I was seven.
Sometime during the Summer of 1960, my parents put a large Kennedy For President poster, featuring his big toothy-smiling black & white face, in our living room window. This was a new development for me. I'd no inkling of politics until that moment. So, we really liked this Jack. Well, my Mom really liked this Jack. For my father, it was more a virulent disgust with Richard Nixon.
Me, I liked Kennedy because his face reminded me of the Kastendeake twins, red-head brothers a few years older than me from two blocks north, two very cool identical tough guys who deigned to acknowledge me now and then.
Maybe a week later, on a twilit summer evening I can still recall as Norman Rockwell perfect, there was a dinky pro-Nixon parade down our street in Brooklyn Heights. Looking back, the whole thing was Music Man adorable. Some 200 folks, all ages, happily marched up Hicks St. touting their man, Richard M. Nixon. Placards, straw boaters, sparklers, red, white and blue ribbons in the girls' hair... I stood with my folks at the top of our stoop while they cat-called in a friendly way, getting laughter and benign cat calls back. They even knew some folks in the parade. My Dad would shake his head at them with a sad disdain as they waved and walked past. It got grim for him. Dad went inside after a few minutes.
I was nine.
I was eavesdropping on my parents' talking about 'the end of the world' during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My father was angry. My mother sounded very worried. That didn't sit well with me. I had wake-up-crying-sleep-in-parents'-bed nightmares three nights in a row. A week later, President Kennedy had saved my family's life was how I saw it.
I was ten.
Two jolly-go-lucky kids in 3rd and 4th grade, Benjy and I found ourselves pariahs in the 5th. Our teacher, Mrs. R, who, looking back, seemed a pissed off nun without the habit, made it quite clear she'd rather teach in an all-girls school and ostentatiously lavished every female student with saccharin praise every school day. She just as clearly detested little boys, especially cheeky ones. That would be me and Benjy. She put us in the very last row, as far away from her as possible... sitting next to each other! What was she thinking? "Binky & Benjy" had become an ongoing entertainment unit within the class. No one really liked Mrs. R much, so, we had our fans. Our little presentations continued aft. Benjy and I, had developed our 'act' (up) to the level of instinctive performance piece.
November 22nd was a cold sunny Friday at the end of the 11th week of 5th grade. By ten years old, Fridays were already "Friday" to us. The dismissal bell on Friday was the starting pistol of sleepovers, no stupid boring homework, and Oh Boy, TV All Night and Hours of Cartoons Tomorrow Morning!
About 10 minutes past our lunch recess, the classroom door to the hallway opened and Mrs. G, our 3rd grade teacher, holding a Kleenex up to her face, urgently motioned Mrs. R to step into the corridor. For about two minutes, we sat there wondering what was up. Then, Mrs. R came back in with red-rimmed eyes and solemnly announced, "I have terrible news, children. I am very sorry to have to tell you that our President, John F Kennedy, has been shot in Dallas Texas this afternoon."
She then walked to the back of the room where the class radio was waiting...
The radio came to life just as the news of the President's DEATH was being announced by solemn grown up voices...
I truly don't recall who started it, but, within 10 seconds, Benjy and I were skip-to-my-lou-ing all over the back of the room sing-songing, "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead dead dead dead dead..." Utterly clueless, except that we were pretty sure this was exactly what we should not be doing. No one laughed. Mrs. R witheringly blasted us through clenched teeth, which had been the whole idea, so, who cared? But, we lost major points with our peers. Ben and I were now as down as everyone else.
We were let out of school within 15 minutes. Wow! Cool.
But, when I got home, my mother was crying, and I mean heedlessly blubbering, in the kitchen. Oh man, this day was just getting worse. It got sadder as it got darker. It started to dawn on me that this wasn't gonna be subsiding for quite some time. I sighed that special sigh of childhood boredom. My Dad was a newspaperman. God knows what time he got home. Man, he was at a desk on the 3rd floor of the New York Times, the very heart of the paper, all that night. I never thought to ask him what that had been like. Can you imagine? Damn!
