At the age of 19, my mother married a 34-year-old doctor named Abraham. Her father’s name was also Abraham so her husband became known by his initials, A.O.

She and A.O. decided to honeymoon in Russia so Mom could meet her mother’s sister and the rest of the family who had never moved to America. It was 1936. They took an ocean liner, the elegant ‘Normandie’, to France and took a train through Europe to Russia. The train had to go through Nazi Germany to get to Russia. At the time, Jews traveling in Europe were already getting nervous.

Mom and her first husband, A.O.

At one of the stops just before entering Germany, A.O. decided to get off the train and get sandwiches for himself and his bride. It took longer than expected and as he came back out onto the tracks, holding the sandwiches, the train was just pulling out of the station. He had both of their ‘papers’ with him. So Mom was now entering Nazi Germany alone, with no papers!

The Nazi officers got on at the next stop and started questioning everyone. Mom and A.O. had struck up a conversation with another passenger, who was German or Austrian. Mom found him and told him her predicament. She was panicked, needless to say and he agreed to help her out.

When the German officers got to Mom, she and the good Samaritan tried to explain her situation. Husband with papers, getting sandwiches, missed train, etc. The Germans insisted on searching Mom’s luggage, which she happily agreed to. While they were still talking, quite tensely, there was a commotion outside the train. Mom stuck her head out the window and saw an incredible sight. There was a railroad hand car, pulling up behind the train, carrying a train employee and A.O., still holding the sandwiches!

Old fashioned railroad hand car

A.O., who spoke German, had been able to get someone at the train station to help him rescue his young bride in the only way available to them. It was a daring and a timely rescue. A.O. got back on the train, produced their papers and the German’s left, confused perhaps, but satisfied.

That’s not quite the end of the story. A.O. later told Mom that, unbeknownst to her, he had been smuggling information, in his suitcase, for the Russian government! He was a member of the Communist Party and he was acting as a courier between the party in the U.S. and Russia. Needless to say, if the Germans had found A.O’s hidden documents, I would not have been born.

Mom and A.O.

Mom was furious at A.O. for putting her in a potentially dangerous situation. He should never have agreed to carry ‘spy’ documents on his honeymoon and exposed Mom to such jeopardy.

I always loved this story though because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever been to a real life cloak and dagger drama. Cue the credits and the spy movie music!


My mother was not a regular kind of mom. This confused me a lot while I was growing up. Other mothers made cookies, kissed boo-boos. Hung out with the other mothers in summertime. Swapped recipes. Watched soap operas.

July 1963

My mother didn’t bake anything, much less cookies. She was a terrible cook because she hated it. She was an unenthusiastic housekeeper and the whole “huggy kissy” mothering thing eluded her. She didn’t watch soap operas, loved the Marx Brothers and MGM musicals. She never graduated high school She read voraciously and constantly. Especially about science and space. She was fascinated by quarks, black holes, and antimatter.

She never kissed a boo-boo; I don’t remember her kissing me at all. She wasn’t that kind of mom.


She had no interest in gossip, recipes, or cute stories about anyone’s kids. She wanted to talk about politics or the space program and which nations were so hopeless they needed a complete redo, from scorched earth up (she had a list). I think if she were still alive, she’d probably add the U.S. to her list.

She enjoyed talking to me about being young when FDR became president. How, when the National Recovery Act was passed, there was a spontaneous parade in New York that lasted 24 hours. Ticker tape and all. How the government had surplus crops during the worst years of the depression, and government agents took the extra food, dumped it in vacant lots and put poison on it so no one could eat it. Even though people were starving.

I thought she was just paranoid, but recent events have made me change that opinion.

She didn’t trust government, was sure they were spying on us. Positive J. Edgar Hoover was out to get us. He had a long list — and we were on it. She was in favor of equal rights for everyone, everywhere. Pro-abortion, birth control, gay marriage, putting wheat germ in everything (yuk) and natural medicine when no one seemed to have heard of it. She wanted all religion out of schools and government.

She was in favor of the death penalty. She felt there were people who should be taken out and shot. No long terms in prison (too expensive). No decades of appeals. One well-placed bullet in the brain and justice would be served.

That was my mom.

She gave me Knut Hamsen to read and a grand piano for my 14th birthday as well as appropriately anatomical books about sex. She figured I needed accurate information so I could make informed decisions.

She hummed most of the time, sang the rest of the time. She got the words wrong all the time. She read me poetry when I was small and treated me like an adult. She was a grimly determined atheist and would eagerly debunk any hint of religious belief should I be foolish enough to express them. But she made sure my brother had his Bar Mitzvah and never ate pork. Tradition.

She was the most cynical person I’ve known. I was always sure she was wrong, that people were better than that. I can’t even imagine what she would say about the way the world is turning out. I expect she would feel vindicated because on some level, this is exactly what she expected. She did not believe in the goodness of human beings or that god would step in to rescue us. With all my heart, I wanted her to be wrong.

