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An Ugly Anniversary

On November 22, 2013, I woke with brains in mind. Funny, I haven’t heard much chatter about other November twenty-seconds, but this nice, round number—the half-century, the big five-OH!—turns this into a day for hagiography. Never mind the violence. Americans don’t celebrate violence. I wonder if people who lived that event are old enough to have let that rough spot rub smooth, let the traumatic memory sit in the back of their minds like a shiny worry stone, now that all the sensations that accompanied that news have faded. Fifty years ago, the world was just coming into color, Judy Garland, that Prometheus of color having wandered into Oz and back to light our desire for on-screen realism. Since then, color TV, flat screens, FM, stereo, and HD have made the grainy, stark, staticy announcements of 1963 antique. Today, rheumy eyes and tufted ears can see Dallas, or nearly anywhere else on the globe, on 3-D TV, in surround sound, and their memories—Cronkite rolling up onto the screen, twiddling the v-hold to see what he had to say, taking the phone off the hook after the third or fourth call, driving to pick the kids up from school, unsure how to explain the situation, so sitting in familial silence—might look like pages from a worn-out thriftstore copy of Life magazine, folded into the pocket, put through the laundry, but saved, in a dresser drawer next to some ticket stubs, a first-house key, and a small box containing a brittle corsage. So, today, we reminisce.

Today, around the state and nation, people young and old remember, or try to imagine they remember this seismic event in the American psyche. Some lay roses at his statues, some tour the house where he was born. Schoolchildren in Jamaica Plain conduct a moment of silence to play at remembering the fallen icon. James Taylor, who was fifteen then, will sing for the slain man at his presidential library. He will have no live audience. We can watch from home. The saddle, sword and boots from Black Jack, the riderless horse who followed the casket, will go on display today. But something is missing.

Now, I’m one to talk; I missed the event by fourteen years. For me, the assassination lodged in my brain in 1991. In 1991, for some reason at a jarring twenty-eight years, after most people had laid him to rest, Oliver Stone brought up JFK. Rated R (for language), this film, of all the gory films I’ve seen, contained maybe the most indelible image I’ve retained from a movie. Under Kevin Costner’s voiceover conjecture, I saw monochrome doctors—possibly in cahoots (The Mob? KGB, CIA, LBJ, FBI, etc? Cuba? Why not all of the above?)—standing over the messy head of the dead president. One pokes a finger inside his skull, measuring and inspecting a bullet wound. They open the shattered cranium, reach in rubber-gloved hands, and scoop out the bloody, scrambled brain. That brain, since gone missing from a file cabinet drawer, was not intact, was brains more than brain. It disintegrated inside, and fell apart into a stainless tray of slop outside, the Great American Golden Boy, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. That gray-bloody pulp, physically similar to that goop inside you or me, made him an exceptional human being. Or was it something aside from brains: money, or luck at birth, or whatever got him killed, something hidden from history in the plain sight of kodachrome super-8 that made him who he was?

JFK’s was not the brain I pictured as I awoke, thankfully. It was my own. When I was a child, someone gave me, or I found or won or bought—maybe it rolled out of the coin-op gumball machine in a supermarket vestibule—a brain about the size of a walnut. I dropped the rock-hard and chalky thing into a glass gallon olive jar, immersed it in water, and waited.

A couple years after I saw JFK, I got my hands on Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer. “I’m sick and tired of my generation getting called the TV generation,” Leary said. “Well, wha’d you expect? We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV one Sunday morning, we were afraid to change the channel for the next thirty years! This show sucks… but someone might get shot during the commercial, now hang on!”

Stone didn’t have a comprehensive conspiracy theory of his own, but Jim Garrison, Costner’s character, had such an elaborate one that it touched on every doubt. Stone called the Warren Commission report “a great myth. And in order to fight a myth, maybe you have to create another one, a counter-myth.” Maybe so. Stone and Garrison—Promethei—brought conspiracies into the mainstream where they have proliferated through the Oklahoma City generation, the 9/11 generation, and the Boston Marathon generation, to name a few. The perfect conspiracy is the one that spawns a thousand rival theories. The vitriol spews and the pendulum swings and the uncertain, the shaken, those cowed by ambiguity, rally around the flag with defenders of the official account. Maybe the real false flag is the one flying at half-staff.

