YEARS OF BRASS, YEARS OF GOLD – Marilyn Armstrong

I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the “old days,” but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.

I grew up in a different world. Play meant imagination. Physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stickball because no one owned a real bat. Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys.

Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe. Almost nothing except flashlights needed batteries.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.

You didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.

Pretty much every family has members who didn’t make it. The ones who never found a decent job or formed a serious relationship. Or accomplished much of anything. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong. Usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. More like what we did do — too much.

I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring to our kids, nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment, but I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or, at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.

So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, and the great times. For the schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost and the subjects we barely passed or actually failed — and had to take again. For the bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards and for the terror of being cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switchblades, wondering how you can talk your way out of this.

Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid you were in a school full of people who didn’t like you. Getting through it and coming out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do the dances and never had the right clothing or hair. Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now cool people.

Magically, suddenly, becoming part of the “in-crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer outsiders. Whatever made us misfits were the same qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.

The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic, especially if you weren’t middle class, white, and Christian. Yet, whoever you were, it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom.

We had time. Time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having many fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. We were lucky to have a crappy black and white TV with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.

We learned to survive and cope. Simultaneously, we learned to achieve. By the time we hit adulthood, we weren’t afraid to try even if success seemed unlikely.

We had enough courage to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again — or try something else. We knew we would make it, one way or another. When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.

Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into our not-so-golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them, but slowly.

SWINGING THE PICK – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Pick

The summer of my 13th year, my girlfriends and I discovered that there had once been a swimming pool in the front yard of a neighbors’ house. We immediately decided to clear it out and make it into a swimming pool again.

We collected whatever digging implements we could find and the five of us went forward to commence the project. We tried the various shovels, most of which were really spades designed for garden work and eventually decided to try the bigger shovels to see if we could make more progress that way.

Bigger shovels were in short supply, so I decided to use the big pickax. I think this is when my back problems began because scrawny little me swung the pick backward and I heard a snap accompanied by a sharp pain in my back. Probably that was the first of several vertebrae to bite the big one.

I immediately abandoned the project of building our own swimming hole and hobbled home. I said I’d hurt my back.

Five-pound steel head pick — but I think the one I used was heavier. Or maybe it was just that I was much lighter.

No one paid me much attention to it. We were always getting banged up doing something. Also, my mother was of the “old world” opinion that no one calls a doctor (much less goes to the hospital) unless they are near death. Even though I was walking bent over and couldn’t stand up? It would get better. Just another childhood bump.

It did get a little better, but it never got all the way better, so I took up riding horses next. This also didn’t fix the problem and when I fell off, it made the problem worse.

Eventually, when I was 19, surgery was required. I had begun to lose all the sensation in my right leg and most in my left leg.  Also, for the first time in years, my back didn’t hurt. It was numb.

Most youngsters damage themselves — often for a lifetime — while playing sports. I’m pretty sure I’m the only girl who did it with a pickax.

ADULTING 101 – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I read a fascinating article from Today, on Facebook. It was written by Meghan Holohan on March 29, 2019, and is titled “ ‘Adulting’ Class at Kentucky high school teaches crucial life skills.”

What a great concept! I’ve always thought high schools and colleges should offer life skills classes so kids aren’t left totally unprepared when they move into adulthood (that is if their parents don’t prepare them, which most don’t).

In the Kentucky school, ‘Adulting’ seminars were offered and the response was overwhelming and positive. Parents were as thrilled as the kids when the project started blowing up on the internet. Seniors could choose three out of eleven workshops to attend with the goal of gaining more general knowledge and specific skills needed to help them navigate their lives after high school.

The classes offered were awesome and totally practical. Some of them were: Dorm Room Cooking, How To Interact With the Police (I’m assuming it’s an inner city school), Healthy Relationships and Boundaries, It’s Money, Baby, i.e. Personal Finance, Writing a Resume and Cover Letter, Filling out an Application, Basics of Checking and Savings and When you Need to See A Doctor.

The first class to fill up was dorm room cooking. The Police were the second most popular and the third was Healthy Relationships. Apparently, a lot of young girls were not sure how and when to set boundaries in a relationship and what you should and should not expect — or accept — in a relationship. If you don’t see good relationships in your life, I guess you need to be taught what a good one looks like and how to get it. Very sad.

This school’s adulting classes are hopefully the start of a new trend. I looked online and found an adulting class for millennials that teaches them ‘survival’ skills like monthly budgeting and how to open a wine bottle with a cork. A library in Oregon offers “Adulting 101: Basic How-To’s for ages 16-25.”

Apparently, neither mainstream schools or parents are preparing kids to take on the world beyond home and high school.

