He would arrive like atomic clockwork at Champs West at 11:02 pm, on the dot, every Tues and Thurs when either Monica from Germany or cool Gavra Lynn was tending the helm of the bar driving all the way from the rural backcountry hills of Washington, arriving almost always wearing this cool variation of a Stetson hat and an overcoat, sometimes traipsing in with a cane. He would order a Michelob Amber Bock and sit at the edge of the bar. He would take his hat off in a dignified manner as if showing deference to something lost and fire up a cheap cigar, even though this was well after the indoor smoking ban, even though the bar could get a $200 fine, he was allowed to smoke his cigar inside the dank clover of Champs West since no one was going to give a ticket to an 85 year old gentlemen, a lifelong scholar, a hapless hippophile (which means someone who loves horses, like an anglophile is someone who loves England), a navy veteran of World War Two who signaled the end of the war from his nautical vessel. He would quote poems from memory and once, as a fledgling journalist, interviewed Carl Sandburg. He worked for the Journal Star for almost half a century and was the morning editor of the paper I used to wake up at 4:30 am every morning to rubber band and deliver in the same West Peoria neighborhood where later the we would meet and drink beer. He was avuncular and kind and had bushy eyebrows the gentlest hands I have ever seen. He was a father and grandfather and great-great grandfather and a devout husband for over sixty-five years. He was a man of integrity and a man of faith. He was journalist and a kindred soul and who, every Tues. and Thurs. at exactly 11:02pm I anticipated with gnawing appetite and insatiable vigor sitting next to this raconteur, this man of letters, just to toss back a couple of beers and hear his stories of journalist of old.
His name was John Armstrong.
He was my friend.
I wanted to know more.
I wanted to know what it felt like to be on the cusp of global information in an era predating the ubiquity of 24-7 CNN or God forbid the internet. I wanted to know what it felt like to toil and itch at the bite of a lead; to bangout a story within dripping tics of an apocalyptic deadline. I wanted to feel the newsroom agog in a cumulus if tobacco smoke as the presses halted with the news of Kennedy's assassination, Reagan being shot, the incendiary ballet of the Challenger disintegrating in overhead flares or one world leader telling another world leader to tear down this wall.
I wanted to know what the newsroom felt like the day man's space boot incised tracks on the nearest lunar orb and how the future was, so to speak, here.
But more than anything else there was one writer I wanted to know about. A writer who had been the voice of the working-class asperity of Peoria, Il in down and out Reganomics '80s. A writer who had passed away when I was in fourth grade and who I discovered on my own by sifting through the shelves of the Cullom-Davis Library and coming across a book with the author sharing a forty oz of malt liquor with homeless man wearing a disheveled State Farm cap. The author who was the Raymond Carver of Peoria and championed working class blue-collar ethos in a manner no writer has captured since.
John had been the editor of the late-great Rick Baker.
The 2009 Kentucky Derby was won by Mine That Bird, the horse nobody believed in. The horse was a gelding which in horse terms means that the horse has lost his hung-like-a horsehood ornament so to speak. He entered the Kentucky Derby at 50-1. From the outset of the race the horse foundered and was eight-lengths back. By the time the horses plunged down the backstretch Mine That Bird had fallen so far behind the cataclysmic hoofs of the thundering pack that even the play-by-play announcer failed to see him. Somehow jockey Calvin Borel, skimming the rail, was able to pick up one horse at a time and during the turn final turn exploded into the lead, winning by six lengths, dwarfing his competitors, making the little horse, the long shot of 50-1 the second greatest upset in the 135 year history of the race.
I wanted to know everything about Rick Baker. What sort of beer he drank. What the first drafts of his stories looked like. What bars did he frequent? What he was like as a person. Was he as much of a bad-ass in real life as he was in his writing? After I first discerned the work of Rick Baker I went on a quest to collect all his books (prized copy is an autograph copy of the Rest of Baker's Best) and started buying them in bulk and started giving them to everyone I know. The two STAR journalists (known in the community) ripped him apart when I imparted my new found zeal. They called him an ass hole and a selfish prick and it hurt because no one likes to hear that your mentor was a prick esp. one whose work, thirty years later, remains as fresh as the ink it was typeset on.