As we kids all found out at about 7am on Saturday, the 23rd, TV truly sucked that whole weekend. No cartoons. No stock car racing or toboggans on Wide Wide World of Sports, just unrelenting grown-ups talking and minute-by-minute gloom gloom gloom.
That monotony was shattered when Lee Harvey Oswald was silenced by Jack Ruby. Even as a 10 year old, I didn't need to see and hear my parents' reaction to know that something really really fucked up had just happened.
Years later, I had a shrink tell me that ages about 9 through 12 in 1963 were the hardest hit age group by the JFK rub-out...
"You were old enough to understand that the President of the USA was a very very powerful and important man. That even he wasn't safe had serious impact on all of you. You really had the carpet pulled out from under you. It makes perfect sense that you are obsessed with his assassination. And yes, the whole thing stinks to High Heaven."
Obsessed, I was/am.
Over the years, I've read somewhere near 20 books on the entire story of November 22, 1963, its gestation and aftermath, both in the minute details and the global realpolitik repercussions. I have my personal theory, synthesized from my readings. Now is not the time or place.
Regardless of what you think of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, statesman-saint or worthless reckless playboy son-of-a-gangster, and both points of view have validity, 50 years ago, the President of the United States of America, was taken out like a punk who owed a loan-shark 15 large. This deliberately lurid and terrifying event has deeply effected all that followed and continues to this day.
The story I offer here, in and of itself, is a crass and petty way to 'honor' the memory of JFK. My apologies to all who I might offend on this bitter anniversary. But, my tale does capture the horror that haunts Dealey Plaza to this day in a way that might as well have been a dream. A really really bad dream!
This is about a night I put myself through in Dallas, Texas in August, 1994.
Every post I've ever written for Huffington Post is honest and real and as close to pure fact as I can recall them. Nonetheless, I find it necessary to specifically state that literally every single detail, every little twist, every moment, of this Dallas story is true. You'll see why I felt compelled...
Okay, here we go...
I was forty-one.
For about two decades now, there's been a very modern-swank, high-rise Hyatt hotel in downtown Dallas. If you get a room facing north on an upper floor, your extra-large picture window overlooks all of Dealey Plaza... a cinematically clear view from above the far corner of the plaza diagonally opposite the Texas Book Depository.
The same week as Woodstock '94 in Saugerties, NY (barely noted now, but, at the time, a huge big deal in the music business, in which I was/am entrenched, as well as pop culture), rather than going to that lunacy, I'd booked myself at that Hyatt, and flew to Dallas to hang with a few Texas radio buddies that I dealt with on an ongoing regular basis as an independent record promoter, a 'maintenance trip', not a 'close-the-deal' thing. This meant the usual 4 hour huge meat meal and then off to a local dive bar for a few more beers.
The end of the evening came relatively early. Stuffed and tipsy, I was back in my Hyatt hotel room by 11:45. And oh, hell yes, my room was facing north. I was smoking a joint of B-minus stuff that someone had gifted me, staring out the window just soaking up the incomparably eerie view, one I was intimately knowledgeable about from studying 100s of photos for years on end.
On the spur of the moment, the semi-decent reefer high kicking in, I decided I'd go down and visit Dealey Plaza at midnight. Ooooeee, that would be a barrel of vibes, huh!
I stubbed out the joint and got on the elevator and left the dry cool of the Hyatt's lobby for the 90+ degree humid heat of Dallas-in-August air. Alone in the dark, I walked through the hotel parking lot, hopped a low chain fence, crossed the train tracks trestle-overpass, and started to cruise the long way around the plaza towards the infamous Book Depository and the grassy knoll.
I slowly strolled along Houston St. towards the downward slope of Elm St., and once I crossed Main St., I was now taking the same route Jack's limo took during the last 30 seconds of his life.
I sauntered and savored.
Anyway, I was soon standing alone on the surprisingly small grassy knoll. Photos distort the size. It's tiny! Once I saw it, I realized that perhaps 'knoll' had been picked at The Word to describe that patch of grass precisely because none of us knew/know what a 'knoll' is. The word, 'embankment' is much more accurate.
