BE HOME BEFORE THE LIGHTS COME ON – Marilyn Armstrong

When I was growing up … and even when my son was growing up in the 1970s, kids went out to play. Alone. Unsupervised. Unstructured. Disorganized with not a single adult to keep an eye on us. We built “forts” and “clubhouses” out of crates and old boxes and anything we could find that mom wouldn’t miss.

We played stickball with old, pink Spalding balls that were often long bast bouncing or even being “round.” You didn’t go and buy a “stickball set.” You found an old broomstick and someone had a ball, or what used to be a ball, or you all chipped in and bought one in the local (!) toy store.

The dock at River Bend

Remember toy stores? Not “Toys R’ Us.”

Local shops where you could buy a ball or a bat or a Ginny doll for a few cents or a few dollars. The shopkeepers were always grumpy old guys (probably a lot younger than we are now), but they had a gleam in their eye. If you don’t like kids, you don’t run a toy store.

We ran around a lot. Playing tag was basic. Even dogs play tag. “Catch me if you can,” you shouted and off you went. If you got tagged, you were O-U-T. But if you could run fast enough, you could grab whatever was “home” and one shouted “Home free all!” and everyone was back in the game.

There was Hide and Seek, another classic. Someone hid, everyone hunted. You had to be careful. If you hid too well, your friends might get bored looking for you and go do something else. But no one’s mother came to complain that you were being bullied. This was stuff you dealt with because there will always be bullies. Unless you were in real danger, it was better (then and now) to cope on your own. Much better than waiting for rescue.

In the real world, rescue is rare, but bullying is not.

1953 -I’m in the middle

Jump rope. There was always an old piece of laundry line somewhere. They actually call it skipping rope in other parts of the country. In the cities, the Black girls played a variation called “double Dutch” using two ropes. We all knew how to do the double Dutch ropes turning, but none of us ever mastered the technique of actually jumping. More like an intricate dance — and I also wasn’t ever much of a dancer.

Klutz that I was and am, I was barely competent on a single line, much less two. I remain in awe of how incredibly graceful, athletic, and coördinated those girls were … and are. There was a feature about them on the news a couple of weeks ago and I am no less awestruck now than I was more than 60 years ago.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Along with jumping rope came chanting. All those weird little ditties we sang as we jumped. They mostly were alphabetic and involved names and places.

“I call my girlfriend … in …” when we were playing in a group. You could gauge your popularity by when and who “called you in” to jump in tandem. Looking back, I think the problem was not unpopularity, but being a washout as an athlete. I was a slow runner, an indifferent jumper, and a terrified tree climber. On the other hand, when it came to derring-do, I was a champ. I could organize games of pretending –pirates and cowboys and outlaws and cat burglars.

We burgled, but we never stole. We weren’t thieves, just little girls trying to prove we could do it.

I don’t see kids playing outdoors these days. Almost never, except as organized groups with one or more adults supervising. Calling the plays with whistles and shouts. Children are not allowed to “go out and play” anymore. Everyone is afraid of something. Bullying, kidnappers, traffic, skinned knees. Unlike we kids who were always covered with scabs from a thousand times falling down on the sidewalk or street.

Come home with a bloody knee today and they’ll call an ambulance. Growing up, unless you appeared to have broken something, a bath was the remedy of choice and usually, beneath the dirt, was an unbroken kid.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

It makes me wistful, thinking about it. My family was dysfunctional, but I could escape by going out to play.

“Bye, Ma, I’m going out,” and off you went. It was the best part of being a child. Those months between school and hours after school (much less homework and we still learned more!) contained what seemed unlimited freedom. That was the freest I would ever be in this life.

Once you were out of the house and too far away to hear your mother calling, you could do whatever you liked. You could be whoever you imagined. There was nothing you had to do, no place you needed to be. Until the streetlights came on.

Streetlight is on. Time to go home!

You had to be home when the streetlights came on. It was a fundamental law, the bottom line. Do what you will, but be home when the streetlights come on. In those warm summers of childhood, the days flowed in an endless stream.

Darkness fell late. There was more than enough time.

THE RETURN OF BELL BOTTOMS – Marilyn Armstrong

When I look back at what I miss from my old days, mostly, I miss the pants. The wide bell bottoms were the most flattering jeans I ever wore. They made my legs look longer and my hips narrower.

