Poem: How JFK Killed My Father


Poetry of the Times

Psychiatric Times

April 2005


Issue 4

Within recent medical times psychologic investigations have reawakened interest in the psychological settings in which illness develops. Reports in the literature have singled out loss as a precipitating factor in a variety of disorders ... including ulcerative colitis.

--Arthur H. Schmale Jr., M.D.

It was a time when men wore fedoras

banded on the crown, each band with a feather

tucked into a bow, and inside,

sweat bands carved from calf skins

with their sweet smell of animal and earth.

I remember the photo over my grandfather's desk,

a sepia toned panorama shot

from his ninth floor factory window,

Broadway below a surge of ticker-tape

and hats tossed in the air for FDR,

hats pouring into the street, hats

waved in exaltation, hats

taking off like America.

After two war-time winters in Greenland

my father came home, hat in hand,

and bought the sweat band business,

made it grow like his young family, presidents

and hopefuls motorcading down Broadway:

Truman in a Scala wool Hamburg

Ike's bald head steamed in fur felt,

Stevenson's ideals lost in the glory

of a two-inch-brimmed Stetson.

But when thick-haired Kennedy

rode top down and bare-headed,

men all over America took off their hats

in salute, in praise and imitation,

flung them into the street forever.

Hat factories closed quiet as prayer books,

and loss lingered in my father's guts

like unswept garbage after a big parade.

Years later, yarmulke on my head,

they asked me to view him in his coffin.

I can still see his face shaved smooth as calf skin,

his dark suit, crisp white shirt and tie,

how I laughed that they dressed him up for eternity

without a hat. And I can still hear

the old men murmur in the graveyard,

Kennedy did it to him,

fedoras held close to their leathered hearts.

Reprinted with permission from Berlin R (2000), How JFK Killed My Father. Psychosomatic Medicine 62(2):219.

Dr. Berlin is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Dr. Berlin's book How JFK Killed My Father won the Pearl Poetry Prize 2002 and was published by Pearl Editions in September 2003.

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