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!

FLAGS BLOSSOM IN THE OLD CEMETERY – Marilyn Armstrong

The cemetery is in the center of the town, across from the dam and just a hundred or so yards from the river itself. It’s up on a hill, so it never floods, even when the rivers rush over their banks. The people who created that cemetery knew about the rivers. And flooding. They picked a beautiful spot, but dry and safe for the bones and memories.

An old cemetery, dating back to the early 1700s. It contains traces of many generations of those who lived and died in this town, this valley. Folks who lived along the Blackstone and its many tributaries, fished in its lakes and streams. They fought in our wars and are buried here — Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War veterans as well as those who fought in all the American wars since.

Every Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, the cemetery blooms with bouquets and flags. The schools bring the children here, so they will remember too and traditions will be maintained. They bring bouquets of wild flowers or from the back garden. Lilacs and lilies, scarlet poppies … and always a miniature American flag. Even if there’s no special holiday, the cemetery always shows signs of caring, remembering.

At the library

Maybe it’s easier to remember here, with such a small population. Is that it? Or it’s just part of the air, the character, the history. Remembering is what we do in the Valley.

The cemetery is one of my favorite places. We’re newcomers after all, only living here 17 years. Our ancestors — Garry’s and mine — come from Sligo, Antigua, Minsk, Bialystok … from tiny villages in Ireland and the West Indies and the shtetls of eastern Europe.

Valley people have been here longer. Many came from French Canada in the late 19th century to work in the mills. Another large group formed the dominant Dutch population. They built churches, businesses and factories, dairy and truck farms, shops, horse farms and sawmills. Their names are prominent wherever the rivers run.

Newcomers, like us, aren’t quite as rare these days, and anyway, we’ve lived here 18 years, so we are no longer outsiders. Nonetheless, we have no ancestors in this cemetery.

The valley is the only place I’ve lived where the majority of families have lived in this town or in a nearby villages for three, four, five generations.

“We’ve always lived in the Valley,” they say, meaning as long as anyone can remember. If gently prodded, they may recall at some point, long ago, they came from somewhere else … but some can’t remember when or if it’s true.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I point out they must have come from somewhere because unless they are Native American, they came to this place, even if a long time since. They get misty-eyed trying to remember old family stories handed down when they were young. Hard to remember, they tell you. “You know, that was 75 years ago … a long time.”

We nod, because it was a long time ago. Before we could remember anything, surely.

So another year passes and little flags and flowers bloom in the old cemetery in the middle of town. It’s a nice thing they do. Remembering.

CHARLIE AUSTIN – by Garry Armstrong

Today is Charlie Austin’s Memorial Service. 

I first met Charlie Austin at a pickup basketball game in Boston. It was September evening in Boston, 1970.

I was the new TV news reporter guy in town and I was meeting people, on and off the job. One of the people on my “must meet” list was Charlie Austin. He had the reputation – even back then – as one of Boston’s finest reporters.

I’d seen Charlie on television, doing a sports piece as “Chuck” Austin. I liked his laid back style and deep voice.

I was already jealous of that voice.

“Hi, Chuck”,  I said brightly as the pick up teams chose players. I was on the bench.  Charlie was one of the FIRST picked to play.  My envy grew.

Charlie just stared at me. The poker face, I would learn, was his trademark. I didn’t know and thought I’d committed a social blunder.  I was a little confused.  It was a very long moment before Charlie came over and smiled.

“You a 6th man? Instant offense off the bench,”  he asked with a mischievous grin.  I looked at the floor and told him I was the last man sitting. He patted me on the shoulder and headed off for some serious hoops.

Charles Austin

I sat for most of the first half until the coach/assistant news director signalled me to go in. Charlie Austin grinned slyly as I ran on the court.

I made my first three 20-footers to everyone’s surprise,  especially mine.  Hey, no one was guarding me.  Half-time and everyone gathered for coke and pizza. “Nice shot,”  Charlie said to me,  wolfing down 2 slices in seconds.

I smiled and said,  “Thanks, Chuck.”  His smile turned into a deep frown.

“Don’t call me Chuck,”  Charlie said tersely.  I was confused, which he picked up. “They call me Chuck when I do sports. I hate that name. Hate it!  Okay?”

I nodded and told him I heard Henry Aaron hated being called “Hank” but dealt with it because it was a media thing about which you don’t argue.  Charlie nodded with one of his signature crooked smiles. It was back to the bench for me for most of the 2nd half until we hit “Garbage” time and my on court presence didn’t matter.

