Sunday, April 09, 2006

Saving JFK

A few years ago I was looking through a junk drawer in the kitchen and I came across an old tie clip—remember those?

This particular one was also a campaign button for a certain politcal candidate named John F. Kennedy.

The round black and white image featured Kennedy’s singular profile, and, if you tilt it a little, it morphs to a slogan that reads “The Man for The 60’s.”

I can just picture my father wearing this tie clip four decades ago. He was never one to keep his feelings secret. My father has always loved the Kennedys. As an Irish Catholic who fought in World War II, it was pretty much mandatory that he love them. And, since we were his children, it was mandatory for us to love the Kennedys as well.

While America's royal family has been scorned, mocked, and ridiculed over the years, my father has always stood by them, like an old soldier standing guard long after the battle is over.

Growing up, we could never say "Kennedy," because if we did, my father would sternly correct us by saying "President Kennedy." And then we had to say it again, using the proper title. Or else.

I've only seen my father cry two or three times in my life, and the very first time occured when we were watching a TV special about JFK. I remember virtually nothing of the show; but I'll never forget seeing my father wiping his eyes as the credits rolled.

He spoke to Kennedy directly, saying something like, "Ah, John..." in a wavering voice. It was a little disturbing for a kid to see his dad cry. I didn't think adults did that sort of thing.

We had our share of Kennedy stories in my family. I remember my dad putting me on his shoulders at a Kennedy rally in Brooklyn--possibly Coney Island. I guess this was during the campaign, before JFK was elected. All I remember was looking out of a vast crowd of people.

My dad said that, in an effort to get closer to JFK, we somehow got caught up in the motorcade, right behind Kennedy's car, but that was so long ago it's only a legend to me, a story that was repeated over the years at family gatherings.

Later, when Bobby Kennedy spoke at a hospital in Brooklyn, my brother got incredibly close to the spot where the candidate was making his address. You could see him behind Bobby, as if my brother were one of the scheduled speakers. It was another story my family would tell for years.

And I saw Ted Kennedy in Times Square, in 1980 or '81. I was on a date and a man was walking a few feet in front of us. I knew it was somebody big because people coming in the opposite direction stopped and stared. He finally turned and we saw who it was, and then he walked into a club with his entourage.

And I blew it. The doorman at the place looked at me and my girlfriend and asked, "Kennedy party?" The guy was seriously asking us if we were part of Teddy's crew. We had a golden opportunity to walk into that place and rub elbows, chew the fat, shoot the breeze with a Kennedy! All I had to do was nod my head and turn left.

So, of course, Joe Numb Nuts here has to go and say, "why, no" and keep walking. Jesus, what a schmuck I was!

Now, granted, we probably would have been discovered in nothing flat and tossed out on our asses, but the story would have had a hell of a lot more punch to it.

Says You

My father never believed all the stories about JFK's sexual escapades--just flat out dismissed them, like a tail gunner shooting down enemy aircraft. You didn't argue about such crap; you just blew it out of the sky.

My siblings and I were indocrinated to love the Kennedys and I was arguing against the Marilyn Monore stories long after any sane person would have.

Gradually I was able to look at JFK's life more independently and I decided, well, he may have had a few flings aside from Jackie, but, hell, he was still a great president.

I'd argue with my father about all the smoke surrounding JFK's not-so-private life and suggested there could be a wee bit of fire to go with the vast haze that covered the sky, but, as a true believer, he would not hear of it.

You could have shown him film of JFK and Marilyn Monroe doing the wild thing in a Las Vegas hotel and it wouldn't have changed his mind. The pair of them could come back from the dead and tell their story themselves, for God sake's, and my father would just shake his head. You could almost envy such devotion.

The same thing with the conspiracy theories: my father wouldn't listen to them. It was Lee Harvey Oswald and no one else. I think he needed to believe that his dear president's killer had been caught and slain, on national television, no less. The idea of shadowy figures conspiring to murder JFK and getting away with it would be too much for him to bear. He needed the Big C--"closure."

"It makes me sick to think a man like John Kennedy could be killed by a slimey little son-of-a-bitch like that," he'd say.

He'd always argue with us, his children, who believed there was more to the story than what the Warren Commission was telling us. The rifle had a telescopic site on it, he'd say. It brings the target right up to you. No way Oswald could have missed. And the timing of the Jack Ruby shooting, it was too random to be planned.

My dad said some Dallas official--the postmaster, I think--wanted to interview Oswald at the last minute before the alleged assassin was going to be transported, and thus, delaying the move.

This, my father said, was proof that Ruby acted alone because no one could have timed the killing so perfectly. Again, it didn't matter what other evidence there was of a conspiracy. My dad had convicted Lee Harvey Oswald and the case was closed for all time in his mind.

I remember years later finding old yellowed copies of The New York Daily News that showed Ruby gunning down Oswald.

Ruby, seen only from behind, seems to be thrusting the weapon right into Oswald's gut, using it like a sword, and Oswald's face is frozen in agony as the bullet penetrates his body. If there is a hell, then this is what Oswald must be going through for eternity, unspeakable agony without the relief of death.

Where Were You?

People of a certain age will ask each other where were you when you heard about JFK's assassination. I was six years old and I remember hearing my mother burst into tears in our kitchen and damning the city of Dallas, as if the town itself had conspired to murder John Kennedy.

