A Facebook post about the Spanish Flu of 1918 in Pittsburgh immediately reminded me of my Uncle John, born February 8, 1913 and died July 15, 2009, age 96. He briefly talked about it during my interview I did of him for my anthropology class. I just re-read it and since it brought me such joy to have him brought so fully to mind, I want to share. (P.S. In case you’re curious, yes, I got an A on this paper – all thanks to him!):
The Character of a Character: The Life of John J. Kennedy as told to Maureen K. Kennedy (October 2005)
“Your Prof’s gonna think you’re the biggest liar that ever went to Franklin & Marshall.” -John J. Kennedy
I had just gotten out of church with my family and called up Uncle John on my cell phone. My church, St. Bernard’s, is exactly two streets and three turns away from Uncle John’s, so by the time we were on the phone I was almost on his street. He said I was welcome to come over, and asked if I needed picked up as I explained that I was just down the street. I was still welcomed, even though he was headed to Sunday brunch with his daughter Pam and about to leave for his granddaughter Megan’s house, Pam’s daughter.
As we left his porch and walked across the street to his car, he came around to my side of the car and opened the door for me. Once inside the car, he shut the door for me. This chivalry is a nonverbal glimpse into his character. He is man who has lived a full 92 years to date. As he said he was ready to start with my project whenever I was, one of the things that makes him great – his humor – was already there. “I can tell lies with the best of them,” he said, in full preparation to tell his life story. This start may not inspire confidence in what he is to say from this point forward unless you understand the man.
He is a man of strong character, loved for who he is, what he does, and especially the stories that he tells. There never seems to be a dull moment in his life. As he drove us to Megan’s house about five minutes away he continued on, even though I gave no indication that my interview had started. He is a storyteller, tried and true. “Our Jenny had three babies in two years, and I sat her down and told her we get married and have babies, but not at the speed of sound,” he tells me. I have heard this story before, but it is still told with the same emotion and passion as he always includes. His stories never ‘get old’, and I am perfectly content to sit and listen to him talk for hours as I am sure he is content with talking for hours.
In our short trip he starts discussing the job he held for twenty years – he was a Coca-Cola driver from 1937-1957 and he had carried mail about a year before that. “I was a sub,” he says, “I worked wherever they wanted me too, Crafton mostly.” His life is full of stories, from ever age of every sort. He is colorful. And I believe he takes great joy out of being able to make someone laugh, which I tend to do lot when he is speaking.
Once we arrive at our destination and we settle in, the formal interview starts. We sit on the couch and I set up my recorder and microphone. For the next three hours I am told story after story about this man’s life. He is my Great Uncle, my father’s dad’s brother, and I have been around him all of my life. He has entertained me and my family for years, but on this chilly Sunday in October it is just me and him. Well it is me, Uncle John, and Pam. I had not planned on having this third character in our interview, but this is how things are with my family – things just happen.
What I realized over time is that my Uncle John is timeless. His stories take place in the present, there is rarely a past tense when he speaks. He relates events that have happened in the past with a dialogue and emotional force of a current event. There are rarely any ‘he said’ or this happened they are invariably ‘he says’ and things happen.
His life story is factual and it contains rather precise dates, but the details are not sterile. Stories are not chronological points marked off on some ruler of life, but rather are emotionally filled times of fond memories and love. Love and fun are major themes in this man’s life.
When I imposed order onto the information he was relaying that was when things were simplified into less-emotional bits of data. I realized this quickly and decided to let him do the talking rather than my imposing a structure. I would lead with a question sometimes to start off a topic, but from there it was mainly up to him. His life story is too vivid and passionate for me to choose what he was to tell me and, therefore, what he is. I believe that his words are the ones that should do the talking.
Pam tried to be helpful with focusing my Uncle John on a topic and through stages of his life. But in the end it was my Uncle John who chose the way the life story was told. At one point Pam tried to move my Uncle John from World War II and a story about a mink stole onwards into the next fifty years of his life to help me get a more complete coverage of his lifetime, but he would not listen. In this, another aspect of his personality and character are revealed: he is stubborn and does what he wants. He is persistent and determined to finish something once he has started. It is a way of life that has proven beneficial as it has worked for him for 92 years and is still going strong.
His attention to detail and his ability to remember events that have happened long ago are strengths. His memory is impeccable. He is sharp, opinionated, and determined. The stories that he shares reveal that he has possessed these qualities throughout his life. As things around him change and he adjusts, he has an unyielding character that he is true to. Many of the episodes of his life that he relates as well as the manner in which the interview interactions occurred at times reveal his personality.
I started off with the basic details of John Joseph Kennedy’s life:
“I was born February 8, 1913 and am 92 years old. I grew up on the Northside – on Columbia Ave and Irwin Ave. My parents are Tom Kennedy and Bridget Kennedy. There were five of us – three boys and two girls: John, Tom, Mary, Charles, and Margaret (Margie).”
And he took it from there.
“[In 1924] when I was 11 years old I took a Liner – the USS Celtic, and came back on the USS Cedric, for four months summer vacation in Ireland. Did you know that my mom, Bridget, came to America on the USS Celtic? – the same boat!”
He told stories about growing up on the Northside of Pittsburgh and playing ball. He loved to play ball. He grew up playing baseball and even tried out for the minor leagues for two weeks before deciding that he wasn’t cut out for the job. He played baseball with Josh Gibson who lived near the ball field. Josh Gibson was later to become a famous baseball player. The Rooney family, a family destined to become important figures in Pittsburgh because of their ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers, also lived in his neighborhood. He told me a story of how he was friends with the Rooneys and how Art’s younger brother Tom had the only football on the street and Tom wanted to go home but the older kids, my Uncle John included, wanted to keep playing so Uncle John told him he’d watch over the ball for him.
My Uncle John has been to Ireland three times in his life, once in 1924 then during World War II and most recently in 1997. Despite having been there only three times, he has become a legend among the relatives living there. In a letter written to her father for his 90th birthday, Pam revealed how deep an impact those three trips left upon the relatives in Ireland, “The trip you made when you were 11 years old, with Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose. The trip after WWII, when you stopped to check on them. They all knew about John Kennedy. All the generations had heard the stories. They couldn’t wait to see you again or finally meet you for the first time. They came out for days to celebrate your return. They said to me that you are a legend there, and my heart soared.”
