Mrs. Kennedy and Mr. Hill

There are certain moments in your life that are forever seared on your psyche. Like September 11th. Even now, you can see these recollections clearly, recalling the emotions you were feeling at the time.

For my generation, such a memory will always be JFK in Dallas on November 22, 1963, played over and over again in a loop that starts out the same, but just once, you wish the ending could turn out differently.

I was in grade school that day, having spent the three years prior in a family that revered all things Kennedy. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family, albeit Latino, not Irish, we felt as if the Kennedy’s were our kindred spirits. Caroline was about my age and I loved watching her and John-John play in the Oval Office, hiding under their father’s desk, smiling coyly for the camera.  And, my family could be entertained for hours, gathered around the Hi-Fi, listening to Vaughn Meader’s The First Family, a best-selling comedy album that parodied the Kennedy Family, yet was retired by most and taken off the market after the assassination.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an author event for the newly-released memoir, Mrs. Kennedy and Me.  The book, written by Clint Hill, one of two Secret Service agents assigned to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s detail, as well as award-winning journalist, Lisa McCubbin, chronicles the four years Mr. Hill spent with Mrs. Kennedy, beginning just before President Kennedy’s inauguration.

Looking around at the 100 or so people in attendance, I could tell I wasn’t the only one in the room who remembered where they were when JFK was assassinated.  As Mr. Hill spoke, we hung on every word. We were children again, reliving the memories of our youth, gathered around someone even closer to the events than the proximity we claimed as eyewitnesses to the events that unfolded on TV.

Here’s some of what I learned during his hour-long, captivating talk:

Prior to protecting Mrs. Kennedy, Mr. Hill was assigned to President Eisenhower. He expected that his next assignment would be protecting President Kennedy, and was profoundly disappointed when he learned he’d be assigned to the First Lady.

Clint Hill shares his stories of his years with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

He spent the holidays leading up to the inauguration of 1961, in Palm Beach, Florida with the Kennedy family and planned to return to Washington, in time for the inauguration. However, the president elect asked Mr. Hill to stay behind with Caroline, who was just three at the time, too young to attend her father’s inauguration. Mr. Hill had no choice but to watch it on TV, and though he tried to explain to Caroline what was going on, she wasn’t interested, preferring instead to play with her paper dolls.

During an unofficial trip to Greece with the First Lady, JFK made it clear that under no circumstances was Mrs. Kennedy to cross paths with Aristotle Onassis. Apparently, the president didn’t want any photographs of the two of them to end up in the press, as Onassis was having some trouble with the US government at the time.

During a vacation, in early 1963, Mr. Hill was working round the clock. When he finally got a chance to return to his hotel room for much-needed sleep, Mrs. Kennedy called him and asked him to return because her sister’s husband, Prince Radziwill, wanted to go on a 50-mile hike. Mr. Hill had to delay his nap and go along, despite not having the appropriate clothing for hiking in, and only his dress shoes to wear.

In the summer of 1963, Mrs. Kennedy gave birth five weeks early to a boy, Patrick. He had to be put in an incubator, and died soon after. In order to help her recover from the loss, that October, Mrs. Kennedy joined her sister, Lee and some close friends for a stay in Greece aboard a private yacht belonging to, you guessed it, Onassis. This time, they did meet.

Mrs. Kennedy returned from the trip ready to help her husband with his re-election campaign. On the morning of the assassination, they breakfasted in Ft. Worth. Then, got ready for the motorcade in Dallas.  You know what happened there.

Through the course of the evening, Mr. Hill shared his stories and anecdotes with candor and love for Mrs. Kennedy. As he got closer to talking about THE date, you could feel the pulses in the room quicken. Nobody said a word. We listened intently, barely blinking, and soon I was overcome with a sense of dread and overwhelming sorrow.

Secret Service agent Clint Hill climbs onto the back of the President’s limo.

Mr. Hill described in great detail the events as he recalled them. How he was the only secret service agent whose vantage point allowed him to see the president slump over after the first shot. How he jumped out of the car he was in and climbed onto the back of the limo the Kennedy’s were riding in. How he could immediately see the gravity of the injury and how his only thought was to use his body to shield the Kennedy’s from further harm. How Mrs. Kennedy had blood on her gloves and suit. How the shots rang out, one after another. He didn’t even notice that the Texas governor had also been hit.

Clint Hill and Lisa McCubbin during the book signing.

