November 2013


A Triptych in Remembrance on the Death of JFK


I. That Day


Shock and disbelief were the order of the day. What could never happen here, happened here. The transference of innocence to vulnerability, and that naïve comfort of familiar terrain to a world turned upside down, took but a nanosecond.


While it was not the only game changing moment in our history—and the horror of 9/11 was still four decades away— the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had a singularity all its own. It was what might be called, the First Great Tragedy of the Television Age; an age whose potential had only been more fully realized just three years prior, what with the first ever televised Presidential debates.





Unlike December 7, 1941 of the previous generation, “a date which will live in infamy,” in which a military installation was attacked in a far off place (exotic Hawaii not yet the 50th state), November 22, 1963 happened among our citizenry on our soil, deep in the heart of Texas. It rained on our parade of invincibility; bullets at a motorcade bearing the President in an open car waving to the crowd. That’s what presidents did back then. Where was the danger in that?


In a ’54 film entitled Suddenly, Frank Sinatra starred as a would-be presidential assassin, aiming his rifle through a telescopic sight from a hotel window on an upper floor. But that was in the movies. Such things could not happen in real life. In the ancient days of Lincoln, yes, but these were modern times. Men were up in space orbiting the earth.


Unlike Pearl Harbor, which lacked any ambiguity and for which we would retaliate, then celebrate on V-J Day, we never did “get even” so to speak, for the assassination of JFK. The good never got to triumph over evil. The truth never satisfactorily won out.


Fifty years later, conspiracy theories still abound. Fidel is still alive, if one holds belief in the Cuban-backed theory. And Lee Harvey Oswald, shot and killed on live TV as if in a bad TV script, went to the grave with a thousand unanswered questions. And soon thereafter, assassinations and those attempted, would sadly become commonplace.


So where were we on that day? Almost three-quarters of us were not yet born. And when you weed out kids who were ten years or younger back then, about one in seven Americans now living, presumably remembers with some degree of vividness, that day and the theater of events that would unfold over that long weekend. We would sit transfixed before our sets—first time ever for “24/7-news” type coverage—for hours on end, culminating in the funeral that Monday. “Regular programming” in a realm of three TV networks, wouldn’t resume until Tuesday.


I was a freshman at Manhattan College (two years behind Rudy Giuliani) when first reports began to spread on campus, that Kennedy and Vice President Johnson had been shot. There were no readily accessible TV’s in the vicinity, and so we relied on an ear here and there, glued to a transistor radio, catching unclear or incorrect messages (Johnson of course was not shot) which were relayed to those of us clustered in the quadrangle as if in a third world village awaiting word. These were what I have just referred to as modern times?


Why was JFK in Dallas anyway? I didn’t know. Nor was I aware back then, of the animosity that had been brewing in Texas over his pending visit. My agenda that Friday included placing bets in the cafeteria at lunch for that weekend’s football games on “the ticket,” a small time bookie sheet distributed by a classmate to a dedicated clientele. And while Kennedy was the cat’s pajamas at this all male Catholic college, I certainly wasn’t following his doings as closely as the point spreads that November. The high drama of his presidency had taken place with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of the previous year. In comparison, this autumn was benign.


But it was now time to go to the next class. And being the dutiful students we were, we went, though as if sleepwalking through a bad dream. We were still unsure as to whether Kennedy was alive or dead as we entered that room. What happened then, is something I tried to capture in a poem I wrote thirty-five years after the fact. Predominantly in tercets and rhyme, it mimics a classic poetic construct that we had been reading as part of the syllabus for that course.

II. Greek and Latin Lit: 101


Upon entering the room, you simply said
in a manner of fact, “Yes it’s true. He’s dead.”
      And proceeded to go on with that Friday’s class.


That part where Medea serves up the last
of her children chopped up on a plate
      for Jason, his ravishing appetite to sate.


And unsuspectingly he does.
And we knew just how vile a meal that was
      on this day when the classics were undermined


by Dallas: A Tragedy for Modern Time.
Our time. And you took it away;
      the right to succumb to grief kept it at bay.


You venomous, vainglorious man.
You served up Medea at a moment when
      butchered progeny was the last thing we needed.


With a smirk you watched as we sat defeated.
Was some point proved? Did we pass our test?
      I’ve wondered why we stayed bound to our desks.


Too civilized I suppose, to stomp out of the room.
We should have sent you right to your doom;
      trampled underfoot and dragged across campus


as Achilles, passionate warrior that he was,
had done with the carcass of Hector.
      And now each time at that vector,


that November day crossing of another year,
I taste the irony in your name Mr. Lear.
      And can only wish you an afterlife fixed


to a barge floating down the river Styx
winding its way through the sewers of Dallas
      encircling the sins of fraud and malice.


And each time in passing pray you are sprayed
with the brains that flew from that motorcade.
      In response to my whereabouts that day, I tell
      how you taught us, you bastard, the classics so well.


                                                               —Ron Vazzano


III. While Jack As Ever…


Thirty years following Kennedy’s assassination, famed photographer Richard Avedon sought out many of the knights and squires who had so diligently served in those so called days of Camelot. This resulted in rather stark portraitures which he had taken over a two month period leading up to a photo-essay that The New Yorker would publish that October of 1993. It was entitled “Exiles: The Kennedy Court at the End of the American Century.”

When I got to meet Avedon at a private book launching party later that year— for what has become a gargantuan coffee table classic, An Autobiography Richard Avedon (October, 2004 Newsletter)— I discussed the “Exiles” project with him. In revealing some back-stories of the photo shoots for it, his comments like his photos, were unsparing. (On Ted Kennedy, who sat for him, though not appearing in “Exiles”… “He looks like shit.”).

