Jimmy Breslin’s Grave Digger Story

‘It’s An Honor’

New York Herald Tribune, November 1963

By Jimmy Breslin

WASHINGTON — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

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 35th president of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.

Yesterday morning, at 11:15, Jacqueline Kennedy started toward the grave. She came out from under the north portico of the White House and slowly followed the body of her husband, which was in a flag-covered coffin that was strapped with two black leather belts to a black caisson that had polished brass axles. She walked straight and her head was high. She walked down the bluestone and blacktop driveway and through shadows thrown by the branches of seven leafless oak trees. She walked slowly past the sailors who held up flags of the states of this country. She walked past silent people who strained to see her and then, seeing her, dropped their heads and put their hands over their eyes. She walked out the northwest gate and into the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. She walked with tight steps and her head was high and she followed the body of her murdered husband through the streets of Washington.

Everybody watched her while she walked. She is the mother of two fatherless children and she was walking into the history of this country because she was showing everybody who felt old and helpless and without hope that she had this terrible strength that everybody needed so badly. Even though they had killed her husband and his blood ran onto her lap while he died, she could walk through the streets and to his grave and help us all while she walked.

There was Mass, and then the procession to Arlington. When she came up to the grave at the cemetery, the casket already was in place. It was set between brass railings and it was ready to be lowered into the ground. This must be the worst time of all, when a woman sees the coffin with her husband inside and it is in place to be buried under the earth. Now she knows that it is forever. Now there is nothing. There is no casket to kiss or hold with your hands. Nothing material to cling to. But she walked up to the burial area and stood in front of a row of six green-covered chairs and she started to sit down, but then she got up quickly and stood straight because she was not going to sit down until the man directing the funeral told her what seat he wanted her to take.

The ceremonies began, with jet planes roaring overhead and leaves falling from the sky. On this hill behind the coffin, people prayed aloud. They were cameramen and writers and soldiers and Secret Service men and they were saying prayers out loud and choking. In front of the grave, Lyndon Johnson kept his head turned to his right. He is president and he had to remain composed. It was better that he did not look at the casket and grave of John Fitzgerald Kennedy too often. Then it was over and black limousines rushed under the cemetery trees and out onto the boulevard toward the White House. “What time is it?” a man standing on the hill was asked. He looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes past three,” he said.

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.”

CCNY Fights To Keep Dreamers Safe

Photo by Julia Katsman, A CCNY Dream Team poster to spread the word

by Julia Katsman

The clock ticks as young people wait for Congress to act and create a new DACA program. President Trump announced that he would give Congress six months to pass legislation to preserve DACA before it gets terminated. In the meantime, at The City College of New York, there’s an effort to help students whose legal status is threatened.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a program former President Obama created in 2012. It offers undocumented immigrants two years of amnesty and the right to get a Social Security number, to work, and to go to college. Eight hundred thousand young people could lose their legal status if the program is permanently withdrawn.

These people now wait in fear of the decision to come. Will the benefits of the DACA program be terminated? Or will Congress come up with a fair way to provide Dreamers with similar benefits?

CCNY opposes the repeal of DACA. According to Interim President Vince Boudreau, there are three ways that CCNY is currently trying to give aid. The first way is through protest—both in person and in the written word. Students and faculty will hold assemblies, and spread the word outside the campus. The second way that CCNY is trying to help is by applying pressure on elected officials. The plan is to create massive public resistance against the termination of DACA rights. The third way is to offer protection, encouragement, and support to the Dreamers.

Boudreau said, “If at any time an immigration official enters our buildings or calls one of our phone lines—inquires in any way after any of our students–every single one of us must respond only by referring the inquiry to Executive Counsel to the President, Paul Occhiogrosso.” In addition, the campus offers help via the City College Immigration Center.

Students also created after-class clubs in support of Dreamers. One of these clubs is called the CCNY Dream Team. The team is dedicated to the cultivation of relationships to empower and educate different immigrant groups within the CCNY community.

The founder of the CCNY Dream Team explained,“The main purpose of this club is to give undocumented students and their allies a safe haven to meet, discuss issues that are affecting the CCNY community and advocate for fair immigration policies. The team works to educate the student body, faculty and staff about issues affecting the immigrant community at City College and inform students of opportunities, such as scholarships and internships.”

The City College hopes that DACA students will feel safe and supported by the campus community.

 

DACA And A Young Mother

by Laura Aquino

What will happen to my baby? This is our country. I don’t know Ecuador like that, last time I was there I was only six years old,” Esther said. The twenty-three-year-old mother, and Dreamer, worries about what will happen.

