by John Delach
My late, great friend, Richard Byrd Sullivan, never had a problem telling it like he saw it. We regularly rode home together on the Long Island Railroad’s Port Washington branch. Occasionally, we’d enjoy libations procured from those Pennsylvania Station bartenders who tended their portable carts on the boarding platforms. Sully would command: “Dewar’s, rocks, in a small cup.” My rejoinder: “Make that two.”
Sully didn’t mince words, never accepted grey as an answer and never suffered fools, charlatans, or b.s. artists. He wasn’t always right, but he was always certain. One night leafing through his evening NY Post, he saw this photo of Wellington Mara, then the owner and boss of the New York Football Giants. He studied Mara’s piercing eyes, his square chin and mischievous grin that seemed to say: “Go ahead, try me.”
Sully hit the page with the back of his hand and commanded of me; “Delach, that man was a gyrene!”
“Richard B.” I questioned, “What in hell is a gyrene?”
“J.D., you dumb sh–, a Marine, a Marine! That’s what we swabbies called them.”
“Well, you dumb swabbie, Mara was f—ing Navy just like you.”
“Delach, I don’t believe you. Look at that face; that’s the face of a gyrene.”
I knew to argue further was fruitless and, anyway, to go by appearances, Sully was right, Mara looked like a Marine.
I thought about that as I read the newspaper on November 22, 2013. Among the cascade of articles about John F. Kennedy’s death that day 50 years ago, one in the NY Times profiled the Marines assigned to Arlington the day of the President was murdered. These Marines were ordered to duty once word of his death became known, they met our slain leader’s body at the White House on Friday night, took him into the East Room, stood guard, then escorted him to the Capital. They carried the casket up to the Rotunda, again stood guard during the viewing, returned the President down those steep, almost seemingly endless Capital steps, set his casket upon the horse-drawn caisson, escorted him to Arlington and delivered him to his grave.
They were young eager Americans and the Times’ story profiled four of their experiences that day, their military service, what they did on leaving the service and who they are today. The profile included recent photos of each of them, all now in their 70s.
John Cunningham, “I was an accidental participant at a turning point in history.” Mr. Cunningham served in Nam became disillusioned with the war and voted for George McGovern in 1972.
Lamont Pittman, “It stopped them from sending me to Viet Nam. Racial prejudice saved my life.” Mr. Pittman, the only black Marine in the honor guard, believes that the Marines were so impressed by his professionalism in his service at Arlington that they did not replace him with another black Marine during his tour of duty.
Bill Lee, “You leave no footprints. No one is watching you, but you are part of history.” Lieutenant Lee led the silent drill platoon during the President’s funeral. To this day, his troops still hold him in awe. Mr. Pittman reflected about serving under Mr. Lee, “He was a father figure for us, a stern disciplinarian who talked a lot about what being a man was about. I was comforted by him.”
Tom Cheeks, “We were kids totally focused on doing our duty as well we could.” Then 20, today, a retired insurance executive, he reflected about how quiet it was as they escorted the caisson along Pennsylvania Avenue. “And then a woman yelled out Kennedy’s name. A shiver went through me and I thought, ‘That’s the President of the United States inside there.”
Powerful recollections but it was the photos the Times carried of these old men that drew me in most of all. Sullivan’s long-ago comments about Mara rushed back. Each man had the same features, squared shoulders back, chins out, hands in front either clasped together or in their front pockets, thumbs out, short hair, square jaws, steely eyes; no doubt, gyrenes: