Going To The Tape

NBC's Frank McGee and Chet Huntley on 11/22/63.

NBC's Frank McGee and Chet Huntley on 11/22/63.

I know better than this. Or I should know. Having kept an admittedly interested eye on JFK assassination stuff for years now, I know my people. My people are insane.

I linked on Twitter to yesterday’s post about Mr. Witt and the famous umbrella. I still think it’s a fascinating story, just one more oddity on a day filled with them.

Unless it wasn’t odd at all.

So, yikes. When I initially tweeted the link, I thought of adding a hashtag; there had to be a million, and I was right. I chose what sounded like an innocuous one, something maybe focused on the news aspect, the release of those documents. After posting, though, I thought maybe I should check out that hashtag, see whom I was hanging out with.

Yikes again. I deleted the tweet and reposted, tag-less. There’s plenty of craziness out there, on social networks and standing on random street corners, but it’s hard to find more scrambled brain cells than delving into the world of assassination theory.

A dozen years ago or so, I wrote a piece about an eyewitness to the chaos of Dealey Plaza. It was just a stray fact I picked up along the way, interesting me in all my historical curiosity. This is what attracted me to the umbrella story eventually, by the way; here was a man who was literally a few feet away from the President of the United States when he was shot, and he wasn’t on any witness list. He just witnessed. Then walked away, into anonymity. Makes one wonder. If one is me.

This other witness, though, was more personal. He was a child, and in fact I’ve wondered quite a bit about the children who were there. We tend to forget, I think. They were pushed to the ground and in many cases shielded by their parents’ bodies, and who knows what they remember.

This kid struck me in particular, because he was my age, then and now. So I wrote about him, wondered what he remembered if anything, and a few years later I got a direct message on Twitter. Some woman was asking me why I was writing about him, a weird enough question (not obvious enough?), and I immediately answered her, explaining a bit but emphasizing that I wasn’t interested in discussing the assassination. As I said, I know my people.

But it just turned out that she had been friends with this guy’s daughter (i.e., the guy who was the kid, 5 years old at the time and now in his 50s). She was a little guarded, in an appropriate way, but gave me enough information to figure out where he was and how to reach him, if I desired. I did not, at the end. I figured he deserved his privacy, and in fact I’ve never seen a word about him other than from me.

That was sort of a relief, actually. It was nice to imagine that someone could inadvertently be in such a position and still manage to escape the crazy. Let him be.

But it was fun, in a way. I felt a small connection had been made, somehow, with truth and history.

My fascination with all things Kennedy, when I was a kid, seems foolish and dumb in retrospect, but again: I was a kid. The story was easily wrapped into a fable, or maybe a fairy tale: handsome prince, struck down, Camelot, and so on. I bought in, and with an apparent interest in history anyway (or as a result; I have no real idea) I became an authority of sorts, and not just about JFK. The entire political era around the time of my birth became my hobby. Want to know about Estes Kefauver? I can tell you stuff.

And, again, it tapered off eventually, in my 30s, which was about the time I got real interested again.

On Nov. 22, 1988, the 25th anniversary of the assassination, a cable channel decided to show all of that day’s coverage (from 1963) in real time. After the network scrambled to get on the air, live streaming rumors and news in the same setting, someone eventually thought to turn on that new-fangled videotape machine. At whatever time that was (let’s say 10:53am Pacific), that’s when the cable channel started their program, and continued it throughout the day.

I came home from work in Seattle around noon, it being a transition time between working there and working at home. I’d already programmed my VCR to start recording at 10:53, since I thought it would be interesting, and I turned on the TV when I got home and kept it on, as I wandered around the house, doing things and working a bit. It was background music, much the same way CNN would often be on.

And so I began to experience virtual history. I slipped back a quarter-century, starting to feel caught up in the breaking news from the past. It wasn’t a new experience, essentially a suspension-of-disbelief thing, like a movie or novel. For a while, I was lost in time. My head was turned by every new nugget of information, and as details came in about Lee Harvey Oswald—and there were a lot of details—I had a funny thought.

That was fast.

It felt fast, anyway. It felt 1988 fast, in fact, with film clips from his New Orleans activity, etc. I pondered this, and it stuck.

I’d known about the assassination industry. I rarely paid attention, knowing crazy people when I spotted them on talk shows. My level of detachment matched their absolute confidence that they were right. It was nothing new.

After my experience with time distortion, though, I took it more seriously. I read a few books, a lot of articles. I considered things. I formed opinions for a while, then formed new ones.

And eventually I lost interest. History is about truth, and there was no truth here, only speculation, a lot of it wild. It hasn’t gone anywhere, either. Even the most thorough journalistic standards in this situation press up against the need to be right, and so plausible beginnings wind up with speculative claims that the purveyor insists we believe as much as he does. Mustn’t doubt, or you must be part of the problem, not the solution. Again, not new.

Eventually it came down to Mr. Occam and his razor. What was the simplest explanation? Was it Oswald, and Oswald alone? No. That might be in fact what happened, but it took a lot of stray, random events to work out that way. Then again, many moments will seem strange from that perspective, too closely examined (as in the case of The Umbrella Man).

And perspective also helps the Oswald case; we’ve seen too many disturbed people commit horrific crimes, seemingly random and hard to explain. It was unlikely that a man with Oswald’s history could have fired that particular rifle in that fashion, but certainly not impossible. It seems likely that the Zapruder film’s demonstration of JFK’s head snapping back when struck by the bullet shows that bullet was coming from in front of him, not behind (where Oswald was), but the case can be made for the opposite.

Dunno. Perhaps the oddities are just the result of too-close scrutiny. Maybe Oswald is the simplest explanation.

And I don’t care, not much. I don’t see an institutional problem here, other than maybe too much secrecy and ass-covering.

I’m still interested. I just don’t want to talk about it, at least to people with strong opinions. Insane, as I said. I’ve got enough problems.

Chuck SigarsComment