THE FUNERAL OF JFK-BEHIND THE SCENES –1:42-1:49 Paul
I enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the age of seventeen. It was a cold January on Long Island, NY and I was hoping to be sent to San Diego for basic training. I should have known better…I was sent to Great Lakes, Ill. A US Navy bus met us at the airport and deposited us at what was the Naval UDT School. (Underwater Demolition) Soon thereafter to be renamed, “Navy Seals.” We stepped off the bus and we were immediately greeted by some guy in a uniform, the left arm of which was covered in stripes and chevrons that might have impressed someone who understood what the hell they meant. Looking very mean and aggressive, he began shouting, “fall-in! you New York Scumbags!” Few of us had any idea why he felt the need to greet us in such a hostile manner…nor did we have any idea what “fall-in” meant and where he expected us to comply with such an oxymoronic command. There followed lots of jostling and noisy mimicking. We assumed that this guy was some sort of an advanced greeting party sent to make us feel welcomed and we should report him to human resources at our earliest opportunity. Looking back and forth at each other we smiled at his slurs about our New York heritage figuring that this was some kind of an initiation party and that we would soon be escorted to a place of welcome and frivolity. At that point, any questions that we might have had regarding the reality of our situation were quickly dispelled when a bunch of other guys in similar uniforms stood behind our tormentor, looking even meaner and more imposing. Did I really sign up for this kind of abuse? Suddenly, I had a compelling need to call my mother. We learned very quickly how to “fall-in” and we were rapidly marched to the barbers who had heard all of the quips about, “just a little off the sides” and with the utmost efficiency removed every bit of hair that we cherished. As if that wasn’t enough humiliation for one day, we were marched to a barracks where we were ordered to disrobe down to our “skivvies” (now there’s a new name for my tighty whities.) Fall-In! There we go again. I got the distinct feeling that this wasn’t going to be fun. “Now! Turn around, drop your shorts, bend over and spread your cheeks.” Are you kidding? The last time, I did that, I was three years old and my mother shoved a thermometer up my butt and I definitely didn’t like it. “Eyes Front!” Yeah…right? Not when someone’s sneaking up behind me. “You! Griffin!” The name’s Paul, Sir. “I said, Eyes Front!” Oh dear God…what have I gotten myself into? Enter the base physician wearing glasses and resembling Tim Conway as Mr. Dorf…At last…maybe someone with whom we could reason. “Turn around and keep your mouths shut and your cheeks spread!” Doctor Dorf held a government issue flash light and proceeded down the column of the damned. We were definitely brought to humility which was just where they needed us to be for the ensuing weeks of basic training. Every morning at six am we learned how to “fall-in” on the hard frozen parade grounds where we were put through a rigorous regiment of push-ups, sit-ups, squat-thrusts and other assorted physical training. Afterwards we were assembled in a room with a very high platform and a very deep pool. This was my meat and potatoes. I loved swimming and diving. The tower was representative of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier…roughly fifty feet. I found it exhilarating but it certainly weeded out those whom I questioned the wisdom of their decision to enlist in the Navy. There were those who were afraid of heights and those who couldn’t swim and that was their ticket back home. Then we did laps in the pool with our uniforms on, learned how to tread water while removing heavy clothing and turning our trousers into a flotation device. Another test that was specific to the Navy was fire training school. We were put through a series of oil fired tanks and buildings under smoke filled conditions simulating a shipboard fire where we were expected to extinguish the fire. By the end of our tour at basic training, our drill instructor and tormentor was still referring to us as New York Scumbags, but the smile on his face betrayed his benevolent respect and we now accepted the slur against our home state as a badge of accomplishment.
My first assignment was in Washington, D.C. for the funeral of president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Out of hundreds of thousands of active military service personnel, the Navy assumed the role of honor since JFK had also served in the Navy. I was part of an elite group of naval personnel selected for the color guard detail at The White House. We spent the next few days preparing for our role in the nation’s mourning process by industriously detailing uniforms: metal buttons, belt buckles, pins, ribbons and making certain that our shoes reflected hours of rigorous spit shining. Daily drills on the parade ground took on an intensity that was palpable while the intervening hours were passed with never-ending inspections; this was not the time to be the only nail in a room full of hammers. There are many stories from that day and I have been fortunate to have reflected upon them with my “band of brothers” and fellow “Cold Warriors!
I can still recall vividly, the eerie silence of the nation’s capitol on that cold and windy November day as the body of our slain president; John Fitzgerald Kennedy lay in state within the Rotunda of The Capitol building. A sea of humanity waited solemnly to file past the casket to pay their respects. While the mass of mourners stretched all the way down Pennsylvania Avenue, the sound was of a deafening silence.
