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.

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