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True Tales

 

An American Tragedy...for the World

 

November 23, 1963

 

I was sitting in the Richmond Café on Calle Florida (pronounced Flor-ee-da) in bustling downtown Buenos Aires, reading the newspaper and drinking my second cafecito while waiting for my assistant, who was usually punctual – but not that day. It was during my first posting to Argentina and I had only been here for a year so hadn’t yet become culturally acclimatized. It takes much longer than that, believe me. Finally Mike came rushing in out of breath. He was a so-called Anglo-Argentino, born in the country as Miguel – by law, because Argentina doesn’t allow foreign names, but of English parents, and had attended one of the best English schools here. He was, therefore, completely bi-lingual.

“Kennedy has been shot!” he exclaimed, staring at me with popping eyes.

It took a moment to register. “Shot? Where? How?”

“In Texas somewhere I think.”

For some reason I imagined a shoulder or foot wound, and it even occurred to me that it might not be true. There was no CNN or cable TV those days, no way to get news direct, only through the Argentine media, which was often rife with dubious rumors.

“How do you know?” I asked Mike calmly. “Is that why you’re late?”

“Frank, it’s true. It’s on La Nación’s news board.”

La Nación, Argentina’s leading daily, had its office a block away. It regularly posted news bulletins on a huge display behind glass above the viewers’ heads. A geezer who had been on the job for decades used white plastic letters inserted in felt- covered boards.

I threw some pesos on the table and hurried out. Once on the street I could see a huge crowd blocking the street in front of La Nación. I hurried towards it, dreading what I might find and at the same time half-confident, hoping, that it wasn’t serious. I elbowed my way through the crowd, which seemed to be holding its collective breath. I looked up and saw the last board the geezer had just put in place: Kennedy in intensive care, prognostic grim. The paper’s news board, usually covering local Argentine news as well as worldwide, was now taken up exclusively with Kennedy:-. 23 Nov. 12.40 p.m. A.P. President Kennedy shot in motorcade in Dallas, Texas;  23 Nov. 12.50 p.m. A.P. Kennedy rushed to hospital. Minute by minute it followed the sequence the geezer was receiving from the Associated Press, delayed some minutes for translation. First Lady Jackie Kennedy accompanied President; Gov. Connolly of Texas wounded. Then the final hammer blow. John F. Kennedy,the President of the United States, has officially been pronounced dead at1:30.p.m Central Standard Time today of gunshot wounds. A collective groan surged through the crowd, which soon began to dissipate. I stayed an hour more, then walked without direction through the downtown streets and into a residential area. The words followed me though. Wherever two or more people congregated as I passed them the whispered words flew: Kennedy…dead…Who?… The radios and televisions inside the open doors and windows (for it was warm that spring) blared: Kennedy…today at…a lone gunman is being sought… Women were wiping tears from their eyes, men shaking their heads, some older ones crying as well. I walked and walked, and felt my own tears come.          


Several years previously, when I worked as a ticket agent for American Airlines at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, I had seen Jack Kennedy frequently. He was only a senator then, but already famous. There were no direct flights from Boston to Washington, so he always had to connect at LaGuardia – or, less frequently, originate a trip in New York. He stood in line to check in like everyone else and would write a check for his ticket. If I had known then what he would become I would have kept the check and paid in the 15 or so dollars from my pocket.

We were obliged to smile at passengers and address them by name: “Good morning, Mr. Brown; where are you going today?” if he had no ticket yet. Or “Good afternoon, Mrs. Schwarz; going to Cincinnati today?” if she already had one. This was considered necessary, because frequent travelers often didn’t know where they were going and we didn’t want to put them on the wrong plane. With Kennedy it was, “Good morning, Senator Kennedy; Boston or Washington?” He’d answer with a big smile, “Good morning Mr. Smith.” (checking my name tag) “If today is Tuesday give me Washington. – on time please.”

Once when I was acting Passenger Service Manager (who wasn’t really a manager; the title on the name tag was to make the passenger think he was more important than he was. The PSM mostly had to contend with passengers bumped due to oversales). I saw him standing in the crowd, a head taller than most, shaking an occasional hand, signing an occasional autograph, absorbing the sidelong glances. I straightened my tie an approached him. “Good afternoon, Senator. Would you like to wait in my office?” There was no VIP lounge then, but the PSM’s office had easy chairs and a well stocked bar.

“No thanks, Mr. Smith. It looks like a short delay. I’m okay here.” Was he being a good politician or did he enjoy the adulation? I think both. Bobby Kennedy was different. He stood in a corner unnoticed while an assistant checked in for him. Of if he was alone he accepted the PSM’s offer to check in for him and he would disappear into the office rather than be recognized. I got the impression that he was shy.

