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Cinco de Mayo - A Trans-formative Day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Naples, Italy, Monday, April 27, 1958: I checked out of my Naval Security Group office on the heights of Posillipo and walked to the Personnel office in the adjacent building to pick up my departure orders and personnel and pay records. Gil McDonald, one of my suite mates at the Hotel Tricarico, where we were billeted, was in charge of the transportation office. He gave me my choice of returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for my discharge by either ship, a one-week monotonous voyage on a troop transport, or by plane, via Paris. Naturally, I chose Paris.

I left Naples early the next morning on a Navy diplomatic courier flight and landed at Le Bourget Airport later that morning. I checked into the Hotel Le Littre, a facility managed by the Air Force for U.S. servicemen and their families in transit. I had spent two fun days there earlier that month on my way to the opening of the World’s Fair in Brussels, and things were normal with the usual hustle and bustle in this glorious City of Light. Things had changed in that short span of time. There was tension in the air. Paris was in political turmoil. U.S. military personnel were advised to be careful and return to the hotel no later than 2300.

I quickly found out why. The French Army had taken control of the politically unstable Algerian government and was demanding the return of Charles de Gaulle to lead France. In a few weeks, the French Parliament returned him to power as Prime Minister; and at the end of the year he was elected President of France, and would serve for another ten years. Leaving the hotel that afternoon I found Gendarmes standing at every corner in Paris with automatic weapons at the ready. It would be the only time in my countless trips to Paris over the years that I was anxious to leave.

Late the next day, I boarded a Military Air Transport Command (MATS) DC5 and via the Azores and Newfoundland arrived at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey at noon the next day. An Air Force bus dropped me and about ten other sailors off at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at four that afternoon. After checking in at the Navy Receiving Station on Flushing Avenue, I was home at our apartment in Woodside at six o’clock with my sea bag and all my gear. After greeting the family, Dad and I had a drink with some of his friends at a neighborhood watering hole before returning home for dinner. Following dinner, I reunited with a girl in Sunnyside who I had dated while on leave in 1957.

Early the next morning, I took the subway to the Navy Yard with an overnight bag packed with working shoes, dungarees, and a foul weather jacket. After turning down an assignment to pick up a prisoner in Buffalo and return him by train to the Navy Brig, I was put in charge of a line handling party to assist the debarkation on an aircraft carrier and its three destroyer escorts. That proved to be a considerable challenge since my working party was replete with lazy misfits.

The following day, Friday, May 2nd, I was called to the Personnel Office and informed that I would be discharged the following Monday, May 5th, nine days ahead of my scheduled May 13th discharge. I also learned that I had passed the test for First Class Petty Officer (E6 rank). It was quite an accomplishment for someone a week shy of 21, but the promotion would not be effective until June 1st. The “Catch 22” was that the promotion would only be awarded if I extended my enlistment for another year. I was willing to extend my service for another three months, but another year, even in Naples, was out of the question. I never doubted my decision. Looking back, in John Greenleaf Whittier’s words, it was never an “it might have been” moment for me. It was an easy decision. I was foregoing the security of a Navy career and taking the opportunity the G.I. Bill offered. I was going to college that fall.

The morning of May 5th proved to be both a serious and amusing moment in my life. The night before, Joe Aigner, a colorful character that my sister Rose was dating, offered to drive me back to the Navy Yard in his 1956 black Pontiac convertible and pick me up the next morning outside the Receiving Station. Joe, 6'2" and weighting about 225 pounds, was a fun-loving, carefree, larger-than-life guy you were immediately drawn to.

After morning chow, I stripped my bunk, turned in my Navy issued and well-worn blanket that had traveled the world with me, to the Quartermaster’s office, and checked out of the Personnel office, where I turned in my ID card was handed my personnel records, final pay, had my photo taken, and was issued an Inactive Navy Reserve ID card.

There were about 25 of us being discharged that morning, most from the New York Metropolitan area. We assembled outside the Personnel office on the main deck and marched to the front entrance and down the steps into a small courtyard surrounded by a chain link fence. The Brooklyn Navy Yard band was playing a medley of marching music as we assembled in two columns. Outside the fence on Flushing Avenue, Joe Aigner was waiting in his convertible with the hood down and the radio blaring.

When the Navy band finished playing, a flustered young lieutenant had to compete with James Brown singing “Good Golly Miss Molly” as he vainly tried to wish us farewell. He paused and turned towards Joe who was leaning back behind the wheel, a cigarette in his mouth and a wide smile on his face as he tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm of the music. “Does anyone know this person?” he asked. We all looked at each other and hunched our shoulders everyone smirking, including me. I wasn’t about to test the lieutenant and admit that Joe was there for me. I wouldn’t be officially discharged until he said dismissed. I waited with baited breath until he did.

