Far be it from me to shush complaints that boomers are too much with us late and soon, remaining on the stage and at the levers of power after they should have pocketed the gold watch and gone to work on their memoirs. I dig up this old business in spite of lingering obsessions not because of them. For what I am up to here is not about romancing the end of Camelot and its discordian aftermath; rather, I want to exorcise some demons.
My first big client was a famous filmmaker who, despite having compelling input from talented researchers, couldn’t shake the feeling some deeper truth remained just beyond reach. I was brought in to apply ancient wisdom to what was even then an old mystery. In the end, none of my work saw the light of day, and I was left with a bloated bank account and an N.D.A.
Now with the former long gone, the latter is just a piece of paper in a drawer. Some lawyer would have to find it and scan it if it were to have any meaning in our digital world. Besides, the current milieu seems like the time to put whatever is left on the line.
And so I have retrieved several boxes from the basement and spent some weeks puzzling over my old typescripts along with notes for their revision and supporting documentation. This series is the result. Consider it a sordid boon now that all the famous people are dead, and you and I aren’t getting any younger.
The qabalah of Kennedy assassination research has manifested through sheer volume of words, books and books about other books, even thrice-great Thoth unwilling to count their number, amassing to form an afterimage, a ’63 made of text, accessible even now to those initiated in the mysteries, literary criticism, or mythopoeias. Some artists, psychics, and lonely people who don’t drink may also happen in. The visuals sustain the most ardor in Dealey Plaza, where the bloody event replays on a loop, endlessly it seems, but ghosts, numerous as they are numinous, hold little regard for political boundaries, so manifestations pockmark the land like craters on the Moon. One could sojourn permanently in these bespelled environs. Of course, as in dreams, mere presence, while it may yield a haunting feeling, does not alone produce insight. Layers of meaning must be sifted in just such a way.
Liber ‘LXIII sub figura 1
INT. HOTEL TEXAS – MORNING
In Room 850, the day begins with a broadside from the Dallas Morning News, a full-page fusillade of red-baiting bullet points under the heading “Welcome Mr. Kennedy” [sic]. KENNY O’DONNELL carries a copy into the suite where JFK and JACKIE have returned from breakfast. JFK reads the advertisement and hands it to Jackie. Now she is scared, and they haven’t even left friendly Fort Worth. JFK is trying to reassure her but cannot hide his sense of dismay.
JFK: We are heading into nut country.‡
EXT. STREETS OF DALLAS – MORNING
John the Evangelist is the only screenwriter getting any press in Texas these days. Rumors circulate that one of his ghost writers, John the Revelator, might have penciled in a bit role in the final scenes for John the President. The supposition starts by correctly reading numerous references in Revelation as pertaining to Rome, and it builds from there by tying The Eternal City to the Catholic Church then implicating the first Catholic President of the United States. Though the metaphorical exegesis has gotten a bit messy by this point, it links the First Beast, introduced in Revelation 11 and starring in Revelation 13, to JFK. That is, he’s the so-called Antichrist.
In the days following the assassination, new pages are air mailed from the Island of Patmos. The description of the First Beast has taken on an altered and ghastly meaning.
JOHN Q. DALLASONIAN (reading Revelation 13:3): And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.
The KJV has an intriguing ring in a Texas accent. At least, to some. Particularly to those who believe JFK is not dead at all. His head wound healed, he will be beloved of the world, assume control of the United Nations, take everyone’s guns, and lead the forces of Satan in the Battle of Armageddon. It is also fun to say “Armageddon” with a Boston accent.
The interpretive context for such an ill-advised reading of Revelation rests, first of all, in an appealing narrative trope packaged in a conspiracy theory, the classic “so-and-so is not really dead” formula. That twist was actually at play in John’s apocalyptic text as the First Beast was likely Nero whom it was rumored had not really committed suicide and whose return to power was imminent. Transplanting that storyline to the landscape of American politics makes particular sense for those espousing the eschatology of premillennial dispensationalism. This end-times obsessed orientation has captured the imagination of conservatives who see their liberal counterparts not as the loyal opposition but as devils. Dallas has become, in fact, an epicenter of this intense blend of religion and politics — essentially the capital of, well, Nut Country.
JFK’s use of such gentlemanly mild slang actually soft pedals the atmosphere in Big D where the Birchers have overrun the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News, and the KKK has infiltrated the DPD and in many neighborhoods the PTA. While John Q. Dallasonian seethes about the U.N., his wife wants the Supreme Court impeached for Brown v. Board, and everyone thinks the 16th Amendment should be repealed.
