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Remembering JFK on his 100th Birthday

I wrote this piece to remember and honor President Kennedy in November 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. It's a happier occasion now to repeat it on his centennial, May 29, 2017.

As commander-in-chief of all our armed services, President John F. Kennedy was supposed to be impartial, especially regarding that greatest of inter-service rivalries, the Army-Navy game. In the two games Kennedy attended as president, he dutifully spent part of each contest in the company of roaring West Point cadets, before striding across the field at halftime to join the roaring brigade of midshipmen. But we midshipmen knew whose side the skipper of PT 109 was really on.

President Kennedy was a Navy man, through and through, and his death affected the Naval Academy community all the more deeply because of that association. He was not just our commander-in-chief; he was also our brother in arms.

The brigade had marched in his inauguration parade on January 20, 1961, my plebe year. I remember giving special attention to my appearance as I rushed to get ready that morning: dress blues, well brushed; hair, trimmed close and tight; face, scraped razor-clean; shoes, spit-shined. The occasion warranted such care, but, honestly, my status as a demerit-magnet and a need to avoid further censure by hawk-eyed upperclassmen were my primary concerns.

A cold drizzle turned to wet snow as we boarded the bus caravan that would take us from Annapolis to Washington. Like most things military, it washurry up and wait; after arrival in D.C., we stood freezing on a side street during the ceremonies. Despite the cold, Kennedy wore no topcoat—his way of demonstrating that the torch had been passed to a new, more vigorous generation. He took the oath and delivered one of the most stirring inaugural addresses ever.

When the brigade finally passed in review, I wasn't thinking about fine speeches or momentous occasions or anything besides how wet and cold I was. We never caught sight of the assembled dignitaries but were content to be there nonetheless, honoring our new president.

Less than two years later, in October 1962, President John F. Kennedy brought great honor upon himself by guiding the nation through its most dangerous moment in history, the Cuban missile crisis. And he used the Navy as the instrument of this singular accomplishment.

Faced with the reality of Soviet missiles just 90 miles from our shores and within range of major cities, Kennedy ignored the generals who were advocating aerial bombardment of the missile sites, a move that surely would have triggered a Soviet response of unimaginable proportions. Instead, the president opted for what was euphemistically called a naval "quarantine" but was really a blockade and, therefore, an act of war. Importantly, it left the door open to diplomacy, and thanks to a secret deal with the Soviets—they would remove their missiles and warheads from Cuba and, later, we would remove ours from Turkey—nuclear war was averted.

We were a proud bunch of midshipmen when the order came to stand down from the crisis. And we celebrated in December with our fourth consecutive win over Army. The cheers that greeted the president that day had a wider meaning than football.
Nearly a year later, life was good in Annapolis. We were days from the next Army-Navy game, and our team, led by captain Tom Lynch and soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, was riding high. We were ranked No. 2 in the nation, following blow-out wins against West Virginia, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh.

My first afternoon class on Friday, November 22, 1963, was ship navigation, a subject that held little interest for me. After spending a sea-sick summer aboard a destroyer, Navy Air was to be my future service choice. When an officer entered the classroom just after 2:00 p.m. and asked our instructor to step outside, I sensed that something was wrong. The instructor, a Navy captain, returned moments later and appeared shaken. I remember distinctly the thought that entered my mind me just before he spoke.

"He's going to tell us the president is dead," I said to myself.

I was close. President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, the instructor said, and his condition was grave. He told us to return to Bancroft Hall, our dormitory. And that's where the brigade of midshipmen watched events unfold and where we waited and grieved with the rest of the world. A call went out for volunteers to march one more time for President Kennedy, in his funeral procession. For some unknown reason, each participant had to be six feet tall, a mark I missed by an inch.

In the days that followed, there was talk of canceling the Army-Navy game, out of respect for the president. But then Jackie Kennedy let it be known that her husband would have wanted the game to go on. And so, on December 7, 1963, midshipmen paid one last honor to their fallen commander-in-chief, Navy man John F. Kennedy.

Navy 21, Army 15.
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