I cornered Charlie for a post game snack. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The next time I saw Charlie Austin it was business.  A too familiar scene for us in the coming years.  A shooting in “The Bury” as Roxbury was known in the media. Roxbury, a predominantly Black Boston neighborhood, had been the focal point of simmering tension and violence for several years since the assassination of Martin Luther king sparked  protests in many minority communities across the country. I’d seen it before during my network tenure.

This was different for me.  New city, new community, new faces. I was very anxious as my crew and I arrived, the last news unit on the scene. I surveyed the crowd, taking in all the faces. Local residents,  police units, clergy, and lots of politicians. I didn’t know anyone.

Charlie Austin spotted me.  He walked over and the eyes of the crowd followed him. Charlie stopped in front of me, small smile and embraced me with a “How ya doing,  Garry?”  I was startled and grateful.

Charlie’s welcome gesture was my entrée to Roxbury and all gathered for the story. We shook hands and Charlie rejoined his TV crew. I knew, from previous experience, not to roll film on the initial speakers.  Politicians with “Kumbaya spins” to the violence, the victims, and the suspects. I glanced at Charlie.  His crew wasn’t filming either.

We exchanged knowing smiles. I essentially followed Charlie’s pursuit of interviews.  It was clear he knew all “the players”. It was a strategy I’d follow for a long time until I became familiar with the city.

I learned on many stories that I’d been successful because I knew Charlie Austin.  He opened doors that were shut to other reporters. When I tried to thank him,  Charlie shrugged it off with that crooked grin.

Charlie knew about my hearing problems. He often would take me aside to make sure I had the correct spelling and pronunciation of people and places.  He did this as we both faced similar deadlines.

Charlie and I saw a lot of each other during the volatile Forced Busing School Desegregation years in Boston. It was a period that tested the mettle of many reporters. Only a handful of journalists had full access to both white and minority communities as Boston found itself under an international spotlight. The 6th largest TV market in the country had very few minority reporters.  You could count us on the fingers of one hand.

A few months ago, former Mayor Ray Flynn noted, in an email exchange, how much he appreciated the efforts of some reporters during that volatile period.  Charlie Austin topped Mayor Flynn’s list. I remember how Charlie handled the most difficult, potentially explosive situations.

Poker faced, with a small smile and a gesture that said, “I’m listening to you.”

Charlie’s humanity defused anger and bitterness on both sides of the issue. He didn’t play “the race card” in his reports. He saw the frustration on the faces of families and understood there was a common quest — regardless of skin color — for quality education. Charlie Austin’s reports, delivered in firm manner minus attitude or political agenda,  set the tone for local reporters. It helped me and others do our jobs.

We gritted our teeth when network reporters swept in, leaned on street optics, did often biased and inaccurate reports and swept out-of-town.  Charlie and the rest of us had to repeatedly clean up the messes.  Charlie led the way with his non theatrical, honest reports. He set the bar for the rest of us.

It was a very high bar.

Charlie’s friendship extended beyond work. He knew I needed something more than the job. He was instrumental in getting me involved with the legendary Elma Lewis and her “Black Nativity”  production which now is part of the fabric of Boston’s Arts and Culture community.  I played one of the three Wise Men for several years.  A short time on stage but it was a wonderful experience for me.  It made me feel like I was part of the community,  thanks to Charlie Austin.

In costume for Black Nativity

Charlie rarely talked about his many health issues.  Others thought of him as heroic but Charlie would not have any of such talk. He did proudly show off pictures of his wife, Linda and daughter, Danielle.  Danielle was the bright light in Charlie’s eyes.  His face always swelled with pride and love.

I wish I’d seen Charlie more often in recent years.  He played such a large part in my life and I never got to thank him properly.

He’s probably listening right now with that crooked grin lighting his face.

“Thanks, CHUCK!”

THROWBACK THURSDAY – Rich Paschall

Keeping Old Memories Alive, Rich Paschall

Let’s face it, there are a lot of annoying things about social media.  Even worse than the fake news and memes being spread, making us dumber by the day, is the proliferation of new games, rituals, groups, pages, chats, instasomethings, broadcast thyself and say nothing.

You Tube channels (I have 2), Google +, Twitter and twitpic and tweetchat, YouNow, Ustream and the list for You is growing.  You can write it, sing it, chat it, pin it, post it, paste it, repost and reblog it.  The glut of personal pages and activities is beyond gluttonous.

Among the millions of pages and posts lies some golden moments if only you can find them.  Sometimes it is like finding a needle in a haystack, but sometimes a needle is found.  Perhaps you put the golden needle there yourself, hoping others will find it.  If you look hard enough, you may find gold too.