I’ve read several conflicting explanations for why kids today seem so clueless when it comes to basic adulthood skills. Some blame it on the fact that so many kids continue to live at home through their 20’s, and even later. But one article pointed out that in the 1940s, people lived at home in even larger numbers and for even longer periods than recent generations. But those kids also did chores and were given adult responsibilities while at home, so making it in the real world was not a problem for them when the time came.

That points to late 20th-century parenting as the problem.

One author argues that both parents usually have to work crazy hours just to provide good lives for their families, so no one has time to teach life skills to their kids. Another author blames helicopter or snowplow parents who treat their kids like delicate, pampered snowflakes, do everything for them and expect nothing from them.

Another school of thought blames high schools, which used to teach skills like cooking, shop, and bookkeeping but now don’t. My husband had a great home economics class and learned how to cook as a teenager. He was the only boy in a class full of girls! Win, win!

Another author argues that every generation of young adults is equally ignorant of life skills and that most people learn them in the field, as adults. I had never cooked a thing until I reached law school and had my first apartment. Many kids don’t have their own checkbooks when they live with their parents and so they don’t learn how to manage one until they are living and working on their own.

I’m not sure which theory I believe, but I agree with the person who said that whatever the root causes of their egregious lack of ‘adult’ knowledge, the kids today should be commended for trying to learn what they realize they don’t know.

Hopefully, there will be a big spike in enrollment in the Adulting School that has opened, which offers classes in cooking, sewing, and basic conflict resolution. I know some adults who could use those classes. I know many career women who don’t know the first thing about cooking, except ordering out. I still can’t balance a checkbook.

Where do I sign up?

DEFIANCE OR DETERMINATION? – Marilyn Armstrong

So I found this question on Facebook and it brought back a deluge of memories.


Hey moms, I’m in desperate need of help. I’m at my wit’s end with my lovely little defiant child. I love him lots, but enough is enough. Every morning, my son wakes up at 3 in the morning and refuses to go back to sleep. He will literally be up for the entire day. I’ve repeatedly tried putting him back in his room. I’ve tried time outs, taking away his privileges. Tried having him do chores. Nothing works. He talks back, makes faces, or just laughs at me. I literally don’t know what to do anymore.


My mother used to tell stories about me as a baby. How I’d be up and wide awake by 3 or 4 in the morning. We lived in a cheap apartment on Rose Street in Freeport. When I got up, she would get up too. She’d put on her overcoat and wait until the heat came up, which wasn’t until around seven.

She eventually figured out that I needed to be busy. Crayons, paint, and lots of paper were big items in my world. I didn’t sleep as much as most kids and when awake, I needed to be doing something. Ultimately, reading took over a lot of that time, but until then, drawing (the three-year-old version of it) and other crafts filled the time. That and running around outside. Knowing me now, it’s hard to imagine what an active kid I was.

Sisters playing by the river

Eventually, I learned to read books, write stories, and draw. Life got better.

Even as a toddler, I went to bed hours later than the “official” bedtime for little kids. I never slept as many hours as other kids. Garry recalls being much the same. Of course, these days, there’s no such thing as too much sleep, but we are long past youth, much less childhood.

Defiance is an overused term these days. Any time a child doesn’t want to do what mom or dad wants him or her to do, it’s defiance. My theory is that it’s more like boredom than defiance when a box of crayons and paper can cure it!

Smart kids need challenging activities and they can be hard for caretakers. Especially hard for working mothers who are already tired by the time they get home.

Pop psychology can be dangerous.

Don’t label your children. Smart kids hear what you say and figure out what you mean. Just because he or she doesn’t “behave” doesn’t make him or her defiant. These days, with so many mothers working and convinced that “outside” await predators waiting to snatch your kid, every minute of the kid’s time is programmed.

I shudder imagining growing up like that

SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Ellin is away all day, but will answer comments when she gets back this evening! It’s that time of year 😀


Most people wax poetic when they talk about their idyllic summers at sleep-away camp when they were kids. Tennis, volleyball, waterskiing and other fun sports. Campfires, nature walks, bunk hijinks, and lasting friendships.

I had none of those wonderful experiences. I went to sleep-away camp one summer when I was thirteen.

I refused to ever go back again. I was miserable.

Me at around thirteen

My horrible experience was basically due to three factors. The first problem was my parents’ choice of camp. They sent me to a progressive, Montessori style arts camp called Bucks Rock Work Camp. The selling point for the camp was that there were lots of artistic opportunities but there was no schedule or requirements for the campers. Each child had to choose their own activities each day.

While this format is great for self-motivated kids with intense interests and actual talents, it was a disaster for me. I had no overpowering interest except for theater. And that was an organized activity that did have a specific schedule. So most days I wandered around. I tried jewelry making, art, and pottery. I took fencing classes and a few guitar lessons. But I was pretty aimless most of the time.

