Friday, February 26, 2010

The Murder of JFK


Probably no more significant or defining moment in my life could top the assassination of our 35th President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I know-most of my peers would say the same.
We were all in grade school. It was November 22, 1963.  My father was stationed at the Boston Naval Shipyard, now known as the Charlestown Navy Yard. This was the home of the First Naval District and the fabled wooden warship, the USS Constitution ("OId Ironsides"). My siblings and I were attending local Catholic schools. The younger ones were at St. Catherine of Siena in Charlestown and the eldest was at St. Rose of Lima in Chelsea where,  my brother Felix, my sister Nancy and I, were born. We are first-generation Italian-American on my father's side. Second on my mother's. Their families settled mainly in the Boston area.  Dad was eleven years old then. It was 1927, and the US was pitching toward the Great Depression.

Because we were  living in Boston at the time, JFKs murder was brought full-square into our young lives  We sat in front of that 19" B&W Zenith TV and watched the whole bewildering event. We watched for three days. It was surreal from beginning to end. Of course, Boston was shut down.  Again, television-which had brought us Ed Sullivan, Ozzie and Harriet, Sky King, Have Gun Will Travel, Howdy Doody and all those great shows- would now also bring us horror and tragedy on an unimagineable scale. And this would only be the beginning.

My father had joined NROTC at Yale when WW II broke out. He didn't intend to remain in the military but eventually chose a career. He was active for 33 years so our lives were very intertwined with the military.

The shipyard had once produced some of the most famous ships in naval history. In the 60s it was mostly a repair facility with gigantic drydocks, cranes and a lot of personnel. There was a Marine barracks located there. The Marines guarded all of the five gates around the shipyard. 

Boston Harbor fronted the shipyard from Pier 1 to Pier 11, and a vast stone wall stood landward.  This wall was topped with barbed wire and chunks of glass stuck into the concrete top. "Out there" was Charlestown- a rundown, gritty blue collar urban neighborhood inhabited mostly by Italian and Irish Catholics who provided the workforce for the shipyard. They lived mostly in rundown tenements and brick projects. Every morning you would hear the whistle blow and hundreds of men and women would stream through the gates-especially through Gate 4 which led out to one of the town's centers. Marines were there to keep an eye on things. Then you would hear revielle somewhere in the mix and everyone would stand at attention, the flag was hoisted over the main bandstand. In the evening, taps would be played as the flag was lowered. Civilians held their hands over their hearts, men removed their hats while sailors, Chiefs and officers saluted. The mournful sound of the bugle was not recorded but played by a sailor from the Navy Band.

So, my young life included the military in a big way. I wasn't unfamiliar with the ways of the various branches by any means. Matter of fact, my brothers and I were waging a battle just about daily as kids. And we were lucky because there was so much surplus World War II stuff around, we had helmets and all kinds of gear. My favorite piece was a little collapsible shovel that had a canvas pack. We had several battalions of plastic army soldiers that we played with when the weather was just too harsh to launch attacks outdoors. Once, we managed to "acquire" slightly aged C-rations (from WWII)  and we had a ball with those eating the now funky chocolate bar and smoking the three cigarettes provided. We were big fans of all the old war movies which we watched on the TV and at the shipyard movie theatre. Our landscape included sailors and marines in their crisp outfits and highly polished shoes coming and going in military vehicles of all types. And just over the roof of the BOQ (Bachelor Officer's Quarters) you could see the masts of the Constitution. Berthed nearby was the Admiral's barge which was a gorgeous vessel that sparkled in the sun. The ropework, brass and teak on this ship was perfect. Everything was perfect. Until JFK was murdered. I've always believed that the post WWII buzz in America was killed the day Kennedy was assassinated. At least I know it is true for me. I was 13 years old.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010



On June 6, 1969 I graduated from high school. At the time, we were living just outside of Washington, DC in Northern Virginia. My father was at the Pentagon with the US Navy. From the time we left Newport News the previous summer, I had become more aware of the Vietnam War and what it was doing to my generation. Between 1963 and 1969, everything changed in the United States. Everything. John Kennedy had been assasinated  and this, it seemed to me, was when the real shock of brutal reality entered my world. It got progressively worse as the war continued to escalate, Americans were dying in the streets and on the battlefields of SE Asia, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is murdered in April 1968. By the time Robert F. Kennedy threw his hat in the ring as a democratic candidate for the presidency the country was in a social upheaval of staggering depth. RFK would end up shot in the head in a breezeway at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was June 1968.  And as I matured and grew, significant historical events took place all around me. I thought the peace and civil rights movements were powerful and so, fell in behind them both. What was not to support? It was imperative that we get out of Vietnam and bring the boys home. Getting behind the civils rights movement just made sense. The method and manner of the non-violent revolution was working. But it seemed there were forces far more effective that wanted no part of equality and peace.

Television was our opiate. It's true. Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian professor who coined the term "the medium is the message" was right on. My brothers and I would sit glued to that 19" Zenith black and white TV as the world unfolded before us.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why Now?