From 1969 and for the next few years, fashion and I were simpatico.

It was the hippest of times and I was happy. I was young. I wore bell bottoms. Patchwork jeans were my favorites, although at the end of the day I looked like I’d been sitting on a waffle iron.

My shirts had 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 that clothing, the bell bottoms, the fringes. I really miss my old Leica. Mostly, I want my bell bottoms back!

REMEMBER WHAT? – Marilyn Armstrong

Every night, I fill up my cup, grab my bag o’ medications, pet the puppies, and hike the hallway to the bedroom at the other end of the house.

After arriving, I put the bag where it belongs. Adjust the bed to its TV viewing angle. Turn on the television for Garry. He watches with headphones while I read or listen to an audiobook. I fire up my blue-tooth speaker. I put my medications into a cup which is really the lid from a medicine bottle. Convenient and it keeps little round pills from rolling off the table.

I never remember everything. Typically, I forget to turn off the fan in the living room or in winter, turn down the thermostat. I sit on the edge of the bed trying to remember what I should have done but didn’t.

“Ah,” I think. “Thermostat.” I go back to the living room. Turn down the temperature. Pet the dogs. Assure them they are not getting another biscuit no matter how cute they are.

Back down the hall. Brush teeth. Sit on the edge of the bed. Oh, right. Need to refill antihistamine bottle. It’s empty. Back to the kitchen where the big bottle is stored. Fending off the dogs, I limp back to the bedroom. And get the nagging feeling I’ve forgotten something else.

Ah, that’s right. I left an extra light on in the living room. Up the hall to the living room. Turn off light. I am currently embattled with the electric company about my bill. I pet the dogs again, which with three dogs always involves some kind of weird arrangement of arms and hands. Then, it’s back to the bedroom.

Garry shows up, having done whatever it is he does for however long he does it in the bathroom. I recently relocated all of our copies of National Geographics and The New Yorker to a shelf in the bathroom. Right in front of the toilet. I suppose I have only myself to blame.

He settles into watching highlights of a Sox game, followed by a movie or three. I turn on my audiobook.

An hour later, I’ve got a headache. I’m not sleepy. Everything hurts. Why are my medications not working? There’s nothing more I can take. Panic sets in.

Which is when I realize all the pills are still in the cup. Where I put them. Like two hours ago. With all the walking up and down the hallway, I never got around to taking them which explains why they aren’t working.

I laugh. Garry takes off his headphones long enough for me to explain why. I got to the punchline, he looks at me and says: “You didn’t take them?” He Laughs — and puts the headphones back.

As our memory — collectively and individually — gets less dependable, we have substituted routines, calendars, and Google. If we do everything the same way at the same time every day, we’re less likely to forget. Or fail to remember if we did it today or yesterday. If that fails, there’s Google.

Google is not useful for remembering if I have a doctor’s appointment or whether or not I called in that prescription, but it’s great for all the other trivia of life. All the missing words, titles of books, movies, TV shows, actors, historical events, kinds of dogs.

Actually, I use posts the same way. I may not remember whatever it is, but the odds are pretty good I wrote it down in a post. If I could only remember the title of the post!

The other evening, we were watching a show that included a dog. Garry assumes I know every dog breed at a glance. He’s right, usually. I know the breeds, but these days, I may not remember its name. I will usually remember the group — guarding, herding, hunting, hound, terrier, non-sporting (“other”), toy. If I remember that, I can go to the AKC site, find the group, scroll the list and find the dog.

Recently, they’ve changed the AKC website, so it’s not as easy as it used to be to find simple information. In fact, the whole AKC site seems to be a place to sell puppies — something I find more than a little suspicious.

I knew the dog that Garry was asking about was the same kind of pooch as the dog Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) had on his show. The dog’s name was Eddy. I remembered that. No problem. The breed name was on the edge of my brain, but not coming into focus. I gave up and Googled it.

Search for: “Breed of dog on Frasier TV show.” Except I couldn’t remember the name of the TV show. First I had to find the name of the show.

Search for: “long-running comedy on TV about a psychiatrist.” Up popped Frasier. Phew. I could have also found it by looking up that other long-running comedy, “Cheers,” in which Frasier first appeared, but I couldn’t remember its name, either.

One of these days, I’m going to have to Google my own name. I hope I find it.

