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.