Then JFK was a presidential candidate, which surprised no one. It was February of election year 1960 and LaGuardia Airport had been snowed in for long periods during the day, which was worse than being completely closed, for it resulted in stranded passengers and a lot of lost baggage. I was working Lost and Found that evening with a co-worker. She left at midnight, exhausted, and I volunteered to wait for the guy who was to take over the midnight shift. I didn’t envy him, for three phones never stopped ringing and the baggage area was very well stocked with unclaimed baggage which had arrived much later than their owners or had missed their owners’ connecting flights. He called about twenty minutes past midnight, advising that his car wouldn’t start, he couldn’t get a taxi, he slipped on ice and sprained his ankle…I cut him off there. Five minutes later I picked up one of the other ringing phones. It was our manager in Boston.

He asked for my full name, then said, “Listen, Frank, Senator Kennedy came in on the last flight today before the airport closed – but his bag didn’t.”

“Did he come from Washington and connect here?” I asked. “Affirmative.” “Well, I remember that the pilot on the Boston flight waited for the passengers but not the baggage; we were about to close down here as well. Want me to see if it’s here?”

“Yeah, he’s on his way to New Hampshire by train and his speech is in that bag...and his medicine, but that’s between you and me. It’s very important, Frank,” he said in his Massachusetts twang. “New Hampshire is the first primary and we don’t want to be responsible for his not having his speech.”

“Hell no,” I agreed. “And we want him to win, too.”

Now he knew he had a fellow believer on the line. “Now you’re talking.”

“Do you want me to call you back?”

“No, I’ll hold. Listen, it’s aluminum and has JFK painted on the side.” He gave me the tag number.

I hurried out to the baggage claim area, where an aluminum suitcase was easy to spot among the hundreds of orphans stranded there. I dragged it back to the office wading through stranded passengers sitting or lying on the floor: All the chairs were occupied and there wasn’t a vacant hotel room in New York City. They looked at me with pleading eyes as if I were an angel who could stop the snow.

I picked up the phone and said, “Got it…but there are no flights. We’re closed. When’s he need it for?”

“Early in the morning. Can you check the trains? They’re delayed, but getting through.”

“Okay, but now I’ll have to call you back.”

He gave me his home number. “Do all possible, Frank. It’s important.”

I got through to Grand Central…or maybe it was Penn Station, and asked a guy who really sounded tired if there was anything going to Boston. He told me there was a delayed milk run due to depart at l:30 a.m.

“I got Senator Kennedy’s bag here and …”

“Whose?”

“Senator Kennedy’s. Jack Kennedy. He’s on his way to New Hampshire and his speech is in it. I’m trying to get it to Boston so it can be forwarded to New Hampshire.”

“Jeez.”

“You’re my only hope.”

He was silent for a few seconds, then said, “If you can get it here by one-thirty we’ll get it on the train.”

“Okay, thanks. What’s your name?”

“McGlynn, but I don’t know how you’re gonna do that, the roads are a mess.”

“We’ll do it,” I said, with more confidence than I really felt. “You got a direct number?”

Now I pondered my problem. I couldn’t very well leave my post, as I was alone. If you think the situation was sufficiently important to do that, you’d be mistaken. American Airlines’ home base was Dallas, Texas, and the president and founder, C.R. Smith, as well as most of the stockholders, Republicans all, were no Kennedy friends. We had one Obligatory Black on the ticket counter staff, which numbered over a hundred, and two women. No black flight attendants (called stewardesses then) –  wouldn’t want to offend our moneyed redneck passengers. I phoned the baggage handling section and asked for the supervisor. “Supe’s in bed,” a weary voice told me. “Just me and another peon here. What’s yer problem this time?”

“Uh…I’ll let you know in a minute.” I hung up, I had to think. We ticket/check-in people had to work closely with the baggage handlers, but there was little love lost between us. They belonged to Jimmy Hoffa’s corrupt Teamsters Union, and were constantly at odds with management. The Teamsters tried to organize us as well, with promises of better pay, invitations to parties, even veiled threats – but we weren’t interested. The company saw to that. They paid us considerably more than the baggage people, so money wasn’t an issue. We were also generally well treated and had opportunities for advancement. It was also no secret that anyone who even suggested considering a union, Teamsters or otherwise, would soon be receiving his final pay check. All that as well as the usual blue collar-white collar jealousy made relations tense. I decided to talk to them in person.