His first trip in 1924 unveiled his ability to make himself a legend. Even though he visited in the summer, he was sent to school to take some classes, but was kicked out after the first day for getting into a fight. He couldn’t go back because, he said, all the children in the school were related and it would not be good for him to face them all the next day. So his uncle needed to find something else for him to do all day, and so he started helping out a farmer in his creamery. I did not take him long to discover the basement and the cream. The next morning at breakfast, “I tucked a spoon under my shirt and: ‘I’m done!’ And I got up and went straight down the basement. It was obvious [where he was going]. And I stood there [motions eating the cream, and blubbering]. Well the man came down and found me and that was the end of that. He took me to my uncle and he asked me ‘Is that true?’ What could I say, I was caught red-handed.”
Those experiences were not the end of it. Uncle John said how he and his older cousin were out riding horses. Well, his cousin decided to stop and talk to some girl and Uncle John continued on. “I didn’t want to wait for him so I just left. I rode across this field, and these horses were coming up to me. And I, I had one of those sticks they use, and so I was hitting them off. I got back to my uncle’s and he says, ‘Where’s Mick?’ ‘Talking to some girl.’ ‘You could have been killed!’ They were wild horses see. I didn’t know. I was just a kid. If I fell off they could’ve trampled me and that’d’ve been it.”
After the four adventurous months, he was waiting to board the USS Cedric. “There was a jitney and I decided to hit the sleeping mule, I don’t know why, I was just 11 years old. And the mule took off running, the driver went flying off, the steel trundles went flying off. And he took off down the hill. The people were mad so I went and hid behind a big chair. And they found me and Aunt Mary pulled me out and whacked me good. Well the boat ride back was eight days and the whole time, people would see me and nudge each other and say ‘Yeah, that’s him.’
“The kids are boxing each other, they’re not hurting each other, they’re all 10, 12, no big kids 18 or that, so I’m 11 so they match me up with a kid. And finally I turn around and everybody around watching the kids box is routing for the other kid. Hit him again! Hit him again! Of course, growing up on the Northside I was pretty good with my dukes and I could hold my own. But I go by and that’s it. I felt like a black man in the Ku Klux Klan – I was out of place. And my Aunt Mary said “They remember you. They do remember you. You’re.. oh Lord.” I didn’t know, it was innocence. I didn’t know the jitney would take off down the hill and all the steeler trunks would fly off, and the owner who owns the flatbed he flew off too cuz he had no way of holding on. Oh God, that was… ya know honest to God, we got to Ireland I told that story and our Pam said “I gotta see that hill.” We were down in Queenstown (Gaelic: Cobh) and we found the hill. And Pamela said “Oh my God”- it was like this [his hand indicates the steepness of the hill]. You can understand the cart flying.”
“But I had quite a few episodes in Ireland.”
In 1945, he was granted a three-day furlough from the Army while fighting in World War II. So he made his way to Ireland. He had the equivalent of one thousand dollars in his pocket, and when meeting the cousins he passed out the pound notes generously. He said he went up to the kids and just passed out the pound notes. “They thought I was the greatest thing,” he remembered smiling. He enjoyed his visit so much that he stayed an extra seven days. “It was about ten days later and I realized: I overstayed my furlough.” As a member of the Army he was not allowed to be absent without permission. So he went to the town doctor and told him he had to be sick. If he were sick, his absence was allowed. Uncle John told me, “The doctor said, ‘How sick do you want to be?’
“When I went back [in 1997] everyone wanted to see me. Ya know it’s funny we got there Pam and I, Kathy, and Bingo. We’re in the dining room and all of the sudden the place is filled up. There had to be 25-30 people there. And I’m looking around and they were all my relations, your’s too. I said “Oh my God, they’re all there to see me”. And they were.
“While I was there as a GI one of Aunt Katie’s boys Johnny and I had a picture taken. I was in uniform and I’ve got my around his shoulder and yak yak yak. So we go back [in 1997] and they let us pose for pictures. So I said okay Johnny you and I. Now this time it’s 1997. I got my arm around his shoulder and we’re looking at the camera and I said “I got something for you, Johnny. And I picked out the picture [from] when I was a GI and handed it to him. He almost died. He didn’t want to take it, but I was aw yeah you take it. But same picture, same two guys. But I’m older – at ‘45 this is ‘97, I’m 52 years older. And he had grown up too. He had 11 children. Johhny Ryan.
“But [with] everybody, you had to make the rounds. They all wanted to entertain you so to speak. “You’re coming to our place aren’t you, John? Yeah you’re coming.” Now at that time I’m old. But I made as many stops as I could cuz I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. So I’d go and I’d eat.”
During his visit to Ireland in 1924 he became a godfather to his cousin Bridie Ryan. “I was a godfather, you know. I was 11 years old and my Aunt Mary is holding a baby [Bridie] and I’m going [blubbering sounds] what do I do? Oh it was crazy.” After he graduated high school he sent her his high school picture and she hung it on her mantle. Uncle John said that even though she later was married, the only picture that was ever on the mantle was of him. Pam learned this story was true when she saw it for herself in 1997. Pam shared in her letter amazement, “To meet your Godchild, Bridie, and be shocked when I saw only one picture on her mantle and it was you, my dad, her godfather.” When Uncle John’s friend Paul told him he was heading to Ireland a few years ago Uncle John told him to visit Thurles, Tipperary on his trip and visit Bridie. He went and had tea with her and, “Your picture is still on the mantle.” She has told Uncle John, “Oh no John, I’d never give up this picture. This is mine.”
I was interested in learning about the life goals he had when he was growing up. I wondered what he dreamed of being, what career did he aspire to? I asked, “When you were little did you think you’d grow up and be a certain thing at all?” He told me simply, “No, back then what you did was live day to day. There was no way, no way that any of us would get to go to college. I think in our whole neighborhood we had four kids go to college, maybe six. And we just get out of high school and went for jobs. That was the way, but it was during the Depression. I get out [of high school] in 1932, that was the middle of the Depression, I didn’t get a job until ‘37. I get a job for $24 a week as a helper on a Coca-Cola truck.”
