My father and John Fitzgerald Kennedy were not close friends, but they were good friends. Both of them were Irish, both came from political families in New England, both had served in the US Navy in World War II, both served in the US Congress at the same time, and both had an eye for the ladies and a taste for the good life. Kennedy came from a very wealthy family in Boston, my father did not. Kennedy was a war hero in the Pacific. My father watched the D-Day invasion of France aboard ship. Kennedy ran for the Senate and for President while my father had no such exhausting ambitions. But they got along well and understood each other, two Irishmen with a similar sense of history and humor, who loved the land they were born in and who served their country while leading mostly charmed lives.
Although my immediate family was not wealthy at all we managed to live near and amidst great wealth each summer in Eastern Long Island where we were members of the Southampton Beach Club, a ‘bathing corporation’ as racist as it was stylish and patrician. My father was of a generation where he was able to belong to that club and work on some of the most progressive legislation ever passed in the US Congress while feeling no sense of contradiction. The first time I saw John F. Kennedy was in the summer of 1954. He and my father were on the beach in their bathing suits by the Beach Club talking politics and laughing a lot while I played next to them in the sand. The second and last time I met him was on a plane headed to Palm Beach in 1960 when he was already the President-Elect. He shook my hand and invited me to the inauguration and patted my head. I remember him as being very handsome and slim and with slightly yellowed teeth. I only saw my father really cry on two occasions; on the day my mother died and on the day Kennedy was assassinated.
In my early teens, during and after his presidency, he became my idol to emulate. I took to wearing pinstriped suits, absurd for someone my age. I made a point of thrusting my hands into the jacket pockets, never wearing a hat or overcoat the way he did, fidgeting with my tie and combing my hair repeatedly with my fingers the way he did. I also entertained detailed fantasies of becoming president of the United States someday and gave speeches extolling the virtues of liberalism while looking at myself in the mirror, jabbing my forefinger in the air for emphasis, as he too was wont to do.
As I entered middle age I looked back on that period of my youth with considerable embarrassment and discomfort. Around 1967 my Kennedy period came to an end as I relinquished him as my role model and glommed onto others. As I neared college age and as the war in Viet Nam raged and as I began to have real relationships with girls I took to reading literature voraciously and I put the pinstripes from Brooks Brothers aside, entering a period of quiet rebellion I have yet to entirely grow out of. My new heroes were James Joyce, Hemingway, Camus, Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust. I refused to serve in Viet Nam. I moved to Europe to live as an expatriate. I did my best to ‘forge the uncreated conscience of my race’ living by olive groves and the Mediterranean, far from the halls of the US Congress.
Now that I am older still and living once again in the United States the embarrassment has subsided. I find myself reviewing the many photos I have of my father from those important years in the early 1960’s. I find myself reading and writing fiction, but also reading political essays and blogs. I am interested once again in what happens in Washington. I have found a way for it all to fit within me that, in my early twenties, when I pretended to understand all there was to know, such a thing was impossible.