I have used Facebook, WordPress and YouTube to uncover new (or not so new) and interesting talent. In some ways, it has replaced some of my television watching, although I have uncovered more crap online than can ever make it through to broadcast television.

If you have been following along on Sundays, you will notice that I have pointed out some of the good young talent online.  There are some young people doing good as I pointed out when I asked if it was A Screwed Up World? I also mentioned up and coming talent here and on Sunday Night Blog. Recently, I profiled Tom Law in Laying Down The Musical Law, Steve Grand in All-American Boy and my You Tube favorites in Singers on Demand  So you can tell I am not completely down on the social media world.

One practice that has grown up on several social sites in recent years did not interest me at first.  In fact, I thought it a rather self-indulgent way of posting your old photos for people who really did not care on a medium that is so overburden with posts few would notice anyway. This now common activity is called Throwback Thursday.  Have you taken part?

The idea behind Throwback Thursday is that you post an old photo, video, or article from the past, and tag it with #tbt. Thus you will have made some sort of contribution to remembering something important or historical. It’s an interesting idea that has, of course, produced a lot of junk. Seriously, I do not need to see your video of you and your precious cat from 2003. It may bring tears to your eyes, but that doesn’t make it an historic document.

After this practice had gone by for a few years, I began to see the worth hidden in hashtag TBT. Items of merit were coming to light of social, historical and even personal value.  Now I gladly participate.

I still love cake

My personal photos of my charming self at a young age may be of no value in the social media world, but I have many friends and relatives on Facebook. I don’t see them often, so they may be of interest to those who knew me at nine.

We are sharing old memories through weekly postings. I’ve been amazed by the relics some folks have uncovered. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to see old photos and videos that bring a smile to your face.

The Pajama Game is the game we’re in!

A few years ago I started a Facebook group for former students of Mrs. Laurette Kittler. She is a retired high school drama teacher whose instruction and guidance touched the lives of generations of students. I was proud to include myself in those who could celebrate this teacher’s work. I thought maybe, over time, I would find 100 students.

The group has close to 340 members, some of whom have been posting pictures and bringing smiles to everyone.  While many members of the group haven’t seen each other for decades, they’ve been putting up pictures others may have not seen since the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s.  Maybe they never saw them at all.  Now there are thousands of pictures.

When the formation of this group led to a “dinner and drinks” outing, I casually mentioned that among the many pictures I have and I have seen, I have no pictures from my Senior Class play.  I could have purchased them from the high school at the time, but I let it pass. It was my big regret.

During the week that followed, pictures showed up on Facebook, including one of me front and just left of center in a picture I do not think I ever saw.

South Pacific

Throwback Thursday has become a favorite activity. Sometimes I post a picture then look for items from others which will remind me of my high school days, my family and my youth. Nothing brings the past to life like seeing it. This is the value of #tbt.

My departed mother took a camera to many events in her life. In the 70’s and 80’s there is no telling how many rolls of 110 and 126 film she went through. Some months after she was gone, I sent many hundreds of pictures to my brother. I have thousands remaining.

Nowadays, I have a use for these photographs, on #tbt.

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!

THE RUSSIANS IN LIBERTY – Marilyn Armstrong

Garry and I have been watching “Reilly – Ace of Spies” starring Sam Neill. It’s a really good, long mini-series. Very detailed, complex, and absorbing. Since it’s more or less historical, I know how it’s going to end … which is one of the few things I don’t like about watching history. You know it’s going to end badly. You have to decide if you want to watch that final episode or maybe take a shower.

On this evening’s episode, Sidney Reilly quit the British Secret Service and committed himself to ending the Bolshevik reign in Russia at any cost. Which was when I realized I’d met a whole bunch of these people a long time ago in a world I’d nearly forgotten.

This is a strange story, so bear with me.

Russian Communism was not one or two easily understood “things.” It was an idea that became a revolution that fractured into multiple parts. Americans have typically seen it all as one thing: Communism. Khrushchev. Stalin. Soviet Union. For most Americans, that’s how we’ve been taught to think about it.

It was a lot more complicated than that.

A lot of people fought the Czar to end their reign and bring Communism to Russians. Many of those fighters were very unhappy (and many of them also wound up dead) because the Communist government they got was nothing like what they fought for. They fought for justice and equality, but what they got was tyranny and fascism. The ironic part of the story is that the fight to get rid the world of the German fascists basically cost them the country.

