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Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War
By Douglas Brinkley
Up from Denver
The sun was glaring through the windshield of Richard J. Kerry's single-engine light aircraft as he prepared for takeoff from a runway in northern Virginia on February 27, 1954. Mild, with temperatures in the mid fifties, no clouds in sight, it was a perfect day to fly. During World War II Kerry had served the United States government as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flying DC-3s and B-29s. Now he was based in Washington, D.C. , serving as an attorney for the State Department's Bureau of United Nations Affairs. This was, however, to be his final flight. With his eleven-year-old son John sitting in the rear seat, Kerry, now a civilian,started the engine and checked his navigational charts. Everything was in working order. "Don't touch the stick," he cautioned his son before takeoff. "Not until you're older."
Anybody who knew the austere and hardworking Kerry well thought of him as a man with an intense, careful disposition, a pilot whose logbook was as tidy as an accountant's ledger. This particular book, beige in color and three-quarters full, had been kept since 1940. During World War II he had crisscrossed America numerous times, including long stints in Alabama, Ohio, California, and Colorado. Today was no different from any other flight day: he carefully scrawled "Alexandria Local Aeronca" in his book. He was hoping to give his son an aerial view of metropolitan Washington sites. Usually Kerry never editorialized in his log: just the no-nonsense facts. But on this last flight he made an exception, writing something personal: "Flight over Mt. Vernon with Johnny."The flight lasted for only a brief forty minutes. But forty years later he sent the logbook and wings to his son with a note on his law firm stationery: "Is this last entry prophetic?" Richard Kerry was probably referring to his son's passion for flying, but the flight over Mt. Vernon may inadvertently touched a different prophecy.
Even when he was an eleven-year-old boy, there was a feeling that John Forbes Kerry was touched with destiny - or, more accurately, that public service was instilled in him by his parents. There was, however, a touch of the parvenu in all of this, a fierce family belief, not unlike that which Joseph Kennedy imposed on his four sons, that the Kerry boys - John and Cameron - could accomplish any feat, no matter how dif ficult. But to do so would take discipline. A touch of old-fashioned chauvinism, however, prohibited Richard Kerry from fully instilling the same attitude in his two daughters, Margaret (Peggy) and Diana. What was important was that his two sons were not slouches. Concepts like diligence, duty, and loyalty were instilled in them, with tenderness usually coming last. Like the fathers in so many second-generation immigrant families, Richard Kerry believed his boys could accomplish anything in America, even following in the oversized footsteps of George Washington, making it all the way to the White House. "Excelling was the Kerry family ethic" is the way Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld explained it. She gave an example as a case in point: Richard Kerry taught his sons how to steer a boat under a blanket, so they would learn to navigate in the fog. "He definitely promoted tough love," Peggy recalled. "He wanted us to be equipped with the harsh realities of the real world."
The story of Richard Kerry's rise is one of overcoming obstacles. Born in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts - the same Boston suburb where John F. Kennedy was born two years later - Richard Kerry was a handsome, erudite boy, always fighting against the odds. His father, Fredrick A. Kerry, was actually a Czech Jew named Fritz Kohn who had fled the aggressive Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905, brutalized by anti-Semitism. Three years before his arrival in America he married Ida Lowe, a beautiful Jewish musician from Budapest. According to the Boston Globe, the young couple simply studied a map of Europe, found County Kerry in Ireland, and chose it as their last name. Baptized as Catholics, they moved to Chicago with their young son Eric, where Fredrick (or Fred as he was called)earned a living as a business manager. Eventually they moved to Brookline, known as the "town of millionaires" in the early 1900s, had two additional children, Richard and Mildred, and earned a reputation as good neighbors. The local newspaper deemed Fredrick "a prominent man in the shoe business"; his shop was located at 487 Boylston Street in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. He seldom missed attending Catholic church services on Sunday. (He kept it secret that he was of Jewish descent.) With a two-story, Arts and Crafts-style house in Brookline - designed by John C. Spofford - located at 10 Downing Road, a black Cadillac parked in front and three healthy children running happily about, it seemed, to the outside world, that the Kerry family exemplified the American dream.
That notion was brutally dispelled on November 23, 1921, when a depressed Fred Kerry, wandered into the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, walked into the men's room, and shot himself in the head. The Boston Globe published a short story about the suicide, which took place at 11:30 A.M., claiming he had died instantly. "Kerry had been ill for some time, and he became despondent as a result," the obituary read. "He left his home about the usual hour this morning, and his spirits seemed to be low. After going to his place of business he came out and went to the hotel where he took his life."
It's hard to fully understand how such a grisly death affects a six-year-old boy, but Richard seemed to internalize the suicide. Thinking of it as a badge of shame, he coped with the loss of his father by ignoring it ...