In the mix of the moment, the prevailing bias facilitates the twisted scriptural reading which in turn reinforces the prevailing bias, the cycle comprising a deleterious feedback loop. Each time it comes around the skies darken. The heavens yawn for counterbalance. The only thing that can stop a bad guy with mysticism is a good guy with mysticism. Although “nut county” does refer to a literal reality on the ground, that does not preclude the phrase from also alluding to an alternative in the air.
Consider Nut as an invocation of the goddess of the night sky. The ancient Egyptians perceived Her in the starry expanse, naming her NWT, scholars typically Anglicizing the transliteration as Nut, though Nuit is also common. In ways he cannot understand, JFK pays homage to Her. Even if inadvertent, his appeal to cosmic forces touches him with the hand of fate, granting the sublime power of narrative displacement. What happens next, as revealed by William Manchester, refers to what has already happened and what will happen later.
INT. HOTEL TEXAS – CONTINUOUS
JFK has wholly abandoned the pretense of cheering up Jackie.
JFK: You know last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President.
Jackie and Kenny O’Donnell watch as JFK extrapolates, musing rhetorically while staging physically a scene from last night in Houston.
JFK: There was the rain, and the night, and we were all getting jostled. Suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase.
JFK makes said handgun with his hand, aims, and there follows a muffled POP, the smell of crushed atoms from the center of a star hovers over the room like the sense of foreboding does upon waking from an inscrutable dream.
JFK: Then he could have dropped the gun and the briefcase and melted away in the crowd.
As if on cue, LBJ enters the suite. He doesn’t notice the stardust all over everything. One senses here JFK harboring a fantasy of himself as a clandestine. Had he not chosen the limelight, he would be able to hide in Cold War shadows. Spies have blue blood running in their veins in these days. They sport Brooks Brother’s suits as they move through antechambers in V-shaped silhouettes. They might carry a briefcase. The pistol, of course, lingers as an artefact of dueling, the final act to be dispatched within a network of respect, a tip of a fedora and a scintilla of recompense, then to exit with an air of mystery — not just catch a bus like some silly little communist.
Inklings of extrasensory insight present themselves in symbol sets of personal significance. JFK’s are particularly well suited in that regard for he has the soldier’s solemn acceptance of fate as reflected in his fondness for the verse “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger who died fighting for the French Foreign Legion in World War I. If granted an augury that morning in Fort Worth, it makes sense that it would find expression in such a romantic style.
On the other hand, treating JFK’s imagination as precognitive actually underplays its poetic achronicity. After all, what kind of premonition is about last night? The moment stands on merit alone and if not oracular at least ranks as literary; if not prophecy, then foreshadowing. It isn’t going to be enough to save him either way. It does, however, send a message to us. All of our mundane surroundings reflect the unknowable this way. He sees ahead a rainy Texas day, but the sun will come out, leading him inevitably into a resonant darkness, that undiscovered country from which he will not return.
I have always thought that scene in the Hotel Texas would be a great way to open a movie, but there were plenty of premonitions to choose from, and I am no expert on either cinema or divination, considering how both have treated me over the years. Still, something rings indelibly true about the way William Manchester, working from his interviews with Jackie, rendered the President’s dialogue. A number of the exchanges in The Death of a President read like that to me.
It likely mattered that author and president, fellow Massachusettsans, were tuned to similar frequencies. Both earned Purple Hearts serving in the Pacific Theater. Both were erudite and wrote celebrated memoirs about their service. Manchester’s 1962 book Portrait of a President hovered around hagiographic, and he embodied the true-blue doctrinaire liberal, all in for Kennedy’s New Frontier.
Manchester’s research trip to Dallas shook him up. The thought must have struck him that he was not heading into nut country but was actually there, situated behind enemy lines in his own nation. The long days he spent tracking down sources were haunted by the realization that the majority of passersby on the streets considered themselves and those who shared their ideological orientation to be the only authentic Americans, and they were prepared to be rid of the impostures through violence. He had a nervous breakdown and was barely able to finish the book.
I didn’t know about Manchester’s struggles when I wrote the initial versions of the material now assembled above. I couldn’t help but think of them though as I blended my abandoned screenplay and book, and one rainy afternoon while hard at that enterprise, a thought appeared in my mind, somewhat of jump cut: the notebook I carried around Dallas on my own research trip. That would have been in 1988, long after the boundaries of “nut country” had become porous. My companion had been a standard steno pad with a yellowish-brown cover, and there were several like it in the box I had retrieved from the basement. At one point, I had written a D in a circle on the cover in a blue ink that had promptly smeared. I could visualize it. The problem was none of the notebooks in the box had a blue D on the cover nor did they, upon closer examination, contain my Dallas notes. I eventually removed all the contents from all the boxes and revisited the basement but all in vain. My Dallas notebook had vanished in the mist of time.