So here I am. Nearly as old as my mother was when she left this earth. I think my mother would like this version of me. I think she always liked me, possibly more than I liked myself. It just took me a long time to “get” her.

I’m very glad she isn’t here to see how the world has changed.


Seventy years ago today! I can see it clearly as yesterday even though I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday.

June 14th, 1947.

Harry Truman was President. Jackie Robinson had just broken Major League baseball’s color line. “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was a controversial new movie. In Jamaica, Queens, New York, P.S. 116 students were itching for the school year to end. The kindergarten class was distracted by music that filtered from other rooms as 6th graders practiced for graduation.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Mrs Hartley’s kindergarten class was trying to focus on a boring history lecture. This was a special day,  Mrs. Hartley told the class.  Why, she asked.  A few hands shot up. The shortest kid in the class, the one in the first row in a starched white shirt and pressed short pants raised both hands.  Mrs. Hartley looked around and then pointed to the little kid.

“Garry, why is this day special?”  Mrs. Hartley had mixed feelings about Garry who seemed bright but had issues. Earlier that year, She had to give Garry an F on his report card because he couldn’t properly buckle his galoshes or button his overcoat. Yes, I already carried a burden but was ready to seize this moment. I looked firmly at Mrs. Hartley, sure of the answer about the significance of the day.


“Today is my Mommy’s birthday!!” I remember Mrs. Hartley looking  briefly confused before sternly answering me.

“Garry, today is Flag Day! An important day to celebrate our country’s history!!”

I answered quickly, “Maybe. But it’s my MOMMY’S birthday.”  We locked eyes as I sat down.  I could hear the other kids giggling as Mrs. Hartley stared at me. The bell rang and the class scattered quickly. Mrs. Hartley gave me “the look” as I skipped by a couple of the taller kids and out the door.

When I got home, I told Mom the story. She smiled and kissed me on the cheek. I was surprised because I thought she might be angry because I had “sassed” the teacher. No, not this time.

Sure, June 14th is Flag Day. But for me, it will always be my Mom’s birthday. Esther Letticia Armstrong would be celebrating her 100th birthday today if she hadn’t been called home 10 years ago. She lives on with her legacy : three sons. Anton, Billy, and Yours Truly.

I’ve written about Mom before. Days of my youth when Mom forged and nurtured my love of books, music, and movies. Our family library was full and varied. I remember reading Eric Sevareid’s “Not So Wild A Dream” when I was still in grade school. Mom made sure we listened to radio newscasts every day. Murrow, Sevareid, Gabriel Heater, Lowell Thomas and many other icons were familiar voices in our household. I didn’t know it then, but my career as a TV (and radio) news reporter was already mentally seeded.

1945 – Garry’s mom and dad … and Garry, too

Mom was a very forthright person. She didn’t suffer fools. She set the bar high for her sons and didn’t accept lame excuses for procrastination, mediocre school work, or social gaffes.  I was encouraged to pursue my dreams even if Mom didn’t always agree with some of my choices.

Through the years, I have snap shot memories of Mom and her wonderful voice, singing the “standards” that I’ve always loved. We would duet on Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Huesen and the hits of Sinatra, Crosby, Doris Day, Nat Cole. We shadow danced to big band music. Mom was graceful. I was not. Marilyn and my wedding song, “For Sentimental Reasons” had been a staple in the Armstrong house through the decades.

When I leaf through the photo albums and see pictures of Mom and Dad, I have a tinge of sadness because I didn’t know them when they were young, full of life and love, and part of the greatest generation in so many ways we cannot appreciate. I’m not sure how Mom would deal with our current political landscape. As I said earlier, she didn’t suffer fools.

I’m sure Mom is celebrating today, singing in  her beautiful voice and everyone is laughing, having the time of their lives.

Happy Birthday, Mom!! 100 years old and counting.


Mom1973-3Today would have been my mother’s 106th birthday, making it the 33rd anniversary of her passing.

This is one of the silly songs she sang. I can’t hear it ever without thinking of her, singing as she worked or painted or sewed. With a dish towel slung over her shoulder and her eyeglasses pushed to the top of her head. Mom, I still miss you.

On the television, they were forming a magic circle and chanting in strange tongues. “Chickery chick, cha la, cha …” I answered. It made as much sense as whatever those actors were saying.

And Garry said “What?”

I responded with “In a bananika bollika, wollika.”

He still looked blank. I couldn’t believe he didn’t recognize this musical gem, so brilliant that although I cannot remember where I left my coffee, I can still remember all the meaningless syllables that almost resemble words to this catchy little ditty.

For all you nonsense-deprived people for whom the world is too serious a place, let me offer you this mildly amusing World War II era classic. My mother sang this as she (reluctantly) did (as little as she could get away with) housework.

