Days That Changed America Forever
By Pat Fenton
They brought a busload of us up from the 537th M.P. Company in Mannheim where I was stationed, to add to the security. This was in June of 1963, and President Kennedy was on his way to Berlin, where the next day he would deliver one of his most famous speeches. That was 50 years ago. As the character Emily in Thornton Wilder’s OurTown said, “It goes so fast.”
It was a beautiful, clear summer morning in June, good to be young then. And as I watched his motorcade head toward me at the crowd control post I was assigned to, a surreal mood filled the air. Every ten feet there were Military Police officers standing in front of a roped off area. As it reached where I was standing, it stopped and he got out to shake the hands of some of the Military Police. I came to attention and saluted him. Looking straight at me, he snapped back a perfect salute. I later found out that he was sitting in the same Lincoln Convertible that he would ride in through Dallas.
In July, a troop ship took me back home to Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn where I was discharged. I still remember the innocence of that time, long gone now. As I walked through my neighborhood, with my duffel bag on my shoulder, people sitting on stoops looked up at my army uniform and waved, some even saluted.
What we were also watching was the loss of a more innocent time in America that would never come again. And as we looked up at it, we drank glasses of tap beer, and shots of rye whisky in an effort to ease the sadness. And it gave us comfort to be together as we watched something historic that we didn’t fully understand. It was at a time when there was only about 12 channels to choose from on television, and the most popular shows were “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” and “American Bandstand.”
We could see President Harry Truman, old now, standing in the drizzling rain as it fell softly onto the cold ground of Arlington Cemetery. And next to him, President Dwight Eisenhower. And there was the tall figure of French President Charles De Gaulle, and President Eamon de Valera from Ireland, all of them part of a sad, historic tableau now.
And we all watched it together for three, long, silent nights. At a time before cell phones, e-mail,Twitter, I Pads, before Face Book was invented, Brooklyn had come to a pause, music had stopped on most radio stations, except for classical music that some played in respect. A silence had set in across the boroughs of New York.
And people were lost in the silence together, face to face, and they would never forget it. Something was ending, and afterwards television would never again seem like the fun it once was when we were young and watching Milton Berle on a Tuesday night in the 50s.
I suppose the man who knew that America had lost its innocence forever when President John Kennedy was assassinated, was the gravedigger who dug his grave, Clifton Pollard. He later told Jimmy Breslin that he was busy digging other graves in Arlington Cemetery on the day of the president’s funeral, but he decided to stop and go over to see the grave he dug the day before, and to see if he could get a glimpse of the funeral ceremony going on.
A soldier stopped him before he got there and told him that it was too crowded. But he came back later after everyone had left the cemetery, and standing alone at President John F. Kennedy’s grave, the newly lit eternal flame blowing in the wind, he had to know that America had changed forever. And, I’m sure, Breslin did too.
I write a lot about my time spent in the boys school yard on Howard Place but don’t forget about the girls yard.
We hung out a lot in the girls school yard which was located on ninth avenue, across the street from my apartment. We did everything in there besides play basketball; there were no hoop courts, just a ton of space and black tar.
Baseball was my second favorite sport behind basketball and when we couldn’t play baseball we’d play stickball. We played against the red brick school wall where we had three strike zones chalked and colored in.
There were three pitching mounds approximately 30, maybe 40 yards away. You had one, sometimes two outfielders behind the pitcher. Most times if the yard was empty, you used the middle strike zone. You played balls and strikes and just like major league baseball you got four balls, three strikes and three outs. If the batter ‘took’ a pitch, and it landed in the strike zone, it would be a strike; outside the chalked box, it was a ball. If there was ever a discrepancy as to whether the pitch was in the box or not, all you had to do was show the batter the Spalding ball with the chalk mark. Here’s what a typical conversation sounded like when there was a controversial pitch.
Pitcher: “That was a strike.”
Batter: “Get the fuck outta here, that was a ball.”
If the pink ball had chalk on it, it was a strike.
When the batter made contact with the ball, you played automatics. A ground ball back up the middle could be caught by the fielder for an out. If it got past them, or they dropped it, it was a single. Over the fence and onto 9th avenue before the double yellow line in the street, was a double. If it hit the sidewalk across the street it was a triple. And for the big one, the all-elusive Home Run, you had to hit it over the store signs! There was the Bob’s Hardware Store, Nat’s Dry Cleaners, United Meat Market, Key Food and The Hallmark card shop signs.
One day we had outfielders on the sidewalk in front of the stores trying to catch line drives and fly balls. The shoppers on the avenue had to duck for cover whenever a power hitter came up to bat. It wasn’t often I got the ball out of the yard; I was more of a singles-double guy. We gave no thought to the cars and the buses going by on the avenue either.
No such thing as ‘play safe’ in our time.
The foul poles were the sides of the rectory and convent. If you hit either building, it was ruled foul.
