(Thirty years ago I wrote this sports column in The New York Times.)
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.)
11/20/2013 04:06:56 am
And my thanks to you George for sharing these heartfelt sentiments.
11/20/2013 07:22:48 am
Just guessing that the Ike caption would have something to do with golf.
11/20/2013 07:56:48 am
You might want to amend this piece to reflect that Jackie Kennedy Onassis died in 1994 a few months short of her 65th birthday. She had been a lifelong smoker, and I believe she died of leukemia. Your piece makes it sound like she's still with us. Otherwise, this piece is very fine and moving. I was considerably younger than you, but JFK is still my president, too.
11/20/2013 09:05:33 am
Dear Craig, thanks. I figured, since it was the past, I wouldn't try to change anything in the text. (I toyed with the idea of filing a shorter, contemporary version, but figured, go with what I did. It seems like yesterday.) I appreciate the suggestion, GV
Edwin W Martin Jr
11/20/2013 01:21:17 pm
Thanks, George. In 1963 Peggy and I were living in Tuscaloosa and I was having lunch with friends when we heard the news. Peggy and I met on campus and went immediately home. We did not want to hear anyone say, "good." In 1965 I went to Washington to help develop federal special education programs. In my heart I was "asking what I could do for my country" small though it might be.
11/20/2013 04:48:39 pm
"... we were Stevenson Democrats in my family."
11/21/2013 01:15:01 am
I think Stevenson had plenty of personality -- although not what might inflame a nation. JFK had plenty of that. GV
11/21/2013 03:10:11 am
From another Stevenson fan in 1952 and 56. Heard him say, "As long as war is an alternative, we will always have wars."
11/21/2013 07:55:36 am
Real enjoyable 11-22-63 memoir. Here's my own: http://concussioninc.net/?p=8332.
11/21/2013 09:01:02 am
Irv, nice to see your name here. I would add that the show went on for Musial at his restaurant, and he showed up, but I thought the NFL was disrespectful to play games that weekend in 1963.
11/21/2013 09:13:58 am
11/21/2013 09:35:21 am
I don't think Norman and I are related (though who knows exactly what went down in those Pale of Settlement shtetls?). My paternal grandparents docked at Baltimore, not Ellis Island, and went to St. Louis, where there were relatives. I've learned that there are many more Muchnicks back east, especially Philadelphia. The Boston city councilman who spurred baseball to integrate was named Isadore Muchnick.
11/21/2013 02:12:05 pm
George, thank you for this -- the retro column and your addendum. They sum up my complex feelings on JFK and his legacy pretty well. For those of us of a certain age, even though I'm a little bit younger than you, It's hard to be objective -- especially so, for me, being a Kennedy (of modest Brooklyn roots, not Brookline!). I found myself replaying all this in my mind with all the 50th anniversary specials, including the recent PBS American Experience special and now reading your rich post. Thanks, George.
11/22/2013 12:37:59 am
Pete, thanks, man. GV
11/21/2013 11:08:37 pm
11/22/2013 12:37:12 am
Alan, good point. For anybody who had evolved or taken an anti-war position in 62-63, JFK seemed to be going in that direction, too. he was followed by somebody who knew it wasn't working, and doubled down, anyway.
11/23/2013 09:03:06 am
Joe Nocea’s November 23, 2013 NY Times Op-Ed, “Obama’s Bay of Pigs” adds to the belief that President Kennedy learned from his Boy of Pigs experience. All new presidents go through “on the job” training and JFK was prepared for the Cuban Missile Crisis.
11/22/2013 02:11:32 am
The most poignant thought of a limping former touch football player; What might have been and never was. In light of the current governmental insanity, I have to think it would have been better.
11/22/2013 02:22:27 am
Jake was there in Kennedy Park in Hempstead, like me, trying to keep up with Rapid Robert and Little Alvin and other speedsters.
11/22/2013 01:09:19 pm
Still "my" president, even after all these years. He was my hero. I was an Irish-Catholic kid going to a public school where that wasn't the coolest or most socially-acceptable thing you could be. But he was the President! He made me feel like I could be anything I wanted to be, that I could go to college, be an officer in the Navy, play sports, even marry a beautiful woman someday. And I managed all of that and more and will always be grateful that he came along when he did to inspire me. I saw him in person once, when he was running for President. I was just thirteen, he came to our town to speak. A neighbor worked as a custodian at the town hall and asked me if I wanted to be inside with him, when they brought Kennedy in before his speech. So there I was, waiting alone in the small library. He came to the door, looked in, smiled at me, and of course I froze. But I got to watch him from a door directly behind him as he spoke to the crowd from the top of the front steps of the Upper Darby Municpal Building. A day I'll never forget.
11/22/2013 02:42:16 pm
nice memory, man
11/23/2013 10:52:16 am
I've really enjoyed reading so many interesting and thoughtful reflections on JFK + 50. I'd like to share a thought piece composed by Patrick Marren on what if JFK had lived. Full disclosure: Patrick is a business partner. Be interested to hear what you all think. Here's the link:
11/24/2013 12:07:43 pm
FYI: George has a piece (or part of one) in the Times today:
11/24/2013 02:25:36 pm
The myth is always better than the reality, because it can sustain and inspire in an uncluttered fashion. That man didn't die in vain. A country assessed itself and its people their own lives. What good came of it, I don't know, but I have to believe it is good that we did it.
11/24/2013 02:27:17 pm
I read the first lines and looked to see who wrote that creative opening and it was GV. Smile.
11/25/2013 02:16:05 am
Ed, you are referring to the James Taylor line? It is my all-time favorite song. It seemed appropriate right there. Thanks, GV
11/25/2013 05:10:40 am
Right. I was responding to Gene Palumbo's post, and Brian's sneaked in. Meanwhile, I have that song rattling around in my alleged brain, ever since. (I almost added an adjective before the word, "song," but it is a great song.)
1/13/2016 01:39:49 pm
As a Dyed-in-the-Wool New Dealer, my mother loved the youthful JFK, her senior by 18 months. She held me out of school the day the candidate drove through my hometown, University City, Mo. on his way to the airport after delivering a speech in downtown St. Louis. My father, who also served during the Duration, no less revered FDR and Truman, thought the younger veteran a snot-nosed son of an Appeaser. Both were Stevenson supporters, but loyal Democrats who voted for JFK, helping him carry Missouri's thirteen electoral votes by .52% of the popular vote.
1/13/2016 06:39:39 pm
I just got around to red what I previously. OOPs. The last two limericks failed to opy. Here they are:
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From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.