HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM! – GARRY ARMSTRONG

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.

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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.

1988

1988

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!

BATTLING CATERPILLARS WHILE REMEMBERING THE DUKE – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I was in the middle of shares about our battle with a gypsy moth caterpillar invasion. It’s awful! And, I’m still filled with welts and bites from a confrontation with the caterpillars two days ago. What to do??

Then, I noticed a message from my friend John Wayne Hawthorne. A reminder that the Duke, John Wayne, passed into legend 37 years ago yesterday.

books and the duke

My pal, “JW”, first consoled me about my battles with the caterpillars and warned me to be careful. I was grateful for the sympathy and support because battling caterpillars doesn’t seem very heroic. Then we talked about our hero. The conversation allowed me to mentally time travel back to 1974 when I met Duke Wayne. I’ve told the story a zillion times but it’s nice to retell on this day of the bugs invasion.

John Wayne was here for a visit to Harvard. It was still a time of unrest about the Vietnam War. Duke was unpopular with the liberal Cambridge crowd because of his hawk stance on Vietnam. Wayne and his entourage were pelted with snowballs as he approached Harvard Square. It was pandemonium.

I called in some chits and managed to get Duke to meet me and my crew inside a small theater.

Lights were turned on to brighten the empty stage. I eyed Duke at one end of the stage and mumbled nervously to my cameraman. Jim, my “shooter”,  whispered for me to stop acting like a wimp and just walk to center stage. I walked towards my mark and noticed Duke in that familiar rolling gait ambling towards me. He waved and smiled.

“Garry”, he said loudly, “Good to see ya, again”.

I gulped and heard myself say, “Good to see you again, Duke”.

The rest was surreal. The interview went well and wound up with the obligatory cutaway and setup shots. Duke waved as he walked away saying, “Great seeing you, again, Garry”. I swallowed hard, then waved. I recall mentioning to Duke that I’d enlisted in the Marine Corps back in 1959. He seemed impressed. Maybe that got me some points. I’m not sure.

I’d see Wayne later again at a mass interview and he singled me out as a Gyrene, offering a wave and a salute. I savored that moment.

john wayne the duke

If Duke were around today, maybe he would round-up Ben Johnson, Harry Carey, Jr, Ward Bond and some of the other fellas and we’d run these damn gypsy moth caterpillars out of town. Hell, maybe even Liberty Valance might throw in with us.

We wouldn’t burn any daylight with these critters.

No sir, sure as the turnin’ of the earth.

MILLION-DOLLAR MEMORIES

Garry and I both grew up in New York in the 1950s. That was before cable. It even proceeded UHF. Television was black and white. We had seven channels: 2 (CBS), 4 (NBC), and 7 (ABC), the network flagship stations. They remain the network flagship stations and of course, New York’s network affiliates.

Also playing was channel 5 (Dumont) which showed lots of old movies and channel 13. Today, 13 is PBS, but then, it was stuff so bad no one else would run it. Johnny Mack Brown westerns. Movies John Wayne wished he could forget having made.

Then, there was channel 9 (WOR RKO-General). It was the premium rerun and old monster movie channel along with channel 11 (WPIX). But channel 9 won my heart because it had Million Dollar Movie.

Ah, the memories. You could say the Million Dollar Movie was an educational channel, if you consider movies educational. Which I do. Old movies, all in black and white because television was all black and white. I was, later in life, surprised to discover how many of these movies are actually in color. Who knew?

My mother did not allow my brother and I to watch television on school nights. Nor were we allowed to watch television during the day, even on weekends. She believed in fresh air, sports, and reading. What it really meant was I had to go to a friend’s house to catch the Saturday morning cartoons and great shows like “My Friend Flicka.”

Eventually, TV won and we all watched whenever and whatever we liked, but that was years in the future. Even early on, there were exceptions to the rules. The main exception was if we were home sick from school, we got to watch television all day. Upstairs in my parent’s bedroom … and out of my mother’s hair.

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That was when Million Dollar Movie came into its own. They showed one movie a week, but they showed it all day until midnight. For seven days in a row. The theme for Million Dollar Movie was the Tara’s Theme from Gone With the Wind. The first time I saw Gone With the Wind, I practically leapt from my seat shouting “Hey, that’s the Million Dollar Movie theme.”

I got tonsillitis with boring regularity and it came with a full week at home. Antibiotics and whatever was showing on (you guessed it) Million Dollar Movie. Which is how come I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy several hundred times. My bouts of tonsillitis coincided with their showings of Jimmy Cagney’s finest performance.

I didn’t know he made any other movies until I was an adult. That was when I discovered he had played gangsters. I was surprised. I thought all he did was dance and sing.

Why am I writing about this? Because we are watching Yankee Doodle Dandy. After all these years, I can still sing along with every song, know every dance move, and each piece of dialogue. Remarkably, unlike so many other movies, it has remained black and white.

Does anyone know why the movie is in black and white? It screams for color. Just saying.

YOU WILL NEVER ESCAPE YOUR PERMANENT RECORD

While binge watching Star Trek: Next Generation, Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) disobeyed a direct order given by Captain Stewart, er, I mean, Jean-Luc Picard. Although he survived his misadventure — barely, I might add — Picard told Geordi that regretfully, he was going to have to “put this incident on your permanent record!”

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Oh my god! His permanent record. Even in Star Fleet, you cannot escape your permanent record. It’s four hundred years in the future and they still have that record.

Back in our golden olden days, the thing that was held over our heads — the most serious threat any school official could make  — was that whatever dreadful thing we’d done would go on our permanent record. From elementary school through our working years, we were warned our permanent record would follow us. Marks against us might even (gasp!) prevent us from getting into college at all. In which case we knew we might as well die on the spot. If you didn’t go to college, you would never have a decent job or find someone to love. And you definitely would not go to heaven.