The power guys would hit blasts over the roofs. This would be my cue to head home, up to my apartment, out my kitchen window, climb the fire escape onto the roof and track down the ball.
During the summer, I’d rack up a lot of spaldeen’s.
We argued during games, laugh at guys who struck out, and went at each other like it was game seven of the World Series.
On the mound when we were pitching we emulated major league pitching stars like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Luis Tiant or if you were a southpaw, you thought you were Jon Matlack.
At the plate with the stick in your hands you were Pete Rose, John Milner, Joe Morgan, Cleon Jones or Ed Kranepool. We watched the players on TV or looked at their baseball card and imitated their batting stance.
Out on the field you went after ground balls like Wayne Garrett at 3rd base or Dave Conception at shortstop.
In the outfield you chased down fly balls like Tommie Agee, Cesear Cedeno or Willie Mayes.
To conclude, we had a lot of fun in the girls schoolyard.
I’ll leave the nighttime activities in the yard for another blog entry…
New York Times and Mallory Hagan, Miss America 2013. She lived on 17th street for a minute.
Hagen has an interesting comment:
“I almost feel bad for people who are born and raised here because you’ll never understand how the outsider feels about New York City. People look at this place as a dream machine, as an opportunity to escape whatever their current reality is. They look at it like it’s magical. But people look at this place and dream about coming here. And people who have grown up here will never understand what that feels like.”
There is also mention of E.B. White’s Essay from 1949 “Here Is New York.” I’m going to try and track it down.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I’m a Bay Ridge girl, born and bred in Brooklyn. I was born at a hospital called Brooklyn Doctors which isn’t there anymore but I believe it was located at 45th Street and 15th Avenue. I grew up in Bay Ridge, on Gelston Avenue, and went to St. Patrick’s. For high school, I “escaped” Catholic school and attended Fort Hamilton, where I had great teachers who encouraged my love of writing. I was a shy kid who could write much better than I could talk and that’s how it all started. I’m also grateful to Mildred McVay, my third grade teacher at St. Pat’s, who instilled in me of a love of reading. (I thank her in the “Acknowledgements” section of THE EL.) I set a number of scenes in the book in places familiar to me growing up–a noteworthy accident takes place on the corner of Gelston, for example.
In Chapter 24, a scene in your book takes place in Farrell’s. What was the reason for using Farrell’s?
I’ve lived in Windsor Terrace since 1994, just a couple of blocks away from Farrell’s. Even though I’m not much of a beer drinker, I’ve always loved the sense of camaraderie of Farrell’s. People celebrate there, mourn there, get jobs there…I’ve never seen another place like it. So, when I needed a place for a clandestine family pow-wow, the back tables of Farrell’s seemed perfect. The characters lived in Borough Park and in a sense, Farrell’s was a world away for them. Few people knew them there, so they could speak frankly, plot and bond. I even put Houlie into the scene (but changed his first name) even though he probably wasn’t even born yet. I wanted to pay homage to Farrell’s, to its spirit, and it seemed to fit perfectly into the plot. I hope it worked!
If you can sit down tonight and have dinner with any three people, who would they be and where would it be? (Don’t worry, you’re not picking up the check…)
I guess I should say something noble like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln but I think I’ll be selfish and say my mom and dad Teresa and Francis Gigante, and my great-grandmother Marguerite Cirigliano who inspired the “Bridget” character in THE EL. Both of my parents have passed away (my dad almost 2 years ago and my mom 19 years ago) and I would love to have one last dinner where I could ask them things I didn’t and tell them things I should have. I’ve always wanted to meet my great-grandmother who died about 7 years before I was born. And dinner would be a home-cooked meal! To cook with Marguerite and my mom would be amazing, and to share all of the things women talk about when they cook together would be a gift.
Your three favorite books of all-time?
That’s a tough one. Let’s see. In no particular order: Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude and Pete Hamill’s Forever.
Are you working on a new book?
Yes, I am. The working title is “Society’s Child” and it’s set in 1979 Brooklyn, mostly the Sheepshead Bay area. It’s about a female drummer in the club-date business (aka “society music”)…you know, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc…who’s trying to “make it” and get a recording contract. It’s very different than “The El,” written in journalistic style from the drummer’s POV, and also from the POVs of various people close to her. I’m a little more than halfway through. I wish I had more time to work on it. For “The El,” I took off six months and managed to write it. I’ve been working on my second novel a lot longer but I love being able to squirrel away any time I can to work on it. I love writing about Brooklyn and the colorful characters in it.
Cathy Gigante-Brown lives in Windsor Terrace and is the author of “The EL.”
Click here for more information on her book.
I’m currently reading a really good book by Catherine Gigante-Brown, “The EL.”
There’s an entire chapter that takes place in Farrell’s. (Look for an interview here on the blog with Catherine real soon)
Click this link for more information on the book. Here’s the book description via Amazon.