Sunday, March 10, 2024

It’s an Honor

Jimmy Breslin (1928–2017)
From Jimmy Breslin: Essential Writings

Graveside view during the state funeral of President John F. Kennedy with members of the Kennedy family, officials, and dignitaries. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, November 25, 1963. Photograph by White House photographer Cecil W. Stoughton (1920–2008). Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
During the recent LOA Live program “Deadline Artist: The Genius of Jimmy Breslin,” New York Times columnist Dan Barry described what made Breslin’s columns so memorable. “Breslin is writing on deadline, and he’s figuring out how to use language differently and economically in such a way that, to my mind, it rises to literature. Even though he was known as the guy from Queens Boulevard who was hanging out at Pep Maguire’s and all this kind of stuff, he was a deep, deep reader—a deep reader of Dostoevsky and all the classics. He wouldn't wear it on his sleeve, but I think it informed how he wrote as well.”

“He’s writing short stories, magnificent short stories,” agreed fellow journalist Mike Barnicle, “three, four, sometimes five days a week but at least three days a week on deadline. . . . There are a lot of other newspaper columnists in the world—and we are not running any of them down by saying this—but there was Jimmy Breslin and then there was literally everyone else.”

One could say that Breslin got his start in journalism when he was around ten years old and began publishing The Flash, his own neighborhood newspaper. His father had abandoned the family years earlier and left behind a wife holding down a job in the city’s Department of Welfare and raising two children; “she used to drink too much,” recalled Breslin, a heavy drinker himself. One evening he found his mother holding a pistol to her head. Screaming for his grandmother, he wrestled the gun away. The following day no mention was made at home of the struggle, but he reported the incident in his paper with the headline, “Mother Tried Suicide.” (He later noted that the headline should have been in the present tense.)

By the time he turned 17, in 1945, he was a copyboy at the Long Island Press, where he fantasized that the copy he urgently ran across the newsroom concerned events of historic import; instead, it was often “four paragraphs about the Eastern Queens Civic Association.” He later told Pete Hamill, “I didn’t learn anything there. They taught you nothing. But it was a lot of friggin’ fun.” He took courses at Long Island University, where he “majored in excuses” before dropping out. Beginning in 1950, he worked inauspiciously as a sportswriter for the New York Journal American and other metropolitan area papers, and it wasn’t until 1962 that he received widespread attention for his humorous and lacerating columns about the bumbling New York Mets’ first season, including the Sports Illustrated essay “Worst Baseball Team Ever” and the book Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?

John Hay Whitney, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune, bought the serial rights for Breslin’s book about the Mets and then hired him to write a five-days-a-week column. “So with absolutely no direction I invented a new form for news pages, a column based on something happening right now in this city,” Breslin later wrote. He had been working at the Herald Tribune for only a few months when, late in November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Breslin wrote the stories that altered the trajectory of his career.

“People remember the gravedigger story,” recounted Barry in a recent television program with fellow Times correspondent Sam Roberts.
He writes the story about Mr. Pollard, who dug the grave for John F. Kennedy at Arlington. But before that, he had done this brilliant story about the doctor who received Kennedy’s body and spent several panicked minutes trying to massage the President’s heart, even though the president was dead, while the president's wife was standing there watching. . . .

And then it’s Thanksgiving time—he’s back in New York. And what does he do on Thanksgiving morning? He goes to the Automat, and he writes—really what he’s writing about is a city in mourning, or a country in mourning—but he never says that. He just describes these lonely hearts sitting in an Automat on Thanksgiving Day.
“Otherwise it was a vacant day in the Automat,” Breslin wrote. “Which was right. Yesterday was a day meant to be vacant.”

The stories Breslin wrote that month “led to this idea of the Gravedigger Theory of journalism,” explained Library of America editor James Gibbon at the LOA forum. “The idea is that you want to look in a story for an unlikely person that somehow expresses something about the story that everyone else is missing. It's a little bit of a corollary to the dictum of sportswriters that says if you want the real story don't go to the winners’ locker room, go to the losers’ locker room.” Former Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica added, “Jimmy gave a lot of credit to Murray Kempton, because the day Don Larsen pitched his perfect game in the [1956] World Series, Kempton went and wrote about Sal Maglie, who had pitched the game of his life and lost two-nothing.” Breslin’s story about Clifton Pollard stood in marked contrast to the rest of the international media’s coverage of Kennedy’s funeral, which focused on its somber choreography. The so-called Gravedigger Theory and the column that spawned it are now ubiquitous in courses on journalism.

A half century after Breslin wrote that column (which we present below), Pat Fenton, a reporter for The Irish Echo, a New York City paper, interviewed him and asked about his “most famous article”:
“What were your thoughts about that when you got back to New York after you wrote it?”

“I went back to the Tribune office and wrote the column. And then I went out and got on the train to New York. Got off at Penn Station. And I took the train out to Queens on the Long Island Railroad, and I went to Pep McGuire’s Bar on Queens Boulevard. And that was it. Pepi was there and he asked me where I had been. And I said give me a drink. And I was there until midnight.

“I got murdered with whisky,” he said as he remembered a day when his whole writing life was about to take a different course. “My wife had to come down and get me out of the place. And that was it.”
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Comments from the LOA Live event have been edited for clarity. Some of the biographical details above are from the Chronology in Jimmy Breslin: Essential Writings, edited by Dan Barry

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For this week’s selection, we depart from the usual format and reproduce the selection, in its entirety, below. You may also download it as a PDF or view it in Google Docs

It’s an Honor

WASHINGTON—Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m. in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Nettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting.

It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.”

Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him.

“Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.”

Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket which scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging.

Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it.

“That’s nice soil,” Metzler said.

“I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”

James Winners, another gravedigger, nodded. He said he would fill a couple of carts with this extra-good soil and take it back to the garage and grow good turf on it.

“He was a good man,” Pollard said.

“Yes, he was,” Metzler said.

“Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up,” Pollard said. “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”

Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352d Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacqueline Kennedy started walking toward the grave. She came out from under the north portico of the White House and slowly followed the body of her husband, which was in a flag-covered coffin that was strapped with two black leather belts to a black caisson that had polished brass axles. She walked straight and her head was high. She walked down the bluestone and blacktop driveway and through shadows thrown by the branches of seven leafless oak trees. She walked slowly past the sailors who held up flags of the states of this country. She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes. She walked out the northwest gate and into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.

Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly. Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran onto her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.

There was mass, and then the procession to Arlington. When she came up to the grave at the cemetery, the casket already was in place. It was set between brass railings and it was ready to be lowered into the ground. This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. But she walked up to the burial area and stood in front of a row of six green-covered chairs and she started to sit down, but then she got up quickly and stood straight because she was not going to sit down until the man directing the funeral told her what seat he wanted her to take.

The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is President and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often.

Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House.

“What time is it?” a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch.

“Twenty minutes past three,” he said.

Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards.

“They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when.”

“I tried to go over to see the grave,” he said. “But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn’t get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I’ll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it’s an honor.”

First published in the New York Herald Tribune, November 26, 1963, and collected in The World of Jimmy Breslin (1967). © 1963 by Jimmy Breslin. Published by arrangement with the Jimmy Breslin Literary Trust.