And for the five years in between the end of high school and working he did what he always did: Played ball. “Play ball, you know, stay at home. Oh yeah, I set up pins in a bowling alley in the winter.” Pam interjected, “Did you tell your history about dropping out of high school and then going back?” Uncle John said, “Oh yeah, no, I didn’t get around to that.” Once the subject was brought up, he addressed it, but I wondered whether I would have known this had Pam not been there. “Yeah I dropped out and I’m loafing around and finally I go back to my Dad in August or so. And I said, “You know what, I wanna go back to high school and finish” and he said, “I’m glad you would.” So I did.” For a man who usually expands stories into tales with passionate imagery and pinpoint detail, I realized that this was maybe something he was guarded about since he did not reveal much about it. He tells stories well, but I realized it all depends on what he chooses to tell. I did learn more about this episode later when I got the book of letters made for his birthday. Margaret Kennedy-Fleming recounted the story in brief detail, but it was more than I had. She wrote, “Mom said that Uncle John had a night job setting pins at the bowling alley. The late night hours caused him to miss a lot of school. Apparently Granddad was unaware of all of this and a bit surprised when John didn’t graduate on time.”
In an effort to help me obtain stories from the entire span of his life, Pam urged him to “Get around to [important life] steps [motions with hands]. You went to war…” He responded, “I didn’t get that far yet.” He progresses at his own pace. As he is the experienced storyteller, I do not question the speed at which he goes. He knows what he is doing. Besides, he is stubborn and what he decides to do is what happens. Even an interruption asking for him to make steps through his life cannot sidetrack him from his predetermined/prepared story.
“But anyway… I got a job at Coca-Cola and I was only a helper and I was making $24 a week and the drivers were making like $50 a week, fifty-odd. And it was every helper’s dream to become a driver so you more than double your salary. So finally in 1939 I was promoted to a driver, like the Spring of ‘39. And I knew all those guys, I don’t know how many there were. This is before the war.
“And uh, this one fellow says to me one day, “Hey Harp you wanna go on a picnic?” Where?, I says. “North Park.” Yeah, I says, I’ll go. He says, “Get a date.” I go (pause) I don’t know any girls. “You don’t know any girls?” I says, “No I don’t know any girls to ask to go…” I didn’t. I didn’t date. I was playing play. So I says you go to the girls at the Bell Telephone, there’s a hundred girls work there. Ask her [the other guy’s date] to find me a date. He’s says, yeah Al Ackerman and another guy are going, he needs it [a girl], I’ll ask her to get two. So we were to North Park and they all lived east, like Shadyside, East Liberty, East End, Oakland, and they were going to North Park and I lived in [the Northside]. So they were all going to meet at my place. So I come back from church on a Sunday morning at 11 o’clock and everybody’s on my porch. And one girl there caught my eye. And it was Kathleen O’Malley.”
It was at this point that our conversation was put on pause for Sunday brunch. The original plan he had was to go out to a restaurant and have brunch with his daughter and granddaughter, but we had made ourselves at home on the couch and Pam and Megan had decided that it was easier to make breakfast at home. So we sat around the dining room table and enjoyed toast and jam, scrambled eggs, and bacon while engaged in lively conversation.
Now as we were getting up from the couch his chivalrous character again made an appearance. He did not want to get up until I was already up and headed towards the dining room. This was also due to his caring nature. “Go ahead, I don’t want you tripping,” he said. Because I wanted to finish turning off my tape recorder, I hesitated and told him he could go first, which he refused. I said, “No, go ahead. There it’s safe now.” as I pushed down the leg rest so he could get up more easily. His reply was “No, I want you to go.” It became apparent that he is the one who knows best and I should listen to what he says as I then proceeded to trip over the couch. His response was very much Uncle John when one tries to counter his determination, “See what I mean.”
Pam, meaning to help me with gathering his life history, again urged him, “No stories! Facts!” And his quick-witted response was, “I put on my Irish sweater for this story.” This statement was an indication to me that he was there to tell me his story, and help me out with my project, but above all he knew what he wanted to do and it would be done his way. No matter what anyone else may desire, he is going to go about it in his own way.
When we resumed our discussion he was able to start right where he left off:
“Well, as I come up from church the whole gang is on my front porch. Because the fact we were going to North Park and they all lived… it was a meeting place. So I walked up there. And I know they brought a date for me and another guy. And I looked around and I spotted these two girls. And here they had arranged it that this guy was with Kathleen and I was with the other girl. That was the way it was set up. But, ah, after the picnic we went up to the North Park swimming pool. And uh… they had a jukebox up there on like a patio. They were playing the Pennsylvania Polka, it was a big hit then. And this girl with me she couldn’t dance worth a nickel. But Kathleen could dance, she was fantastic. So I says, “Would you like to Polka?” So we polkaed all around. So that’s how we met. Two hours kissing and doing the Pennsylvania Polka.
“That was ‘39. So anyway the picnic’s over and we go home and I says to this one fellow, “Yeah, you know what, I’m gonna call up that O’Malley girl and ask her if she wants to go out.” You go ahead. “That won’t hurt anybody’s feelings?” Nah. So I called her up and I told her who I was and, oh yeah blah-blah-blah-blah. I says, “Would you? (pause) Could I call on you this Saturday night? And she goes “Yeah! Yeah!” [very excitedly, to me] You know of course that’s a little pushing it [how excited he made her seem], but….”
“But anyway I went out and I get out in front of the house and they had a fence around their house with a gate, front yard you know how they do. So I come through the gate and her mother… it was an August evening… and her mother, father and the whole O’Malley clan were sitting on the porch and they started looking at me, you know this kid from the Northside. Just then she hollered to Bingo. “Go unlock the gate, Bing!” So he go up unlock the gate and she says, “Mr. Kennedy, there’s a lot of stray dogs in the neighborhood and we don’t want them coming in. I look up and down the street, I don’t see any stray dogs.
“So she says there are… so every time, twice a week for the next couple of years I go up and go through that gate and I always look for stray dogs. I never saw a stray dog. So it finally dawned on me: they locked that gate to keep me in. Course the O’Malley’s they don’t admit to that. But anyway, we got engaged at Christmas ‘41… and Kathleen set the date for September 30, 19… Christmas of ‘40.”
“September 30, 1941 she set the wedding date. So everything went on, you know, we got married, and we were only married two months and [phht! sound] Pearl Harbor. And I blamed it on her folks. That’s all we were married, 2 months, when Pearl Harbor broke. Pearl Harbor broke December 7, ‘41 I get married September 30, ‘41. [imitating other people] ‘They just got married!’ And you know, it’s not am I going, when I’m going. My mother had three sons.
