had fringes. Purple fringes.

96-BabyOandMe-HPI wore granny glasses with rose-tinted lenses. My hair was cut in a shag. I had my baby in a sling on my hip, a Leica on my shoulder and a song in my heart (probably the Beatles). That was a good as it got for me.

I miss the clothing. I really miss the Leica.

Mostly, I want my bell bottoms back!

HANGING OUT — MARILYN ARMSTRONG

Hanging out is a concept lost to modern youth. I think it’s a tragedy, personally. The best parts of my life were spent hanging out.

I was a teenager in college. Madly in love with my first boyfriend who was seriously into the “Village scene.” He brought me there for my first taste of cold chocolate at a MacDougal Street coffee shop. I took to the Village like the proverbial duck to water.

From the old Italian coffee houses that sold coffee along with a few other non-alcoholic drinks, to the tiny, dingy coffee houses where folk music was born, this was the Heart of Hip. Everything was a 15 cent subway ride from home.

The world was mine.

It wasn’t only the Village, either. A lot of New York was free back then.

Museums were free. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was a magical experience. For that matter, the huge New York Public Library behind the stone lions had basements full of original, ancient documents into which you could freely delve. You couldn’t take them out of the library, but they were free for you to absorb. (I have no idea if that’s true anymore.)

You could spent an afternoon at the Hayden Planetarium watching the stars. If you had just a little bit of money, afternoon plays on Broadway could be very cheap, especially if you could live with “standing room only.” In the afternoon, there were always seats available. A lot of things you pay big money for now weren’t expensive then … and this wasn’t just a matter of the change of the value of money through the years. It was a huge change in culture.

If you were a teenager, New York on your doorstep was heaven, but Greenwich Village in the 1960s on your doorstep? That was the stuff from which dreams came true.

From Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, to Pete Seeger and Judy Collins … they were all there. The famous, soon to be famous and a few infamous people. All young, making music and passing the basket.

Caffe Reggio — the place where cappuccino (in America) was born.

I’d take the subway and get off at Bleecker Street, alone or in the company of friends. It didn’t matter whether you brought company or went by yourself. There were always people to meet. You didn’t need much money — good because none of us had any. We were kids, mostly without jobs and in school. Those of us not still living with parents lived in apartments shared with other people so we could make the rent and maybe afford food too.

All I needed was subway fare — 30 cents round trip — and a few more cents for a hot (or cold) chocolate at the Reggio. For this pittance, I could spend an entire day and evening in the Village. Hanging out.

“What do you mean “hanging out?” asks my granddaughter.

“You bought a coffee or a chocolate and just sat around waiting to see what might happen. You could read or watch people coming and going. Hoping you’d see someone you knew — or maybe wanted to know.”

“That’s it? You just sat around?”

“Yup. Just sat around. And we didn’t sit around with our cell phones because there were no such things. We just sat around. Talking or thinking or reading. It was a quiet place until the music started. That was hanging out. No one told you to hurry — or told you to buy something or leave. It was cool to simply be there.”

Bleecker and MacDougalI often sat with a cup of coffee or chocolate for a whole day. No one pushed us out the door to make way for ‘the lunch crowd.’ No one bothered you unless you looked like you’d like some bothering.

When it got dark, you went to one of the places where people sang. There were usually no entry fees. Hopefully you had enough money to drop something in the basket for whoever was performing. It wasn’t particularly odd to have no money at all. A lot of us walked around with empty wallets. Without wallets, too. Rich was having exactly enough money to buy a coffee and subway tokens. It was okay in the 1960s. Poverty was cool.

Not only were there no cell phones. A lot of people had no phone. People rode bicycles with naked guitars strapped to their backs. Cars? I think most of us didn’t have driver’s licences. I know I didn’t. That was a decade in the future.

People were friendly, funny, and we were sure we were going to change the world. I think we did, though sometimes when I’m in a dour mood, I wonder if all we really did was make denim a fashion fabric.

Out near Hofstra in Hempstead, where I was occasionally attending school and getting far better grades than I deserved, I was a music major and one of the perks were free concert tickets to Carnegie Hall. There’s the “main room” — but there are also a number of “recital halls” where up and coming musicians perform. I’m hope that’s still true.

Meanwhile, one of my soon-to-be husbands and his best friend decided to bring culture to Long Island. They opened the AbMaPHd (pronounced ab-ma-fid) coffee-house. It was a light-hearted reference to education — AB, MA, and Ph.D. Nobody got the joke.

They brought in the same people who were playing in the Village. Dave Van Ronk gave me my first good guitar strings. He even put them on the guitar for me.

Dave Van Ronk (back then)

What did I do there, in Hempstead? I hung out, of course. Sat around, meeting friends, drinking something, listening to music, meeting musicians. Hanging. I also played bridge upstairs in Memorial Hall instead of attending classes, but no one is perfect.

No one was texting, computing, or phoning. There was no electronic background noise (unless you count the squeal of feedback from the microphones). Nobody’s phone was beeping, dinging, or wailing. No one was going off into a corner to talk on the phone.

If you were going off into a corner, you were either making a date — remember dating? — or buying (or possibly selling) drugs.  All the noise was human. Talking, laughing, fighting, singing, discussing. Eating. Drinking.

It was an incredibly happy time for me, even though I thought I was deeply troubled, probably because I hadn’t really made the full breakaway from home to real life … and also because I’d read too many books about troubled youth and figured I must be one.

I know that whatever kids are doing today, they aren’t having nearly as much fun as we had. I feel sorry for them. We were adventurous, playful, willing to try anything at least once and most of us, more often. If I hadn’t been me during those years, I’d envy whoever had been the girl hanging out. If I miss anything of the “old days”? It’s hanging out. Just being there and doing nothing important.

Being there was enough.