“JFK and Me,” Becoming PZ: Stories I Never Wrote Down

Paul Zahl Recounts Previously Untold Stories of His Life

Mockingbird / 4.19.21

Thankful for this new series of posts from Paul Zahl:

I met John F. Kennedy three times in person.

The first time was when he was running for President.
The second time was when he had just been elected President.
The third time was when he was dead — or rather, a few days after he was dead.

This is all true.

The first time I had just turned nine and we lived around the corner from the Senator and Mrs. Kennedy. My mother called herself a “Rockefeller Republican” and was a GOP canvasser for Georgetown in Washington, D.C. (Lots of luck, even then.)

Anyway, one day I was walking down Prospect Street to go to the corner grocery store where Potomac Street comes in, and there were JFK and Jackie.

I think they were probably de-briefing their day. They were all alone, and I was right opposite them on the other side of the street.

Impulsively I shouted, “Nixon!” JFK looked over, and shook his head; and instantly I knew I shouldn’t have said it. But I had, and was just a nine-year-old boy in shorts and sneakers. It was the way he shook his head: there was a kind of poignancy to it.

The second time I met JFK in person was different.

He had just been elected President, on November 8, 1960, and was giving his first news conferences outside his home on N Street. For months, news correspondents had been camping — by day — outside his house and across the street, where a kind neighbor lady would give them shelter in bad weather. Anyway, there was always a crowd, and it seemed like Walter Cronkite was there almost every day.

On this day, soon after his election, I made a move. Mr. Kennedy was just finishing a question-time outside his front door before going back inside, and I ran through the crowd of journalists, somehow without crashing into any of them, and got right next to the President-elect. I said, “Mr. President, will you give me your autograph?” Even at age nine, I could tell he was tired, but he turned towards me, took my little green piece of paper in his hand, and signed it. Then he turned and went inside.

I “ran all the way home” (The Impalas, 1959) and said, “Mom, I got Kennedy’s autograph!”

The third time I met JFK “in person” was when he was dead.

His funeral was on November 25, 1963. I was now 12, and we still lived in Georgetown. All I did for a week was watch the wall-to-wall coverage of the President’s assassination, its aftermath, and then the state funeral to be held on the 25th.

I didn’t feel like going to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and standing outside and watching his coffin be blessed and lifted onto the catafalque. (Anyone who was alive then will never forget the word “catafalque” as long as they live.) This was because the “Catholic” part of that day was completely unfamiliar.

But I did decide to walk downtown, down Wisconsin Avenue/Pennsylvania Avenue towards the Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge. Again, it was just me, but this time in long pants and a winter coat. I got to stand right on the road where the procession was coming by, and was just feet away from the … catafalque … and therefore the body … and his family and the two little children and then the heads of state.

I saw President DeGaulle sitting in about the fifth or sixth limo, and decided to make him my “marker,” pony-trotting over the bridge the best I could to keep up with his limo as it moved slowly in the direction of Arlington National Cemetery. I wasn’t allowed to go any further once the procession reached the Virginia side. But there was the President of France, the famous Leader of the Free French, and I had jogged by his side for about 100 yards or so on November 25th, 1963.

So yes, “JFK and Me.” A story I never wrote down. And it’s all true.

And one more thing: I mislaid his autograph. Somehow, in my little childhood desk or table, it got mislaid or thrown away, and I never saw it again.

P.S. One final thing, though. When I was nine, every day when I got home from school, I would dash down to Pat’s Newsstand, on M Street. There was one goal, and one goal only: Had Pat gotten in a new issue of Famous Monsters magazine?

One day Pat, who was good-humored and nice to children, said, “You know, you’re a little like Senator Kennedy. He comes in here every morning to get the morning papers. Like clockwork. And you come in here every afternoon, to ask about monster magazines. Like clockwork.”

 

The plaque in remembrance of that remarkable and dramatic period during which I snuck through the reporters and got JFK’s autograph. I stood right there almost every afternoon for 3 months.

 

President DeGaulle on the day of the third time I met JFK.

 

Pat’s Newsstand just a few years before JFK and I frequented it. It is the store front just to the right of Union Clothing.