Getting rid of the Germans was pretty much the one thing on which everyone in Russia agreed. Get rid of the Germans. We’ll sort out the rest later.

It turned out Lenin wasn’t such a nice guy and by the end of the war, he was in power … and then, he was dead and chaos reigned. The British didn’t provide the anti-Bolsheviks the weapons or troops they had promised. The planned coup to take over the Russian government failed as did the attempted assassination of Lenin. By the time the Germans surrendered, Lenin and his wing-man, Stalin, owned Russia.

Sidney Reilly, the star of the series we’re watching, left the British Secret Service and dedicated the remaining years of his life to trying to destroy the Russian Bolshevik government. Many of his people — including Sidney — moved to New York where the FBI  stuck to them like super glue. The FBI was not then or now a group who understood the complexities of Russian history.

Eventually, many of these Russians moved to small towns in upstate New York. Monroe. Liberty. Woodstock. Monticello. Roxbury. Places that once were home to huge Jewish resorts like Grossinger’s and where so many stand-up comics got their start. Today these towns are doing pretty well, but there were dark days during which they were nearly ghost towns.

Except for the Russians.

Liberty, New York – the old days

I was 17 in the summer of 1964. My goal in life was to leave home and never come back. My mother still thought she might somehow lure me into staying a while longer … like until I was 18. Or got married. Or had a job. Thus when summer rolled around, she decided we needed a family vacation in the Catskills. Liberty, in Sullivan County, was our destination.

To say that this was not what I wanted doesn’t come close to it. I hated my father and disliked my sister. My brother had married and left home, so my only ally was gone. Family vacation? Seriously? I could look forward to a couple of weeks of being harangued by my father and probably threatened with near death beatings.

I never entirely understood my mother’s reasoning. Why would I want to go to the mountains with the family?

Regardless, that’s what we did. I don’t remember the name of the “resort.” It was old and rundown. The reason mom picked it was because they had a concert pianist. I was a music major with piano as my instrument. Mom apparently thought the music might grab my interest. In response, I brought enough dope with me to stay high the full two weeks.

But the mural was in full, blazing color

That first evening, we went to dinner. Big dining room  intended for a much larger crowd. Two walls were painted. Murals. On the wall facing me (I’m not making this up) was the head of Trotsky. From chin to forehead he was maybe 12 feet high? No body, just a head. I was really stoned and that huge head just hung there on the wall.

But wait. There was more.

On the right wall was something that looked like a chariot but was probably a troika which is usually pulled by three horses. In this case, it was being pulled by three workers. You knew they were workers because the hammer and sickle was prominently displayed across their laboring bodies. In the chariot — or whatever it was — there was a Corporate Rich Guy (dollar signs painted all over him) beating the workers. With a giant whip.

Holy shit.

That was some dinner. I don’t know what they served, but I ate it all.

That night, I could hear my parents whispering. “Albert, you better get cash. We can’t sign anything. The FBI is probably here. Watching.” Come to think of it, the FBI probably was there. Did they also eat the gefilte fish?

It turned out everyone in the resort except me, my sister, and parents, were in their 70s or older. All of them had been in the White army trying to take down the Bolsheviks — or something like that. Here’s a good jumping off point for the history. It’s Wikipedia, so it shouldn’t be your primary source.

The road to Liberty

These were Sidney’s people. They carried around books of pictures of pictures of them young, in the army. Guns. Boots. Snow. Tanks. If I had been more astute, a bit more into Russian history — and less stoned — I could have asked so many questions. I’m sure they would have told me everything.

As it was, they tried to tell me everything, but I was 17. We all know that 17-year-old girls don’t listen to old people, even when they have books full of pictures of themselves when they were kids, fighting Bolsheviks and tanks. In Russia. In the snow.

Until we started watching this series, I had no idea who these folks were. I knew they were Russian because they said so. They had pictures and they giggled when they talked about it. I remember Greenwich Village. They remembered fighting with the army in Russia.

Ah, memories.

At 17, I didn’t know the difference between one Bolshevik and another and probably, at that stage in life, didn’t care.

Tonight, watching that show, it came together. Those people were the last of the crowd of anti-Bolsheviks who’d come up from New York city to live in those quaint towns in the Catskills — to get away from the FBI and HUAC.

Pity I didn’t get the story. What a story it would have been!

Dad paid cash. He never signed anything. I think he used a fake name, too. I stayed stoned and ate gefilte fish, which I usually hate. How could I say no to fish with Trotsky staring at me while the guy with the whip beat the workers?