On the day of the funeral and after a full hearty breakfast at the Navy barracks in Anacostia, with plenty of hot coffee fortifying us for the long ordeal ahead, we arrived at the White House at nine in the morning. The casket wasn’t scheduled to arrive until one and so we milled around in the gardens to the rear, in full view of the global media and the general public that had gathered inquisitively around the perimeter. Awaiting the arrival of the horse-drawn casket and funeral procession, which included such world leaders as the French President, General Charles De Gaulle, and British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan; minutes stretched into hours and a group consciousness began to coalesce and to overtake all else…too much coffee!!! The metabolic consequence and the realization of time and place began to weigh heavily upon each of us. Where are the facilities when you need them? Gazing intently at the nation’s presidential residence like pointers at a duck hunt with Dick Cheney, it soon became apparent that relief for us would not be coming from within that noble edifice. We searched frantically for an alternative repository and an authority wiser than us, (who was wiser than us?) or failing that, an appropriate place to relieve ourselves.
It was a bright autumn day with a cold, brisk wind and we had recently converted from summer whites to winter dress blues. Those traditional Navy trousers, with a toll of thirteen buttons restricting access to a region frequently requiring access (designed, I’m sure by someone with a sadistic sense of humor) were going to make any attempt at being covert in our mission a little more challenging…especially while in full view of the world-wide media. This was not to be our finest hour, but as is evident by this testimonial, one that would remain indelible on our adolescent and still developing cerebral capacities. “Where were you during Kennedy’s funeral?…Um, er…I was peeing on the White House lawn.” Under the circumstances, pragmatism superseded discretion and valor. A multilateral decision was hastily made and we gathered into a comradely group in order to provide a modicum of screening privacy and some added encouragement for the current performer. It was very cold out!
One of our number (I will never forget, nor will I ever divulge his name) suffered from performance anxiety or “stage fright!” and he felt that no matter what, he could not bring himself to so desecrate (or decorate) our nation’s iconic residence in such a manner.
Finally, the time arrived for us to “fall-in” and to march around to the front of the White House. We were wearing harnesses to support some rather large and heavy flags which, under some extremely gusty conditions became cumbersome and difficult to control while they transferred jack-hammer like thrusts to our thankfully relieved bladders…with the exception of one! With each step, his grunts of remorse were becoming a major distraction from the solemnity of the occasion. Although we felt empathy, there was a wee bit of Schadenfreude in each of us as his discomfort validated our pragmatism.
We assumed our positions on either side of the horseshoe driveway…Attention! Eyes straight forward! The hooves of the approaching horses lent a cadence and some additional tension to our moment in history! The bright sunlight over my shoulder…a reflection catches my eye…Concentrate! TV cameras…Lower my flag as the casket approaches…Is that tears in my eyes? What is that shimmering across from me? Concentrate! Like the magnetic attraction of a bountiful cleavage to a young man, or to any man who’s still breathing for that matter, my eyes are inexorably drawn. Oh My! Concentrate! TV cameras…Solemn moment! Poor fellow! The moment passes; the casket passes as does a tell-tale stream from across the driveway. (Could have been the horses!)
Next to follow were the dignitaries. While we raised our flags from their lowered positions, they began to snap and crack in the wind. It was appropriate that one flag down the line, in an ironically French gesture actually slapped General Charles De Gaulle across the face.
This became one of many episodes that propelled me to formulate my life’s philosophy as an Empathetic Pragmatist: “I feel your pain but WTF can I do about it?”
I was reassigned to the Naval Warfare School in Dam Neck, VA where upon completion of the prescribed courses, I joined the staff of Admiral Kleber Masterson, Commander Second Fleet and NATO “Strike Force Atlantic.” After the United States and the Soviet Union backed away from the brink of nuclear annihilation during “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” our task was to shadow the Soviet fleet into the North Atlantic, Norwegian, Barents and Arctic Seas as it withdrew it’s missiles from Cuba. (And we withdrew ours from Turkey.) As a further demonstration of strength; we conducted operations along the way with ominous names such as: Power Pack or Rolling Thunder or…Two Dogs.
My duties alternated between tracking incoming bogies and standing mid-watches. Alone on the Admiral’s bridge from midnight to four am, could be trying…especially with the green haze of the sweeping radar scopes threatening to send you into a deep somnambulant trance. Like a voice in the wilderness, or a call of the wild, I would occasionally pick up the microphone and reach out to the fleet for a radio check…seeking comfort in the responses from other lonely watch-keepers out there in the impenetrable darkness and eerie vastness of the oceans. The weighty realization that I was the first line of communication between the red war phone and the head of NATO operations kept me inflated.
