It's like a cut that won't close. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and, in spite of the space between now and that November 1963 day, echoes of the shock and hurt remain. I'm still trying to make sense of this, but I found out not long ago that I have a family connection to the assassination and to the still-simmering arguments over whether there could have been a CIA plot behind the president's shooting and a string of engineered deaths to bury the evidence.
A much-read Life magazine article describing Kennedy's death and reporting on the famous Zapruder film of the motorcade was written by my father, Paul Mandel. Dad died of cancer two years later, in 1965. But it wasn't until his name popped up in a Google search that an eerie, even ugly side of his JFK report became clear. My dad had, after all these years -- and without my family realizing it -- become a celebrity in the superheated world of conspiracy websites. He'd turned into nuclear fuel for a whole range of assumptions and arguments, a touchstone for angry postings and rapid-fire computer chat.
I started clicking on links to his name and was rocketed straight to sites that said things like:
*"His article [contained] a total fabrication . . . [and a] blatant lie."
*"When Mandel discovered that the [Zapruder] film was inconsistent with the lone assassin theory, he either shaded the article to cover up a conspiracy or was coerced into doing so by the editor of Life."
*"Because of Mandel's knowledge of a conspiracy, he mysteriously died."
I tried to steady myself as sentences like these popped up on my laptop screen. Did my dad know something about a secret plot and try to cover it up? I had always thought that Life editors were serious pros, that fact-checkers there scoured every word. And did conspiracy theorists believe that the melanoma that had slowly weakened my dad was not from Navy sunburns, as my family had thought, but from a "clean-up squad" who'd injected him with cancer cells like a mouse in a lab?
I began to brood over my dad's demise -- something I hadn't done for years -- and I got angry, flipping between trying to "correct" some of the claims on conspiracy websites and worrying that what they said might, in fact, be true.
After months of this, I couldn't take it anymore. There was too much frustration and pain. The only person who might be able to answer these questions was gone. So I would stop asking them. I yanked out the key words "Paul Mandel" from my Google Blogs Alert. I stopped trolling for new postings. I focused on other things.
I tried to remember the warm and smart and family-oriented guy my dad had been during the eight years I'd known him. And I reread the other things he'd written: stories on the Mercury and Gemini space shots, on John Glenn orbiting the earth. Of course, my new approach didn't change things for the conspiracy webmasters or e-mailers. The online speculation didn't shift or screech to a stop.
Since my dad was a small part of a piece of history, a chronicler of it, you can make a case that speculating about his motives and about his death is fair game. In a day and age when personal facts pop up at a click, we're all in the public domain. But on this anniversary, there is one thing I want to ask: When will Americans, we of middle age, especially, move on? Yes, we still feel the sting of that day, but shouldn't there be some sort of mental statute of limitations on traumas like these? In the absence of new witnesses or of other fresh and vital information, might it make sense to stop our chattering and to open files on the other parts of our lives?
Like my dad, President Kennedy himself was a family man: funny and charismatic and smart. I've got my laptop booted up. I'm ready with my mouse, and I am online. Who wants to chat about that for a while?
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Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).