Our Arizona vacations were trips back in time to some of my favorite western movies and TV shows.
Those cactus covered fields and surrounding mountains evoked memories, especially of the John Wayne-John Ford classic Westerns and the areas around Phoenix are similar to some of the areas in Utah where Wayne and Ford made many of their iconic films.
In the aftermath of my first Arizona post, there were requests for my oft-told story about meeting Duke Wayne. So now, a few years after the second trip, here it is again. 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 the surrounding areas of The People’s Republic 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 called in a few favors and somehow, Duke and his entourage slipped into an empty theater. What felt like an eternity to me, I waited alone on stage for John Wayne to appear. Suddenly, the stage lit up. I froze.
“Hello, Garry!” boomed the Duke in a friendly voice as he ambled in that familiar gait across the stage. After the greeting, my TV persona kicked in. I shook hands with my hero, beaming with pleasure.
I was oblivious to the cameras and how much time had passed. Later, I would learn from the tape that it had been a pretty long interview. Me swapping stories with Wayne including some anecdotes about my stint in the Marine Corps which impressed the Duke. He laughed when I recalled how I’d upset several drill instructors during basic training with my irreverent behavior.
The interview ran long. Towards the end, a press agent 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 crowd dispersed, Wayne approached me and said, “Good to see ya again, Gyrene”.
I offered what must’ve been a dumb smile and said, “Good to see you again, Duke.” I could see, over my shoulders, my crew smirking and giggling. I didn’t care. This was the interview I’d dreamed about.
Back in the newsroom, I walked around the newsroom repeatedly asking everyone if they knew who shook my hand that day. Finally, someone told me to throw some cold water on 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 so many 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 artifacts.
Ironically, this gesture apparently opened the door for more candid conversations and some unforgettable social afternoons and evenings with Hollywood legends, Royalty, Presidents, sports heroes, wise guys, godfathers and 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!