“And I was over my mother’s house the Sunday for dinner that Pearl Harbor was bombed. So anyway my status went from 1A to… [interruptions]. Legally I went from 1A to 1B cuz I got married. And our Bonnie was born the following summer. But the war was getting bigger and bigger and I’m going, baby or no baby. So they ran out of 1As, now they’re on the 1Bs – that’s me.
“So Christmas holidays of ‘42 I got my notice. Our Bon was about that big [indicates small size]. And I walk out the door Christmas holidays of ‘42. And I got back October ‘45. And our Bonnie was there to open the door when I got back. Cause Kathleen had no choice but to pick up her baby and go live with her mother and father, she couldn’t afford to live by herself she was getting $40 a month from the Army.
“So I stayed in the States, but February ‘44 we sailed out of Boston and we landed in Scotland and we took a train from Scotland down to England. And we were in England then D-Day happened in June ‘44 and we went over there, our gang went into Normandy on the same beach. We landed in Normandy at Omaha around 6 weeks later give-or-take the first part of August. And, uh, of course I was there until the war was over in ‘45.
“But, ah, the whole time I was there I’d always write to Kathleen and I’d say, “You know if I get through this, when this thing’s over, and I get through the damned thing we’ll do New York. So sure enough the war is over and we sailed out of England and we go home. Late September ‘45 and in October we finally land. And so they’re processing me through up in Boston. The guy says, “Your address?” Pittsburgh. “You get out in Indiantown Gap.” Oh no!, I says, my family moved to New Jersey during the war. They didn’t care. They put down Fort Dix which was about, by train, forty minutes from Broadway. [laughs] So I call Kathleen up and says “come down” and I had a pocket full of money, I had about $1200 on me. While we were there we did “Life with Father” the show, we did “Oklahoma”, “Song of Norway”, whatever, you know, we lived it up.
“So we go into this one place after one of the shows, it was like at a petty arcade and it was all open, no doors, like an amusement park. But we’re inside and there was a phony jeep there. And I says to Kathleen, “Let’s get our picture taken there.” So we did. And there was another scene like behind the bar or some goofy scene. I says get a picture taken there, so we did. So I hand the girl a ten dollar bill and we wait for the pictures to be developed and come back and she hands me a package. I says, You owe me $5. “Oh no,” she says. What do you mean you don’t? Now I’m just out of the Army, just got of the Army and I’ve been overseas for almost two years and I was in, how should I say it… I was in no mood to be taken over by some hustler in New York.
“So I says, this is my wife. I don’t need two pictures in a jeep. I don’t need two pictures wherever it was. I want one of each. Oh she took me over, must’ve been signs, I tell you there was a dozen or twenty signs on the wall! And she showed me one about that big [indicates small size] “Everybody must take two pictures of each pose”. I says, You never told me that. Well she says, “It’s up there to see.” You know she give me that… Well by that time, I tried to be nice. So I said to her, now look, I says, I’m from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania I’m not from Poguppy. This is my wife. I don’t need two pictures with us sitting in a jeep. What, one for her one for me, this is crazy? Look I want two pictures: one wherever it was, and one in the jeep. And I want $5 change. “Well that’s the rule of the house.” I’m not getting anywhere with her, so I says, where’s the manager. He come over, one of those New York hustlers. “What’s the trouble solider?” And I told him. “That’s the rule of the house.” Nobody told me the rules. “Well it’s up there to see.” Twenty signs! I’m gonna read every sign? So I tried to be nice to him, I’m there and there’s a bunch of sailors playing pin balls in another corner cause the fleet was in and they were gonna have a fleet parade down the East River the coming weekend. So they’re all in, you know, for the parade. And I guess things got a little loud. And I says to him, well I’ll tell you what. I want my five dollars change and I’ll give you back your two pictures cuz I don’t want two of them. He says, “I can’t do that.” I says, “Is that final?” He says, “Yeah!” Okay, so I go and I pick up the camera. You know one of the kinds with the tripod you put the hood over and I picked it up and I put it on my shoulder. I says, Sarge, I’m not kidding you. You give me back my five dollars or I throw this goddamn camera out in the middle of Times Square. “You wouldn’t. I’ll call the cops.” Call the cops. I’m just out of the service, six campaigns and he’s gonna scare me? I says, suit yourself. By that time it got a little loud and I walk over to the door. I says when I count…
“I guess he figures I would have thrown it. And as I sit here, I tell you the truth I would have thrown it. Maybe today I wouldn’t but then if I did, I wouldn’t have give a damn. [whht! whistle to indicate throwing]. Out the side the camera would’ve went. Smithereens. And I don’t know what the camera’s worth, probably five-six hundred dollars.
“I’ll give you five! I’ll give you the five. So he told the girl, Go get five! And I saw the five and he put it in my pocket. So I took the camera and I hit him with it. It almost knocked him over. And Kathleen down the sidewalk [loud, high-pitched sobbing sounds]. You know, she never was the fox hole type.
“And I threw the camera at him. So she [Kathleen] says, “That was a disgrace!” What are you talking about disgrace? The guy tried to make me for five dollars and you call it a disgrace? And all the sailors are “Throw it! I’ll give you a five! Throw it!” It was quite a scene.
“You know I wouldn’t do that today. You know I’ll say, “Now look goddamn it! Give me my five! [indistinct]” Five [dollars] isn’t that important, you know, but then I had my Irish up. And he was hustling me….”
Interjecting once again, Pam asked, “Did you ever tell your stories, instead of stories that can’t be written?” in an effort to get at what she perceived to be ‘substance’. I defended Uncle John with a quick, “These stories can be written.” And Uncle John seconded it with a strong, “Sure they can be written.” But Pam did not believe us.
This led into an intense verbal challenge between Uncle John and Pam. She wanted to move him past a mink stole story and into something, in her opinion, worthwhile. He wanted to tell this particular story. As I have learned, once he is determined to do something, he will do it.
Pam: Would you get past World War II?! Now you came back, then what’d you do when you came back?
Uncle John: Well I haven’t come back yet. I’m still in New York. Well anyway… we’re laying in bed and I’ve got this pocket full of money. And back then stoles were the big thing. You know, the 3 skins… Did you ever believe that I’d be interrupted this much? I’m not home yet! I’m still in New York! Get lost! Do the dishes! So anyway… to make a long story short…
Pam: Oh God! He’s not making any long story short.