That, when they arranged for a coffin to transport the president back to Washington, no one anticipated it would be too wide to fit through the door of Air Force One. So the handles had to be removed.  How, he had little time to sleep during the ensuing days, and how he still agonizes over the guilt of not being able to do more.

And how he never returned to Dallas until 1991 when he entered the Texas School Book Depository building for the first time and was able to see how easy it was for a lone gunman to shoot to kill.

And when he finished speaking, a woman in the audience, with tears welling in her eyes,  much like the rest of us, stood up and asked,

“Mr. Hill, did you realize that the whole country shut down for those four days?”

He paused for a moment, trying to compose himself. Then said, “No, I didn’t know.”

In that moment, not a sound was heard. Just one collective memory and one shared sorrow. As if we were all in it together. And, maybe, we were.

Get in Line

If there’s a way to avoid it, I’d love to hear it.  But, short of hiring someone to do it for me, I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep on doing it myself. So, you might as well join me. Get on line (or in line, depending what region you’re from). For, it’s time to line up for:

The Queue.

You know what I mean. Somewhere, somehow, when you least expect it–not to mention when you do–there’s going to be a line with your number on it. And when that happens, you have no choice but to queue up.

This was the two-hour line we waited on to ride the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, when it first opened.

Which is why, I always do what my mother taught me:  I bring along a book. This helps while away the hours as you weave through the torturous, misunderstood, and much-maligned, line.

There’s all kinds of lines: the one that snakes back and forth, where signs along the way indicate approximately how long it’ll take you to get to the front. “One hour from this point,” “Two hours from that point” and so on. Then, there’s the line where you’re assigned a number and you wait your turn, as you decide whether to get a half-pound of Swiss or Colby.

The folks at Disney World and Disney Land do it right. They give you the opportunity to get a “Fast Pass,” so you can return at a pre-designated time and it’s guaranteed that the queue will be way shorter than if you get on now, thank you very much.

At the grocery store, don’t you just hate it when you only have 11 things but the “15 or Fewer” line is closed, so you have to wait, along with everyone else on the line, while the lady in front of you has 106 items she’s purchasing, and one of those items doesn’t have a price on it, so they have to do a price check, and just when she’s finally all paid up, the 15 or Fewer line opens, but it’s your turn anyway, so who cares?

In the 70’s there were lines at gas stations for filling up your tank, that could last upwards of a day. Now, you can get the same experience by getting your gas at a warehouse club’s gas station.

My days of getting on line for concert tickets are over, but I do recall waiting seven hours to buy tickets to see Bruce Springsteen, back when I barely knew who The Boss was. Yet, when I went with a high school pal to buy tickets for a John Lennon concert, there was no line whatsoever. Go figure.

With tickets in hand, I arrived five hours early to get on line to see The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Yet, as early as I got there, I was still a block away from the front of the line. Luckily, I managed to get in to see the show, and during my five-hour stint in the line, I got to meet some very interesting people, including a girl, decked out in black, who hated her mother.

On a blistery hot day, I waited on line to climb up the 350 stairs to get to the top of the Statue of Liberty, only to find you can’t really get into her head no matter how far you climb.

But, the worst line of all was the one I was in last weekend. I went to see Clint Hill speak. He’s the retired Secret Service agent who protected First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and tells his story in the best-selling, newly-released book, Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Mr. Hill was with her when JFK was assassinated and I couldn’t wait to hear his story.

The bookstore told me its doors would open at 7:00 p.m., with the program starting at 7:30. I decided I’d get there by 6:15 because I didn’t want to risk not being able to get in to see Mr. Hill. Intuition told me there’d be a crowd. That plus, it had been announced on the local news.

So I got there and made a judgment call, one that would later prove wrong.  I made the assumption that if everyone was facing the door to the left, that meant I’d have to walk to the right and get behind the last person to take my place at the back of the line.  When I got there, there were about five people in a cluster, with their backs to me. So I cued up behind them, and stood there. They turned around and looked at me. One even smiled. But none said “Boo.”  Finally, about 20 minutes into my wait, a woman in the group asked me, “Do you know that this is the front of the line?”

What?

My first thought, was, boy, am I dumb, quickly followed by, why didn’t they say something sooner?  My second thought, doesn’t anyone know the “waiting on line” protocol?

