Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Subtle Genius of Jimmy Breslin

When Jimmy Breslin died a few months ago, it hit me pretty hard.  I gave him my standard treatment - seeking for his appearance in tax litigation.  Other than a fleeting mention , there was nothing in the body of federal material, but there was an interesting story about a Manhattan restaurant named Jimmy's in his honor, but that was not enough.

One of the things that was mentioned in his obituaries was his gravedigger column.  The assassination of John F Kennedy was one of those unifying moments for my generation when everybody was paying attention to the same event.  Breslin focused on a small detail of the funeral that would have just about everybody glued to their TV.  The digging of the grave.

The resulting column became an iconic piece of journalism.  Much has been written about it, but there was a subtle piece of genius in it that, as far as I can tell has gone unremarked.

I am certain that I read that column when it first ran in the Herald Tribune.  My old man would always bring home the Herald Tribune and we would talk about Jimmy Breslin and Art Buchwald columns.  I remember the thing that struck me
One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.
$3.01 an hour sounded like pretty good money.

As I read more about the column there was a detail that surprised me.  It is mentioned in an interview with Clifton Pollard, the gravedigger, in 1988.
 Pollard said softly.
'I thought about the job I had to do and who I was doing it for. I liked Kennedy. He was a nice man who did things he said he would do. He helped open schools (to blacks). He was against discrimination.'
Pollard, who is black, began working at the cemetery in 1946 after a stint in the Army during World War II.
 I didn't remember anything about the gravedigger being black.  I think I would have remembered that.

I went over Breslin's column a couple of times and it is not mentioned.  Only it is.

Thomas Ferraro, the UPI reporter who interviewed Pollard in 1988, noted his status as a veteran "a stint in the Army during World War II"

Breslin was more specific.
Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. 
If you look in your copy of Shelby Stanton's World War II Order of Battle, you will find on page 551 - 352nd Engineer Service Regiment (Colored).

To an eleven year old white boy in Fairview NJ Pollard being black was immaterial and perhaps in that context distracting.  But it would probably be of interest to Breslin's readers in Harlem and he figured out a way to tell them.  There were probably enough veterans who would have recognized the reference without help from Captain Stanton' book, which would not come out for a couple of decades.

It was a great thing that my father did when he introduced me to Jimmy Breslin and Art Buchwald along with the rest of what was the successor to Margaret Fuller's newspaper. I'm sure he would have been pleased to learn that I heard Breslin speak at Holy Cross in the early seventies and that Art Buchwald was the commencement speaker at the graduation of the Class of 1974.  Maybe even that my Margaret Fuller obsession had me reading Tribune columns from the eighteen forties.

Sadly both he and the Herald Tribune died before I started high school. And now Breslin is gone too.

Peter J Reilly CPA writes about taxes on and whatever he feels like on this blog.