Chalk it up to the perils of research in the age before the digital cloud. Not only that, but perhaps the loss was merely sentimental. What had my sources told me that they had not told countless versions of me as the events receded even further in our memories and theirs? What, indeed? The missing notebook turned out to be but the first in a series of mysteries. As the day and the rain wore on, something nagged at me, and I finally found myself pacing the study desperately trying to dredge up some recollection about that 1988 Dallas trip. I could not.
Many of the most important witnesses were still alive then. Surely, I managed to talk to some of them. Certainly my first impressions of Dealey Plaza would have stuck with me. Yet the notebook with the circled D was my only memory, and who knows when I penned that on there — months later? I made a noble effort to get back to work. The scene in the Hotel Texas comprised part of that endeavor and may have ultimately yielded the first breach in the field of darkness that had supplanted my memories.
The night was mild enough that I had a fan propped in the window, and when I went to bed, it made a quiet, rhythmic rattle that dropped perfectly into the field of background noise. Then, just as I was about to drift off to sleep, a single memory resurfaced.
I had stayed in a Motel 6 not far from the Trade Mart. I remembered nothing of the room beyond its general shabbiness. Why, when I ostensibly had a generous per diem, I would opt for such drab accommodations posed a more compelling mystery, but I did not dwell on even that. More details were coming back to me.
I was tired as only travelers can be and in bed in no time, but before sleep took me, I heard a noise from the next room. It was not a sound necessarily associated with motels: the clack, clack, clack, ding! of a typewriter. At first, I didn’t even shift pillow positions nor dare to pull at the sheets, their thread counts almost certainly negative numbers. The typing continued, however, and eventually I found myself lying on my back and listening. The walls must have been as thin as the sheets, for the arrhythmic bursts of ta-tackity tack were loud. The machine sounded old. I had recently abandoned a Selectric for a Smith-Corona proto word processor, and I knew little about earlier models, so maybe I was wrong, but I was envisioning a manual. I could almost see it, large, black, and anachronistically shiny and new, yet its operator was a null set, and there were no other noises but typing, no creaking chair or ice cubes in a glass, just the sounds of struck keys which eventually made their way into dreams.
Which night these were, I am still not sure. Reporters, sports coats slung over chair backs, amid chaotic newsrooms, worked the letters furiously, trying to get word of the assassination into print. Authors sat in lonely rooms, bottles of bourbon next to dog-eared copies of the Warren Report, and they too stretched and pulled the language.
The final scribe must have been Manchester himself though gone so rail thin and gaunt that I wouldn’t have recognized him. He had his wooden office chair rolled back from the desk and was looking down at a pad on his lap. He wrote in longhand. The typewriter was covered with a gray cloth. Though he hadn’t acknowledged my presence, he suddenly tore off a page and held it out to me. I took it and thanked him. He afforded me the slightest nod and went back to writing. As I moved toward the door, I noticed that the calendar on the wall said November 1963.
On the landing outside, the wooden floor creaked, and the lights were dim. I looked down at the unlined paper to see he had written in surprisingly smooth cursive “the Gematria of Lee Harvey Oswald.” After folding and pocketing the page, I went down the stairs and out of the building.
Leaden skies above and gray pavement below, I walked alphabet streets amid men in dark suits and women in bright dresses, all seemingly in a hurry about something. I too seemed to have an important destination, though one that went fuzzy now and then. At first, I sought building 8 but then it was 11 and finally back to 8. I found it though, the most generic office building in America, and after crossing the empty lobby, I knocked on a metal door. An agent let me in, and another told me to raise my arms while he patted me down. He snorted, reached into my jacket pocket, and pulled out a piece of paper. He shook his head with slight amusement and considerable disgust, wadded up the page, and tossed it into a metal wastebasket. They escorted me down an empty hallway and sent me through a door without knocking.
The room was sparse and orderly but not quiet. Someone was typing at lightning speed. She sat perched in perfect posture on a metal office chair, her back to me. I approached her left side. Her hair was fixed in a glorious blond bouffant, and her burgundy sweater generated its own voltage. Her fingers blurred at the keys of a massive IBM electric. I leaned forward in hopes of seeing the document, but she turned her face toward me without missing a beat on the keyboard. She wore black glasses. Her lenses were impenetrable.
Rarely do we glimpse such a reflection of totality as to disconnect from the bonds of consciousness that hold each moment to the next. Into that breach, I was sent and went willingly, hoping to return with a script that would sell. I wound up with boxes in the basement, missing time in Texas, and dreams as psychedelic as those of any exiled prophet. I awoke in the morning, listening for the sound of a typewriter, unsure what year it was.
‡ All quotes of JFK come from William Manchester’s The Death of a President (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 121.