August, 2008

My father spent several years working for Voice of America Radio. He had various assignments, but spent the bulk of his time there working out of the Special Events office. He would travel all over the place to cover all manner of important and newsworthy happenings. He covered the March On Washington, the Cuban Missile Crisis, most of the NASA space shots, and the bulk of the Viet Nam war, even being wounded during the Tet Offensive. He interviewed everyone from Somerset Maugham to Spiro Agnew. He loved the work, and the changing nature of it. Just being "where the story was happening" had terrific appeal to him.

On this particular day, his assignment was to cover the return to the U.S. of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, who had been overseas on a fact-finding or goodwill tour of some sort. It wasn't supposed to be a big deal, really; Air Force One was going to land at Idlewild Airport in New York, be met by civilian, military and government functionaries, and the President was going to say a few words to the press before going on to speak at the United Nations.

In those days, before digital cameras and min-recorders, audio and video equipment was far bulkier. TV cameras were huge things, and required a lot of space. The traditional setup for public events was to have journalists grouped in a central area, with the most of the TV people on a riser or platform so their view was unobstructed. Radio people, still photographers and print journalists were spread out below.

Pop was there, portable tape recorder slung over one shoulder, microphone in hand, headphones on, as part of the press pool covering the event. The tape recorder, a battery-operated, reel-to-reel unit, was the size of a small suitcase, and heavy. The microphone and headphones plugged into it. Pop was doing a sort of "You Are There", color commentary thing, describing the crowd, the weather, the airport, the President's entourage deplaning and proceeding across the tarmac. JFK's route from the plane would take him past the press stand to a podium festooned with microphones where he would address the crowd, and then he'd move on to a waiting group of limos where his party and their Secret Service escorts would travel to the U.N.

Pop is at the far left side of the press stand, and JFK's party is approaching from the far right end of the runway. As he's doing his moment-by-moment coverage he sees, from the corner of his eye, a man step out of the crowd off to his left, and begin jogging in the direction of the President's group, who are drawing closer to him by the moment. As Pop watches, the guy picks up speed, breaking into a fast trot. Everyone is focused on JFK and Jackie approaching from the right, and nobody seems to think anything about this guy hauling ass toward them. He's about to move directly in front of Pop, and as he pumps his arms --beginning to sprint, now-- Pop sees he's got something long and shiny in his hand.

Now, before he became a reporter, my father was a welterweight boxer as well as a paratrooper and hand-to-hand combat instructor with the 17th Airborne. He was sharp, he was fast and he was nobody you'd ever want to cross. His only thought as this guy drew abreast of him was "WEAPON!" His reaction time was excellent. He kicked outwards and swept the guy's legs out from under him, and clobbered him squarely in the back of the head with his microphone as the man fell.

Pop describes the rest of the scene: "In about a second, the Secret Service were all over this guy, who'd gone sprawling on his hands and knees. This was followed by a bunch uniformed cops sort of piling on. JFK and Jackie were surrounded by agents, and hustled off to one side. People were swarming over this guy, and I suddenly realized two things: The first was that the object that came flying out of his hand was a screwdriver. The second was that the guy was wearing a jacket with the NBC logo on it."

It turns out he was a TV engineer of some kind, and he was running to fix some problem with a camera on the press stand so they could get the footage they wanted!

"The poor S.O.B.'s hands were all skinned up, he'd torn the knees out of his pants, and I'd given him a great big lump on the back of his head. I thought he was going to try to stab JFK! "

The guy was hustled away for some first aid, and in a few moments, calm descended over the scene. The Presidential party continued on toward the podium and the bank of microphones set up for JFK's remarks. As he passed the press stand, JFK caught Pop's eye, and gave him a little nod and a wink.

"He was sort of saying 'Attaboy', you know? Like I'd done something pretty damned slick. I think I gave him the world's stupidest, most embarrassed grin in return. Oh, man, I felt like a complete asshole!"

For years afterward, any time I wanted to knock him down a peg when he'd get carried away telling any of his globe-trotting reporter stories, all I had to do was say "Hey, Pop-- tell the one about how you saved JFK..." and I'd get this murderous glare from him, before he'd burst into laughter and shake his head.

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