You’re supposed to face the front of the line, not the back of it and certainly not stand willy-nilly, helter skelter and all that!  How am I supposed to deduce which is the front and which is the back, if the people on the line don’t cooperate and follow the norm? I am not a mind reader! And, why did they take so long to tell me I was in the wrong place?

Needless to say, when I was finally hit with their two by four and kicked to the real back of the line, the back had moved to the next block, and all my effort to arrive early was practically for naught.  (I barely managed to squeak in to hear Mr. Hill talk.)

So, next time I find myself in the regrettable position of having to stand on line for anything, I’m making no assumptions. Instead, I’m going to say these magic words:

WTF IS THE BACK OF THE LINE??

In Good Company

My mother’s in good company, and by this I mean, she died in good company.  This month marks the anniversary of her passing, as well as  the passing of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Phil Hartman, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name but a few.  And, of these, Jackie O passed away the same year as my mother, but a couple of weeks earlier. Jackie’s life was celebrated with scores of magazine special editions that came out in the days following her death, and I went out and purchased a few.  I grieved for Caroline Kennedy who, like me, was still in her thirties, as I felt a connection with her that dated back to our childhood years, when she was in the White House and I was playing hopscotch in Queens.

JFK & Jackie, circa 1960. Photographed by Frank Fallaci.

But no sooner did I learn of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ passing, that my own mother had a seizure and fell, hitting her head hard on the bathroom floor.  Brain dead, was the verdict upon arriving at the hospital in the early hours of Memorial Day. I was awoken by a call from my sister telling me the news.  Not sure what to do, my sister’s words sprung me into action:  “Come. You need to get on a plane and come.”

I flew out the next day and on the way there, I wrote a poem for my mother, not realizing that this poem would end up becoming the eulogy and that I would be the one to read it.  The words poured out of me, along with my tears and pain, and when it was finished, five pages later, I was devoid of any feeling except one:  The moment in my life that I had dreaded most had arrived—I had lost my mother.

Unlike for Jackie, there was no televised funeral, no dignitaries in attendance.  But there were a lot of friends and family, and even come cousins and one of her sisters, who flew in from Caracas for the occasion.  Together, we shared our sorrow, love and relief.  Relief that the Alzheimer’s could get to her no more, and could not frazzle her brain any further.

The week is mostly a blur now, but I have fleeting memories. Of seeing folks I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in Queens. Of posing for pictures with my siblings and playing in the front yard with my nieces. Of collapsing twice, under the weight of my grief—once upon saying goodbye to my brain dead mother in her hospital room, and once while on a walk with friends.

I remember sitting in the office of the funeral director, going through the motions of choosing everything from the casket to the service, and how, at the last minute, one of my brothers insisted on buying a wooden cross to put in the casket, tucked into her folded hands. I remember the funeral procession and how the police escorts were able to control the traffic lights so that they stayed green for us all the way to the church. I recall, too, not being able to console my father, and arguing with my sister over what flavor ice cream to buy for the wake. Finally, I remember placing a copy of the poem I’d written into my mother’s casket, and wondering whether Caroline Kennedy was faring any better.

Since then, I brace myself at the start of May.  For me, it is a month of reflection, starting with the feelings elicited by Mother’s Day. During the month, I quietly remember Jackie, Frank Sinatra, and Phil Hartman (who was tragically murdered by his wife), who each contributed greatly to this world and were favorites of ours.  And when Memorial Day weekend rolls around once again, my brain compels me to relive that  time, 17 years ago. Which is when it hits me:  May must be a hard month for Caroline, too.

So I leave you today with an excerpt from the poem I wrote for my mother.

There is so much more I want to say:

I want to thank her for showing me the moon, the stars,

For making a romantic out of me,

A Dreamer.

For taking me into her garden of creativity,

Filled with roses, tulips, pussy willows,

Lush with life and grace,

For taking me to story hour at the library,

Encouraging me to read, to discover,

To Feel

The Wonders of my youth…the unexpected possibilities,

Amazing me time and again,

Over and over,

With her passionate love and devotion,

Strength and resilience.

For forgiving me my rebellion, my trespasses—

Sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening—

For allowing me to pursue my own life on my own terms.

For loving me–Right or Wrong.

Before the Alzheimer’s began to take her from us,

Mercilessly, relentlessly.

Before she lost her memory, her identity,

I can remember her.

My Mother.

My Selfless, Fearless, Loving Mother

I want to thank her now but I know,

I can never thank her enough,

Yet I want to thank her,

For to me she is still the most beautiful mother in the world.