There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer tells Lisa that one day she’ll be attending a party where people like her are talking about art, science, and the running of things and guys like him are serving drinks. It may just be because I came from a middle class background, but I’ve always wondered about those people, and what lead them to that place. While Kings play with maps and lines on charts, and diplomats shake hands over drying ink, there is the common man who is subject to these wills made in backrooms. It’s very kitsch in our society to wonder about the ruling and the celebrity personality, though kitsch may not be the most accurate term. Fetish is more like it. A new generation of children are being raised on the 15-minutes of fame ideology and aspire only for attention rather than actual service or personality. Maybe it’s because my dad crawls under houses for a living, and every dollar he’s ever earned came literally from the amount of sweat and blood he shed, but I tend to sympathize with the guy bringing me my drink. That’s one of the reasons I try not to fuck with people that work in the service industry, the other reason is because I’ve seen the movie Clerks II and I remember that shit with the piss and flies.
I am part of a Graphic Novel book club that meets up the second and fourth week of every month, and happens to be the lead-in to this particular essay. A few months back our leader and founder (great praise be upon his name and majesty, hope you enjoyed that Tom) decided we should read Matt Fraction’s The Invincible Iron Man, specifically the first volume. I had read the end run of the series and happy to see the start. The book was fantastic, relevant, everything you would want out of an Iron Man graphic novel, though the art sucked, seriously everything else was great. The last “chapter” was a short piece that involved Spiderman and in it was a reference to an article printed in The New York Herald Tribune. Parker is riding with his boss whose discussing journalism, what it takes, etc. and he tells Peter that his favorite piece of journalism was this article written Jimmy Breslin about a man named Clifton Pollard.
Many people today probably do not know who Clifton Pollaard is, let alone why they should give a shit about him. Given the lead in, and the fact that I learned about him in a comic book, he may not even be a real dude. Well sorry to disappoint but he was. In fact he was real enough to dig the grave of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a.k.a, JFK…rhyme not intended.
It’s easy to look over a minor detail like the grave when one is looking at the history of a man of power, let alone the president of the United States. Add to the fact that it’s the Cold War, the beginning of the war in Vietnam, the stirrings of the civil rights movement are in the air, the country is divided between the Greats and the Baby
Boomers, the Beats are beginning to craft a new breed of prose and poetry which in turn will lead to singers and artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and it becomes easy to see that a grave digger is hardly anyone’s concern. The president assumes an almost monarchial presence in our society and it makes sense why. Because they are a single face, while institutions like Congress or the Supreme Court are made up of groups of people that are able to hide behind the outer façade of their buildings, the President becomes the person that seems to hold all the real power, when in all actuality he really doesn’t hold THAT much. Whenever something goes wrong it’s the President that has to has a solution, when there’s been a tragedy it’s the President who should be acting and solving the problem, and when our nation goes to war it’s the face of the President that announces it on live T.V. virtually wrecking your girls night in and you really needed it after Chad left with that bitch Miranda who thinks she looks good in that tube top (she does but you don’t want to let her have that too along with your man). Maybe it’s just because I recently finished the entire series West Wing, and the idea of the Presidency is floating around in my brain, but I can understand why the character of the President assumes such pressing significance in our minds.
This hasn’t even taken into consideration the fact that we are dealing with JFK, a President which has become an institutional cultural cartoon character. Many people probably know JFK for banging Marilyn Monroe, others may mistake him for the mayor of Springfield, and a few historians reading, I hope, may remember him as that young man that barely survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald (though that is open up to some debate) and in all the huss, all the fuss, through all the tears and sentiments of national tragedy, nobody bothered to ask the question: who will dig the grave of the President of the United States?
When Pollard got to the row of yellow wooden garages where the cemetery equipment is stored, Kawalchik and John Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, were waiting for him. “Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,” Metzler said. “Oh, don’t say that,” Pollard said. “Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.” Pollard got behind the wheel of a machine called a reverse hoe. Gravedigging is not done with men and shovels at Arlington. The reverse hoe is a green machine with a yellow bucket that scoops the earth toward the operator, not away from it as a crane does. At the bottom of the hill in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Pollard started the digging (Editor Note: At the bottom of the hill in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion).