More than anything else I wanted to know where Rick Baker was buried. For me, going to his grave and paying my respect and saying thank you was the equivalent of going to Jim Morrison's grave in Pere Lachaise.
John Armstrong knew Rick well. He smiled when I said his name. He said he used to meet Rick for drinks at the HofBrau. He remembered that Rick died during Lent and spoke about the veil of looming sadness draped across the newsroom following his untimely demise. He wasn't able to tell me where (or if) Rick was buried but he seemed please that 'Young people' were reading the work of writers' who had encapsulated the pulse of this town.
Writers' he had edited into both publication and circulation.
Local writers who, under his aegis, had stood the test of time.
John's ritual was, every Tues and Thurs. night, around 10:20 he would care for his wife of 65 years, tuck her in the couch with a blanket. He would then head out from Washington to Champs West arriving almost always at 11:02pm. He was friends with owners Pam and Charlie and had been embarking in his Tues.?Thurs ritual for at this dank West Peoria
He would order two Amber Bocks (sometimes a whiskey). He would always end the night with a toast of E &J brandy. He would smoke cigars. He was generous in his tips. He was friendly. For the wealth of stories he contained he seemed more intent on listening to a random patron who would sit next to him, John almost always initiating the conversation by buying a beer chip and offering a benevolent grin.
I would continue to see him very week. The long haired hippie and the octogenarian drinking beer, smoking cigars, ashing in a coffee cup and chatting incessantly about writers of old.
But we shared another love. A love for the sport of Kings.
A year after I met John I was doing research for a Rick Baker project I had been working on ( I really want to erect a Rick Baker statue outside the public library downtown with the words GIVE 'EM HELL, RICK at the cement stump). I was in Rick's hometown of Leroy, Il and I was looking for places he had alluded to in his writing. I wanted to find the remnants of Baker. I wanted to find the pool hall above where he was purportedly born. I ended up in the cemetery outside of town, with my friend Valena, just walking around thinking that maybe I would saunter into a tombstone with the surname Baker etched in GOTHIC font. Any disciple of work of Rick Baker will remember Baker's escapade to painstakingly discern the identity of Mary Doefour in Mary, Me. I wanted to find where my hero was laid to rest. I wanted to say a prayer at his tombstone and drink a beer in his memory.
I wanted to say thank you.
As I was ambling around the cemetery I encountered two elderly ladies with blue hair and dated perms out power walking. I told them I was looking for the final resting place of the late-great Rick Baker who was originally born in Leroy. They knew the name but didn't think he was buried in the cemetery. One of the blue-permed ladies said that her husband was the caretaker of the cemetery. She phoned him up on her cell phone and within less than five minutes he arrived.
"I know his folks are buried here but I don't think he is," The caretaker, a beefy cheek man assessed, claiming that he seemed like the sort of writer who would have his ashes cremated and shot out of a cannon from a boat on the Peoria river.
The beefy-cheek caretaker talked about his father and his mother. Rick's crazy first wife and his children which he described as, "one good, one not so good."
"If he was buried anywhere in the cemetery he'd be around here," The caretaker said, pointing to an overgrown area in the far west side near where Baker's father was buried. As he walked over the beefy-cheek caretaker kneeled down as if proposing marriage to a wraith. He pulled some weeds and prairie grass from a taupe colored slab. He then stood up with a smile on his face.
Valena and I both kneeled pulling scraps of grass off the site. It was hard to tell if it was an actual grave or just a marker in the family lot. The lettering had faded but you could make out the name Richard W. Baker.
In the center of the marker was an unfurling sheath of parchment and a dancing quill.
Baker was a writer until the day he died.