Instead of going outside in the cold, I went behind a ticket counter where my colleague DeFalco, the yogi we called him, was calmly answering stranded passengers’ questions like a cracked record: “It’s snowing sir, nothing coming in, nothing going out.” He claimed he could automatically answer questions while in a meditative state. That’s why he always wanted the midnight to seven shift, when he was usually alone. I stepped onto the idle rubber belt and crouched into the square hole through which the baggage flows. The two baggage handlers were sitting on a bench smoking and listening to the American Airlines sponsored late night radio program, which was pop music only. One was white, the other black – the baggage section’s O.B. They glanced at me without interest. I told them the situation and said I needed someone to take Kennedy’s bag to the railroad station in Manhattan. They both jumped up and volunteered. “No,” the black guy said, “you live in Queens and are on duty here till six. I’m off now anyway and I live in Harlem. I can drop it off on the way home.” The white guy shook his head. “Kennedy’s my guy. You can take my shift until I get back.” They argued, so I intervened. “He’s right (the black guy). It’s the most practical solution. Come on to the office and get the bag, the train leaves in” – I looked at my watch – “forty minutes.”

As we hurried back to the Lost and Found office, he asked “Do you think I’ll make it in forty minutes in this weather, thirty by the time I get a taxi?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll tell them to hold the train.”

“Are you kidding? They don’t hold trains, except maybe a couple of minutes for other train connections.”

“How do you know?”

“I worked for the (name of railroad) before it went bust.”

I gave him money from petty cash for the taxi and accompanied him to the arrival area where taxis usually waited, and for the first time wondered if there would be any taxis. The conversation continued. “What did you do for the railroad?” I figured baggage handler or porter.

“Engineer,” he said.

Thinking of the train drivers, who were mostly grizzled veterans, in my experience at least, I said, doubtfully, “Aren’t you kinda young for that job?”

He smiled. “Not a driver; I’m an electrical engineer. I worked in the technical area.”

Those days someone with a high school education was considered fairly well educated. And here was an engineer working as a baggage handler!

“Do you think Kennedy will make a difference?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I said I thought he would. Neither of us considered the possibility that he would lose the election. That was New York remember.

Back at the office I called McGlynn and told him that our man had just left with the bag and could he please hold the train till he gets there.

Silence. Then, “That depends on the engineer.”

“Oh, sure. Well, can you ask him, I mean when the train arrives?”

“The train’s due any minute, but the new engineer is sitting right here in front of me…´Will you wait, Will?’” he asked the engineer. Then to me: “You bet, and Will’s not even Irish.”

“That’s great, and by the way the guy bringing the bag is black…er…just so you know.” You never knew what kind of people you were dealing with.

Silence, then McGlynn guffawed.

“What’s funny?”

“So’m I!”

Trying to be facetious, I said, “Well, my guy’s an electrical engineer. What are you, a doctor of philosophy or a black Irishman?”

“Nah,” McGlynn said. “I was a dining-room waiter, got injured in a wreck, saved some white folks. That makes me a hero, y’know. Couldn’t work on the trains no more so they put me here in the office on the graveyard shift so the whities wouldn’t have to look at me.” He laughed again.

“Thanks a lot for your help, Mr. McGlynn.”

 

That all came back to me as I walked the streets of Buenos Aires until I came to the railroad station, so I boarded the next rain to my suburban home, about fifteen minutes away. Once off the train I stopped off in Maxim’s, a local restaurant and bar, for a quiet beer. But it wasn’t quiet. There were fifteen or so men crowded at the bar drinking and talking about…guess what. I knew most of them as neighbors. When I entered they stopped talking. Then one of then clapped me one the shoulder and said, “Sorry, Frank.” Another shook his head and said, “Terrible thing; he was so young,” Heinz, the owner/bartender, poured me a draft beer and set it foaming on the bar. “On me, Frank.” It was as though I were a member of the Kennedy family merely by virtue of being American. I thanked them, drank down my beer and left. I had no wish to join in the discussion about… Why? Who? Castro? The anti-Castros? the Soviets? the mafia? The CIA? [1]

A few days later I stopped in at Maxim’s earlier than usual. Downtown was too hot to endure. I was the only customer.

“Did you hear?” Heinz said. “They killed Oswald – the guy who killed Kennedy! It just came over the radio.”

For a moment I was paralyzed. Then I told Heinz that I didn’t believe it.

 

For a week after the killing there was a continuous line wrapped around the block to the U.S. embassy where they had set up a condolence book for people to sign. They weren’t Americans, of which there were few in the country, but Argentines. Similar scenes played out in many other countries of the world. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who was not an adult – or almost an adult – at the time of the assassination to understand the tidal wave of grief that washed over the world. And the small but vicious core of hate for him – and his brother - which smoldered in Jack Kennedy’s own country. 


[1] In the next issue of SCR, we will offer a review of a new book on this subject: Brothers – The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, by David Talbot    

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