It was now well past midnight. Looking around, I was shocked to realize that I had the entire plaza to myself. Other than the cars passing the knoll on Elm, picking up speed, heading under the trestle and onto Stemmons Freeway, I was literally the only person within sight on the few acres that are Dealey Plaza. Having the whole weight of the vibes of this 'Overlook Hotel' of a place all alone... I was suddenly very much in a Be Here Now state of mind.
I was psyched.
I stood there soaking up the permanently morbid and grievous atmosphere in a space I knew as intimately as one can from photographs. I was hit with a thunderbolt realization...
For many many years, I am (genuinely) ashamed to admit, I had fantasized about someday stealing a piece of one of the pickets of the fence at the top of the grassy knoll -- where "some" believe a shooter hid as he pulled his trigger -- and here I was, utterly alone in Dealey Plaza, past midnight, with that very fence no more than 25 feet behind me.
Have I told you lately that I'm sick in the head!
My heart started pounding... my breath got shallow. I got the proverbial tingle.
Oh, crap... I can actually... do this!
Don't think! Act!
Resolved, I "casually" started walking up the knoll to check out the fence.
Obviously, over the years, many other sickos had had the same idea. Most of the pickets were very clearly newer replacements. But, as I slowly walked along the fence on the knoll back towards the train trestle overpass, I spotted a picket that was just as clearly ancient. Yes, of course, I wanted one that was there in 1963! I made note of this deeply weathered picket's location in relation to the one big tree on the knoll and walked past the south end of Zapruder's cupola, and then, behind the fence.
It was a totally unlit empty parking lot and very very creepy back there. As my idea of fun, I stood in the same spot as the 'theoretical' shooter had and looked out at Elm St.
I suddenly viscerally felt I didn't want to be back there any longer than necessary. I had to make this little bit o' vandalism/theft happen quickly. I found the chosen picket, and with a pretend-Zen-like determination (This will break!), reached over, took a deep breath, and with one fast hard 'n' sharp outward shove, snapped off the top of the wooden picket. Except I didn't get the top 9 or 10 inches I was hoping for. I got 3 freaking feet worth with a huge 3 inch nail sticking out of it.
Freaking is right! Holy crap!
I stared, dazzled and horrified, at this ungainly and greedy booty. I nervously giggled to myself...
What the fuck am I gonna do with all this?!
I started quickly walking along the back of the fence towards the trestle-overpass... Back to the hotel with you, ya big dope!
Then, I realized... I was carrying a piece of wood about the same size and shape of a rifle. Yikes!
As I neared the eight lines of train tracks, I was snapped out of my sick revery by a deep ominously loud rumble. POW! I was hit by a huge scorching spotlight! WTMF! Oh my God, am I about to be arrested for destroying public property?! What are they driving with an engine that sounds like that?!
It was a slow-moving freight train coming around a bend from the south towards me out of the dark, and as it turned and crossed in front of me, blinding me for a few seconds, I watched my access back to the hotel disappear. Shit!
I was now standing on the trestle, leaning against the waist-high wall overlooking Elm, almost exactly where S. M. "Puff of Smoke" Holland had been standing that fateful November day, trying to figure out how the hell I was gonna get out of there.
I looked up at the dark sky, and without warning, I instantly seemed to feel both Jack and Jackie (who'd died only 3 weeks earlier) looking down on me with disappointment and disgust...
"This is NOT what this was about!"
The thought came into my head unbidden and clear as a bell. It was powerfully vivid... I could hear their voices.
I was scared. I suddenly felt positively profane. What the fuck was going on?!
Just then, something made me turn back towards the train clattering by me, and in the almost pitch black dark, to my horror, I could just make out the silhouette of someone standing the wide doorway of one of the freight cars. It was a sight beyond sinister... and then... whoever he was, he suddenly jumped out of the car, and with obvious purpose, started jogging straight towards me. I went ice cold in 90 degree heat. This was not happening!
I took off in a dead run, my adrenaline gushing, made it to the other side of the trestle on the far side of Dealey Plaza in less than 10 seconds. I did not dare look back as I scrambled down the embankment and straight into several large bushes covered in thorns. I was now drenched in sweat and covered with bleeding scratches and dirt. I untangled myself with the intention to run through the short Stemmons Freeway eastern tunnel under the train tracks back towards the security and air conditioning of my room.
