Longtime Alaskan, John Armstrong, passed away Wednesday morning May 27 at the VA hospital in North Carolina two weeks after testing positive for the corona virus. Born October 22, 1947 in Hammond, Indiana, John was the oldest of four brothers. His family moved as often as his parents, both teachers, sough teaching jobs and pursued education degrees in several states, moving so often that John attended 13 different schools before graduating in 1965 from a private school in Florida as class Salutatorian. Despite all the suffering around during his childhood, John had remarkably maintained straight A's throughout, save for a B in math his senior year, and compensated for that glitch by winning the Florida's high school DAR Citizenship award his senior year.
Equipped with that background, the scholar entered Indiana's Valparaiso University in the fall of 1965, enrolling in a premed program. His plan to become a medical doctor was interrupted when the Vietnam War heated up and the US military draft was reinstated. Even though he could have qualified for a student deferment, John felt duty bound to serve his country. He was red-green color blond, a trait that meant rejection by the Army, so he shocked his despairing parents by signing up for the Marine Corps! After basic training in 1966, he was shipped out to Southeast Asia for a year’s tour duty in Vietnam.
Not seeing actual combat until October and November of ’67, he signed up for another year’s tour of duty just before the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, the surprise attack on the South, which turned out to be one of the most important and deadly battles of the entire war. The color blindness that had kept him out of the army turned out to be an asset, enabling him to spot the enemy in the thick jungle foliage both day and night. “They looked orange to me,” he once confided, and his platoon had the advantage of night vision before the goggles were invented. They nicknamed him Amtrak he always walked point, for good reason. Fighting in over a dozen combat missions that year until his tour of duty ended in late October, “in the worst place at the worst times," one Marine corps officer observed, John survived, earning several commendations including the bronze star and three purple hearts. “He’s lucky to be alive,” the same officer remarked, “and should’ve been awarded twice as many purple hearts. This man was a hero.”
The hero came home to a country divided and unappreciative, so he let the war go, as best he could, and moved on. Few, if any, of the people he met after the war knew any of his background. He joined his family in yet another destination, this time Alaska, where he enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks intending to continue with a premed program, but had trouble concentrating and the classes he once passed with ease became more difficult and eventually he abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor.
Alaska was a great fit for the free spirited, fun-loving, exuberant, outgoing ex-Marine with the squat build whose irreverent, edgy sense of humor and outrageous behavior reminded many of SNL’s John Belushi. You either loved him or hated him.
He loved sports, fast cars, history, rock n’ roll music, but most of all he loved the girl he met while attending UAF, a quiet, shy, strikingly beautiful coed who’d grown up in Anchorage, Laura Rankin. Standing several inches taller than the 5’ 6 3/4” John, she and he were an odd-looking couple, yet she saw in him the qualities of hope, caring, loyalty and all-encompassing love that others overlooked. They married in 1974, to the wonderment of many, a marriage that, despite all life’s challenges, of which there were many, endured for 46 years, Laura stayed with him until the end.
The man who had moved constantly throughout his childhood had finally found a place and a reason to settle down. He and Laura purchased 40 acres of land of the Old Nenana Highway just west of Fairbanks and built an A-frame house, while John worked a variety of jobs. At first it was BLM in the summer and driving the school bus, or, rather the special education kids’ van in the winter- the kids loved him, he had a knack for it. He also worked at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital as a lab technician, then took a job as cargo handler for Wien Air Alaska until the company folded, after that becoming an independent truck driver, hauling loads between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Their son, John Samuel Armstrong IV, was born in Fairbanks during that time.
Finding it difficult to raise children on their remote 40 acres, the couple moved to Anchorage, where Laura turned her mother, artist Gloria Rankin’s gallery into a cake shop specializing in made-to-order customized cakes, and John fulfilled his goal to work in medicine, becoming a phlebotomist at the VA Hospital in Anchorage. Their daughter, Ariel, was born in Anchorage and the family began to adjust to the fast-paced life.
In the early 1990’s one of the doctors he worked with noticed John’s little finger shaking when he drew blood for a patient. John had a reputation for his steady hand, and it surprised the physician, who encouraged him to have it examined. The shaking persisted and the condition worsened, spreading to his entire hand. Parkinson’s disease was the diagnosis and it afflicted him for the next 30 years of his life. Medical experts traced its cause to his exposure to agent orange in Vietnam and the Defense Department acknowledged the fact in writing, making John a ward of the armed forces as the disease progressed and his body deteriorated. When Laura was unable to care for him all by herself, he was admitted to the Aston Park Health Care Center in North Carolina, where medical staff specialize in treating Parkinson’s. His condition had stabilized, and he’d been living there for 3 years before being infected with the corona virus. Because of the pandemic, Laura, who was living in an apartment nearby, wasn’t allowed in to see him,
If this writer had been a Marine, and made the sacrifices that a Marine makes, then that person would no doubt say, “Semper Fi, John.”
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