Pshaw, says author James L. Swanson to conspiracies. In commemoration of the assassination, and to apply a little spit-and-polish to the Kennedy legend, Swanson floats a new theory:  RFK stole the brain to preserve his brother’s picture of good health. Apparently, Jack hid serious illness from the public throughout his time in office. “There would have been no reason for Robert Kennedy to conceal evidence of a frontal wound because there was no frontal wound.” This was about fraternal loyalty, Swanson says, and begs us leave it at that. I’m not sure I see why the distraught public would have cared about his health, once his brains had been eradicated. I’m not sure what Robert had to gain, but on a big, round anniversary, a historian can sure sell a new book on wholesome, reassuring conjecture.

And so goes the mythmaking.

Over the first few weeks, my pet brain ballooned to the size of a tangerine, then a grapefruit, then an ugli fruit, then a cantaloupe, taking on deeper pits and wrinkles as it expanded toward the sides of its glass confines. It looked solid, formidable, and bounced off the glass with a mushy thump when I sloshed it around.

I tend to fetishize the brain. I think of the head as the body’s cockpit. Perhaps this comes from my reliance on sight, or perhaps it comes from a popular conception of the head as the seat of consciousness. Perhaps this concept produces a reliance on sight and the other senses of the head, which sit proximate to the brain because the skull reduces their risk of injury; it’s efficient to have all those organs in one place, what with their demand for blood flow; the position reduces transmission time from ears, nose and tongue to the cerebral hub. But enough about anatomy, let’s talk metaphysics; the hub is not a wheel without the spokes and rim.

The mind must inhabit the whole body. I couldn’t take a photo with my mind alone. I couldn’t write a sentence without my hand, and not just because I couldn’t hold the pencil. I couldn’t write without my hand having learned to shape letters. I can write, and do the thinking writing allows, demands, faster the more I practice, because my hand learns to skip strokes and join certain letters together and spell on its own, even often to ignore misspelling and —without distracting me by reporting back what it’s doing or editing my mind’s non sequiturs—move on its own to the next component of the idea I’m unspooling as I write toward a neatly tied bow in the middle of the sky created by throwing tethered boomerangs. The boomerang itself taught my arms how to do that, taught my feet where to plant and my hips to rotate and my wrist when to snap, and my fingertips when to release…

Everything operates in concert; it is all me. Sure, I could think without hands, and even write and learn again to think in a way that approximates the way a handed man thinks, while writing with my left foot or a wand attached to my forehead, but this change in my shape would change what I think about, change the way I perceive and know the world, change how I interact with the things around me, the images of which I collect to build the world I navigate in my mind. I know my pencil, not only because I know my pencil’s function, but because I know my pencil’s texture, its heft, and the sound it makes against the page. If I didn’t know these things, I would think differently, in fact I would no better know what a pencil is than I know what a gila monster is.  My senses and the nerves throughout my body give my brain its meal and grist, its wattle and daub. Knowing the things around me changes me. I must change. The world, as I sense it with my whole body, changes my mind in small ways, which eventually, through accumulation and repetition, become big ways. My mind is whole with my body, my body whole with my mind. If one is sick, it all gets sick.

Even through his viewfinder, Abraham Zapruder’s eye told him Kennedy was dead. Zapruder’s eye, and his hand wrapped around his super-8mm, changed him. He was never just a middle-aged dressmaker again. He was the first man to see the president die. Or, perhaps because he was holding the device of proof, the first to believe he was dead. He saw something he couldn’t unsee, and didn’t want others to see. When he sold the rights to his film to Life magazine, he stipulated that frame 313 stay out of their centerfold. Life agreed. Zapruder became the man who saw, in his nightmares, Times Square peepshow marquees suggesting we “See the President’s head explode.” And most of us probably have.

I have seen the head explode. Five or six times, today alone.

As I said, I fetishize brains. Around the time Leary was not curing cancer, I cut out an eerie black-and-white magazine photo—another flashback to Kansas—of a white-coated, babyfaced man behind a heavy moustache, his thick gloves a wrinkled rubber cradle extending toward the camera lens a plump, moist, squeaky-clean brain; his stare of extreme clinical detachment—up, right, and out of the frame—gives the impression the brain could be his own. I fantasized it might be mine, or that of another All-American Golden Boy; I added the 3×5 photo to a blood-spattered shadowbox art-class collage.