She could never properly remember the words to any song … but she remembered the words to this one. Maybe because they aren’t real words?

This is obviously the recording of a scratchy, old 78 RPM record. Many people recorded this song, but I could not find any versions of it with better audio. Maybe you’ll have more luck than me.


(Written by: Sidney Lippman / Sylvia Dee)

Recorded by: 
Sammy Kaye & His Orch.(vocals: Nancy Norman & Billy Williams) – 1945
Gene Krupa & His Orch. (vocal: Buddy Stewart) – 1945
George Olsen & His Orch. (vocals: Judith Blair & Ray Adams) – 1945
Evelyn Knight & The Three Jesters – 1945
Frank Sinatra (Radio Transcription) – 1946

Once there lived a chicken who would say
“Chick-chick, chick-chick” all day
Soon that chick got sick and tired of just “chick-chick”
So one morning he started to say

Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey, in a bananika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see?
Chickery chick is me.

Every time you’re sick and tired of just the same old thing
Sayin’ just the same old words all day
Be just like the chicken who found something new to sing
Open up your mouth and start to say

Oh! Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey, in a bananika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see?
Chickery chick is me.


Today is Flag Day for those of a certain age. But in my family, it’s Esther Armstrong’s birthday. Mom has been gone nine years now.

Gone but not forgotten.

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Painting by Judi Bartnicki

Esther Letticia Armstrong was a special woman. Wife of William Benfield Armstrong. Mother of Garry, Bill, and Anton Armstrong. I get top billing because I’m the oldest. Mom and Dad were married 61 years until Dad left us in 2002. They were a handsome couple!

I called my parents Mommy and Daddy for most of my life and it always seemed natural. Even when I was a veteran TV news reporter with decades of experience it seemed natural.

One evening I was preparing to do a live news report in the TV studio. It was the lead story. A big deal. Breaking news! My thoughts were interrupted by a colleague who said I had a phone call. No way. Put it on hold. Garry, it’s your MOTHER!  The newsroom grew silent.

I took the call. The story waited.

75-WEDDING-Garry's Parents

My Mom was a force of nature. I had no sisters, so I learned to do household chores early in life. Whenever I objected, Mom stopped me dead in my tracks with a strong, clear voice. Baseball and other critical things were secondary no matter how strongly I felt about my manhood.

My Mother was always supportive of learning and creativity. We always had books and records. Lots of them. I read books that I wouldn’t fully understand for years. But somehow I felt comfortable with Eric Sevareid’s So Well Remembered.

Decades later, Mr. Sevareid was impressed by my adolescent tackling of his book. The books and music fired my imagination. Mom would smile when I played big band music or vocals by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Sometimes she would sway in time with the music as if remembering a time when she was dancing.



I was Mom’s favorite movie date. Dad was usually tired. He often worked two jobs and just wanted to rest. So Mom and I went to the movies. Often three times a week. Yes, that’s how my love affair with movies was born and nurtured.

Mom seemed like a different person during our movie dates. She smiled and laughed. Those were the days of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Kelly and other legends who were still in their prime on the big screen. I remember Mom giggling when we scored big on dish and glass night events at our local movie theater.

I know we tend to look back on our youth with rose-colored glasses. It’s normal. But there were lots of good times.

So, today as I remember Esther Armstrong’s birthday, I wish I could crank up my hearing aids and hear it again …

Garry, your Mother is calling you!


I was a reader as a little kid and I read all the time. I was voracious and pretty much devoured books, as many as a dozen a week. My mother firmly believed in letting me read everything, without any kind of censoring. And so, once she had a near-to-violent confrontation with a local librarian who had refused to let me read stuff that wasn’t in the “children’s” section of the library. I was 9 or 10 and the librarian had placed the adult section “off-limits” to me.

Mom1973-3I remember my mother standing there, furious (she didn’t get mad much or often) yelling (she didn’t yell, either): “YOU WILL LET MY DAUGHTER READ ANYTHING SHE LIKES. YOU WILL NOT CENSOR MY DAUGHTER! SHE’S SMARTER THAN YOU ANYWAY. HOW DARE YOU!” Amazingly, it worked. She was definitely physically more imposing when she was enraged.

Now, about “Epitome.” I had read the word in books, but I had never heard it in a sentence, so when I finally used it, I call it eppy-tome. It was a conversation stopper as everyone tried to decipher what it was I was trying to say.

epitome defFinally, someone said “Ah. You must mean epitome.” And so I learned that the emphasis is on the “pit” rather than the “tome.”

I also called Tucson, Arizona “Tuckson.” Another case of not connecting the pronounced name “TOO-sahn” with the printed Tucson. Now you can look everything up, including pronunciation, on the internet, bu we didn’t have an internet. And anyway, if you don’t know you’re pronouncing it wrong in your head, why would you look it up?

You know I’m right.