The marshes just north of Cape May, New Jersey were off to my right as I sped up the Garden State Parkway last August in the passenger seat of my father's air-conditioned, 1990s Jaguar sedan. A great blue heron daintily picked its way through the reeds, its long neck swaying ever so slowly as sea gulls swooped in from overhead and the long grasses blew back and forth in the early evening breeze, undulating like waves in the middle of the ocean. I was mesmerized by the scenery, particularly the vibrant greens and blues that were lit up by the day's dying sun rays.
I looked over at my dad, effortlessly driving. He was dressed in a button-down shirt, nice slacks and gleaming black leather shoes, a casual outfit for a Philadelphia lawyer. He didn't seem to notice the gift of nature just beyond the car's window. His eyes were on the road, but his mind was back in the early 1960s. His full attention was focused on the words of John F. Kennedy booming through the stereo speakers. Pure joy lit up his face as Kennedy's clipped upper-class New England accent came to us as clearly as the day's news on the radio.
It made me happy as well. After all, I was the one who had given him Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words by Robert Dallek for Father's Day two months earlier. It was clear that my dad knew the compact disc that came with the book by heart. When Kennedy's speech came on regarding the integration of the University of Mississippi, he put his fingers to his lips when he sensed that I was about to interrupt. When the speech ended, he said to me, "See how he did that. He included everybody. It was all of our responsibility to make sure that there were equal rights. It wasn't divisive. It was everyone's problem if one man was denied his rights."
I sat silent for a moment. I was amazed by Kennedy's words, not necessarily by their content, but by the words themselves. He assumed that he was speaking to an intelligent audience. His vocabulary would make an English professor proud, and yet he was easily understood. His words moved me. Me, the cynic who regards him as overrated. After all, I have rebelled against the mythology surrounding him for as long as I can remember. But here was a voice that beckoned. He peppered his speeches with phrases that make you stop and ponder and hope.
I told my dad that it made me sad to listen to these words. He assumed I was speaking of the assassination, but I wasn't. "No one speaks like that anymore," I said to him. "Clinton just droned on and on. His speeches were more filler than substance. I hated Reagan's 'aw shucks' act, and Bush truly sounds like a moron compared to Kennedy. It would be even more embarassing if you actually agreed with anything Bush said." As the sun glinted off a canoe in the marshes, I realized that our country's biggest problem might be that politicians don't believe in the people anymore. At least not the way Kennedy seemed to in those speeches.
It took me a few minutes to regain my equilibrium and step back from the abyss that is the Kennedy mystique. We were closing in on the diner where we would meet up with my wife and my sister's family for dinner. They were driving in my sister's minivan; perhaps they knew it was going to be a Kennedy-fest in the Jaguar. Immediately before leaving for the restaurant, my sister and I had given my dad his birthday present: a Kennedy action figure that sported a replica hand-crafted suit and came with a mini-biography and a timeline. Its best feature is that when you push the wool suit's lapel the President's unique vocal cadence comes to life, and the doll flawlessly delivers a dozen of his most famous phrases.
As we turned off the Garden State Parkway and Kennedy launched into a commencement address, my dad turned down the sound. "You know, I really think that Oswald acted alone," he said. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He had advanced every crackpot theory on the assassination since I was 10 years old. For awhile it was the Cubans, then it was the Russians, then it was the Russians and the Cubans, then it was the mobsters. He even entertained my crazy theory that it was Lyndon Johnson and the Texans. We had examined every angle, from Jack Ruby's murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, to the grassy knoll, to the magic bullet theory, endlessly ruminating on the same facts and opinions until he'd come to the same conclusion that something just wasn't right. It was fishy. Fishy enough to fill a library with all of the tomes that I had given him and that he had eagerly read over the years. Including Gerald Posner's 1994 Case Closed that concluded Oswald had acted alone. My dad had quickly dismissed it at the time.
When I was 13, my father had a court case in Dallas. He took me down for the trial, and during the days, I ran around the book and record stores in town, swam in the hotel pool and drank enough Dr. Pepper to drown a small dog. In the evenings, we drove the route of the motorcade, slowing down in Dealey Plaza as my father measured out the distance to the grassy knoll in his mind and craned his neck back to see where Oswald's shots emanated from. Over and over again, we drove the route, as the rancid soda bubbled up in my throat. He gripped the wheel and muttered about how it didn't make sense, they were hiding something.
We finally arrived at the diner and stepped out of the car, into the sea-side humidity to wait for my sister. When I asked him how he had come to the conclusion that Oswald had acted alone, he simply said, "It's the only thing that makes sense." When I prodded him a little more, he told me that someone would have cracked by now if there was a big cover up. That, of course, had been my exact theory ever since giving up the Texas conspiracy 25 years ago. I decided not to remind him of that, as my adorable nephew and niece came bounding out of my sister's car and running over to us.
My Father's Day gift this year will reinforce his new belief about the assassination. Vincent Bugliosi, the author of Helter Skelter, the riveting account of Charles Manson's crimes, is weighing in on the Kennedy assassination with Reclaiming History. Bugliosi, a lawyer, prosecutes Oswald in the murder using forensic evidence, a reexamination of key witnesses and a healthy dose of common sense. In W.W. Norton's catalog copy, we are assured that in his 1,632 pages, Bugliosi picks apart every conspiracy theory, and that he will "shed fresh light on this American nightmare. At last we know what really happened. At last it all makes sense."
The book sounds huge, but I wonder how many pages you could fill with all of my father's thoughts, conjectures and ruminations on the assassination. Would 10,000 pages even be enough to cover all of the different conversations he has had on the topic?
All I can say is that it's about time that someone makes sense of it all. It's time for everyone to stop inventing paranoid conspiracy theories and perhaps try to understand just what it was that we lost that day in Dallas. It seems to me that the politicians have never forgiven us for that day. We are perpetually being punished by our nation's rulers with pandering platitudes and an endless barrage of inanities. Isn't there anyone out there who can treat the public with respect? Isn't there anyone who will say something -- anything -- as intelligent as Kennedy used to? Whether you agreed with the man or not, you can't help but appreciate his words.
Perhaps that's asking too much. Maybe it's enough to know that this summer I will be back in Cape May with my family, and as the sun sets on another fine day, my father will start up the endless conversation about the wonders of John F. Kennedy. I will hold silent for a moment, allowing the myth to take hold before I mention how he set Vietnam in motion, blundered on Cuba and hesitated on civil rights. Ah, but he did it all so eloquently.
Bookstore road trip: A visit to Seminary Coop and Robie House - This summer my niece Jocelyn was in Chicago for some field training. What a great opportunity to meet up! If I were able to convince her to do a bookstore...
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