The Soviets were amazingly brazen as they would taunt us by pulling their flagship cruiser up to within a few menacing leagues and then power away leaving us in their wake. After many months at sea, the solitude began to invade the very depths of my being while the anxiety brought about by “Crazy Ivan” and the relentless pounding of the northern seas could raise the stress to seemingly intolerable levels…and even more so when General Quarters would sound at two in the morning sending everyone running for their battle stations. Especially discomforting was the sight of repair crews hauling two by fours into the bowels of the ship in order to shore up our leaking hull from the invading North Sea. Later, we would come to know that another ship in our vicinity had gone down in the storm with all hands lost.
My duties kept me in close proximity with the Admiral and other officers on his staff. Long hours on the Admirals bridge, which was situated on the top deck of the superstructure and above the Captains navigational bridge, found us deeply engaged in strategic discussions and philosophies…not only about our nemesis (the Soviet Navy) lurking just off our starboard bow, but also about the ever-expanding and encroaching involvement into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Men in uniforms share a common bond. Opinions expressed during informal discussions; no matter from high or low are weighed with respect or indulgence. To nuke or not to nuke was a hot topic. The consensus early on was considered by the simplest and most basic of mission statements: “Win the war” or get the hell out! Hind sight is, of course twenty/twenty but even back then, it seemed clear that we were not fully committed to such an engagement. Most of us were confused as to why we were even there. The domino theory just didn’t make any sense and drawing a line on a map is rarely a solution for resolving any perceived differences between people of common heritage and culture. Korea has yet to be resolved, as can be said about northern and southern Ireland. People will always look more toward their commonalities as they seek equanimity within their own culture.
What a welcomed relief it was when we pulled into Boston Harbor for a week of R&R. Or so I thought. After all of the fleet operations, the Navy suddenly remembered that I wasn’t just an Admiral’s Liaison or ASW-AAW technician, but I was also a musician. I was called upon to join an all forces orchestra to perform at the Esplanade. Rehearsals lasted a couple of days and by the time of the concert, I felt confident that I knew the music well enough that during a particularly exposed and beautiful trumpet solo, I would only require limited need of referral to the music and could therefore focus my attention upon the conductor’s baton and thus render a performance the likes of which would never again be heard. It was a beautiful autumn evening with a waning sunset and a welcomed breeze coming off of the Charles river. The music rendered the perfect accompaniment for nature’s tranquil exposition. My moment had arrived. I looked to the maestro, the maestro looked to me…a playful gust of wind tousled my hair and immediately proceeded to carry my music aloft. Suddenly, any confidence that I might have had in my ability to recall the exact notes on the page quickly evaporated and so I waxed eloquently and covered brilliantly with a few “ad libs” from page two of the Hot Licks For Dummies book. What a shame we were performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2. The look on the “maestros’” face was priceless!
My de-mob day came on July 9th, 1966 and I was simply amazed at the absolute genius of the United States Navy and how, after several years of continuous maneuvers at sea, they could arrive back in port for the exact moment in time when I was due to be released from my military obligation. When asked if I would reconsider signing for another four years, my reply was, “surely you jest!” I had plans.
The late sixties saw many a student uprising against American foreign policy and our military bore the slings and arrows of outrageous demonstrations. Like many other servicemen of the era, I had been advised not to travel home in uniform. Leaving my uniforms behind, I was eager to embark on a new chapter in my life. I wasn’t to be reunited with my uniforms for nearly forty years, although I did manage to outfit myself during the intervening years. It was on the occasion of a reunion with a navy buddy that he revealed that he had stowed them away in the event that we would once again cross paths. Attempting to squeeze into my former twenty-nine inch waist was an indication of just how far I had traveled on life’s journey. Following what seemed like a lifetime of denial during the years at sea and in the service of our country, I was anxious to reclaim the lost years of my youth, whatever that means. Women were not permitted on US Naval ships in the sixties. Believe me, when you have been at sea for prolonged operations, the sight of a woman is a supreme blessing.
I returned home with little fanfare nor pecuniary evidence of my previous four years of employment by Uncle Sam. Three dollars a day didn’t allow for much extravagance or savings. However, between the G.I. Bill, part-time jobs and supplemental assistance from my parents, I enrolled at Fairleigh Dickenson University where my studies included, Business Management, Business Administration, European History, Philosophy, Psychiatry, Advanced Music Theory, etc. Deflecting the inquisition from my fellow classmates, “where’ve you been for the past four years?” and while furthering my education, I also continued my studies on the trumpet while I performed on The Ed Sullivan Show with Tom Jones, Ella Fitzgerald and countless other well-known icons of the day. I also performed with famed jazz pianist, Bill Evans on a CBS television tribute to Robert Kennedy following his assassination at The Ambassador Hotel in Las Angeles. It seems that I had a rather macabre connection with the Kennedy family.