Now, I am not a particularly superstitious person, but I've long had a thing about dead birds. They just plain creep me out. The Romans felt they were a very bad omen, indeed.
As I entered the tunnel, I looked down, and to my utter disbelief, saw that someone had neatly lined up at least 12 dead pigeons, about 6 inches apart, all facing the same way, directly in my path. No. No. Nooooo!
I charged through the tunnel, now just totally spooked, ran through the hotel parking lot, and, at the last moment, as I was approaching the front doors to the Hyatt lobby, suddenly pictured what I must look like. I was filthy, soaked with sweat, both arms bleeding, carrying 3 feet worth of a wooden picket fence about 500 feet from Dealey Plaza's grassy knoll. No one would ever guess where I'd got that, right. Jesus! I shoved the picket down the back of the right leg of my jeans, wiped off as much dirt and blood as I could, and then quickly stiff-walked through the Friday-night-crowded and bustling lobby into an elevator.
As soon as I got into my room, I pulled the picket out of my pants and threw it in the corner by the bathroom, already just hating the thing. I went to the window and looked down at where I'd just been.
"Man, you really need to calm down."
I stared at Dealey Plaza for awhile, then turned and looked at the piece of wood leaning against the wall and suddenly... I knew...
Oh... my... God... Fuck!
I had to put it back.
I had to go back to humid-hot-sinister Dealey Plaza and put this picket back on the motherfucking fence. HAD TO! Shit! Fuck! Fuck! FUCK!
I know this next part is just plain goofy... but, suddenly, the picket seemed to have a red glow around it. And, no... I was not stoned. The reefer had been kinda beat to begin with and my lame-o buzz was completely gone by now. But, yes... I know, I know... the red glow was all in my scrambled mind. Right?
I fought the impulse to return to the knoll's fence for another 5 minutes and then realized it was hopeless. I had The Monkey's Paw in my room. I could not have this thing near me any longer, under any circumstances. I had to get this malevolent piece of wood out of my life... NOW!
I cursorily cleaned up, changed my t-shirt, and slid the damned picket back down my jeans, went back downstairs, walked back outside, back towards the damned picket fence.
By now, the 100+ car freight train had long past and I hustled across the tracks, down the embankment of the trestle, avoiding the thorns this time, and back to the 'behind' of the fence at the top of the grassy knoll.
The entire Plaza was still deserted.
In the darkness, I found the gap I'd created in the fence, and with one desperate whack of my fist, smacked the picket's 3 inch nail back into the crossbar wood.
I then got the hell back to my hotel room as fast as I could. It occurred to me that for the first time in my life, I was literally living a nightmare.
Called my wife... "You woke me for this? You're an idiot. Good night!"
I took two showers and got less than three hours sleep that night. I can still feel the deep relief of getting in my rent-a-car the next morning to drive to Shreveport to visit the stoner dudes at KTUX and put many many miles between me and that Godforsaken fence.
An incredible but, once again, 1000% true postscript...
About 26 months later, in the fall of 1996, I went back to Dallas to visit the same radio pals. Again, I stayed at the Hyatt. Again, my window faced the Plaza. But, that night, it was drizzling and I was suffering from too-much-Bar-B-Q indigestion. I stayed put.
I woke very early the next morning feeling all better.
It was already a gloriously sunny day, and at about 7am I decided that, what the hell, it'll be benign in the sunshine. I've got a few minutes. I'll take a quick jog over to see Dealey Plaza again.
I walked across the train trestle, over Stemmons Freeway, and along the back of the grassy knoll fence and came to the gap where "my" picket was still missing. They had never replaced it.
For some reason, I then stood on my tiptoes and peered over, looked down, and there, laying on the knoll's grass directly in front of the fence, was the same broken three feet of picket board.
Over two years later, and no one else had taken it.
At first, I was incredulous.
But then, I kind of ruefully shook my head, "Of course not!"
I walked back to the Hyatt to catch my cab to DFW airport.