Uncle John: I says, I know what Kathleen would like to have, one of those stoles. So I jump out of bed…
Pam: No, no, no, no! We left New York!
Uncle John: I didn’t leave New York yet.
There is no swaying him. Everything will be done his way. In an attempt to listen to Pam’s suggestion, and mistakenly thinking Uncle John did not have to tell the mink stole story, I asked him about his three children – Bonnie, Pam, and Tammy. “So… what’s your favorite story about each of your kids?” And from the kitchen Pam shouted, “Oh my God! Don’t ask him stories!” He sat there thinking, overwhelmed with possibilities. He stumbled, “Oh my, oh my goodness… You don’t have enough room on there [my tape].” Pam, knowing her father, said, “He could tell a story of every day!” And his response was, “You think I’m lying? [laughs]”
Pam remembered the book of letters the family made for him for his 90th birthday and said that it would be a great source of information on memories of her father from his daughters, grandchildren, cousins – everyone. She said, “That’d be a great idea cuz then you won’t have to hear his mink stole stories and stuff [and she leaves the room].”
With Pam in the kitchen, Uncle John finally was able to continue his story. Leaning closer to me and whispering he said, “Well anyways… about that mink… I thought geez this’ll be a great gift for her. That was the rage then. So I go up the first place I ran into… I don’t know if it was Gimble’s or Sak’s or Macy’s.”
Because she could no longer hear us Pam realized what was going on and shouted from the other room, “Oh you couldn’t help but spit that story out!” And it is true, knowing him he had to tell the story.
“So I get the thing and the hotel Astor right at the corner of Times Square and Broadway and I stopped in for coffee. So I sat at the bar and I’m still in my uniform, I didn’t have any civilian… so I put the stoles down. And I drank my coffee and pay the bill and walk out and got to our hotel and “My God I left the stoles there!” [pfft! whistle to indicate running back quickly] I run back they were still there. I guess the guy sitting there at the counter thought they were his, this guy thought they were his, and I came and ‘Pardon me’ and took the stoles. But that was funny, my forgetting the stoles.”
“We did New York for about a week. And, it’s funny, when I was overseas the one thing I missed, that I could taste, was corned beef and hot pastrami sandwiches. Cuz I used to run a Coca-Cola route in Squirrel Hill and I ate that. And so coming back from the show… and I walked by this deli. And I smelled that corned beef and pastrami. I said “Kathleen we gotta go in here. And it was a place where ninety percent was take-outs because of the theatre district… So I sat down and I got the uniform on and of course then everybody’s a hero. And this lady was Jewish of course, and she come over and she says, “Do ya like the corned beef?” And I told her the story. You know it’s a funny thing. I says, I ran a Coca-Cola route in a Jewish neighborhood in Pittsburgh and I being Irish, I says, but I learned to love corned beef and hot pastrami. And that was the one thing I missed when I was overseas for about two years. “Oh my God,” she says. “You eat that and I’ll give you another one.” But that… of course you can’t eat two corned beefs…”
Moving on from New York City I decided to ask a question and lead a topic for a change. I told him, “I’m gonna change gears completely… have you ever had any nicknames as a kid or as an adult? And where did they come from?” And he paused again to reflect. “Yeah, well, the Northside was full of nicknames. They called your Grandad Bullets. Did you know that? But then they changed it to Bull. My brother Tom was, they used a lot of initials, he was TK, I was JK. And a lot of times I got the JK Jake, you know. That was mine: JK. JK and Jake. Everybody had an initial.”
Interested in learning about my Grandfather I asked Uncle John why my Grandpap was called Bullets.
“We had a cousin. His name was Bullets Murphy. And he was an immigrant and one of those good Irish-Catholics and he’s down in Niles, Ohio. And he’s on a construction job or working down there and the Ku Klux Klan at that time [early 1900s] was pretty prevalent and they had a big parade down the street – the Klutch is all in their whites and the Grand Klegal was dressed in black. And this Bullets Murphy went over and pulled the Grand Klegal off the horse and [punches hand] Bam! Started a riot! You know the Klan and all the townspeople and whatever.
“You know your Grandfather was always in a brawl. He was in a fight like three times a week. So they got to call him Bullets Murphy.”
Asked by Pam if he really did get in fights with such frequency, he said, “Chuckie? Oh yeah. Well they were kids. They’d fight the same kid twice a week… He never lost. Your Grandad was good with his dukes as a kid. He never lost. He was a tough little guy.”
Pam: Tom seems like he was the good one and you and Uncle Chuck were…
Uncle John: Oh yeah, Tom was the Altar boy.
Pam: You were number one pain in the neck and then Uncle Chuck.
Uncle John: Well, I-I didn’t do it on purpose. You know it happened. Our Tom was the Altar boy type. But Fronz Franz a guy who used to live like in the corner said “Hey Bullets! Bullets Murphy!” and it stuck with him, Bullets. That’s how he got it.
Sensing the approaching Pittsburgh Steelers game and knowing that he enjoyed contently watching the game, I decided to ask another question to encompass his character and possibly discover something I did not already know. “What do you think are your three best qualities?” I asked. And without hesitation he said, “I’m a playboy. I had a reputation in the Northside.”
Pam: [laughing] That is a lie! You were not a playboy!
Uncle John: They used to call me Playboy Number 2. I was twice as good as number one.
Pam: Meanwhile he wouldn’t even look at a girl when he was growing up. He didn’t even date.
Uncle John: I was playing ball.
Pam: You don’t even know what it means…
Uncle John: I was talking about after I got…
Pam: You don’t even know what a playboy is that’s how goofy you are.
Uncle John: She calls me goofy.
So there was his first quality. It is not ‘playboy’ but rather ‘humor’. He has humorous quotes or stories in a vast repertoire just waiting for an opportunity to be shared. His humor is endless. He is a man of constant smiles and laughter, and stands or sits ready to bring a smile to your face.
He has special sayings and expressions which liven up any conversation. Pam calls them “Johnisms” and they truly are as unique as the man. “We wrote a book on it,” Pam said, referring to the letters. A few of the many:
Cold enough for an umbrella.
Pucker up and walk towards me. (which is my personal favorite).
Playboy Number 2 – I’m twice as good as Number 1.
Run like a rabbit. Stand on a dime.
Stand on a dime and get nine cents change.