Leaves covered the grass. When the yellow teeth of the reverse hoe first bit into the ground, the leaves made a threshing sound which could be heard above the motor of the machine. When the bucket came up with its first scoop of dirt, Metzler, the cemetery superintendent, walked over and looked at it. “That’s nice soil,” Metzler said. “I’d like to save a little of it,” Pollard said. “The machine made some tracks in the grass over here and I’d like to sort of fill them in and get some good grass growing there, I’d like to have everything, you know, nice.”
James Winners, another gravedigger, nodded. He said he would fill a couple of carts with this extra-good soil and take it back to the garage and grow good turf on it. “He was a good man,” Pollard said. “Yes, he was,” Metzler said. “Now they’re going to come and put him right here in this grave I’m making up,” Pollard said. “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”
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. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. 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.
The man who dug the grave of the President wasn’t even supposed to work that day. It was a Sunday but he came in anyway. Pollard, throughout Breslin’s article, continued the mantra of honor in his work. To be honest I can’t really fault the man. Breslin’s article is a two part piece beginning first with Pollard having breakfast when he receives the call and then it eventually shifts to a narration of the funeral service. He describes Jacqueline Kennedy attending her husband’s funeral, maintaining the civic responsibility as first lady, Lyndon B. Johnson turning his face away from the coffin so that he won’t reveal the tears in his eyes, he narrates of secret servicemen breaking down, but in his narration one person is conspicuously absent. Clifton Pollard did not attend the funeral for the man of grave he dug. Breslin explains:
Clifton Pollard wasn’t at the funeral. He was over behind the hill, digging graves for $3.01 an hour in another section of the cemetery. He didn’t know who the graves were for. He was just digging them and then covering them with boards. “They’ll be used,” he said. “We just don’t know when. I tried to go over to see the grave,” he said. “But it was so crowded a soldier told me I couldn’t get through. So I just stayed here and worked, sir. But I’ll get over there later a little bit. Just sort of look around and see how it is, you know. Like I told you, it’s an honor.”
Fifty-two years later, Breslin’s article has remained one of the most insightful and moving stories from the turbulent days following Kennedy’s assassination. It was not just that he found the right story at the right time, he did, but that’s not the reason why this short essay has remained such a powerful piece of journalism and writing period. It’s the fact that the man who buried a giant was payed only $3.01.
Words like civic virtue, republican loyalty, and democratic responsibility are lovely words, but one of the brilliant aspects of America is the way the country manages to turn average citizens into heroes. In the aftermath of 9/11 it wasn’t the speeches made by George W. Bush or Rudy Giuliani that inspired American citizens, it was the police and fireman digging through rubble and ash to save the people caught beneath
the wreckage. Facing the threat of disease and aftermaths of the burning fuel, which they all did eventually suffer from, these men and women were resilient to the fear and assumed the responsibility of helping their fellow citizens. The sight of the three firefighters raising the American Flag over the rubble remains one of the most potent symbols of hope that is still currently available in this age of cynicism.
The story of Clifton Pollard is a testament to that idea of what America can be, and what can be made possible through great writing. Kennedy’s death has been wrapped up in conspiracy, sentiment, and even myth, and Breslin’s essay seemed an effort to assume the tragedy through the eyes of a common American. Pollard performed a service to the American people without needing to draw attention to himself or receive much even in the form of compensation. Breslin’s work revealed Pollard to the world, and his selflessness in simply performing his duties as gravedigger won him national acclaim, going so far as to receive an award from Bobby Kennedy, the brother of the fallen President.
Writers for years would envy Breslin’s article, and looking upon it as a writer I’m not ashamed to admit, I envy it myself.
“Who will dig the President’s grave?” sounds like the title of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel or a poem by Walt Whitman; one would hardly believe that it was just question that lead to a small article in a newspaper. Great writing requires insight and imagination, the ability not just to wonder at the importance of an event, but the creativity to consider all sides and discover what aspect has failed to receive the concern of the audience.
Men like Clifton Pollard populate this country, and his story continues to fascinate me. Who are the men that bury our Presidents? What is their character? And what we do owe them for their service? Surely more than $3.01, you’d be lucky to buy a hamburger for that much, and it’s a fitting statement that the men who bury our leaders can barely afford to buy a fucking cheeseburger.
I’ve included links to Berslin’s article below, as well as a piece by The Washington Post commemorating Clifton Pollard for his service.