The second problem I had was my bunkmates. There were four of us in two sets of bunk beds. One of the other girls spent every night sneaking out the window to meet boys. The other two were best friends and overtly excluded me. It was very uncomfortable and demoralizing. I had other friends but this cast a pall over my camp life.

The third problem was the way the camp handled the casting of the big theatrical production of the summer. This was what I was looking forward to. This was the all-consuming activity I was waiting for.

The play was “Peer Gynt”. I auditioned along with hordes of other campers. And the lead females role narrowed down to two girls, me and someone else. I didn’t get the role. This would have been fine if they had done the reasonable thing and given me a subsidiary role. I was good enough to be the lead, so you’d think they could find some other part for me. But no. I got nothing. Not even a place in the chorus. This was a horrible thing to do to any camper. Anyone who was interested and had any skills whatsoever should have been allowed to participate.

Theater production in outdoor theater

But I was shut out completely. And I was devastated. A part in the play would have given me focus and purpose for the rest of the summer. Instead, I joined a small theater class. I did end up with a lead role in a scene we did from the “Madwoman of Chaillot”. (Great play choice for teenagers!) The problem here was that the counselor was the brother of a girl I grew up with. I had known him my whole life and we hated each other. We did not get along at all. So this turned out to be another unpleasant experience.

The whole situation stressed me out so much, I could not memorize my lines. They were actually quite hard to remember because they were the nonsensical, non-sequiturs of an insane woman. At the performance, I skipped a page and a half of dialogue.

The audience didn’t notice. In fact, I got a compliment I’ve never forgotten. An adult from the audience told me that they had been to a professional production of the play and that my performance was as good as the professional actress they had seen!

another photo of me at around thirteen

I called home once a week and cried hysterically every time. My parents offered to take me home but I refused. I decided to stick it out. I didn’t want to admit to or give in to failure.

Looking back, I now know that I had an anxiety/depressive disorder my whole life and I was probably spiraling into a pretty bad depression that summer. Going home might have been better for me, therapeutically.

But I proved to myself that I was strong and could survive a lot. So while I had an awful summer, I learned that I’m a survivor. That lesson has gotten me through a lot in life and I’m grateful I learned it so young.

LET THE CHILDREN PLAY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The title of an article I read in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018, by Katherine Marsh, sets out its primary argument pretty clearly. “ We’ve so over-scheduled our kids that doctors are now prescribing playtime.” The article is subtitled “We idiotically insist that all of their activities be purposeful and structured.”

micromanaging parent

To give some perspective, an American who lived in Brussels for three years, contrasts her child’s school experience in Belgium and America. In the Brussels school, the kids had 50 minutes of recess every day plus a 20-minute mid-morning break. This time was unstructured, free play with minimal teacher supervision. In the Washington, D.C. school, the kids had just 20 minutes of recess. And some American schools only provide fifteen minutes.

By the time the kids get their coats on and get outside, there is almost no time left for relaxed, creative play.

The American Academy of Pediatricians seem so concerned about over structured kids, they released a report emphasizing the developmental importance of free, unsupervised play for kids. It stresses that growth and discovery are more likely to occur in kids when they are not being micro-managed.

The Academy went so far as to suggest that doctors write ‘prescriptions’ for playtime when they see young children during regular checkups.

American parents seem to think that every moment of a child’s life needs to be purposeful and educational. The reason for this may be that parents feel very competitive about their children because of anxiety over their offspring’s economic prospects when they grow up. American parents will apparently brag about their kindergarten child’s reading prowess but be unconcerned that the same child has no clue how to play with other kids, or by herself.

Of course, everyone wants their children to grow up to be motivated, purposeful, successful adults. But parents seem to have lost sight of the fact that to reach that goal, children need to play and imagine and invent activities on their own. That in itself helps kids grow and develop the skills and traits we want them to have. Not everything a child does has to directly lead to future skills or benefits.

“True play is freedom from purpose,” says Katherine Marsh. And this downtime is an important part of every child’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

GROWING UP WITH McCARTHY – Garry Armstrong

This is one I never intended to share. It had been buried in the deepest part of the memory chest I never planned to revisit.

I was branded a “pinko” as a kid.

I grew up in an era when the name McCarthy was first associated with Edgar Bergen’s puppet pal,  Charlie McCarthy. We followed Bergen and McCarthy on their radio show, religiously, along with Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and the other funny people of a more innocent era.

All of that changed when “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy unleashed his witch hunt of everyone in the guise of ferreting out Communist sympathizers. It was part of a bleak period when Cold War angst followed World War 2.

