July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
I don’t believe I’m misquoting Jacques Barzun too violently in paraphrasing an austere dictum of his this way: “How do amateurs write? Badly, always.” Any editor will acknowledge the hard kernel of truth in this rule, but of course there are exceptions. I like to think our “My Brush With History” column offers some each issue, and a most impressive one arrived in the mail a few months back. It was a new book called PT-105 , which our founding editor Oliver Jensen had sent to me with the terse injunction “You’d better read this.”
The author, Dick Keresey, had skippered a PT boat in the Pacific during World War II and, after spending the rest of his life practicing law, decided to write about his Navy career. His account is funny, scary, melancholy, exciting, and angry—this last emotion provoked not only by occasional long-ago operational follies visited upon the boats by commanders far from the fighting but also because the boats’ contribution to the war effort has been either misunderstood or forgotten.
Keresey sets the record straight in his book with such energy and clarity that I immediately wrote him to commission an article for American Heritage . Reluctant to lose either his personal anecdotes or his skillfully drawn tactical picture, I found myself asking nothing less than that he distill his entire book into the compass of a magazine piece.
As you will see, he did this splendidly. But you mustn’t let our story keep you from getting hold of the book, for there are a great many more good things there, from a reckless forty-two-knot ride—exhilarating and hair-raising—down a crowded Hudson River to keep a deeply desirable date in Montclair, New Jersey, to a moving and unusual account of what happened when Keresey’s outfit took a group of Japanese prisoners.
But I find that the moment in the book that may have given me the most pleasure is a minor, almost parenthetical one—even though it involves the best known of all PT-boat men. John F. Kennedy’s shade has been the subject of so much cold scrutiny in recent years that it is nice to be given an unexpected glimpse of him simply being a good guy.
He is doing so on the opposite page. The young President politely greeting his predecessor is in fact surreptitiously helping out a Navy buddy.
The buddy is Al Webb, who after his PT service became vice president of sales for Cavanagh Hats. With his fellow skipper’s famous bareheadedness ravaging his enterprise, Webb had Cavanagh run up two fine custom hats and hurried to the White House to give one to the President and one to Kennedy’s long-time friend, a businessman named Red Fay.
“Al removed the hats from their boxes as though they were fragile Stradivarii,” recalled the writer William Manchester, who was on hand for the presentation. “Jack and the Redhead tried them on. . . . Al stood back to observe the effect. He said unconvincingly, ‘You both look great.’ Jack and Red looked at each other and burst out laughing. ‘Al,’ said the President, ‘are you willing to destroy the beloved image of our country’s leader just to save the hat industry?’” Manchester thought the hats made the two men “look like a couple of house detectives.” Webb retreated, “crestfallen.”
But there was more to it than that. Dick Keresey explains: “Kennedy met the challenge in his own way. The next day he greeted former President Eisenhower at Camp David and thereafter sent Al a picture of the great occasion: It showed Kennedy leaning forward, his right hand extended; in his left hand he held a hat, the lining facing out toward the camera. The Cavanagh Hats label was plainly visible!”
Years later Keresey called the Kennedy Library to see if he could get a copy of the picture for his book. He told the curator what he wanted and why. The man was delighted. “You’ve solved the mystery!” he cried. “Kennedy carried that hat around for two weeks, and nobody has ever been able to figure out why.”