A Triptych in Remembrance on the Death
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
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
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
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
II. Greek and Latin Lit: 101
Upon entering the room, you simply said
in a manner of fact, “Yes it’s true. He’s
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
was the last thing we needed.
With a smirk you watched as we sat defeated.
Was some point proved? Did we pass our test?
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;
and dragged across campus
as Achilles, passionate warrior that he
had done with the carcass of Hector.
And now each time
at that vector,
that November day crossing of another
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
And it turns on them like rotting fruit.
Where were you when you heard? The
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
reflected in your high-glossed hair
heralding the Camelot colors.
Yet all they can muster, these mere
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
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:
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
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
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” …
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.”
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.”
feast lasted three days, and was attended by about 53
Pilgrims and 90 American Indians… they went out
and killed five deer…’ "
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
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.
1970, United American Indians of New England
have gathered on Thanksgiving Day at…Plymouth Rock,
to commemorate a ‘National Day of Mourning.’”
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:
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
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
Way the World Works