I can count the number of times on one finger.
Quit acting like a peasant.
Howdy doody day oh.
“Any other qualities?…” I ask, suggesting “…telling stories?” Pam answered before Uncle John had an opportunity to say anything.
“No, no. Your best qualities are, to me, he is our nurturer – he is the family gatherer, the one who gave us all our traditions, and they are so strong the traditions. His traditions are our biggest treasure. He lives and breathes for his family. His children, his grandchildren, and his wife were the most important thing to him so everything he did, they seemed so little when we were growing up, but they were such treasures… Everything that is near and dear. If you ever hear me and my sisters and my cousins talk it’s like the only one in our life was like my dad cuz it was like everything he did with us, and when he did it, it was like our memories. And if you hear my children talk, as much as everybody was devoted to him, all their stories are Grandad stories. It’s like, even though the whole family was around my Dad was magical with children. So his gift and his strength is the gift he gives to his family. You now with traditions, and the love, and the commitment.”
While she had been telling me this, he slightly shifted in his seat and appeared uncomfortable with the compliments and very humble. This visible expression was a sign she had defined him perfectly. He is a loving nurturer committed to his family and enjoys making people smile and feel loved.
Noting his change in manner I tried to get him to agree with Pam. If he wouldn’t tell me, I thought, the least I could get would be for him to say she wasn’t inaccurate. So I softly but bluntly asked, “You would agree then?” I was hoping for a direct answer but I was met with his humor.
Uncle John: Don’t forget the money. It cost me thousands of dollars.
Pam: Well imagine if he was rich, that’s the bad part. If he was the wealthy dad he would really be great, but he was the poor dad.
His humility overtook me and I sat there amazed. He is a man of such character.
Not wishing to dwell on an uncomfortable subject for too long, I decided to discover if he thought he had any “worst qualities”. This found quick retort.
Uncle John: Yeah. Raised kids.
Pam: Yeah, well storyteller too. Repeating your stories constantly! But also that’s the thing, as much as we kill him for repeating his stories it’s also his endearment.
Uncle John: Yeah they say, is that story number 27?
I have learned that Uncle John is very much a part of a verbal culture. He has always been the storyteller and has raised children with similar qualities. Pam, for one, has a rivaling ability with her humor. When they talk back and forth it is very much a rapid-fire affair. I sat on the couch just absorbed in the moment and trying to keep up.
Children are an important part of his life and they hold a high place in his heart.
Pam said, “Your fun is being with your children.” And he agreed, “Yeah. My fun is our gang.” Pam continued, “His main thing is his children. Every waking hour. He visits and stops in everywhere.” This I know from experience. Over the summer of 2005 I needed a job and once Uncle John learned this he had me meet him the next morning and we went out to several places looking for work. He did not stop until four hours later when he found me a job working at a pharmacy he used to work for. Once that was settled he was content, but he made sure to make sure it was going all right. Within a week of my start he surprised me at work, and asked me if I would like anything from the bakery. I said yes and a few minutes later he returned with a blueberry muffin.
We were talking about this story and he made sure to express that the muffin revealed how much he loved me. He said, “That muffin was $1.15!” It was a very good muffin and not because of the taste, but because he had taken the time (and the money) to show me he cared about me. This is who he is. Nurturer. Caring. Family oriented. And so much beyond those words.
“I do have a weakness though for the kids. I love being with the kids. Kids have so much to offer… they’re all so innocent… and they’d believe anything I told them. The kids are the most interesting thing in the world.”
I was interested in learning about what he thought of changes in the world during his lifetime and the most passionate response regarded children. I asked him, “How’s the world different now from what it was like when you were growing up?” And without hesitating he stated, “Day and night. Day and night. I can’t believe what’s going on today.”
“Well every generation changes. The generations today are different as us as… Today like a kid goes out and they’re all programmed: little league baseball Tuesday night puts the uniform on, takes it off and puts the uniform on back again Friday night. Everything’s programmed and the parents are all involved. Hell in my day, you think my dad would take time out? …It’s crazy today. Today the parents are too involved in their children. They don’t let the children be children…
“Children are supposed to fantasize. When was the last time you saw a girl playing house with dolls or playing hopscotch on the sidewalk? You don’t see that anymore. Children are supposed to fantasize when they’re growing up. Everything today is…You never see kids out playing ball by themselves, very seldom. It’s just everything is programmed, the computer, the tv and that’s just unhealthy…. But anyway that’s my beef. Children aren’t children anymore.”
“Another thing is the amount of automobiles. My God! There’s two cars at least at every house.
“The two family working deal, that’s the big thing today. And the kids come home and they’re latchkey. Latchkey generation. You can’t change it, that’s the way they are. But I just don’t think…
“The American behavior patterns are day and night when I was a kid. God, I’d walk around the Northside God I’d know 150-200 people! But today you ride down the street you don’t know anyone. I’ve lived in Dormont 45 years, I don’t know ten people.
“The city was a different kind of a city too. I grew up and you couldn’t have asked for a better place to grow up as a child than the area, neighborhood I grew up in the Northside. The school was there, the church was there, the ballfield was there. It was just a different kind of environment all together.”
“The way sex is flaunted today. In the movies and on tv. And it’s just taken for granted that you’re gonna see it and I don’t think that’s healthy for, how should I say it, for young people to be: that’s it.
His response to changes in technology: “There is no doubt about it – there is no end, it’s infinitesimal, no end to electrical engineering. No end to it. It’ll… they did something like television, then they did computers, then down the line they’ll be something else. There is no end to electrical engineering.”
I wondered whether he liked having to adjust to change: “Oh you roll with the punches, you know. This is there and you have to accept it. But what amazes me the most is the behavior of the younger generation today. Even the children. And I think television has a lot to do with it.”
His deep concern for the welfare of children reveals his caring, loving, and nurturing nature even more.
From the conversation that followed, I began to understand the origins of his compassion and humanity. We began discussing his parents and it was clear that the importance of caring for others was taught to him since his childhood. When I asked him who had the most positive influence on his life his response was simple: “My mom and dad.” I wondered if there was any reason in particular that they were his pick, and I was given a succinct “Well, they were mom and dad. You know. It’s that simple.”