Thankfully, there was a brief lull in the music from Joe’s car radio as the lieutenant continued to speak, but he was soon interrupted by the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up Little Suzie.” At that point, the lieutenant gave up, wished us good luck and stormed up the steps and into the building just as the Navy band struck up “Anchors Aweigh.” We all turned and saluted the flag before we walked out onto Flushing Avenue, where I shook hands with a few of the guys and said good bye. As I nodded at Joe to drive to the corner, someone asked me, “Who is that guy?” I smiled and said, “One of the many characters from my neighborhood.” I jogged up the street and threw my gear in the back seat and joined Joe up front. He was laughing. “I hope I didn’t screw things up for you,” he said. I shook my head. Joe was being Joe, and I was setting out in a whole new direction. It was Cinco de Mayo, but at that time I didn’t know the significance of the date, it being the anniversary of the historic Mexican victory over Napoleon’s forces in the 1862 battle of Pueblo. For me, it was a transformative day. My life was beginning anew and that was a significant enough reason for the celebratory drinks that Joe and I would soon be enjoying. Now, when I celebrate Cinco de Mayo I do so with the fond memories of that day in 1958.  Read More 
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The Chappaquiddick Effect

Chappaquiddick, Friday, July 18, 1969, I well remember that day as if it were yesterday. A new movie by that name now brings that story to those not living at that time or too young to remember that event.

In Washington, D.C., the weather was unusually comfortable, relatively mild and sunny with minimum humidity. I took a taxi from my midtown office to the Watergate office building in Foggy Bottom to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee to meet with Mark Shields, then a political campaign strategist. We talked for a few minutes and then left the building and walked under the “K” Street Freeway to Chadwick’s, a popular bar and restaurant in Georgetown.

At lunch, we talked about the state of the nation under the new Nixon administration and the potential Democratic presidential candidates who might have a chance to beat him in 1972. I had been an advance man for President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey and Mark had served in the same capacity for Senator Robert Kennedy (D-NY). His wife, Anne, had worked on Robert Kennedy’s staff. We both agreed that Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME), who had been Hubert Humphrey’s running-mate, had a fair shot for the nomination. Mark would eventually work on his behalf during the 1972 primaries. There also was Senator George McGovern (D-SD), who would eventually get the nomination. At that time, however, we didn’t think he had a chance. In our view, the nomination was a “done deal” for Senator Edward M. “Teddy” Kennedy (D-MA), should he decide to make the race.

We finished our beers and cheeseburgers and walked back to Mark’s office. After we fixed a date when he and Anne could spend the weekend at our place in North Bethany, Delaware, I took a taxi back to my office.

When I arrived back at the office there was a message to call Mark. I did. He grabbed the phone on the first ring. Mark, always self-assured, as those who see him on PBS every Friday evening know, was anything but this time. He told me what he had learned. It was a hazy story about a place called Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. A place where a girl named Mary Jo, who had worked with Anne Shields on Bobby Kennedy’s staff, had died in an auto accident earlier that morning. Teddy Kennedy was the driver. That was all he knew.

For the next few weeks that was all we would know. Unlike Mary Jo Kopechne, the story would not die. Mary Jo had drowned in the shallow water of Poucha Pond when Kennedy’s car went off Dike Bridge, a short, narrow, and unlit wooden structure lacking guard rails. Kennedy had made it out of the car and left the scene. His story was questionable then, and still is now. Kennedy had told Dominick Arena, the Edgartown police chief, that the accident happened on Thursday evening at 11:15 p.m., but he had waited until 9:30 a.m. on Friday morning to report it.

Bob Clark (Robert G. Clark, Jr.), a friend of mine from Georgetown Law School, who lived in the dormitory town house next to mine, represented Kennedy in the Edgartown court before Judge James A. Boyle. Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, and Boyle accepted the agreement that Clark had worked out to suspend the sentence of two months in the Barnstable Jail. It might have been the best lawyering that Bob would do in his long and distinguished career, although it was never mentioned in his May, 2013 obituary.

Chappaquiddick killed Ted Kennedy’s chances for the presidential nomination in 1972 and forever weakened him as a political figure. But by the end of the 1970’s, Kennedy’s popularity had strengthened due in part to his leadership on social issues in the U.S. Senate and the weakened position and unpopularity of the incumbent President James E. “Jimmy” Carter.

Kennedy’s popularity rang true for me in a personal experience in 1979 on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the White House on October 6th. Having previously represented the Pauline Fathers, a Polish order and the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and in addition to my fund raising efforts on behalf of President Carter, my wife, Mary-Margaret and I were invited to the White House ceremony on the south lawn along with a few hundred others. We had seats close up. Sitting to our right was U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica, who had presided over the prosecution of the Watergate case defendants, and to our left three young Polish-American priests from Detroit, a city which then had a large Polish-American population.

It was an exciting day, all of us gawking at the familiar faces of numerous and distinguished people from politics, finance, the arts, theater, television and film. The crowd was abuzz in anticipation of seeing the Pontiff close up. The good mood spurred greetings and extended conversations. At some point in my conversations with Sirica and the priests, one of the priests mentioned that he thought that President Carter was weak on foreign policy and that he planned to support Ted Kennedy.

I pondered his words briefly and responded irreverently: “Father, with all due respect, how could you support that man who had left that sweet Polish-American girl Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in Chappaquiddick?”

He lowered his head and raising it, smiled slightly and responded, “Have you no forgiveness in your heart?”

At that moment, I knew that memories were short, that Chappaquiddick had faded, and that Jimmy Carter’s days might be numbered.  Read More 
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