Recently, while going through the mountains of papers, magazines, notes, poems, letters, diaries, journals,  etc. that I have hauled around almost all of my life I ran across this great article in the Washington Post from Sunday May 25, 1980. The title of it is "After Vietnam: Voices of a Wounded Generation". There were numerous reasons that the subject of the Vietnam War suddenly began to creep into our conversations back then in the early 80s. Ronald Reagan had just been elected to office and the hostages being held in Iran by revolutionaries at the American Embassy in Tehran had been released. I was in Washington, DC the morning that the hostages (as they were known) arrived safely back to a grateful and expectant nation. There they were, in buses waving feebly at those of us on the ground on Pennsylvania Avenue holding yellow ribbons. In the background, a guy in a black van was driving around with a sign painted onto the side asking, "What about all the American soldiers who returned from VN, what about their homecoming?" Or something to that effect. It was a sad and stark reminder. And it pissed me off!  I thought, "Yeah! Where WAS their homecoming?" For me, that is when it really hit home that this gigantic disconnect in my generation had taken hold and dragged us into the next decade.

Meantime, Jan Scruggs and his gang were planning to commission a Vietnam Memorial on the Mall and this too was stirring up memories of a war we pretend happened to someone else and not ourselves. One whispered the word Vietnam. One did not shout it out.

I hated the war. I didn't understand it to begin with and communism as it was at the time was just not all that frightening anymore with Cuba isolated and China and Russia having their own problems. The pictures we began to see in Time and Life magazines and on TV were disturbing and horrible, to say the least. In the meantime, there is all this peace and love stuff going on, all the protests and marches-also on TV and pictured in Time and Life. To say that the messages we were receiving were mixed is an understatement.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Endless Haunting


I was probably in the 9th grade when I became aware of the Viet Nam war. That would make me about 14 years old so it was 1965. We were living in Newport News, Virginia where my father was in the Navy serving as Supervisor of Shipbuilding at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. This was in the days when the Navy Department still owned the facility. It has been privatized since. Many great naval vessles have come out of there.

Amidst the angst and euphoria of adolescence and puberty, Hullabaloo and Shindig, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Monkees and Ed Sullivan, mini-skirts and go-go boots, there were mind-numbing race riots, anti-war protests and those horrific black and white scenes of the war. We actually "watched" the war on television. The first time this had ever happened. Technology had a sharp edge too.
There were marches against this war in Southeast Asia. The mention of it on the evening news was always prefaced with something like: "And in Viet Nam today...".  Usually it would have to do with the thousands of Viet Cong that the US Forces had killed and captured. It would also report how many Americans had been lost or wounded. Every night. Night after night you would hear the grim statistics. It was so alien and so foreign that the newscasters at first didn't know what to call it. Southeast Asia. Indochina. Vietnam.
Because television in 1965 was still predominantly black and white in most households, the grainy footage of action in Vietnam was tricky. It made me think of a John Wayne movie. Not because of anything other than the fact that the guys were obviously Americans and they were wearing the same types of uniforms, helmets, boots, etc. that those guys did in the movies. It was just NOT real to those of us kids whose peers were about to be the biggest wave of drafted fodder for that war. The guys fighting in 1965 had been born in the latter days of World War II.  And it made a difference, just those few years, because their whole vision of patriotism, war, army, the red, white, and blue, Mom and apple pie and all that stuff still existed and still resonated mightily with many of them. And they went into this hell as born patriots.

It wasn't until the reality that the Greatest Generation, to some Vets, dropped the ball and let the military down throughout the waning days of the war. It has been long believed by many that had the politicians stayed out of the war and let the military do its job, the war would've ended much sooner than it did. And much differently. We will never know. And today's examples of Iraq and Afghanistan are not much changed as far as who is minding the store. On the other hand, many believe that General William Westmoreland, commander of MACV and his "war of attrition" coupled with the "search and destroy" strategy were responsible for failures on the ground and the many deaths of young American soldiers and their Vietnamese counterparts, the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam).

By the time my segment of the Boomer generation came along-born in '50-'52 - we were scrambling. Whether it was by taking heed to the protest songs of Baez, Seeger, Dylan and the rest or physically attending a march or demonstration in front of the City Hall or the Admission Offices of a college or high school-kids were on the march. While some were protesting, others were being drafted. Women were not allowed to go to combat. And that, for me personally, was a good thing. I would've been the perfect age for the draft. I graduated from high school in 1969. But the reality is, not a lot of kids my age were being drafted. You see, I happened to be living in privileged neighborhoods. The Washington, DC suburbs and the Tidewater area of Virginia. Everyone knows now that the Vietnam War, for all intents and purposes, was fought by blue-collar America. By African Americans, Southerners and Urban Northerners and Midwesterners. The children of the wealthy, unless they signed up, pretty much did not get drafted into the military. Please read this great book that gives you a birdseye view of what every kind of person was thinking about Vietnam. "Long Time Passing" by Myra McPherson

Whether to war or for peace we were marching.

Remember, the average age of a soldier in VN was 19. In World War II it was 26. We were kids. We were all just kids.

Nobody EVER in my memory took the time to explain what the Vietnam war was all about and why the American presence was so pivotal. No teachers, not my parents, no one. And still, on the television-now in color-we saw glimpses of this war, one and a half worlds away and still didn't understand it.