“Well, cuz we were taught that they were our parents. And they were the people we relied on, they gave us guidance. That was just a way of life. My dad was one of the kindest men that ever lived. During the Depression before they had welfare, if a guy lost his job and he had a couple of kids down the street, if he didn’t have money in the bank he would get hurt cuz there weren’t any welfare – nobody had it. And my dad used to give me a couple of dollars on his pay day and go down to one of those Mom and Pop stores, I’d go down to Terry’s or whatever and get this and get this and get that. And have them put it in a cardboard box and take it over to so-and-so’s and put it in the vestibule, don’t let them see you. It would be the staples like canned goods and maybe a quart of milk, and a pound of sugar and a pound of flour – all staples, no candy or… And we’d do that, he’d do that. And uh he was a kind man, really kind. And then he used to write poetry. You know that… And after the war our Tom come back and he culled through them and took out about fifty… It didn’t influence me about poetry, it influenced me about what kind of a guy my dad was. But my mother, she was and she wasn’t a strict disciplinary. She drew a line, you didn’t go beyond the line… My mom had a heart this big [indicates big size] but you know, she had rules and regulations…”
Because he has lived from the 1910s into the 2000s I was interested in discovering if there were any events that he has witnessed or lived through that impacted his life. And he began with his family:
“Well the first real rough thing, we lost our, my sister Mary. And that really… [turns to the game: “They tackle like a bunch of boy scouts.”] …And I remember the Depression well. Now the Depression didn’t hurt our family, my father had seniority on the street cars, and he never lost any time. But there were people in the neighborhood that were affected. And when I got out high school in ‘32 it was right in the middle of the Depression, so I didn’t get a job until ‘37 and all we did was play ball.” He became very sullen when he mentioned the loss of his younger sister, and was quick to turn attention elsewhere. Knowing the importance of his family to this family-centered man, this was apparently a hard subject to discuss. I wondered more about Mary, but realized that he would have told me more if he had wanted to.
“I can remember as true as you sit here on that couch the day World War I ended. I was down in this yard and this Italian couple owned a produce, what do they call it, …store. Her name was Mary, and I never forgot it. And I’m standing there like a little kid and every so often they’d hand me an orange or an apple, I’m five years old. And I tell you this in all honesty: all the whistles started to blow on the river, all the mills [whistle sounds] but he turned around and he said “Mary, the war’s over.” I can remember him saying that to her like it was yesterday.”
“And then I can remember the flu epidemic, after the war when people were dying like flies. 1919-1920. We were all in bed: it was me, my mom and dad, our Tom, and our sister as a baby. And we’re laying in bed. We’re all sick. So my dad has to get out of bed and take care of us so to speak. And he fed us tea and toast. That’s all he could cook. He didn’t even put jam on the toast. And back then the doctor made house calls. So anyway, I never forgot the doctor’s name Dr. Weller. And he comes in to visit and we’re all still alive. He says, “Tom, what are you giving them?” He says, “I’m giving them tea and toast.” He says, “What else you giving them?” He says, “That’s all.” My father would starve to death at a Giant Eagle [local food store]. So anyway the doctor says, “Can’t you make a little soup or…” He says, “They’re still all there.” [laughs] That was his way of saying his way was right. But we all get over the flu but there were people dying like all over the place. Back then they didn’t lay them out at funeral homes, they laid ‘em out at home. Like the old-time saying was, like the old-time Irish was, “You had to die to get into the parlor.” …
“The flu epidemic was a big thing. And I could remember being as little kids, and back then the cops used to walk the beat, and I never forgot the cops name Mr. Graham, he had a mustache. And we’re standing around like little kids, God we’re only five or six or… I don’t think we were in school yet. And two or three of us, and he walked up and he says, “Oh the flu didn’t get any of you three? You’re still here.” You know cuz people were dying like flies, it didn’t kill any of us. …
Another event that impacted him “was part of the war for me – the Battle of the Bulge. It was cold, it was snowy. You couldn’t build a fire. And uh… a lot of kids got frostbitten. And my trick was I threw my shoes away, leather shoes. And I wrapped my feet in kind of a GI blanket which was one hundred percent wool. And made a couple of layers of [unclear –pindim? (a material)] and put on our guloshes. That way you kept…. The worst thing you could have on your feet in the snow is leather. The GIs didn’t wear no shoes, they wore guloshes.”
He wrote a poem during the Battle of the Bulge and sent it home on two V-Mails. He was a US Army Air Force Corporeal on the Belgium-French border on Christmas Eve, 1944. It took only two or three hours to write, “The words just seemed to flow out of me.”
“It was an ungodly Christmas that year. But you play the hand that’s dealt you.” It was foggy and cold as Uncle John went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. “The only miracle I’ve seen my whole life happened Christmas Eve, 1944. We get out of mass 1:15 in the morning, nothing but diamonds in the sky. All the fog lifted. We said the right prayers. The fog lifted, which meant the bombers could see the Germans…” Soon after he returned to the barracks and wrote the poem that is now cherished by his family:
Twas the Night Before Christmas
As I sit here in France,
With a pang in my heart
Like it was pierced by a lance
Longing for my loved ones,
Far over the Sea.
My Kathleen and princess
My own family.
And the guys in the barracks
All have dreams of their own
Thinking about the good times
Of their Christmas at home.
There’s Mullen, Vic, Mac,
Joe, Harry, and Red
And Curly headed Rollie
Sprawled out on their bed.
Yes, we’re all sure dreaming
Of Christmas alright
And dream on we will
All during the night
And my dreams will be
Of my girls at home
May God Bless and keep them
My loved ones my own.
Gee, I can picture my baby,
All wrapped up in sleep
With the “pink” for a cover
and smiling so sweet
As she dreams of old Santa
and the presents he’ll bring
To bother her and her Mother,
While Christmas bells ring.
So dream on my darling,
For the reindeers will stop
Right by the Chimney,
Where Santa will drop
With lots of nice presents
For my baby girl
For he knows you were good
The best in the world.
Yes, I can just see my baby
When she looks at the tree
With its tinsel and lights
What a sight that will be
And honey you can bet,
Your Dad will be sharing
In all of your joy
And the smile you’ll be wearing.
We know all good little girls
Will get presents galore
Toy’s, dolls and dresses
From Santa’s big store
For it pays to be good
And not raise much thunder
But when I think of my Bonnie
Well — Sometimes I wonder.
So lets pray by next Christmas
If it’s God’s Holy Will
Your dad will be home
(And your stockings I’ll fill)
With all the love in my heart
And the pride in my soul
For just to be there with my girls
Shall be my main goal.
