By Pete Hamill
That day I was in Ireland, in the dark hard Northern city of Belfast, with the fine wire of the winter rain driving in sheets from the roiled sea. Along the Falls Road, women in shawls bent into the punishing November wind, like damp mobile bundles. The men stood in the beery warmth of the BeeHive pub, or the Rock Bar, their faces raw, caps pulled down hard, smoking pipes, drinking stout, watching their women in the rain-slick streets. Once a small boy in a yellow raincoat darted from a candy store, pulling an empty red wagon. I don’t know where he was going, or why he had that wagon, or where he is this very moment. But he became the kind of small detail we all remembered later. For me, it was his wagon, the ruin of my father’s face and, of course, the rain.
For my father, it was the first time in 31 years he had been home to the city of his youth, and to understand the rest of the day, I must tell you something about Billy Hamill. He’s a short round guy with a hoarse voice now, but in the old pictures he looks like a very tough lightweight, two muscled legs jutting from soccer shorts, his face breaking in a cocky grin. He grew up in Belfast, a Catholic in a murderously bigoted Protestant town, and by the time he was 21 he understood that the future must lie somewhere across a sea. Like all the exiles before or since, he left for America.
He lived in Red Hook in Brooklyn and played soccer with St. Mary’s. Old men have told me he was a fine soccer player. He thought he had magic legs, he told me once, and there were great afternoons when those legs moved as if they had brains of their own, taking him down past defenders, driving the ball where he wanted it to go. Until one afternoon in Brooklyn, moving rapidly, he did not see the German coming up fast from the side, nor his leg cocked like some human hammer; but suddenly my father was on the ground, his left leg smashed below the knee, the bones jutting through the skin. He remembered them tearing a slat from the fence and lying on the frozen earth while they lashed it to his leg, and waiting two hours for an ambulance.
He remembered lying in Kings County Hospital, the boot still tied to his destroyed leg, listening to two detectives question a stabbed stranger across the ward. And he remembered the next morning, the leg already poisoned by gangrene, how they had to cut the boot off with scissors, and later, the sound of the saw going through the bone above his knee, and knowing that whatever might happen next a part of his American dream was gone forever.
But my father raised seven children who love him and that November we made good on an old vow and went to Ireland together. The old hatreds had not vanished; but we did have some great nights of song and laughter ,and great waterfalls of beer. He was back the country he had spent half a lifetime singing about and he did not have to get up in the mornings if he did not want to. It was no small thing.
On the evening of the 22nd, I was in a cousin’s home, playing with children, the TV blaring, drinking a bit, when suddenly the sound blacked out and an announcer came on to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. A few minutes later, the announcer was back on again, the phone ringing on his desk, his voice breaking saying that the President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was dead.
I fled into the night to find my father. For men like Billy Hamill, it was even more important that John Kennedy had become President than it was for me. In its way, Kennedy’s election was a personal matter for my old man; it meant that his children and theirs would not be disqualified from birth from becoming leaders of the mightiest nation on this earth. It meant that perhaps after all, the exile and the longing and the crippled dream of America had all worked itself out; it was certainly no small thing now to say that you were Irish.
I found him leaving his brother’s house. He was crying and his face looked white and ruined. We all walked through the frail rain to the second floor lounge of the Rock Bar. “The dirty murdering sons of bitches,” he said, over and over, as we climbed the stairs. “The dirty sons of bitches.”
Behind us, as we sat at a round table, was a long hall with a TV set at the end showing Kennedy’s visit to Ireland a few months before, and my father said that it might be the last time we would see his face whole because we knew that he had been shot in the head, and then Kennedy was at Shannon airport, telling Ireland that he would be back in the spring. The film ended.
And then the damndest thing happened: “The Star Spangled Banner” began to play, and every man in that bar, maybe 50 of them, stood up and faced the TV screen and saluted.
They were saluting the leader of another country and really it was a salute to an Irishman’s son who had made them proud, and then my father started to sing the anthem in his hoarse voice and all of us were crying because we knew finally he had become an American.
I don’t remember very much about the rest of that night; we all got very drunk and went home. I remember seeing a man drive his hand into a tree, and women sobbing dryly as they always do in Ireland. And while the fine rain fell through the dark Irish night, my father told me, as he tried to sleep, that he had not cried so hard since the day long ago when he had lost his magic leg. In that moment, I loved him more than I ever had before, and I love my father very much.