Friday, March 27, 2015

John F. Kennedy, Robert Frost, and the Roads Not Taken

            The weekend of October 26, 1963, was a memorable one at Amherst College. President Kennedy was on campus to dedicate the Robert Frost Library, which was built about 50 yards from my dorm room. After watching the Secret Service explore the campus around the library, we students had discussed, a month before our loss of innocence, how a lone gunman would be able to get off a shot before being caught. For Amherst students, Kennedy’s visit was the birth of an enduring memory, shared at our 50th reunion.
            But not by me.
            While President Kennedy was at Amherst not getting shot, I was 90 miles away in Boston, embarrassing myself and the college by trying out for goalie on the 1964 U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey team. I should have stayed for Frost and Kennedy.
            I will spare you (and myself) the humiliating details of my brief tryout performance. Suffice it to say that there was one goalie worse than me, and he probably felt the same way. We were both cut after the first day, but I was heartened by the fact that some very good goalies were cut at the same time. At the conclusion of the Boston tryouts, the two survivors were Harvard’s #1 and #2 goalies. I don’t recall their names, but they were incredibly skilled. Even if I were at my best and got more than my share of lucky saves, I would not have made it past the first cut. Fortunately for me, the lingering luster of President Kennedy and Robert Frost made my early return to campus a private failure.
            I followed in the newspapers what happened next. The team from the Boston tryouts played a series of games against the team from the Minnesota tryouts with our Olympic team chosen from that competition. Both Harvard goalies were cut. Then in the Olympics themselves, Team U.S.A. won two games and lost five. Looking back, I have a clear vision of where I was located in the hockey food chain.

            My Olympic story has improved with time. Some 30 years later I was teaching high school where a former student, John Bacon, was coaching the hockey team. I’d told him about my non-experience in the Olympics, pretty much the way I described it above. A few weeks later one of my students on the team approached me.
            “Coach Bacon told us about you and the Olympics.”
            “Did he?”
            “Yes. What issue of Sports Illustrated were you on the cover of?”
            “Oh, I don’t really remember. That stuff isn’t very important to me.” This was in a pre-google era, so I was able to be humble and boastful at the same time. I have no idea what Bacon told the team, and I don’t want to know.

            Robert Frost himself had visited Amherst a year before his January 1963 death. In another enduring memory that I do not share, Frost had lunch with the Honors English students, a group in which I counted myself in the bottom tier. Imagine my teaching English and casually mentioning my lunch with Robert Frost! Well, I have to imagine it, too, because an away hockey game made me miss that memorable (for some) lunch.
            I’m still waiting for a student to ask me, “Which poem was it that Robert Frost asked you to help with?”

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