November 21, 1983. Monday
The Game Stopped
We were playing touch football when the President was shot. The fiancee of one of the players came running through the park, calling: ''The President's been shot in Dallas. They've closed the Stock Exchange.''
We knew enough to pick up our extra sweatshirts that had served as yard markers and quietly to go our separate ways to whatever security our homes would offer us. The news on our car radios told us what we did not want to hear.
We were mostly in our 20's, a collection of young journalists and baseball players whose vagabond hours allowd us to play touch football at midday all through the fall. We had short haircuts and nicknames like Killer, Joe D, Big Ben, Rapid Robert, Jake, Little Alvin and Richie Swordfish.
As I look at our old photographs, I am struck by the optimism in our faces. It seemed like a very good time to be in our 20's, and starting our adult lives. I think John F. Kennedy had something to do with that.
Since the day we picked up our sweatshirts and trudged off the field, I have often thought of the double irony of playing touch football in Kennedy Park, named after early settlers of Hempstead, L.I., not for those Kennedys. Today the name Kennedy is on New York's major airport and public schools all over the country. Eight days ago in Frankfurt, my wife told me that the broad boulevard on which we were driving was named Kennedystrasse.
Just playing touch football at the moment the shots rang out was irony enough. Looking at the old publicity pictures of him now, in the 20th-anniversary glut of memories, I am struck by how awkward and poorly conditioned John F. Kennedy looks holding a football. Of course, for years there have been suggestions that he suffered from Addison's disease, and he was in no shape to play football with his more robust relatives and friends.
History has come to round out the picture of John F. Kennedy, but on that morning, we would have agreed that we were playing the same game the President played in his family compound at Hyannisport, Mass. We were young and so was the President of the United States. That meant a lot to me.
Many people today will consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry S. Truman or Dwight D. Eisenhower as their President. Others may have the same feeling about one of those who came later. For me, John F. Kennedy will always be my President.
In 1960 five very important things happened in my life: I was hired by a newspaper, I was graduated from college, I turned 21, I was married, and John F. Kennedy was elected President. For me at least, the narrow victory of the Senator from Massachusetts was a comet blazing across the sky, signaling that the 60's were going to be good years, different years.
The words now seem full of dust from the history books, but in those days people talked excitedly about ''vigor'' and ''charisma.'' John F. Kennedy was an attractive young President before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, before ballplayers used hair dryers and appeared in underwear ads. In 1960 he was all the glamour we had, he and his wife who spoke French and looked terrific in an evening gown.
The touch-football pictures were partly hyped; the photographs with John-John playing under his desk must have been staged. But after the musty 50's, after Ike, after a President who could not articulate outrage about segregation or Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, after a President who played a marginal athletic activity like golf, some of us were good and ready for a new decade.
Then the Kennedys hit the stage like a tumbling act in the circus, full of blaring horns and rolling drums, and with lots of photographs of John F. Kennedy about to throw a sideline pattern to Bobby or Ted.
Once in the summer of 1959, at a beach in Southampton, L.I., I found myself waist deep in the surf a few yards from John F. Kennedy. Politically, it was no thrill; we were Stevenson Democrats in my family. But a Presidential hopeful who had young- looking friends, who went to the beach on a Sunday, seemed pretty good to me.
The Kennedys became associated in my mind with sports and crowds and youth and good times. One afternoon in 1961, in an amusement park in upstate New York, my wife was almost knocked down by Robert F. Kennedy, who was making a fast visit with his wife, Ethel, and some of their children. He stopped and excused himself before rushing on. In October 1963, covering a football game in Annapolis, Md., I was almost mowed down by Robert Kennedy, who was leaving early through the press box. The Kennedys moved fast.
Starting adult life the same year the youngest President was elected set up a visceral sense of identification: the Kennedys lost a child; my wife went through a difficult but successful first delivery. I could only wonder why the dice had been rolled that way.
In this anniversary month, many historians now criticize John F. Kennedy's actions toward Cuba and Vietnam; I will never be convinced he would not have been smart enough to find sensible options toward both countries. But his time, Malcolm X's time, Robert Kennedy's time, Martin Luther King Jr.'s time, and Allard Lowenstein's time all ended too soon.
In the days after the shooting in Dallas, football twice added to my sense of loss and revulsion. The National Football League went ahead with its games two days later, while the President was lying in state, a gesture of disrespect I have never been able to forget. And a week later, on a train heading for the Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, I heard some whisky-slick officers and their wives talking too loudly about how they had never been able to stand the Kennedys in the first place.
In the years since Nov. 22, 1963, many of us who came of age in the early 60's found no elected public figures to admire. Some of us admired the feminists and Bob Dylan's songs and Lech Walesa and Bishop Romero of El Salvador, and we could not help but notice that a Black Muslim boxer named Muhammad Ali did more to get us out of Vietnam than any President did.
I mourn the loss of a President who seemed so intelligent and courageous and witty and youthful at the time. I admit that I keep up with bits of news about John F. Kennedy's children, and I root for Jacqueline Onassis in her battle for privacy. And I cannot watch young people throwing a football in a park without thinking of that day when the fiancee of one of the players came running across the grass to tell us something that would end our game.
* * *
(I still pretty much feel the same way. I remember the feelings of intense hatred emanating from Texas in the days before the Kennedy trip. I’ve come to have more mixed feelings about the Kennedy myths. He was more sick than we understood; also more personally reckless. I’m not sure he would have advanced civil rights and anti-poverty programs as much as LBJ did; then again, I think JFK would not have led us much deeper into Vietnam, but we will never know, and that is part of the sadness. My thanks to the Times for letting me express myself, then and now.)