Being Depitty Dawg

I live in a small town. A total of just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong
1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

Our closest neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.

Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss it and when you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:

Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance.  If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.

There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville, spread out thinly.

Downtown Millville.

Perhaps 7 years ago — I don’t remember exactly — the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.

This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.

Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a fulltime job somewhere the rest of the week. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer and would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the bible. I promised to protect and serve.

A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. Since it was my first call — and a weekend — my “senior officer” thought maybe he should come along, show me the ropes as it were. Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.

Me: “Shoot it?”

Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”

Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”

Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”

Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”

Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lotta rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”

Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.

After we bagged the skunk — literally, using gloves and shovels provided by the town of Millville — to send to the Worcester county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need, like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.

My boss was not concerned I had never handled a weapon more powerful than our Red Ryder Daisy BB rifle and I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was also puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed. Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.

When I was finally able to get into city hall, I demanded they give me a rabies vaccination. There was no way I was going to handle rabid animals, living or dead, without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.

Me: “How much will it cost?”

Clerk: “Around $450.”

Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”

Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”

Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”

It turned out that the animal medical examiner could also provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look both bemused and worried — drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods. He said that just the previous week they’d found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even opossum who aren’t mammals … get rabies. The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.

While he was at it, he asked both Garry and I when we’d last gotten tetanus shots and since the answer was “elementary school,” he threw in tetanus vaccinations for both of us. On the house.

The following day, I got a call that a really big turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (but no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.

A common snapping turtle.

Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the other side of the road which was where the river was. That someone was apparently me.

Wikipedia has this to say about “The Common Snapping Turtle”:

Snapping turtles have “fierce” dispositions; however, when encountered in the water, they usually slip quietly away from any disturbance. Snapping turtles have evolved the ability to snap because unlike other turtles, they are too large to hide in their own shells when confronted. Snapping is their defense mechanism … The common snapping turtle is not an ideal pet. Its neck is very flexible, and the turtle can bite its handler even if picked up by the sides of its shell. It will make a hissing sound when it is threatened or encountered; however, in the water and unprovoked, they are fairly docile toward humans.

This turtle had not read Wikipedia. He was not in the water, not docile and yeah, that head and the neck to which it was attached was indeed extremely flexible.

So there I am, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of very pissed off turtle. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, he seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was clearly determined to bite me.

Meanwhile, an entire construction crew, these big brawny guys who were supposed to be repairing the bridge, were watching me. They did not seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.

I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation as to strength of gloves versus power of turtle’s jaws, decided the gloves weren’t all that sturdy.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road, was calling the clerk and resigning.

The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.

They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.

Flying Dreams

dino-nightmare-bizarro

I love Bizarro! When we lived in Boston and read the Herald every day, the first thing we both read was Bizarro. I still love him. He is wonderfully, deliciously twisted.

Garry Armstrong’s Wonderful Broadcast Life – by Roger Lyons

His obstacles were many. Some might have said insurmountable. He was a painfully shy black man with a hearing problem, trying to break into major market radio and television in the ‘60’s. Yet Garry Armstrong went on to accomplish amazing things in his illustrious broadcast career.

Garry and I at a “thank you to the press” party at the end of President Clinton’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a great party!

Whereas racism was certainly a factor in Armstrong’s career as a person of color, it was never really a defining issue to him. ‘I was just so driven to succeed, racism was never a major thing on my radar,’ he says. ‘I was much more aware of my hearing difficulties. It was more personal.’ Armstrong worked hard on his diction, taking speech therapy in college, to counteract his hearing deficiency.

The Brooklyn, NY native cut his broadcast teeth at Hofstra College radio station. He was a terrific writer, but his shyness made him hesitant to attempt on-air work. But that was overcome by his ability to conduct interviews with major celebrities, such as Johnny CarsonArthur GodfreyMerv GriffinFrank SinatraSammy Davis, Jr.Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Griffin told the young reporter, ‘Well done. You have a future in the business. You listened to me!’

Garry with Tip O’Neill. He is not trying to sell him something, he is showing Tip a watch he had just bought!

After college, at ABC radio network news, he transcribed radio interviews from news legends such as Ted Koppeland Bill Beutel and became the youngest producer at the network. He edited the copy of biggies such as Paul HarveyEdward P. Morgan and Howard Cosell.

In 1968, ABC sent Armstrong out to cover major events, such as the iconic Democratic National Convention inChicago and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. His most memorable ‘war story’ was when he sat around a campfire in Vietnam, chatting and eating beans with then President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Shortly thereafter, he landed an on-air job at a small TV station in Hartford, CT. ‘It was so small that there were only 2 on-air people,’ explains Armstrong. He became the all-purpose news reporter, and learned how to shoot and edit film. Once, however, Armstrong learned a humbling lesson when he returned from scoring a scoop to discover he’d forgotten to load film into the camera.

Ultimately, Armstrong was hired as a general assignment reporter at Boston’s Channel 7, where he flourished throughout his 31-year tenure. He established a rapport with both the black and white communities during Boston’s divisive school desegregation period. Yet his reporting career was certainly not without incident.

