May 17, 2004, was a
date I anticipated for many years. I overcame obstacles both academic and
personal to find myself at commencement: I was graduating from the State
University of New York at Oswego with a degree in English/Writing Arts. (In
addition to proving my intellectual endurance, the EWA degree also licenses me
to work the Fryolator at any McDonald�s in the country!)
One of these
obstacles was the ironic intolerance of students who shamelessly proclaimed
their liberal ideals. Liberalism, which should be fairly synonymous with
pluralism, is practiced with a blind eye toward thoughts with which one does
not agree. I possess very few extreme positions, but there are many issues for
which college students, removed from real world concerns, can�t accept a
were not on my mind as I slipped into my robe and mortarboard. (I also paid $13
for a gold cord because I graduated cum laude.) My father and friends and I
took the requisite pictures. My father�s back usually fails him when he must
remain stationary for long periods of time, but he was in good spirits. After
all, his son was graduating, and the commencement address was to be given by
one of his heroes.
The ceremony was a
thrill. With all my colleagues in the garb of academia, and the culmination of
my dream at hand, it was easy to be swept away. It was also easy to ignore the
boring formality of such events. By coincidence, I would hear an address from a
man who had inspired my father for many years. At last, the college president
introduced him, and he took the stage. His movements were rendered with
age-inspired care, but something in his regal bearing and staunch countenance
inspired confidence and begged faith.
# # # # #
In 1965, my father
was a bright 10-year-old boy who knew nothing of what his future would hold.
Like most children of the time, he was infatuated with the Kennedys. The dreams
and optimism of the time reverberated through his Detroit suburb, while the
melancholy of the Kennedy curse was something he would face in the future.
At 10, the little
boy who would become my father found out about a new book. A grown-up�s book.
Probably tugging on her apron, he asked his mother if he could buy it. He is
told he can do whatever he pleases with his own money.
the shelves of books for sale, my father had a 10-dollar bill carefully tucked
into his jeans pocket for security, just as he instructed me decades later. The
little boy�s eyes scanned the book spines and their bright titles. At last: Kennedy
by Theodore Sorensen. The hardcover book was thick, and barely fit in his tiny
hands. He was captivated by JFK�s melancholy face and marketable name. He
opened the cover, and looked to the inner flap. His heart sank when he saw the
fifth-grade arithmetic, my father knew he had enough to buy the book. But seven
dollars? He thought. That�s 65 comic books . . . or 140 packs of baseball cards
. . . or a month at the movies . . . With a heavy heart, he returned the book
to the shelf.
empty-handed, my grandmother asked what was wrong.
�They didn�t have
the book I wanted,� my father said, shrugging it off.
It�s something my
father has felt guilty about for nearly 40 years: A few days later, his parents
bought him the book anyway.
Though he didn�t
understand all the words, the book and its message stayed with him.
# # # # #
wearing the new vestment bestowed upon him, certainly knew how to play an
audience. (Probably a big help when writing speeches for John F. Kennedy.) He
started with a joke about Oswego�s massive snowfall and bitter cold that made
the audience laugh.
As one of the
best-connected campus politicians was my friend, I knew that the contents of
the speech were going to turn interesting.
�Three times in my
lifetime,� Sorensen said. �Enemies of the United States have planned to unleash
terrible destruction upon our homeland.�
I felt the imminent
chill creeping over the audience as he reminded the audience about Pearl
Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the �terrorist� attacks of September
Eleventh. This chill eerily resembled the same breeze off of Lake Ontario that
cooled the campus.
Sorensen spoke with
the conviction of a preacher fighting for souls. �President Kennedy in 1962,
unlike President Bush in 2001, upon being informed of a possible attack upon
United States territory, did NOT take any of the following five steps . . .�
Some of the parents
in the bleachers began to shout. �Get off the stage!� They booed. Though I was
no more than 20 feet from the man, I couldn�t hear a word.
compared Kennedy�s actions to those of George W. Bush. Where Bush has been
lethargic, Kennedy was proactive. Where Bush has been closed-minded, Kennedy
was open. (Sorensen should know -- he was by Kennedy�s side during some of the
most harrowing days of recent history.)
I�m a performer,
and I�ve hit some sour notes with audiences, but nothing like this. Several
times, Sorensen had to stop because of the noise. The president of the college
stood by his side and asked the parents to remain quiet. Most of the students
ended one long pause with a burst of applause.
Theodore Sorensen implored the graduates of the Class of 2004 to improve the
world around them. Too bad few of us heard.
# # # # #
I�ve always tried
to relate to my father through his love for the Kennedys. I spent a couple
years on Cape Cod, sending him pictures of myself near the JFK Memorial in
Hyannisport, and even distant pictures of the Kennedy compound I took from a
harbor ferry. �So, Dad,� I said. �Did you enjoy the ceremony? I mentioned
Kennedy�s speechwriter would be here, didn�t I?�
He stood near the
exit, stretching his back, wincing in pain. �Yeah, I guess.�
�What did you think
about Sorensen?� I asked.
�I don�t know . . .�
I rolled my eyes. �What�s
not to know? He was close to JFK. Wasn�t it nice to see someone like that
�Well, what did you
think about what he said?� I hoped this would inspire a multisyllabic answer.
�He was talking bad
about Bush, right?�
�I couldn�t hear
much.� I said. �Right or wrong, it wasn�t the parents� place to drown him out.
This was my day. Not theirs.�
�Right, but all he
did was say bad things about Bush. He�s supposed to inspire you guys, tell you
that you�re inheriting the world, and you�re supposed to change it for the
As we headed to a
reception, I grabbed my $13 cord so it wouldn�t blow away in the wind.
�But that�s what he
did, Dad. He feels that Bush isn�t doing the right thing. He compared it to a
similar event he lived through, and he�s telling us how to apply his knowledge
for the betterment of the country.�
�I just don�t think
it was the place.� My father said it with the same no-hope voice he used when I
wanted a car at 16. I changed the subject.
The pomp of the day
wore away quickly, primarily because I had to move the contents of my dorm room
into my father�s car in the rain. Hot and soaked with sweat and Oswego rain, we
drove the hour home speaking of other things, primarily the future I would
forge for myself.
I had to unload the
car, and unpack my things. My father knew that I would reprimand him if he
tried to help, so he resumed his place in his recliner.
I noticed it when I
brought my 6-year-old computer and monitor in. My father was standing before
his bookshelves, running his fingers over the spines. He has as many Kennedy
books as Beatles CDs. After the paperback copy of Profiles in Courage
that I gave him, he found Kennedy, by Theodore Sorensen. He tried to
hide the title, but I noticed. He lovingly read the book, carefully turning the
is the future I shall try to build for myself, and society should follow suit.
Strong opinions are a good thing, but better when reinforced by contemplation
of facts supporting different ones. One can even admit one is wrong, for
greater shame is derived from blind action, particularly when that action is
born of proud ignorance.