I knew that right into the marrow of my bones. Didn’t you?

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The Permanent Record is (was) (will be) The Rock of Ages. Huge, unchanging.

No matter what else we do with our lives, everyone will know about our misdeeds. All they have to do is check the record. They’ll know I sassed my twelfth grade social studies teacher (he deserved it or worse) in May 1963. That Garry ran over his allotted time reporting a news event in Boston and was not even repentant when confronted with his foul deed! The evil that we do will be revealed.

You might want to see Lamont Cranston, because the Shadow Knows.

So, here’s the deal. Now and forever, every one of us has a permanent record in which all our misbehavior is cataloged. I know because I’ve been told. I’m not sure who has custody of these records, however. As far as I can tell, everyone on the planet has one, so there must be a gigantic storage unit somewhere, where everything is filed. That’s a lot of records to keep.

But they aren’t being stored around here. I’d have noticed a building that big.

permanent-record-file

I expect when we die, if there actually are Pearly Gates and a gatekeeper who decides if we can enter, he will be clutching a copy of our permanent record in one angelic hand. That’s right. You talked back to your teacher in fifth grade, cut school in high school. Told a professor the dog ate your final paper in college. Now, you won’t go to Heaven.

Sorry buddy. Your permanent record just caught up with you.

MASKED MAN

Who was that masked man? He left this silver bullet.


The-Lone-Ranger-Original

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again! … With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early west! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! The Lone Ranger rides again!”

In this day of superheroes, I want my masked man back. And his horse. And his faithful companion.

I grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto racing around my bedroom. Until I got the wallpaper, I was sure he was the Long Ranger … as in “he rode a lot and covered great distances.”

Other girls had Fairies and Princesses, but I had “Hi Yo Silver, the Lone Ranger Rides Again!” Although my walls did not play music, I could hum well enough and I had many a long chat with Lone and Tonto, Silver and Scout as I lay abed in the evening pondering the meaning of life and how I could convince my mother to let me have a horse.

Come back, Masked Man! More than ever, I need you now!

JACKIE ROBINSON DAY – EPILOGUE – Garry Armstrong

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Twilight was frosty at Fenway Park on Friday, April 15th. Income tax deadline day for some, JACKIE ROBINSON DAY for those of us who jammed the baseball shrine in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Pilgrims and Players, everyone wore number 42 in tribute to the man who broke baseball’s racial barrier and stirred a nation’s conscience 69 years ago, with World War Two still casting a long shadow.

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Grantland Rice’s archaic litany, “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s how you play the game”, echoed silently as a winter’s night chilled the crowd. Arch rivals, Boston and Toronto, displayed respect instead of animosity. Batters picked up the catcher’s mask in flashes of sportsmanship rarely seen these days.

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Big Papi stole second base, likely to be his only stolen base of the year and sent the crowd into a frenzy. The pilgrims erupted with joy and players on both teams broke into smiles and laughter.

An image of the young Jackie Robinson split the jumbo screen with a replay of Big Papi’s theft of second.

The message was clear.

For one night, 2016 Boston was 1950’s Brooklyn. You could almost hear Vin Scully’s poetic calls of the plays by Jackie Robinson and the other fabled Boys of Summer.

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It was parka and gloves weather as the game wound down but few left the ball park. Eventually, the Red Sox prevailed over the Blue Jays.

The crowd slowly filed out, songs filled the night. “Sweet Caroline” mixed in with “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” The image of Jackie Robinson in his prime filled a neon billboard. A night to remember.

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See: VIN SCULLY, JACKIE ROBINSON AND A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – BY GARRY ARMSTRONG for the rest of the story.

VIN SCULLY, JACKIE ROBINSON AND A LOSS OF INNOCENCE – by GARRY ARMSTRONG

A friend is taking me to a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park today. It’s the middle of April but the weather still has a Norman Bates quality. So, I’ll layer up, topped off with my retro Brooklyn Dodgers tee-shirt and hope for the best. It’s Jackie Robinson day in the Major leagues and everyone is wearing the fabled #42.

red sox 42 jackie robinson day

April 15, 2016 – Fenway Park

April marks the beginning of the new baseball season where hope springs eternal for all teams. The haves and have-nots. It’s also the time we open the cookie jar of old memories, mentally racing around the bases to those days when we 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 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 team-mate of Jackie Robinson, Peewee Reese and Duke Snider. I’d wear Dodger Blue with pride, I promised myself.

Vin Scully’s word portraits of the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers often seemed at odds with the tabloid accounts of the New York Daily News and Daily Mirror. Their sports sections only talked about the games, the heroes and the goats. I only glanced at the front pages, boring stuff about politics and social upheaval.

I thought it would be wonderful if they played baseball all year round and the stories would always be about the Bums and those dreaded New York Yankees. Heck, it would be 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.

Years later, opportunity opened the door to several meetings with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and other fabled Boys of Summer. Campy was always 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 often 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.”

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Robinson would turn to me, his eyes blazing and 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 a very complicated man on a mission.

This week, PBS is running Ken Burns’ two part portrait of Jackie Robinson. It goes beyond myth and legend to examine Robinson, the man. The man from Cairo, Georgia was so much more than the athlete who broke baseball’s racial barrier. The inner turmoil, anger, frustration and multiple health issues took Robinson from us way too early at age 53.

This week, Vin Scully is also being honored as he begins his 67th and final year as the voice of the Dodgers. Scully, at 88 and counting, still sounds like that young story-teller I listened to in 1950.

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