Inspired by this work, which invariably takes one back to associations with that fateful November day, I had written a poem which I just happened to have on my person (do we not all have an agenda?). Upon hearing of this, as I described it at the time, “he reacted like a schoolboy, as he gleefully tucked the poem away in his jacket pocket for reading at some time after the party’s conclusion.”

With an Avedon epigraph and selected photos from “Exiles,” the poem follows.


While Jack As Ever

I traveled across the country to photograph surviving men and women of that period—people mostly of my generation, who for a while had faith in power.

                                                       —Richard Avedon

Eyes gone to glass; eyebrows all askew
in odd elfin configurations.
Some try on a smile. Others?
Their faces reassemble for the clarion’s last call.
And it turns on them like rotting fruit.

Where were you when you heard? The years—
The Grand Inquisitor. The question? Always.
Even when not asked. But the years can only
be blamed for that which makes you
at one with the liver spots.

Some of you, if nothing else,
might have managed to wear the right tie.
The motorcade, The Calling,
were once that of pin-striped precision—
a carrousel from which you seized
the brass ring that was your day.

And it seemed as if it just went by
reflected in your high-glossed hair
heralding the Camelot colors

Yet all they can muster, these mere pastels
of their once shining selves,
through the bars of this cruel cage of irony:
a stare. The salt still in the wound.

While Jack as ever… the handsome prince.

            —Ron Vazzano






With the exception of Richard Goodwin, who is married to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, all of the Camelot players pictured above are gone. As is Avedon.




In the current November issue of Vanity Fair, cultural critic James Wolcott has written an excellent piece, “Chronicle of a Death Retold,” that Kennedy lovers and haters should find compelling. The thrust of it can best be summarized by this excerpt set beneath its title:


The avalanche of books marking the 50th
anniversary of J.F.K.’s assassination is both too
much and not enough. The inexplicable loss,
the unanswerable questions, the sense of history
suspended—they’re all still being fed by
the powerful charisma of the man who was
America’s first Pop president





Picture a Palindrome: #5



                                                                               Ron Vazzano








To Invite the Redskins Over for Thanksgiving?



With Thanksgiving coming up, and given its colorful origin of Anglican folk and Native Americans making nice in the autumn of 1621, I had been thinking of having the Redskins over for dinner. Oh, but that name. I don’t know how you dance around it, but it is rather racist. Washington Redskins? Something tells me, you would never have teams called the Washington Whiteys, the Detroit Darkies or the Seattle Slant-eyes.


Another garden variety appeal for political correctness? Or is there something more here in this case? I think the latter.


Some things just cross over the fifty-yard line, and the Washington Redskins have. And so yes, once again, many are calling for a penalty flag on the play in the form of a name change. Even the President has chimed in on the matter: "I don't know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things."

A recent poll showed that a majority of Native Americans find “Redskins” offensive. Another poll showed that fans of the team, even if against changing the name, would still continue to root for it if they were called something else. And there is precedent for taking that sort of action, as did high-profile St. John’s University following the ‘94-95 school year. Stuck with a double whammy of suggesting both race and gender bias in their “Redmen” nickname—stretched across 16 varsity athletic programs—they changed it. No, not to the “Neutralcolorpeople,” but to the Red Storm. And the fans still followed. And life went on.


Anyway, if I do invite the Washington Name Pending, I’ve got to invite all those other Native American associated teams as well, no? With their questionable names and/or logos and all? Take the Cleveland Indians’ red-faced Chief Wahoo. Please. And is being called Brave or Warrior, a compliment or a racially driven stereotype? And yet in the spirit of that 1621 Thanksgiving, would it not be fitting to have them all at the table?



Though what was that spirit really about? And what did actually occur? And who was there? And how were they able to communicate? And so on and so forth. Just some of the questions one might ask, before planning such a gathering.


Of course Wikipedia, whose virtues are extolled by Nicholson Baker in this month’s Quote of the Month, provides some answers. In the department of perhaps, “Too Much Information” …


“The event that Americans commonly call the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was celebrated by the Pilgrims…at the Plymouth Plantation… after their first harvest in the New World in 1621.”


“New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating "thanksgivings"— days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.”


“This feast lasted three days, and was attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 American Indians… they went out and killed five deer…’ "


No turkeys?

“Squanto…who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them (Squanto had learned English during travels in England).“

“Additionally, the Wampanoag, Massasoit had donated food stores to the fledgling colony during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.


One big happy family? Well, maybe not exactly. As with the controversies over names and logos, the very celebration of Thanksgiving itself has also been called into question in some quarters.

“Since 1970, United American Indians of New England have gathered on Thanksgiving Day at…Plymouth Rock, to commemorate a ‘National Day of Mourning.’”

According to the protesters…“The traditional narrative paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions.”

Maybe I should just go back to the Thanksgiving Day raison d'être, as proclaimed by the Father of Our Country, in the first nation-wide celebration in America on November 26, 1789:

"…a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”

While visions of Rockwell dance in my head.



Yes, of course. George Washington said it— God and all; Norman Rockwell painted it— family and all. That’s the ticket. Who could find fault with any of that? No names. No logos. No problems. Sorry guys, maybe next year.







Quote of the Month


“Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It’s fact-encirclingly huge, and it’s idiosyncratic, careful, messy, fun, shocking, and full of simmering controversies—and it’s free, and it’s fast. In a few seconds you can look up, for instance, ‘Diogenes of Sinope,’ or ‘turnip,’ or ‘Crazy Eddie,’ or ‘Bagoas,’ or ‘quadratic formula,’ or ‘Bristol Beaufighter,’ or ‘squeegee,’ or ‘Sanford B. Dole,’ and you’ll have knowledge you didn’t have before. It’s like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.”


                                                                            —Nicholson Baker
                                                                                        The Way the World Works





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