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.

A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – Garry Armstrong

A friend took me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park. It was the middle of April, so there was a chill in the wind. I layered up and topped it off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt. It was Jackie Robinson day. Everyone was wearing the fabled #42.

red sox 42 jackie robinson day
April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park

April is the beginning of the new baseball season, when hope springs eternal. Anything could happen. The haves and have-nots are equally in the race. For me, it’s also when I open the cookie jar of memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when I listened to our boys of summer on the radio.

Vin Scully was a 20-something rookie broadcaster, calling his first season of Brooklyn Dodgers games.

The Korean “conflict” dominated the radio news, which preceded the important stuff, baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers were “America’s Team” in 1950. Vin Scully was a new breed of a sports broadcaster. He mixed in stories about President Truman’s desegregation of our Armed Forces and “discontent” about the integrated Dodgers’ team.

Scully used phrases like “Goodnight, sweet Prince,” after Jackie Robinson turned in another memorable game amid jeers from rabble-rousers. It was curious to this young fan who dreamed of becoming a teammate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese, and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.

I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and the dreaded New York Yankees. How terrific to listen to Vin Scully and not those other people talking about grown-up stuff. Scully even mentioned things we were studying in school and made them sound exciting.

I’ll never forget his referring to April as “the cruelest month.” I’d steal that line a zillion times.

A couple of decades later, chance opened the door to meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was friendly and outgoing, eager to share stories with a newbie reporter. He would say, “Life is good, young fella. You gotta appreciate it.”

Jackie Robinson would glare at Campy as he wove the stories of good times with the Dodgers. Sometimes, he would interrupt Campanella with a sharp, “Enough, Roy. Enough of that fiction.”

72-Jackie-Robinson-Baseball-HOF_038

Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing, seemingly angry. “Life isn’t a ball game, young man,” he once said.  Then, he gently patted me on the shoulder, noting that I was a good conversationalist and listener.

It was a bit confusing. It happened that way several times.

People like Campy, Peewee Reese and even a reluctant Duke Snider would share that Jackie Robinson was an angry, complicated man on a mission. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration, and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early, at age 53.

1950. So long ago. A time of innocence for many young boys like me.


Almost two years have rolled around. It’s the beginning of October and the playoffs are about to begin. Our team is in them. It has been a record-breaking year, so regardless of what comes, we’ll remember 2018.

Vin Scully retired last year. I keep thinking “Maybe we can bring him back, just for this one final set of post-season games … because we need his eloquence.” The world is not running short of baseball commentators, yet I feel we need him.

Depending on how the mid-term elections go, so will go this country. It’s no small thing. It’s possible the future — our future — depends on what happens during the next few weeks. It’s daunting and frightening.

Baseball has been a saving grace for me during this otherwise disgraceful year of political ugliness and international ill-will. Could a World Series win fix this?

Somehow, I doubt it. We need something bigger than a ballpark win this year.

DRIFTING ALONG WITH THE GOOD GUYS – Marilyn Armstrong

DRIFTING ALONG

I am retired which is, by definition, at least a little bit adrift. This is a good thing and the real reason we retire. After a life of deadlines and commuting, some drifting seems like a pretty good idea. So here I am. Just drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweed … with memories of those great cowboy movies of childhood.

Hi Roy! Hi Trigger! Hey, Bullet! Hope y’all are doing well. I miss you. All of you. You were the good guys. We trusted you. Where are you now, when we need you?

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!”