McCarthy is news again because of the current White House occupant and his apparent fondness for McCarthy’s tactics.

I didn’t understand why people shied away from talking about something called “The Black List.”  I was still in grade school but a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines and the gold mine of books in our home library.

One of those books was “Not So Wild A Dream.” It was written by Eric Sevareid, a news commentator I listened to every evening on CBS Radio News. I loved Sevareid’s gritty voice talking about the evil in far-off places like Russia.

I was puzzled when Sevareid talked about how “we” were endangered by a politician named Joe McCarthy. I had seen the newspaper stories and headlines – famous actors and writers ‘outed’ as “Commies.”  I asked my parents about it but they told me “no worries,”  it didn’t involve people like us.

What did that mean? People like us?

I was fond of taking some of my grown-up books to school. I liked to show off the books I was reading. I was on first-hand terms with Sevareid, John Steinbeck, and the guy who wrote about “Crime and Punishment” in Russia.

While other kids bragged about their new cars, summer homes, and vacations in Florida, I only had books with which to earn bragging points. I didn’t always fully understand the books, but I liked how the words were put together. I enjoyed reading them aloud.

It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for words. The sound and feel of words.  Words that you can sometimes stroke because they touch your heart in a special way.

All of this was the prologue to a nasty wake-up call for my youthful innocence.

Garry receiving his Broadcasting Hall of Fame award – September 2013

We had an assignment in Composition Class. Probably the 4th or 5th grade. My heart was beating at double speed as I searched my treasure trove of books. I skipped past kid stuff like “Treasure Island,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” and my whole collection of baseball related material.

“Not So Wild A Dream” was the winner. I was just getting into some heady stuff by people named Odets, Miller, and Lardner. I liked what they said. I used to memorize sections to impress my Mom who was always proud of my ability to sound like a proper young man. I figured everyone would respect that ability.

I remember it was a warm spring day.  I was wearing my new spring outfit — LONG pants, crisp white shirt, and shiny new shoes. I was brimming with confidence in Composition Class. When volunteers were asked to read their homework,  my hand shot up faster than Big Don Newcombe’s fabled right arm.

My throat was dry but I plunged right in when I was selected. I read some passages from “Not So Wild A Dream” and a quote from Clifford Odets who was talking about social ills.  I didn’t understand much of what I said but it sounded and felt good to me.  I looked around.

Silence and a few nervous giggles. My teacher had a strange look on her face and stammered as she praised my work. She told me I probably would see the Principal later to discuss my impressive homework. I was beaming with pride!

The Principal seemed nervous as he talked to me. He hemmed and hawed. He even stammered. Where had I found the books I read? Who gave them to me?  I proudly told him about our home library and the magazines we got every week. I remember the Principal’s eyes arching in surprise.

What was the big deal,  I wondered.

All the joy of that morning came crashing down on me during lunch recess. The warm day meant we could open our lunch boxes outside in the play area.  I was munching on my sandwich when I saw kids staring at me.

I began to pick up the words.

“He’s a pinko.”

“His parents are pinkos.  I’m gonna tell my Mom. All his people are Commies, my Dad told me.”

The whispers grew louder. Finally, I was approached by a couple of the guys who used to pick on me because of the way I dressed, my glasses, and my stupid hearing aids which made me look a space villain.  Oh, yeah, they also picked on me because I was the shortest kid in the class.

What now? Were they jealous of my composition?  What the heck?

The biggest kid came right up to my face.  He had bad breath and smelled worse.  I don’t think he bathed often. I could see the red pimples sticking out on his face. “Hey, you four-eyed deaf midget nigg_r,  so you’re a pinko too, huh?”

Pimple face leered at me,  obviously daring me to get up and fight. I gulped hard.

His pal, beady-eyed, and sweating, taunted me, “I hear all you people are Commies. You don’t go to Church — you go to Commie meetings! All of YOU people. I’m gonna tell my Dad. You’re in big trouble, you lousy little pinko.”

My throat was dry and I was very scared. I couldn’t think. Then, the bell rang.  Lunch was over. I was (literally) saved by the bell.

That evening,  I recounted everything to my Mom and Dad. They listened without saying a word. Usually, they’d interrupt me, correct my language, diction or choice of words.  When I’d finished,  they looked at each other for a long time before speaking to me.

Mom and Dad were unusually patient in explaining things to me. I think I was a little put off by their civility. I tried to absorb what they said. It was hard.

I remember Mom telling me I’d have become more mature than my age. I was going to deal with more of these “things” as I grew up. She smiled wistfully as she tousled my hair.

And that’s how I started on the road to journalism. Suddenly, I understood something about the grown-up version of the truth.