Friday, 6 January 2012



I must say my enlistment was not a quiet affair. I appeared on the Vaughan Meader Show. A surprise guest, President Kennedy, showed up and presented me with a mezuzah, saying after he hoped it would bring me home safely and protect me all my days.

Ironically Vaughan Meader began his career imitating John Kennedy. The success of his First Family album led him to a career as a talk show host after Jack Paar left the “Tonight Show”. Three people were up for the lucrative job: him, Woody Woodbury and Johnny Carson. Woodbury was deemed a bit too racy and Carson refused to leave his highly acclaimed afternoon show, “Who Do You Trust?”

So Meader got the post after stealing Ed McMahon from Carson to host the new “Tonight Show”. Unfortunately, that chemistry wasn’t right, and McMahon left the show to head the publicity department of Schlitz beer, and Meader broke new ground by having a hostless talk show.

Meader’s success spurned offshoots. The notoriously depraved comic, Lenny Bruce, found great success with this sketch:
John Kennedy is supposed to host Ray Charles for lunch at the White House. But just before Ray arrives, a major crisis with the Russians calls him away. He doesn’t want to disappoint Ray, who came all the way from Atlanta to visit him, so he calls Vaughan Meader and asks him to sit in for him and pretend he’s the President. Ray wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Vaughan, who is pretty eccentric, agrees.

“What an honor to meet you, Mr. President,” Ray tells Vaughan.
“The honor is all mine,” says Vaughan in an exaggerated imitation of Kennedy. “You have a wonderful sense of rhythm and are a credit to your race.”
“Thank you. And how is Jackie?”
“Jackie who?”
“Your wife, Jackie.”
“Oh, she’s fine. She’s pregnant again.”
“But she just gave birth last week.”
“Oh yes. Well, we don’t believe in wasting time around here.”
“And how’s your daughter, Caroline?”
“Oh, she’s getting ready for college.”
“But she’s only three.”
“I see. Yes. Well, it takes her a long time to get ready.”

The President loved Meader’s First Family and despised Bruce’s misguided monologues. But in a free country anyone can express themselves as they choose, and ironically Bruce’s career is still going strong while Meader eventually faded into relative obscurity, finally taking work as a sign assembler in Portland, Maine.

Also on the show was a rock and roll group called the Beatles. I met them backstage and took a liking to their witty spokesman, Ringo Starr. He thought they should have been more popular than they were and assumed that America wasn’t ready for their unique contribution. “The times are against us,” he said. And I guess he was right. How could these mopheads compete with the genius of a Bobby Rydell or Connie Francis?

Kennedy’s appearance on the show was a triumph. He was both dignified and playful. He replaced Ringo on the drums for a rousing though off-beat version of a song called “Twist and Shout”. And when the time came to present my mezuzah, he was austere, and prepared, even offering a prayer in badly enunciated Hebrew. For this he received some mild applause that was prolonged by the Jews in the studio audience led by Brian Epstein, the manager of Ringo and his band.

The next day I enlisted, possibly the first enlistment to be recorded on television since Elvis Presley’s. I hoped I would not share the same fate as Presley who is still recovering from his shrapnel wounds.
Shortly after my enlistment, the President declared war on Vietnam officially and whether through my example partly or just the President’s, half a million more young men volunteered for service the following week.

The White House had planned a fine good-bye party for me, and I would be taking a guest. Jack Ruby was in town, he claimed on business, and begged me to let him meet the President. How could I refuse? He was my girlfriend’s employer after all.
The party was, as they say in the movies, a gala affair. The President spared no expense and what a guest list was prepared! There to wish me luck were the likes of Averil Harriman, Arthur Goldberg, Cardinal Cushing, Adam Clayton Powell and Shelly Fabares.

I introduced Ruby to the President and he was gushing with praise. He said it was the most memorable day of his life and thanked the President effusively for taking the time to greet him. The President gave the old any friend of Norm’s reply but seemed astounded when Ruby said, “Norm is really becoming a top aide to you, huh?”
“He’s become very valuable, indeed,” said the President. I blushed in gratitude.
“But he’s more than just an aide, isn’t he?” asked Ruby.
“What do you mean?”
“The more he works with you, the more you two resemble each other.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ruby. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Why, my friend, Mr. Hoffa, says you’re practically like brothers.”
The President’s face joined me in blush and he walked away quickly. I was ashamed of Jack for pumping my importance up so much. The President liked me, but what was this brother business of Jack’s? And why mention Hoffa when Ruby was aware that Bobby was committed to convicting him within two years?

But other than this incident, my send-off was inspiring. My Service at the beginning was less so. As a child I hated both Phys Ed class and summer camp. The army was a perfect combination of both. But, against my will, I was put into an officer’s training course. I would have been satisfied being an ordinary foot soldier, but the army insisted on promoting my advancement. Though we have an egalitarian force, my being a Presidential aide possibly influenced my advancement to rank of second lieutenant by the time I arrived in Vietnam.

No war is good, but the camaraderie and sense of purpose made this one special. Our enemy from the North fought too valiantly and was prepared to take upon himself too much personal sacrifice. In fact, the war was being fought to a draw until Kennedy announced his trade embargo on the Soviet Union, the Viet Cong’s chief supplier. The President convinced even food exporters like Argentina, Australia and Canada to obey his call for an embargo, and eventually food shortages in Moscow meant arms shortages in Hanoi.

