Story and Photos by Bob Nesoff
Some things are burned in your memory forever. The good, meeting the right person and falling in love; the bad, the senseless killing of a personal hero.
Nov. 22, 1963 is that date burned into a dark place in my memory. A memory that will never go away. While attending college and working for the New York Highway Department I remember the day as cool but clear. There was the usual banter amongst the workers as we tamped down hot asphalt repairing a street.
That unremarkable day was about to change us forever.
A man came out of his house, a look on his face that was indescribable. He looked at the work crew and almost muttering, said: “Kennedy was just shot.”
The New York police commissioner at the time was named Kennedy and he was, arguably, the most hated commissioner by the men in the department. That begged the question to the man: “Kennedy who?”
His response was almost that of an adult to a child: “President Kennedy.”
We finished the job on the street without any further conversation and all went home. The television had nothing else on. It was almost the same as the day President Roosevelt died, except that was on the radio. Silence prevailed. My younger brother came home and was unable to speak. All he could do was hold up a newspaper that had come out with a special edition with a banner headline: “Kennedy Assassinated”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was more than a president to me. He was the first president I could cast a ballot for. Four years earlier I listened to the Democratic convention where his name was put in contention but did not secure the nomination for him. Now he had won and served little more than a thousand days of a term that should have lasted 1,460 days. And then another 1,460. But it was not to be.
I met John Kennedy, briefly, twice. One during the campaign when he appeared at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, NY, on a speaking tour seeking votes. Seated in the front row of press I was able to get a close-up of the man. Then, after the talk there was an opportunity to shake his hand and speak to him. Not something any journalist should do in covering a campaign. But I did it. I was that impressed with the man.
The second time was while he was in office. I had taken a day with my girlfriend of the hour and went to Idlewild Airport (Today known as JFK Airport) to have lunch and watch the planes coming and going.
At one terminal a crowd of people had begun to gather at a fence facing onto the tarmac. Police were all over the place in rather large numbers. We learned “The President” was arriving. Waiting beside a limo was Queens Borough President Pat Clancy, a friend. He spotted me, walked over to the fence and invited the two of us in. We reluctantly declined, feeling neither of us was dressed appropriately to meet The President.
The plane landed and JFK was greeted by Pat Clancy. Pat said something to the President and JFK looked over toward us. He strode the few yards from the limo to the fence and greeted us in a melodious Boston accent, put his hand on the fence to provide as much opportunity to shake hands as possible, smiled and walk back to the limo.
Needles to say everyone else in the crowd looked at us in awe. We fielded some questions and then left to go for lunch.
Kennedy had jumped into a dispute amongst several Army generals relating to Special Forces, the famed Green Berets. At that time no American military unit wore a beret. There were no SEALS, no Marine Recon, no other united called “Special Forces. The beret was common amongst foreign troops, but not in the United States. Army Special Forces adopted the Green Beret and made it a standard part of their uniform.
The generals told the President that they did not want Special Forces to appear to be an “elite Unit.”
Kennedy retorted: “They are an elite unit,” and by presidential fiat, Special Forces was authorized to wear the Green Beret.,
That made him even more special to me. As a staff sergeant in the 11th Special Forces Group, I proudly wore the Beret. We mourned the loss of our President while on duty at Miller Army Airfield by starting the day with a memorial service to the fallen President, the personal hero to every one of us.
On the ferry taking us from Brooklyn to Staten Island where Miller Field was located, four of us in uniform and wearing the Green Beret, were leaning over the bow of the boat, not saying a word. Just watching the waves go by. Suddenly a woman on the upper deck began to scream: “We’re at war! We’re at war.” She pointed to us and continued yelling “The commandos are here. We’re at war.”
We thought she heard something and we began to mentally adjust to the expectation of going in to combat. It turned out that when she saw four Green Berets, and given the delicate atmosphere, she jumped to a conclusion. Fortunately, a wrong conclusion.
With Kennedy lying in state in the capitol building, my then-fiancé and I debated driving to Washington to pay our respects. But after seeing the lines and mob of people there, changed our minds.
A neighbor who was an artist had pained a portrait of JFK. I asked if she would do one for me and I would, of course, pay for it. At our engagement party she handed me a large, wrapped package. I opened it and held the Kennedy painting. I was overwhelmed and nearly speechless. That was 1965. Today that painting is mounted in a prominent place in my office where I can remember the man, the President and my personal hero.
Every November 22 I lower the flag outside of my home to half-mast in respect for John Fitzgerald Kennedy and think of what could have been, how the spirit he brought to the country, could have changed the hate and dissention we are faced with today.
We can only dream and imagine what could have been. What the world might have looked like today.