On September 5th, 2017, President Donald J. Trump rescinded the DACA program. Trump announced his administration would give Congress six months to come up with a law to protect the young immigrants from deportation. If Congress fails to come up with a solution, Esther and 800,000 immigrants in the DACA program will lose their authorization to work and to receive an education.

Back in 2012, Barack Obama issued an executive order that became known as DACA. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is an American immigration policy that allows undocumented immigrants who enter the United States as minors to receive legal status.

“My parents, like many others, came to the U.S seeking  a better future for their kids. I have lived here for as long as I can remember. I grew up under the American culture. Now I have to go back to an unknown country?” Esther asked.

As tears escaped from her eyes, Esther wonders how this will turn out for her and her daughter.

“I have a sixteen-month-old baby girl who was born here. What will to happen to her? Would she have to go live in Ecuador? Are they taking her away from me?  I just hope the Congress comes up with a solution because uncertainness is keeping me awake at night. I work hard and I will soon graduate from college and its scares the hell out me that my parent’s sacrifices were in vain and mine and my daughter’s future are taken away from our hands, just like that.”

 

 

Life In Limbo

A-Face-of-DACA
Dreamers Protest DACA Repeal, photo by Rhododendrites, Creative Commons 4.0 License Courtesy Wikimedia

 

By Elihu Fleury

Tom’s parents left Bangledesh and brought him to the United States when he was five. They wanted him to have a better life than they had growing up. They settled in Elmhurst, Queens where he made friends, went to  elementary school and Newtown High School. He doesn’t want his real name used, but he wants his story told because he’s upset about President Trump’s sudden withdrawal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

He always thought of himself as a legitimate American. “I didn’t know that I was an ‘illegal’ until the age of 14”, he said. “It’s hard to explain the feeling.”

As soon as President Obama created DACA in 2012, Tom applied. He  got a Social Security number and a permit to work.  He immediately got a job and developed a strong work ethic that earned good reviews from his supervisors.

DACA gave him a real sense of freedom and security, and allowed him to follow his passions including weight lifting. His regular routine includes work, study, friends and exercise. In other words, he lives a typical New York life.

“I don’t know any other country but the United States,” Tom complained bitterly. “It’s my home, not Bangladesh. I grew up here, I met my best friends here, I went to my first concert here, I had my first kiss. None of that in Bangladesh.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) gave him hope. DACA guarantees work permits and deportation relief to  immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

President Trump plan to repeal it threatens the future of 800,000 Dreamers like Tom.

Dreamers and other protested all across the country. Their colleges supported them. Some offered sanctuary and advice to protect them from immigration agents. 15 state governments filed a joint lawsuit to prevent the DACA rollback. California filed its own lawsuit because about 30 percent of DACA residents live there.  Six Dreamers in San Francisco also filed a lawsuit, saying that the repeal “was motivated by unconstitutional bias against Mexicans and Latinos.”

Tom felt more immediate effects. He had an interview for a job as a teller at a Manhattan bank before Trump announced the end of DACA.  He almost didn’t go.  “Because of the now dead DACA, I was very unenthusiastic about the interview and had to force myself to pretend that I cared about the interview,” he said.

He got the job.  But his DACA eligibility expires soon and he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

In fact, his immigration status affects his motivation to finish college. “I’m so close to graduating, but once I do and can’t work, then what was the point?”, he explains.  He continues to worry and says, “Normally I would be very motivated that all of my hard work paid off, and I had an opportunity for a position I’ve wanted for the longest time, but now it’s really hard for me to care.”

Tom seems like a confident 22 year-old-man, but inside he shares the turmoil experienced by other Dreamers. He fears deportation and thinks about it constantly.

It makes him angry.  “ICE can suck it,” he almost spat. “They treat immigrants and ‘illegals’ like trash, not humans”. He pointed out that he has no criminal record  and “I don’t plan on having a record so I hope I don’t get deported. I plan on working for as long as I can, either at the bank or any other job I hope to get.”

Glimmers of hope exist. In the past few weeks, Mr. Trump began working with Democrats on a deal to preserve DACA. Yet nothing concrete has happened.

For Tom, a solution can’t come soon enough. “If I do end up getting deported, that would really suck,” he said, ”and that’s the most ‘PG’ way I can put it”.

 

 

 

Death of a Dream

 

DACA-Stories-CCNY-Journalism-Students

by Michael C. Bohn

“I learned how to ride a bike here. I went to school here. My first kiss was here!” Twenty-year-old DACA recipient and City College freshman Jose Martinez laughed.  “I was born in El Salvador but the United States is my home.”

For many, citizenship is more than a legal document.