By virtue of my dad, I was well positioned for a permanent job with CBS staff. I was the “first call” replacement and seemed to be fulfilling that role to the satisfaction of those who made the decisions. All was going according to plan…until…the national musician’s union called a strike against the television networks for the usual reasons…wages and pension plans. Well, now I got to really know the streets of midtown Manhattan as I carried a picket sign proclaiming our grievances to an apathetic public. My own brother, Jerry, a director for CBS News with Harry Smith and Paula Zahn, stopped for a quick chat and an apology before entering the building. Although we did get support from some of the other trade unions, this would ultimately be the swan song for the network staff orchestras.
I would come to know that except for the decidedly diminished level of compensation, music as a profession is very much akin to a sports career, while the study and dedication is more comparable to that of a top surgeon…many years of study, solitary daily practice, private tuition, lab work, internship, free agency and hopefully a selection by one of the majors. “Who’s Paul Griffin? Get me Paul Griffin! Get me a young Paul Griffin. Who’s Paul Griffin?” “Why don’t you get a real job?” By the ripe old age of forty, the new crop of energetic and wide-eyed dreamers are nipping at your heels. Personally, I started at the top and worked my way down.
As for the network musicians…after nearly forty years of contracted employment and with little or no fanfare or public outcry, the network broadcast studios were divesting of their staff orchestras. Following years of dedicated artistry, those loyal employees were unceremoniously shown the door without so much as a gold watch. At great corporate and personal profit for the producers, the networks continued to utilize the recorded product of their former employee’s for many years thereafter, but with minimal compensation to the musicians who WERE the product. I can still watch myself in syndication reruns of The Ed Sullivan Show. Listed in the credits are: lighting, sound, electricians, grips, chauffeurs, etc. But, conspicuously absent are the names of the very musicians without whom there would not have been a program to broadcast. Many of those musicians were living legends whom had migrated to the studios from the bands of Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, etc. My dad’s pension after a thirty-five year contract with CBS came to three hundred dollars a month.
Irwin/Griffin Music Studio in Teaneck, New Jersey
My dad, and trumpeter Pee Wee Irwin recognized the irrevocable progression of middle age crisis that all professional musicians will ultimately face. They pooled their resources as they set out to build a teaching and recording studio in Teaneck, New Jersey. They were to pull together some of the finest New York City studio musicians into a teaching staff of unequaled caliber; those very same musicians who had recently experienced such callous dismissals by their former network employers.
And so…from dreams of a fulfilling future as a studio trumpet player, to hanging sheet rock for twenty teaching studios, I readjusted my compass and charted a new course. I spent many long hours of practice in those studios; sometimes up to eight hours a day. I made the rounds of rehearsal bands and eventually the phone began to ring and I was gaining a reputation as a lead trumpet player. One of my first steady jobs was at The Westbury Music Fair. There, I played with a collection of marvelous musicians as we accompanied such great performers as Diahanna Ross and The Supremes, Joe Williams from the Count Basie band, and the hilarious comedy of Syd Caesar and Immogene Coca. The music was rewarding and the shows changed on a weekly basis. All was going well! Until…after a particularly long rehearsal for a major production conducted by the great composer, Johnny Mandel, I was tempted by a fellow musician to try a little marijuana for relaxation. When it came time for the show, and the conductor raised his hands for the introduction which required forte trumpets, I thought his pose to be so amusingly demonic as to trigger a bout of the giggles. Well, there is nothing more infectious than the giggles when you’re doing a face plant on the trumpet. Soon, there was a trumpet section of players whom from all visual signals appeared to be playing, but not a sound was to be heard. It became obvious that the conductor was not privy to our amusement as his complexion took on a pulsing, radio-active glow…this only served to reinforce the genesis of our amusement. With mouthpiece firmly embedded on what little remained of my embouchure…and tears rolling down my cheeks, the appearance was of one making a supreme effort to pull it together. Eventually, we managed to join the rest of the orchestra somewhere on page five of the overture. It was at that point that I became aware of yet another inopportune side effect of weed…I was ok as long as I was playing. However, when it came to bars of rest, I kept losing count so I began counting on my fingers. Observing my intense concentration on my digits was cause enough for the others to descend into yet another round of giggles. Yep! The phone rang the next day. However, mercy was shown and we all kept our jobs.