For example, while covering a story in South Boston, he was accosted by an angry crowd. His first thought was to get the film back to the station, so he made sure it got into the news van.

But the crowd was chanting racial epithets at him, including the N-word. Armstrong defused the situation in Mel Brook-sian fashion. He turned to the crowd and said, ‘I’m not an ‘N’. I’m a Samoan!’ And the crowd backed off.

One time, as Armstrong was covering the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day at Fenway Park, people behind him were getting rowdy, swearing and hitting him on the head just before he went on air. ‘I lost it,’ reveals Armstrong. ‘I was swinging at the guy as we went back live.’ He thought he’d surely lose his job, but when he got back to the station, General Manager Sy Yanoff approached him exclaiming, ‘Garry, way to go. That’s such great stuff. You went with the moment. That’s what’s so great about you.’

Another time, a radio station reported that Armstrong had been seriously injured in a race-related mêlée. When he called the newsroom to say he’d be back soon with the film, the assignment editor was shocked. He thought Armstrong had been taken to the hospital, and stopped the station from going on the air with a bulletin reporting on his reporter’s alleged beating.

Despite all the celebrities, political leaders and newsmakers he covered, Garry, the seasoned reporter, turned into an awed beginner when he interviewed his movie idol John Wayne during the Duke’s visit to Boston in the early 70’s. Afterwards, Garry repeatedly asked his Channel 7 colleagues if they knew who shook his hand until they suggested he calm down and get back to finishing his story.

The 3-time Emmy-winning, Silver Circle inductee has had a wonderful broadcast life. ‘We were so fortunate to have been in radio and television in that era,’ Armstrong opines, ‘because you could do long-form television news. You could have as much time as you needed to tell the story.’ Now, when he tells young journalists how it was, all they can say is, ‘Boy, you were lucky!’

, Boston Television Examiner

Roger Lyons is a veteran of the Boston television market. He has worked at many stations in news, public affairs, promotion and advertising. Roger has numerous Emmy nominations, many other industry awards and has served for over 20 years on the Board of Governors of the Boston/New…

A personal note: I talk about Garry a lot, so I thought it might be nice if I put something here for you to actually know a little more about my terrific husband. I wish I could get him to do a little blogging of his own! He has some absolutely wonderful stories of the people he met during his years as a reporter, the changes he saw both in the news business and in the world and so much more. But, so far, no dice. I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, this is a lovely piece by Roger Lyons that was published at the beginning of this year.

Suggested by the author:

September 12, 2013 – Broadcasting Hall of Fame

September 12, 2013 at noon at a hotel in Quincy, Massachusetts, Garry Armstrong will be inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasting Hall of Fame. This is the real deal. A well-deserved and well-earned honor. I’m terribly proud of my amazing spouse.

hall of fame on stage

Garry Armstrong – A Career In Brief

Garry worked at Channel 7 for 31 years and became one of New England’s most recognized and respected television journalists in the process. Garry won three New England Emmy Awards in 1976, 1977, and 1978 for his reporting on Court-ordered desegregation of Boston (1976 & 1978) and on the Clamshell Alliance (1976). He was also recognized for his professional and community achievements by numerous organizations.

From 1970 to 2001, Garry Armstrong was among New England’s most easily recognized and respected television journalists. He covered breaking news, features and politics. He knew and was known by the players in Boston and throughout New England, in politics, education, the religious establishment and more. His extensive coverage of minority and ethnic issues and his reputation for fair-mindedness earned him a welcome in every community.

Garry_72_01Garry’s 31 years at Channel 7 spanned an era of tremendous upheaval. From huge anti-Vietnam war rallies to the massive city-wide disruption of court-ordered desegregation and busing, the Great Chelsea Fire, the tragic Delta crash at Logan Airport, the Great Blizzard of 1978, the rise and fall of legendary politicians, spectacular court cases—notably Claus Von Bulow—and the battle over nuclear-generated power in Seabrook, NH (the Clamshell Alliance). He rode with the Tall Ships and interviewed Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa, Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and President Clinton among others.

Garry won three New England Emmy Awards, two for his coverage of Court-ordered desegregation in Boston (1976 and 1978) and the Clamshell Alliance (1977).  He was also recognized for his professional and community achievements by numerous other organizations.

Wherever something important was happening in New England, Garry Armstrong was there.

Garry’s professional career began at the top as a writer/producer for national and international news at ABC Network in New York. He worked stateside and overseas, covered the fateful 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, the Vietnam War from Vietnam and New York, and the Watts riots. His first day at ABC coincided with the outbreak of the 6-day war in the Middle East, perhaps symbolically heralding an extraordinary career to come.

After a 9-month stopover in Hartford, CT, Garry was invited to Boston where he spent the next three decades. He was not merely a reporter covering the news in Boston. He lived in Boston and loved the city… and the city loved him in return.

Garry, Me, and Bill Clinton

This is magic time for Garry. He did well and he did good for more than 40 years, 31 of them at Channel 7 in Boston. It’s a good day for star-dust. Congratulations.