“It’s things like that that are so simple, but truly the experience of being an American… it just so happens my passport doesn’t say I’m an American and my birth certificate doesn’t say I was born in America, but I feel just as proud of America as you do.”

Jose had come on a sunny afternoon to the crowded, windowless, one-room office of the CCNY Immigration Center seeking information. (https://www.ccny.cuny.edu/we-are-one-ccny/city-college-immigration-center)

Enzo Soderini, Senior Paralegal, helps the students and projected warmth and compassion. A steady stream of worried young Dreamers needed his help.  “We are very busy,” he confided.

Many who have received DACA( https://www.uscis.gov/)status are still fearful, reluctant to speak, but Jose was eager to tell his story, grateful to anyone would listen.

“Once that program came out it was kind of like we came out of a dark tunnel because we were hidden in the shadows. And it made me believe that the American Dream still exists. So now that DACA is coming to an end very soon I feel like I have to go back to where I was and I don’t wanna be back to that stage any more, back into the shadows.”

On September 5th, 2017, President Trump, citing the need for Congress to act on the issue, had Attorney General Jeff Sessions deliver the news that DACA would end, phased out over the next two-and-a-half years.

President Obama issued an Executive Order in 2012 creating DACA after Congress failed to act on immigration reform. While it is only one piece of the debate, it was an attempt to address one of least controversial portions of the immigration debate. Most Republicans, Democrats and Americans agree that those too young to have had any part in their presence here should not be penalized, and should be given a path toward citizenship.  

Eight hundred thousand so-called Dreamers are currently enrolled in the program, and nearly 42,000 in New York State alone.

They are everywhere. Sitting next to you in class or at work. It could be the nice young man selling you shoes, as Jose does when he is not in school holding down five classes this semester. “I’m just grateful that people are interested in my experience,” he said.

Jose arrived here from El Salvador with his mother in 2001 when he was three years old. “If DACA ends he could be forced to live in a country that he does not remember. “My heart and mind will be here in America but my body will be there,” he said.

Jose is an American history buff. He is a fan of founding fathers Ben Franklin and fellow immigrant Alexander Hamilton. He has faith in the ideals expressed by the founding fathers, ideas that fueled hopes for freedom around the world. Young Dreamers like Jose, raised in this country, and fed those same ideals, now wait, and hope their dream will come true.

“I just renewed my DACA on August 18th.  That gives me two years and a couple months.”

Ironically, it may be capitalism and the free market fundamentals that save DACA for the Dreamers. “Owners of business, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix – they all support us.  So, it makes me happy that we have the support and that hopefully something will get done.  I still believe in the American Dream,” he smiles.

 

Here to Stay

DACA-Stories-By-CCNY-Journalism-Students

by Alfha Gonzalez

Carleny Valentin suffers from the fear that fills her heart when she opens her eyes every morning. President Trump ordered an end to DACA, a program that protected 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. The future of these young Dreamers  is uncertain. While the sun rises and sets, every Dreamer experiences fear and dismay.

Former President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. The program protected illegal immigrants who came into the United States as minors. The program provided them two years of deferred action from deportation and allowed them to get a Social Security number and a work permit. Many families saw this as an opportunity to achieve the American Dream.

All immigrants protected by DACA have a story.

Carleny came to the United States at nine from the Dominican Republic with her father and siblings. She left behind an alcoholic mother who used heroin and beat her. She was often harassed at school for being different, for speaking broken English and for being dark-skinned. She remembers the word “abuse” as the one word that brings back her childhood.

Her father, who came into this country legally, never tried to help her fix her legal status. Her four siblings are all citizens.

Carleny left home at fifteen without finishing high school. She took refuge in alcoholism, drifted away from her family and started working. Ten years later, after going through rehabilitation and committed to change, Carleny has been sober for five years. She also found love.

She married Dereck Somwar, an American citizen.  She gave birth to fraternal twins on July 26th, a boy and a girl. Carleny had worked illegally. But DACA provided her with a sense of security and her fear was gone. Her marriage allowed her to apply for citizenship on September 14th. She will become the woman she always wanted to be without the constant panic nagging at her.

If she had the opportunity to talk to the president, she would say, “It isn’t late for someone who wants to change. I’ve worked day and night, as hard as necessary to stay afloat in this country. Regardless of my past I have always tried to give people the happiness I never received. I am looking forward to a better future, where I am here to stay with my family, who I love and cherish very much, sincerely. Thanks to love I am where I am today. But I fear that the future of those who, like me, were protected by DACA might be in danger. That the lives of 800,000 that know no other home might be torn apart”.

She asks President Trump to have mercy,  to think about the families that this decision might separate and to put himself in the position of those his decision puts at risk.