Days That Changed America Forever 

By Pat Fenton

When I was 22, a young military policeman, out of Brooklyn, New York, I found myself standing on the tarmac of a United States Army base in Hanau, Germany, Fliegerhorst Kaserne, as part of a security detail guarding President John F. Kennedy.

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.”

The program I was handed said that he would “arrive by helicopter at approximately 1030 hours,” and he would review the troops made up of several battalions and divisions. After lunching with troops, he would depart by motorcade for Frankfurt, and then Berlin. I still have that program.

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.

Five months after I watched President John Kennedy go by my post, so proud to be at that spot in time, as if I was watching Abraham Lincoln go by me, he was killed in Dallas. In the days and nights that followed I sat with the regulars of Joe Ryan’s Shamrock Bar on the corner of 17th Street and 9th Avenue in Windsor Terrace, and we watched his funeral on a black and white television that sat on a plywood stand that hung over the front part of the bar on chains.
Joe Ryan had unplugged the juke box, like McNulty’s bar across the street had, and Farrell’s Bar down on the other end of 9th Avenue on 16th Street, and it left a dark, lonely spot in the back corner of the bar. Something none of us had ever noticed before. It seemed like we never left the Shamrock Bar, as we would come back day after day, night after night watching the news of our time coming to us from the suspended black and white television above the bar.

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.

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14 Responses to WHERE WERE YOU WHEN…

  1. Pat Fenton says:

    Much thanks, Steve, as always. I wrote this for the Irish Echo and it ran in last week’s issue. And happpy Thanksgiving to you and your family, and all the good folks with Windsor Terrace roots. Thanks for the use of the hall.

  2. jimmyvac says:

    Pat, as always a great narrative.. Hope you and yours have a great Thanksgiving…

  3. Jack Kelly says:

    I agree with you Pat about the innocence being lost that day….There was a reason it was called Camelot…….Here was a President that could make you laugh during his press conferences. he was sharp as a tac and easy and sure of himself with his answers…And then there’s Jackie and the kids. From Ike to Kennedy…wow what a change. As he told us the torch had been passed from one generation to another….

  4. Maureen Rice (Flanagan) says:

    This is a beautiful piece of writing, Pat..if you were old enough on that day, it is something you will never forget, and it surprises me that so many people born after were touched in some way…I remember how everyone was over the moon that a Catholic had been elected President, and I remember seeing the nuns cry in school that day..something I had never seen… I thought we lost something that day, but still had hope…but after 1968..and MLK and Bobby.. well, it just never seemed that way again..

    • Pat Fenton says:

      So true what you say, Maureen. After MLK and Bobby Kennedy were shot down, America never felt the same again. On Thanksgiving Eve, I like to think that we will see the America of John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King come around again. Many would think I’m asking for too much. Maybe I am.
      We’ll see.

      happy Thanksgiving to you, ( and thanks for your kind words on my Irish Echo piece),

      • hoopscoach says:

        As a young boy I remember seeing a small statue of JFK. At the bottom was a quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

  5. Pat Fenton says:

    Well said, Jack. And it certainly was a different Windsor Terrace then. I’m glad I lived it.

  6. Jack Kelly says:

    Steve, We don’t lose points for bad spelling do we? Happy Thanksgiving to all !!

  7. jimmyvac says:

    I never understood the impact of Kennedy on Catholic until I was about 13 or so when I finally noticed that the only non family or religious item in her hall was Kennedy’s Presidential portrait and inauguration speech. To her, first US born Irish Catholic, it was a huge sign of us “making it ” ….

  8. Lou Roudabush says:

    Glad that you continue to write such interesting articles about your time in the military and after. Keep up the good work.
    Your Military Police Friend
    Lou Roudabush

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