John was a huge horse racing aficionado. It was the only sport he really followed. John had told me that when he was a kid his prized possession was kind of stamp-book that contained every winner of the Kentucky Derby and every year his eldest daughter would host a derby party and serve mint Juleps. John himself had been to the derby several times and would talk about thoroughbreds from the 50's and 60's as we smoked our cigars and discussed the elusiveness of the triple-crown and how, even after 150 years in an age of records being doped- and shattered in other sports, the times at the Derby and Preakness have remained remarkably consistent. For Christmas one year I found an old article in Sports Illustrated anthology of William Faulkner covering the Kentucky Derby and I gave it to John as a gift.
We would continue to talk about horses and literature and old time Peoria, "Peoria really started going down hill when Jumer's closed. I mean, that's what you did when someone came into town--you took them to Jumer's!!!" I relished our conversations. John would always stay until last call. If it was icy I would escort him out to his car. I have never (to this day) met anyone over 70 with the mental perspicacity of John Armstrong. He had endured heart surgery in the early 90's (which he claimed afterwards, had coerced him into retiring his pipe) but he had everything upstairs. He was how I wanted to be when the inevitable vagaries of time ruffle the countenance of youth: kind, giving, well-read, and cigar friendly.
About two years into our friendship I got one of the biggest breaks in my literary career. I was flown by PEN to perform with writers I admire in a bar in Hollywood for Dirty Laundry Lit. The poems I had been performing at Champs West and ART SHOW and SPEAKEASY and other Midwestern venues would now be performed in front of LA's literati. After years of rejection from the Big Boy periodicals I had finally made a dent in the literary world. When I told my mom she offered a loving "Well, Dave" (mom is not really a fan of my work). When I told fellow writers whom I thought were friends I was exiled from poetry events I helped sculpt and treated with bitterness.
When I told John Armstrong that, after years of rejection I finally got a break he grabbed the side of my arm. He didn't just smile. He told me congratulations.
"You did it Dave." Is what he said.
I came back to the cemetery in Leroy, Illinois a month later, with Valena. I had a 24oz of BUSCH. It was dusk and it was autumn and I found Rick Baker's grave. Valena and myself ripped thatches of earth that had grown over the marker. I bowed my head, chanted a metaphysical Persian mantra before alighting the 24 oz. of BUSCH. I chugged half of it in one gulp and then placed the remainder of the libation on Uncle Rick's grave.
I had shared a beer with the great Rick Baker.
I then did what I came into the cemetery to do.
I looked at his name on the stone and told him thank you.
This is how I heard of the death of the great John Armstrong: I work third shifts and don't sleep but twice a month I have 16 hour sleep binge during which I usually harbor crazy dreams. Last Saturday afternoon, in the thoroughly air-conditioned drone between shifts, I had an eight part dream. The third part of the dream found me racing through the labyrinth of West Peoria on a bike that was not mine. I stopped and I said goodbye to old lovers. I was chased by (seemingly hot) female FBI agents who pulled me over only to wish me good luck. Before I left I stopped at this dapper gay-couples house. As I went in they told me they had two gifts for me. The classy gay man used a giant arm-a-tron and fished behind the couch and handed me a leather briefcase. He then told me my second gift was upstairs.
As I went upstairs I saw John Armstrong. He was in a library. He was smiling. He then handed me two books. The first was Joseph Campbell's WINGS OF ART. The second was David Foster Wallace's INFINITE JEST. He then pointed at the cover.
"I put a new cover on the book just for you." He said, in the dream, with a smile that somehow gleamed.
When Pam and Charlie sold Champs West in June 2013 I lost track of John. My work hours shifted. I went through periods when I was endeavoring to experience sobriety and write about not drinking. The Champs crowd modulated to the Tartan Inn, which is less than two blocks from where I live. John went to he Tartan periodically but he was looking for some place that was cigar friendly to frequent on his Tues. and Thurs. nights jaunts in the beer garden at Jimmy's on Farmington rd.