John J. Kennedy
Christmas Eve, 1944
Stories that focus on the tragic and sadder events in life he will discuss, but you cannot keep him away from telling a story that will make you laugh. He asked me, “Did you ever hear the story about Kathleen Kennedy Townshend? The Lt. Governor of Maryland. Do you want that story? You don’t want that story.” I indicated that I would listen if he were to tell it, and so he started:
“While we were in England you know before D-Day we were getting like three-day passes to London and we were stationed 32 miles North-East of London up on the Channel so to speak. And you’d ask guys where’s a good place to go, you know? What do you do there? And I’d say to these kids, what’s good down there? You know London’s a big town like New York. And the one guy says, John go up the 9th Bridge, it’s out of the way, out of the Piccadilly and Leicester Square bit. He says it’s nice up there and the underground, which is the tube, stops there and it’s nice. So I go in and I take his advice. I get on the thing and I get off at 9th Bridge and I find out the Army took the hotel over. The Army did take over a couple hotels for the GIs cuz there were thousands of us in England at the time for D-Day. So I go in and I registered and this English girl behind the counter says, “Oh Kennedy!” She hollered, “Oh Kathy, here’s another Kennedy!” And this girl sitting over there she says, “Kennedy?” I says, “Yeah”, now I’m a GI. She says, “Where ya from?” I says, “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” “Oh,” she says, “they’re not like the Boston Kennedys.” “No,” I says, “they ran the Boston Kennedys out of Ireland for stealing sheep.” And this English girl says, “Do you know who you’re talking to?” And it dawned on me – it’s the Ambassador’s daughter. I said, “Sorry!” She says, “I don’t pay attention to you guys.”
This story did make me laugh, and it reminded me of his rowdy nature that has been evident in many of his stories. He is not one who just lives life, but rather he goes out and makes life. He has a way with words, during stories and in conversations.
We discussed more changes in the world and about the 1960s he told me, “The ‘60s was the downfall of America.” And then he explained, “It was the start of the downfall… That Woodstock deal. That started it.” Pam gave a cynical laugh and told me, “You know my granddad was real wise. We don’t know where my dad came from. Wisdom is not my dad’s strongest suit.” I saw a connection with how the world has changed and how he doesn’t like how it has affected children, and realized that this went along with it. Woodstock was important in his mind because of what it meant for children and how it negatively affected how they were growing up. The Civil Rights Movement was also at this time, so I asked him what he thought about it, “Oh I think that for Americans everybody’s entitled to the same thing. But I say you have to earn it. If I respect you, you have to earn it. It’s not an automatic thing.”
This lead into a conversation about advice of wisdom he could share with me that life has shown him. Uncle John paused briefly and then spoke, “I think, I honestly think the right way to live and the happy way to live is to do what’s right. You know what I mean. Do what’s right. I firmly believe that. Don’t try to be a wise guy… Play by the rules, cuz in the long run it pays off. That’s it. Everybody thinking that they’re smarter than somebody else, you know that’s crazy. The dumbest people in the world are academians.”
Pam scoffed, and expressed a different opinion about what life has shown her father, “Nothing! He learned nothing! He’s spent 92 years on this earth, he has no wisdom or no knowledge! He has great traditions, that’s it. No wisdom, tell ‘em dad. …He’s not a wise man! He’s a kind man. …Truthfully granddad was a wise man. I guess he took it all and didn’t give any to them.” Uncle John has wisdom, he just also has a robust sense of humor and strong opinions.
The game had been on for a while at this point, and we kept talking and watching the Steelers play. When an aerial shot of the city came on tv he exclaimed, “Ooo Pittsburgh!” And I sensed a strong feeling of pride in him for where he came from. I asked him about his feelings of pride and he told me, “Oh yeah. I am really proud of my ancestry. I’m proud of my marriage. And I’m proud of my children. …except one. And I never mention which one.” He laughed, I laughed, and Pam explained, “That’s one of his sayings “except one”. And Matt when he grew up one time he said, ‘I always knew that was me Pop-pop.’ [laughs] He says, “I love all my grandchildren except one. All my grandchildren are pretty except one.” Uncle John added laughing, “Yeah he [Matt] had a trauma situation.” His strong sense of family pride is evident. He is the family patriarch and takes his role as the nurturer very seriously, in an Uncle John sort of way.
His life has centered around his family and what his family means to him. And while family is an important part of his life, there were also the careers he had during all of those years. He worked as a Coca-Cola driver until 1957, so I wondered what he did after that and learned:
“I left Coca-Cola to go into the real estate game and I was in that twenty years. And I even became a Real Estate broker. That’s a couple steps above a salesman and that gave me the right to be an appraiser and I was an appraiser for a while on the state panel… I left the real estate game when Pam’s husband got a problem, he had his own business and all the personal are double-crossing him left… and I went to work for him. That was about… twenty years at Coke, twenty years in real estate, and I worked for Donny about seven or eight.”
After he retied from real estate he went back to making deliveries. He said, “I was a driver. I worked at Westbrook Pharmacy for about six, delivering prescriptions to old people and flowers. And I worked at Lebanon Shoppes Pharmacy for about four.” He just recently officially stopped working and he explained why, “I didn’t retire. I had an accident. It wasn’t my fault. And the insurance company said we’re not insuring no 92-year old buck. So they had to let me go.” Pam added, “He cried.” I looked over at him as he sat on the couch and saw that his eyes were glistened with tears. His role as a nurturer and caretaker is very strong. He was saddened by the fact that he was no longer able to help people by bringing them the things they needed. For a man who has been active every day of his life I imagine it is hard to have to change doing what one has loved to do for 92 years.
From experience I have learned that he is an avid sports fan, whether it is a professional team or a local high school game played by a family member. He continued talking to me through the first quarter of the Steelers game which indicated he cared about me. But the master storyteller ended all stories abruptly when the Steelers made a play he missed seeing because he was talking with me. He said, “That’s a touchdown! What’d he do? See I’m talking!… I hope there’s a replay. Here we go… Oh that’s the guy from Virginia. Miller. Yeah, 1st draft choice. See I’m glad… I’m gonna stop talking now.” And that was the end of my interview with my Uncle John. From that point on we sat and watched the game in necessary conversation only because not only does Uncle John determine which stories to tell, but he also decides when they stop.