HANGING OUT WITH ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM – Garry Armstrong

Marilyn and I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Robert Mitchum on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) last night. We laughed a lot. It was a reminder of how good late night talk shows were. It also showed the legendary tough guy Mitchum as an affable and literate man who didn’t take himself seriously.

The Cavett show originally aired in 1970. I met Robert Mitchum the following year. Turned out to be a memorable encounter.

Robert Mitchum was in Boston to shoot “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, a film about small-time criminals. There was nothing small-time about Mitchum. I lobbied for and got the TV interview assignment. Those were the days of “The big three” television stations in Boston. Two of the stations had prominent entertainment reporters. I was the “go to guy” at my station.

The established entertainment reporters had first dibs on Mitchum. Fine by me. I waited until shooting had wrapped for the day. I lucked out because they finished just before 1pm. The star was in a good mood because his workday was over. We shot one reel of film and I got everything I needed.

Mitchum seemed surprised we weren’t shooting more. Actually, he smiled when I said we had a wrap.

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me.

Nothing, I told him. I was through for the day unless I was called for a breaking news story. I also assured him I probably would not be reachable. He smiled. He asked if I knew any quiet places where he could have lunch without being bothered. I nodded and he invited me to join him.

It was a small, dark place. It could’ve been a setting from one of Mitchum’s film noir of the 1940s. He smiled approvingly as we walked in. Several people greeted me. No one gave Mitchum a second look. We settled back with the first of many rounds that afternoon. At one point, Mitchum took off his tinted glasses, looked around the place and said I should call him “Mitch”. I nodded. He wanted to know how I could just disappear for the rest of the day. I told him I had recorded my voice tracks, shot all my on-camera stuff and relayed cutting instructions after the film was “souped”. Mitch smiled broadly and went to the bar for another round of drinks.

robert_mitchum_by_robertobizama-d4ktib7We spent the next couple of hours talking about sports, music, women, work, and celebrity. He noticed how people would look and nod but not bother us. I told him this was one of my secret places. Blue collar. No suits. He wondered why I hadn’t asked him about the “Eddie Coyle” movie or shooting in Boston.

Not necessary, I told him. Everyone knew about that stuff and it would be mentioned by the anchors introducing my stories. He smiled again, lit one more cigarette, and ordered another round.

It dawned on me that Mitch was leading the conversation. Talking about me. How I was faring as a minority in a predominantly white profession. Just like the movies, I told him. I explained I did spot news stories to get the opportunity to do features which I really enjoyed. He laughed and we did an early version of the high 5.

We swapped some more war stories, including a couple about Katherine Hepburn. He talked about working with her in “Undercurrent” with Robert Taylor when he was still a young actor. Mitch said Hepburn was just like a guy, professional, and lots of fun.

I mentioned meeting the legendary actress after I was summoned to her Connecticut home during my stint at another TV station. Mitch stared as I talked. I had tea with Katherine Hepburn who had seen me on the Connecticut TV station. She liked what she saw but had some suggestions about how I could improve what I did. I never could fathom why Katherine Hepburn would choose to spend time with this young reporter. No modesty. Just puzzlement. Mitch loved the story and ordered another round.

I glanced at my watch and figured I couldn’t stay incognito much longer. This was before pagers, beepers and, mercifully, long before cell phones. Mitch caught the look on my face and nodded.

Mitch walked me to my car and asked if I was good to drive. I tried to give him a Mitchum look and he just laughed. We shook hands and vowed to do it again.

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY, JEFF – Marilyn Armstrong

I married Jeff in 1965. I was 18, he was 26. I was still finishing my B.A. Both Jeff and I needed to get out of our parent’s homes and make a life. It was a  classic “jailbreak” marriage and for a long time, it worked well.

But time marched on and I wanted to move on. He wanted everything to stay the same — and so we parted. I went to Israel and he stayed where he was.

Graphic Jeff, Studio A

When I was sad, Jeffrey used to sing to me. This is the song he sang.

For one birthday, I bought him a wind-up snow globe. It played “You Are My Sunshine” and had a big green frog on a lily pad in the water. When you wound it, it played that song. He kept the globe as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough.

Happy birthday, Jeff. You would have been 80 years old today and I wish you were alive so I could tease you about your age.

You should still be here.

