I was reminded recently of a conversation a few of us once had with Perrin Jones, the retired newspaperman and former Arkansas legislator who passed away three years ago this month.
During our chat, I told Perrin of my daughter Alexis’ recent trip to Europe, and he recalled being in Berlin in 1963, behind the Iron Curtain and the relatively new Berlin Wall. He was there with dozens of reporters from around the United States, covering the Cold War.
I should have asked him if he was there on June 26, when JFK gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin. It means, or was supposed to mean, “I am a Berliner.” Kennedy orated, “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ... All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’”
However, the correct translation was a bit different, according to this piece from New York Times columnist William J. Miller:
“It’s worth recalling, again, President John F. Kennedy’s use of a German phrase while standing before the Berlin Wall. It would be great, his wordsmiths thought, for him to declare himself a symbolic citizen of Berlin. Hence, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ What they did not know, but could easily have found out, was that such citizens never refer to themselves as ‘Berliners.’ They reserve that term for a favorite confection often munched at breakfast. So, while they understood and appreciated the sentiments behind the president’s impassioned declaration, the residents tittered among themselves when he exclaimed, literally, ‘I am a jelly-filled doughnut.’” (“I Am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut,” William J. Miller, The New York Times, April 30, 1988)
I looked up other events from ’63, and found it was also the year that the president’s younger brother, Robert F., in a function as attorney general, closed down the infamous prison Alcatraz. KM and I took a trip to the City by the Bay eight years ago and toured the island. It was the highlight of my trip.
When you step off the boat and start the tour, moving slowly through the old abandoned cellblocks, a strange feeling comes over you. Probably because this was where the “desperate or irredeemable types” were sent, men like Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Robert “Birdman” Stroud, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and James “Whitey” Bulger.
But in 1963, it was deemed un-functional and too expensive; so on March 21 of that year, the notorious Alcatraz shut its gate behind guard Jim Albright as he escorted the last inmate off the island.
As we watched it get smaller from the boat, I wondered if I could make the swim from the Rock to the shore, a distance of about a mile and a half. I kind of liked my chances after reading about 17-year old Anastasia Scott, who made the crossing from Alcatraz to the Dolphin Club in 43 minutes on Oct. 18, 1933. Her father was stationed on the island, and she made the crossing with two pilots in a rowboat. About a week later, two more San Francisco women swam the route from the “escape-proof” island in protest of the decision to turn the island into a federal penitentiary.
Jay Edwards is editor-in-chief of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.