I’m re-posting some of my past blog entries plus artifacts from my extensive archives (my wife might say, overly extensive). Included with this past blog post is a link to an excerpt from a podcast interview with author Tom Miller. My friend Jon Lebkowsky and myself interviewed Tom on a variety of subjects, including the JFK assassination.
(Originally published November 25th, 2010)
It is strange how certain dates take on a special significance that transcends the usual “special” days…birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. November 22nd is one that never fails to trigger a multitude of feelings in me. I know I am not alone in this, since the media tends to bludgeon us with JFK features from all sides. It has long been assumed that everyone remembers what they were doing on that Friday, just as many remember with great clarity, what they were doing when Robert Kennedy or Martin Luther King or John Lennon died. It is one of those shared memories that has entered the realm of mythology.
I have discussed that day and it’s impact with many of my friends. Everyone has a story, if they are of a certain age. The rest generally roll their eyes and change the subject. Most of us (my generation, if you will) were in school. The shooting occurred during the lunch break. By the time I entered my fourth period class, the radio broadcasts were playing over the school’s loudspeakers. It was very quiet. Many were in tears, while others were non-committal in their reaction. This was West Texas and JFK was looked upon in one of two ways. The budding progressives were stunned and saddened. Others were either unmoved or openly celebratory. That’s right, celebrating the murder of The President of The United States. Sound familiar? They were the ones who helped their parents circulate Anti-JFK propaganda.
Have you seen anything like this lately? At a Tea Party rally or KKK demonstration perhaps? It seems we are fated to continue repeating the same scenarios and it’s not just a right-wing, gun nut thing.
Does anyone remember Squeaky Fromme ?
Obviously, baseball is not the “National Pastime”.
For quite a long time, I have stayed out of the “Where were you when…” conversations. I stopped doing that in 1977. That was the year I spent researching a chapter for my friend Tom Miller’s book “The Assassination Please Almanac”. Myself, Tom, investigative journalist Chip Berlet and artist Paul Mavrides spent that year compiling a book that was alternately informative, puzzling, hilarious and, in the case of my chapter, horribly depressing. Tom asked me, in the spirit of the recent Bi-Centennial, to find at least one political assassination for each year from 1776 to 1976. From the beginning, I doubted that I would be able to deliver on this commitment. How many political assassinations could there have been? Sure, we have killed off the occasional political figure or labor leader but 200 assassinations? This can’t end well.
I remember that first day I hiked across the U.C. Berkeley campus, headed to the library to begin my research. My old buddy Doom walked with me in lockstep. “You’ve really outdone yourself this time”, Doom whispered. “This is worse than the time you told that girl you could drink a fifth of tequila and still be able to make it home!”, he cackled. I stepped into the library and headed for the Reference Room. My old friend, the Reader’s Guide To Periodical Literature, lay before me. Published yearly from 1890, the Reader’s Guide had saved me on countless occasions during my college years. My checklist of 200 years in hand, I began looking up assassinations, lynchings, political murders, every variation on the subject that I could imagine. The bodies began to stack like firewood upon the library table. It soon became obvious that my challenge would not be to find one political killing for each year. Instead, I realized that the real challenge would be to pick just one.
Soon my writing desk, an old, classic newspaper layout table, inherited from Tom Newton’s defunct Zoo World News Service, groaned under the weight of dozens of reference books, clippings, xerox copies and the occasional tequila bottle. The tequila came into play when the weight of 200 years of political murder became unbearable. I stopped sleeping at one point because the nightmares invariably culminated with a lynching, sniper shot, beating or some other gruesome means of eliminating the real or imagined opposition.
Some may quibble over our definition of political assassination. We included lynchings and not just the ones in the Deep South. Southern Man didn’t hold the copyright on lynching. There were lynchings in New York City, the Mid-West, California, Texas…you name it, they had it. The lynchings were not just African-Americans. They were lynching the Irish, Asians, Native Americans, labor organizers, just about anyone who threatened the status quo. The slaughter of Native Americans helped me check off many years in the 1800’s. Were these political assassinations? Assassination is defined by many references as “the killing of a prominent person for political or ideological reasons.” Were these black sharecroppers or Native American women and children “prominent persons”? I am certain they were prominent persons to their friends and families. The reasons were definitely political or ideological. Our view was that assassination is not reserved for the politically powerful. Any time someone is killed because their politics or skin color or religion were “wrong”, that is an assassination. Webster’s can kiss my ass!
Deadlines, as they tend to do, loomed. The checklist of doom was down to a half page. Could it be that this handful of years were the true “Golden Years” when all was right in the world, the lion indeed lay down with the lamb, peace ruled the land, Democrats and Republicans danced the Lindy Hop under the Capitol Dome? Nah! They had just learned to hide it better! Tom was on the phone daily, anguishing over the missing atrocities. The research sessions at the UC library became marathons. One night, the sweet little woman who worked the late shift in the periodicals room came by to chase me out. It was closing time and I was frantically spooling through microfilms of The New York Times. “Closing time, dear”. Then, “Damn! You look like hell tonight!” I apologized for losing track of the time and started to gather up the microfilm cassettes. “Don’t bother with those, dear”, she said. “The library science kids will put them away in the morning.” She, like most of Berkeley, was a writer and researcher. “Put away the notes and do what I do. Go over to Larry Blake’s and have a beer. That’s what I do when the deadline monsters are closing in on me.” She walked me to the front desk, then looked up at me. “Trust me. When you finally type that last period, you’ll feel the weight of the world lift off your shoulders and fly away.” I thanked her, stumbled out of the library and headed for Larry Blake’s. Six or eight beers later, I began to understand the librarian’s wisdom. I looked at the checklist of doom and it appeared much less intimidating…and quite blurry.
The deadlines continued looming and I continued searching for murder and mayhem. Each time I found a new assassination and checked a year off the list of doom, I felt conflicted. I wanted to jump up and celebrate but the fact that someone was horribly murdered made that seem just a little inappropriate. Finally, the last year was checked off the list. The final act of political murder was chronicled. I typed that last period. I’m not certain the weight of the world had lifted but I definitely heard the fluttering of wings. I called Tom and read off the final crime of political murder. We congratulated each other for having survived this ordeal. I hung up the phone and began packing all my notes, photocopies and books into a box. Then I popped open a beer and sat staring at that box for an hour or more. Months of my life were jammed into that cardboard box, along with a wife and a couple of girlfriends who couldn’t handle being with an obsessed maniac. I still have that box. I have moved it from that humble home in East Oakland to successively nicer homes. It never occurred to me that I should toss it out. Sometimes I spot it, when I am out in my storage barn. I usually open the flaps of the box, peer inside to make sure it’s still all there, sigh and close the box. I imagine some old soldiers have a similar ritual when they go through their memorabilia from whatever war they survived. Look in the box, remember what it was like and pray you never have to go through that again.
Learn more about the book project and be amazed when Tom Miller reveals the identity of the “Real” assassin. This is a short excerpt from a lengthy interview with Tom, conducted by myself and Jon Lebkowsky. The full interview will be posted in the future.
Click below and be amazed(ish)!