I wanted to do something nice for John as a Christmas gift. John had told me before that he didn't have a DVD player or e-mail or internet access (he was just from a different generation) so I downloaded as many Kentucky Derby's as I could find off of youtube. I had not seen John in about six months. I was going to set back and smoke cigars with my mentor while watching old Kentucky Derby. I wanted to do something to make John smile.
When I go to to Jimmy's at 11:15 the bar was packed. It was Bradley's mid-semester senior walk and the walk was winding down. The emerald green trolley that is Jimmy's pub was flooded with drunk college students throwing up and making out. I skirted through the bar with laptop in tow. I went to the beer garden. I figured that there would be too many people and John would have refrain from staying. I asked the bar tender over the co-ed fracas and he claimed he had not seen John.
I idled for a few minutes with hopes that he might drive past and we could adjourn to the Tartan where I could show him the videos of the sport he loved.
Sadly he never arrived.
I would never see my friend again.
The next day I told the series of eight dreams to my friend Valena during her lunch break. Her boss used to be co-owner of the Tartan Inn and he asked, since I was walking home, if I could drop some mail off for the current owner. As I walked inside the bar I saw Gavra Lynn. After the dissolution of Champs West she had started tending bar at the Tartan Inn, bringing a great deal of the clientele with her. She gave me a hug and asked me how life was going. She then asked me if I heard about John Armstrong.
I knew exactly what she would say next.
I said the word no three times in a row like a round.
I had dreamed about my friend only the night before.
Writing is a lonely vocation. It is competitive as fuck. At times it is solipsistic, self-indulgent. Make a career out of it and you will, in the immortal words of novelist Richard Powers, "Baffle your friends and family and change the lives of total strangers." Every year, without fail, I hear of someone who is in my profession of poems/literature who commits suicide. Every year, w.out fail, I receive an unbidden missive from an arid academician informing me how disgusting and sick my work is.
Write long enough and you'll make a lot of enemies. Keep on writing and you'll find people in your craft who understand you. Keep on writing after that, keep on pummel out sentences when no one else believes in you and you will sit down at the edge of the neighborhood bar one night and find a mentor, you will find someone who memorized poems in the their late teens and have carried it with them every day of their life . Someone who is well read yet not stuffy. Someone who smiles and who listens and encourages. Someone who has lived such as fascinating and full existence that you just can't help but beckon him for stories.
Keep on doing what you feel compelled to do with the extremely finite and limited breath you have, by some cosmic bacterial evolutionary happenstance been granted to participate in this vaporous smudge of existence deemed reality and you will meet people who embody everything you deem to one day become. John Armstrong not only embodied what it was like to grow old with grace and dignity and live a full life in the literary arts, he embodied what it was to become a man. As a husband he loved and cared for his wife and was married over 65 years. He fathered nine children and(!!!!) close to 100 grand, great-grand and great-great grand children. He kept his faith his entire life. He never stopped learning. He never stopped quoting poems. Never stopped acknowledging the atavistic importance of beer with his brothers.
He never stopped giving.
It won't happen until sometime this autumn but it will happen. Probably in October. I will sneak into Springdale Cemetery near dusk scraping across ruby and cranberry colored leaves. I'll find the thatch of dirt where the earthly remnants of my cigar-chomping mentor is interred. I'll avail a six-pack of Michelob Amber Bock, I'll smoke a cheap Dutch Master cigar. I'll then leave a beer on his grave and tell him thank you.
Then I will go home and watch every Kentucky Derby I downloaded to share with him. I will probably drink a lot of beer and continue to chain-smoke cheap cigars and, at exactly 11:02 go out on my balcony and yell out at harvest moon as loud as I possibly can.
I then will sit down at my writing desk and write as long as I possibly can, draining everything that inside of me, thinking of the late John Armstrong as I pelt the plastic turf of the keys, thinking about, in life, how it costs absolutely nothing to give everything that is left inside of your chest and still have enough left over to smile, smoke a cheap cigar, drink a beer with a total stranger and be kind.
Thank you John.