There are bits of memories of the funeral, the nation in mourning, and the great sadness around my house and, of course, at our Catholic school. My brother Jim once complained to me--not our father--that he thought he'd go home early after the news of Kennedy's death came out. But the teachers had other plans.

"They took us to church," he angrily told me, "and made us pray for the repose of his soul!"

I remember when the Kenndey half-dollar came out and my father, of course, had to have one. He treasured that coin as if it were the only one in existence, and then one day, he managed to drop the thing through the subway grating outside Our Lady of Angeles Catholic Church in Brooklyn.

This memory is vague, it's like tissue paper; as distant as a ship on the horizon. But it was a crisis in our family and my dad was determined to get his JFK coin back. I suppose it had some magic for him, like a sorcerer's wand or a aboriginal talisman and he would not--could not--let go of his modern saint's relic.

For some reason, we had a bamboo pole in our house--the famed 10-foot-pole that you wouldn't touch things with. I suspect it had something to do with the Cub Scouts, as my brothers and I were all members, and it was used for some kind of faux Indian ritual but I can't be sure.

All I know is that we had one and my father raced home to get it. We all piled into the car and rode down Fourth Avenue with that pole sticking out the back window, as if we were jousting with the cars in the opposite lane.

When we got to the subway grating, we chomped on some wads of Bazooka bubble gum, stuck it to the end of the pole and then my dad slipped it through the grating and tried to get his half-dollar. It was like one of those old arcade games where you move the crane amongst all the crap to get the prize you really want.

I'm happy to say my father's plan worked. He used that gum-bearing pole to retreive his JFK half-dollar and all was right with the world; until the next time, of course.

If he hadn't gotten his coin back, I'm sure he would have ripped off the grating and rappelled down the side of the shaft to get it. He probably would have had the MTA shut down the subways if that's what it took.

My memory of Bobby's death is a little clearer. My mother came into my room early one morning to tell me that Bobby had been shot. I remember going to school--Our Lady of Angels, of course,--and one kid name Phillip was saying Bobby would wind up as a vegetable.

The TV stations ran footage of Bobby's last speech, where he's telling the crowd about going on to another location and "let's win there, too." The Daily News ran this horrible photo of Bobby on the ground, looking up in shock.

We lost Bobby, too. Teddy, well, we know what happened there, and the next Kennedy generation doesn't have the same mythic pull that older crowd did. But perhaps I'm being unfair.

Yes, Camelot was pretty much a figment of our imaginations. I can't defend the castle with the same dedication as my father. I think JFK probably nailed everything in a skirt, probably had his hand in a couple of dirty deals, and I strongly suspect his death was the result of a conspiracy.

But I still feel that old time devotion pulling at me. And, if I speak too much in their defense, what about the Kennedy haters, the drooling psychos who go into the convulsions at the very mention of the name "Kennedy"? Are their opinions any more credible than mine? At least I admit my weakness.

The Kennedys are hardly saints, but, as a friend pointed out recently, at least they tried to give something back; unlike the Bushes who take with both hands and then demand more.

I finally wised up and stopped arguing with my dad about JFK. If he needed to think this man was some kind of supreme being, fine. If he needed to believe the killer had been caught and exterminated, there's no harm in it.

My father is so old and frail now it's hard to believe I ever sat on his shoulders. But if you say anything nasty about JFK in his presence, and he's able to hear you, my advice to you is to start running and don't look back because he'll be right behind you.

I'm going to keep that Kennedy tie clip in a safe place. I'm going to preserve it like a soldier's medal, because in many ways, that's just what it is.


Babsbitchin said...

OMG Rob, what a good story. We/He needed something to believe in and that kind of patriotic loyalty is so rare, rare indeed.The Kennedy's were Camalot and still are in my eyes. Just as I saw my own father, who I adored, was not infallable, so too was JFK. He was human but real. Your Father, God Bless him, is a rare and dieing breed, when men were men and hard work was what a man did. A time when men took pride in their work and their was no shame in dirty hands, the result of an honest days labor. I salute your father, let him have HIS truth, just as you have. You and I both know there was a conspiracy, I personally spoke to Dr.Cyril Wecht and as far as I'm concerned his book was the truth. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that YOU can see and adhere to some of your Father's same traits, I see it every day. He did a good job as a Father and again, I salute him!

Rob K said...

Barbara, thanks so much for your comments. Looking back, I wished I had wised up sooner and quit arguing with my dad about the whole JFK thing.

Some arguments can be never be won--and thus should best be forgotten.

As far as having my father's good traits, I can only hope you're right.

Take care.

Charlotte said...

Interesting. I was in Catholic school too, when it happened, and they just let us out at the usual time, I think; but then the announcement came late in the school day anyway.
You might be interested in the book, "JFK and the Unspeakable: why he died and why it matters," by James Douglas. It's by far and away the best book on the subject as far as showing JFK's evolution as president and person, some of the malevolent personnages of the day that were far worse than JFK, and concentrating on the "serious stuff" most of his biographers neglect. By serious stuff I mean aspects of his psychology and the genuine desire he had for the betterment of the country and its citizens. You think the current crop of candidates give a damn? You might even say the Douglas book looks at JFK's "spiritual" side. Yes, he seems to have had one.
Also--your observation of the psycho Kennedy haters is spot on. They are really weird, so much so that I don't wonder they could make stuff up even when they don't have to. It happens.