JFK's "silly bastard" can chuckle, 50 years later

President John F. Kennedy is often remembered as cool, calm, and collected. But 50 years ago, a Tampa man sent JFK into a tizzy over a picture that appeared in the Washington Post.

It happened in July of 1963 when Ernie Carlton was stationed at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts. It's where Air Force One landed when the Kennedys visited their family retreat in Hyannis Port.

Carlton served as the base's public affairs officer, dealing with reporters and photographers who covered the Kennedys.

'SILLY' PICTURE

"I thought the world of Kennedy," said Carlton, now 83 years old. But a recently discovered recording reveals that Kennedy didn't think much of Carlton.

"That fellow is incompetent, who's standing beside Mrs. Kennedy's bed!" said the president in a phone conversation recorded in the White House. "He's a silly bastard! I wouldn't have him running a cathouse!"

Kennedy's rant, aimed at an Air Force general, came after the president saw an article reporting that the Air Force had built an expensive private hospital ward for Jackie Kennedy, who was pregnant at the time. Accompanying the article was a photograph showing a young Air Force officer, Ernie Carlton, standing by a hospital bed, smiling at the cameras.

"They're crazy up there!" shouted Kennedy on the phone. "And that silly bastard standing by the bed," said Kennedy, "what about transferring his ass out of here in about a month?"

THE MOVIE

Carlton wasn't transferred. In fact, he went on to serve 25 years in the Air Force -- including more than 300 missions over Vietnam -- and later became a college professor. He had no idea that he was the "silly bastard" until independent film producer Scott Calonico came to his home last year, showed him the photo, and played the phone recording.

Calonico's camera captured Carlton's reaction: "Oh, no! Honey, have you seen this? That's me!"

Carlton's surprise is at the heart of Calonico's award-winning short film, "The Silly Bastard Next to the Bed." It's about eight minutes long and can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/100981004.

FAMOUS AFTER 50 YEARS

Carlton tells me that he would have been fine never knowing that he was the "silly bastard." However, he would also not have reconnected with several old friends from the Air Force who saw the film and reached out to him.

He remembers now how he came to be pictured next to the bed. Carlton explained that he was leading reporters on a tour of the hospital, which he says was not nearly as lavish as the article made it appear.

He laughed when talking about the turn of events which revealed his brush with Kennedy hidden for half a century.

"I guess that's my claim to fame," he chuckled. "He didn't know me by name, but he had a nickname for me."

Carlton says he still admires Kennedy. Perhaps the incident helps humanize an icon of American history.

"People say things like that," Carlton smiled. "When I get mad, I might even let out a curse word."

It helps that Carlton, the man called "silly" by the president, has a good sense of humor -- 50 years later.

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