But China filled the vacuum just as the Soviet Union seemed ready to talk peace, or at least, settlement. It was then that the President ordered his two-pronged offensive. I led my unit in the invasion of North Vietnam at Na Tinh, just north of the eighteenth parallel, joined by Australian, Thai, Korean and New Zealand forces. By the time the two-pronged attack was over we had formed an effective barrier across the 17th parallel into Laos, cutting off the North Vietnamese men and material to the South and we had invaded the North, establishing an impregnable beachhead that threatened Hanoi itself.

Of course, in this invasion I was wounded as my Jeep drove over a mine. I felt tremendous guilt lying in the hospital while my unit shared the glory of victorious achievement, but I was fortunate enough to share a hospital room with Cassius Clay, a boxer who had served with great distinction in Nam but whose career was to end because of disfigurement of his face, arms and hands. A modest fellow by nature, I never heard a peep of disappointment from him though I’m certain his anguish was well-hidden. He just read Milton and Keats and spoke of the day when he could walk to church by himself, like he was so fond of doing in Louisville.

Lee was a great comfort to me, and when the World Series began, he got a ten-day furlough to come watch it with me. Were it not for the glories of the Telstar satellite, this war would have been unbearable for the men. But television and war became natural allies. While it beamed Dr. Kildare and Hazel to us, it also beamed bravery and good spirits back to the U.S.
I introduced my friend to my roommate. “Lee Harvey Oswald, I’d like to make your acquaintance with Cassius Clay.”
“Hey,” Lee said, “Didn’t I see you fight Chuvalo?”
“Yeah, but that was a long time ago.”
“You were great. The guy’s a Mack truck, but you pulverized him.”
“Yeah. He had an iron jaw and no punch. I flew like a butterfly and I stung like a bee.”
“So, who do you think’s gonna take the series?”
“I give it to the Dodgers. Koufax and Drysdale together can’t be beat.”

I interrupted to disagree. The Twins were the most exciting team in recent American League history. What an outfield led by today’s Hall of Famer, Bob Allison! And what an infield! Zoilo at short, Harmon at first, and the greatest hitter of modern times, Richie Rollins, at third. As for the mound, Earl Battey could barely hold onto Jimmy Kitty Kaat’s knucklers or the sliding fastball of Negro pitcher Mudcat Grant.

My instincts were better, but not by much. The Series went seven games. Killebrew could not hit off Koufax, but on the first pitch of the bottom of the tenth inning at Dodger Stadium, Jimmy Hall sent a curve ball into the second row of the right field bleachers, and it was all over. The Twins dynasty had begun.

When I was recovered enough to walk, I acted as a White House liaison for special visitors. I hosted Lyndon Johnson and his aide Walter Jenkins, who insisted on saving taxpayer’s money by staying at the Saigon YMCA. Later Bob Hope led his band of beauties for a USO show, and I was asked to host him.
I remembered Lee taking his whole furlough to help me recover, and I saw an opportunity to repay him. I knew he loved Bob Hope, and I’d arrange a backstage seat for him. He was thrilled but this led to our first altercation. It was, of course, over a girl.

Bob brought beautiful women to boost our soldiers’ morale, and besides Miss America he brought the lovely and leggy star of “Barbarella”, Jane Fonda, with his show. We met her at rehearsal, and Lee immediately decided he had to meet her personally. Unfortunately, that was my idea as well.
“You’re married,” I told Lee. “What about Marina?”
“I fake married her because the CIA made me. If you leave me alone with Jane, I’ll let you have her when we get back.”

This was admittedly tempting, but Jane was here and Marina was there so I fought for Jane. Lee rushed to her after she finished her shtick with Bob.
“I loved you in ‘Tall Story,’” he said. “It was a brilliant film.”
I arrived and said, “I thought ‘Any Wednesday’ was better. Especially the “she has an unusual name, Elaine,” scene.”
“Boys, boys, you’re both right. Both films were marvels of comic timing.”
Though we fought over her at first, I won in the end. She heard I stayed at a military hospital in Saigon until I was fit again for battle, and she just had to visit me there. I was told later that her publicized visit to my Saigon hospital was a publicity coup for her back home.

Unfortunately China’s material, if not actual, physical, support was beginning to undo the President’s good work and that of his scrupulous General, Westmoreland. The insurgents had succeeded in gaining control of the countryside around Saigon, and the capital was literally under siege.
It was at this moment that Kennedy arrived and gave his famed “I am a Saigoner” speech and threatened a nuclear attack on China if the insurgents did not cross the 17th parallel immediately.

Talk about brinkmanship working. China had exploded a bomb, and that may have been its only one. And it had no way to reach America by either plane or missile. There was tension, of course, when she threatened to nuke Saigon, as Kennedy had calculated, but she relented in the face of overwhelming superiority and the insurgents went home. I can now reveal that this was because of a face-saving plan by Kennedy. He agreed privately to send all American troops home in return for China’s promise not to interfere with the South. So China claimed it threw out the Americans. We claimed we saved the Southern democracy, and the war ended.

12 And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

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