REMEMBERED OR FORGOTTEN? FANDANGO’S PROVOCATIVE QUESTION – Marilyn Armstrong

True or Lost? – Fandango’s Provocative Question #17

From Fandango:

This week’s provocative question came to mind when my son asked me a question. He wanted to know where we lived when I sold my motorcycle, and I couldn’t remember whether it was in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. I tried and tried, but came up empty. I couldn’t even recall the last time I rode it.

So, I decided to ask a question about human memory, which has been shown to be incredibly unreliable. With that in mind, here is this week’s provocative question:


“How do you know which of your memories are genuine and which have been altered over time or even made up?”

I have forgotten a lot of things. Not important things for the most part, but small things that (I assume) were not critical to life and survival. I don’t remember every day of my life in Israel, but I remember the important pieces. When I see movies or documentaries with pictures, often a lost memory comes bubbling to the surface.

Sometimes, I see pictures from New York and remember that at some point, I ate in that restaurant or took pictures under that bridge in Central Park. I have a very visual memory.

1948

I don’t think I have any “false” memories. I either remember or I’ve forgotten it. A forgotten memory can sometimes be brought back by a friend who was there, although it’s not unusual for me to look at them and say “Really? I don’t remember any of that.” And I don’t. There are organizations I belonged to I’ve completely forgotten and there are a couple of years of elementary school I don’t remember.

1952

I remember my friends — the real ones that mattered to me as opposed to acquaintances. I remember my entire family, some better than others, probably because I spent more memorable time with them.

What I’m missing is gone. My remembering isn’t altered, made up, or rose-covered. Just entirely missing.

Where I grew up

I do not know if this is typical or it’s just me.

When I forget something, I really forget it. I forget who was there with me, who I met, what I did. I forget I was ever there at all.

My childhood is very patchy, but that’s likely a form of dissociation. I was an abused kid. We lose the worst parts of that period and, as one shrink put it: “What you remember is bad enough. No need to stir up the stuff you don’t remember. It may come back to you over the years, but if not … I think you should not stir that pot.”

I haven’t stirred that pot. I don’t think I’d find anything I want to know in its mix.

THE WESTERN WALL IN JERUSALEM – Marilyn Armstrong

My favorite place in Jerusalem was the Western Wall, sometimes incorrectly called the “Wailing Wall.” In Hebrew, it’s Kotel — it rhymes with motel.

I used to go to the Kotel to pray and leave messages for God.

Western-Wall-Placard-1000x666

I loved the approach to the Temple mount. I would stand for a while, looking down at it from the approaching steps, trying to form an image of what it must have looked like when it was the hill where God talked to Isaac, where God said that He would never again ask for another human sacrifice.

So what was with all the war and massacre and death? Doesn’t that count?

Then I would walk down the stone steps to the wall and get as close as I could get, so my nose grazed the Wall. I would lay my cheek and the palms of my hands flat against it and feel the humming of power in those ancient stones.

Western wall overview

From close up, you see the messages, tens of thousands of messages rolled tightly into tiny scrolls tucked in the crevices between the rocks. Every kind of prayer, every kind of message, all on tiny folded pieces of paper, cradled by giant stones.

Tucked between the stones were all the prayers, hopes, fears, and gratitude of people who came to this special place to leave a messages for God.

The Wall talks to you and says “You can leave your message here. God always checks his messages and He will get back to you.”

I always brought a message and tucked it into the stones. I knew God would read my message and get back to me. As surely as I knew Jerusalem is the center of the universe and closer to Heaven than any place on earth, I knew I lived down the street from his message center. If every prayer is heard, prayers left at this address got to Him sooner.

western wall with notes

There were groups of rabbis who spent their lives praying at the Wall. For a small fee, they would pray for you. If you believe there is a special potency to the prayers of pious men, the rabbis of the Kotel were worth a donation. They didn’t ask for much – whatever you could afford and for your money, you got a prayer specialist to put the word in for you.

I probably went to the Kotel more than a hundred times over the years, but I most remember one day above all others. I went that day because my mother was dying. I wanted to ask God to give my mother and I some time together.

It seemed pointless to pray for her cancer to be cured. It had spread too far, had invaded too much. I knew it was her time. I accepted death, even my mother’s, but a little time didn’t seem too much to ask.

I bought prayers from the rabbis, then went to the Wall and left my message among the stones.

More than thirty years have passed, but I bet my message is still there, exactly where I left it. With all the other messages left for God in the Western Wall at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.