People still collect newspapers from November 22, 1963. People still visit Dallas, just to walk the parade route. People still mailorder Fucile di Fanteria Modello 91/38 rifles. People still build models of Kennedy’s limousine, Kennedy’s ambush, Kennedy’s shattered head. People fire bullets into paraffin, into cadavers, over and over, trying, just once, to recapture the magic.

I put the jarred brains aside, and eventually forgot where they were. Then one day years later, on a visit to my parents’ house, I went rummaging through my old room. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I know the muted sound of the small cluttered room with no space left for reverb; the smell of stale beer, smoke and missing mice; the feeling between my fingers of old things, things I once needed, now stiff and crispy with age. I remember spotting the brain in its dusty jar at the back of a table covered with junk. I picked it up. It wobbled like gray jelly, having expanded to fill the whole space, lost its brain shape and disintegrated, flake-by-flake, changing from brain to brains.

People still go to Dallas to stand where Zapruder stood, to see and feel an echo of what he saw and felt.  If only the shock could be secreted, studied or explained away, but we can never sense everything we need to know. Sooner or later, we just have to make up our minds. We’ll do this again in another fifty years. We’ll do it again in forty-nine and a half.

In Boston’s Copley Square, three miles from Kennedy’s birthplace and forty-nine-and-a-half years after he died, a thousand Zapruders—disciples of that Prometheus, or that Pandora—watched and captured carnage through their cameras. The lens is a crystal shield. Meanwhile, at home, I sifted through hundreds of gruesome images, one after another, checking and rechecking every few minutes to see if, by seeing, I suddenly understood. I don’t.

The more pictures there are, the less they matter. Even as I scroll through the blood-spattered sidewalks and piles of sneakers, the falling man slipping from the smoke, the Murrah building cleaved, the images roll together into a collage of disquiet, a gentle, low-level agitation, and I start flipping faster, looking for the spectacular, the image that stops me cold. In 1963, I might not have been ready to see the president’s head explode. In 1991, it was ready to be seen. The blood just drips down the decades. My mind can’t hold it all; I’m soaked. I crave it. I need to see it, to make it real, to make it part of me. I’m frozen in frame 313.

I guess. I assemble sensory fragments and guess what they once were, off what whole they splintered, and so goes the mythmaking. OK City: a conspiracy of rage, an echo of Waco. 9/11: a conspiracy of convenience, repercussion of empire and enabling outrage. The Marathon bombers: a conspiracy of fraternal loyalty (even to psychopathy) a conspiracy so small, so isolated, so pedestrian as to pass for ordinary immigrant, adolescent alienation, until too late. It’s almost quaint. I’m hooked. Whatever the conspiracy, I’m a begrudging participant. I almost miss the lone gunman.

I had enjoyed the look of a brain in a jar; I could fancy myself some Frankenstein preparing to raise the dead. It was a toy, but it had lost its shape, it was just a jar of gray soup, a mess. I unscrewed the cap and reached inside, to squish that gelatinous gunk between my fingers. I think it was made of cellulose; in my hands-on postmortem, I felt the fine fibers.  I flushed that old, wet brain down the toilet. The purloined brain of JFK, last seen in a screw-top stainless steel cylinder, was just another jar of gray goop.

I know I’ll never get another sensation like my first look at JFK’s brain. But if I look long enough, I’ll get it: my fix. A baby in a firefighter’s arms, bleeding from the head. A shoe, a sock, a foot, no leg. An ashen man wheeled across the finish line, legs in tatters, femoral artery pinched in a stranger’s fingers. That looks almost realistic enough to feel it. That man’s hand, his thumb and forefinger, clamped down and didn’t let go, couldn’t let go, held on until they reached the ambulance. That sounded like something a real hand would do. I can collect these specimens in my mind alongside the brain of JFK, and I’ll tune in, log on, and dutifully reminisce every 10, 20, 50 years, even as some new catastrophe eclipses these. That urge of mine, that attraction to spectacular violence, that’s the real target, the assassin’s sweet spot, the accessory to terror.

At big, round numbers, we disinter traumas, to see if they sit better today. Today on the news, I hear from Bryan Tucker. He was eleven in 1963. Today he is gray. He says he remembers it very well. He “wanted to be with other people at the moment the actual shots were fired.” They are part of a small gathering at Kennedy’s Brookline birthplace. Some bring flowers, some cross themselves. They “would rather be here where it started, than where it ended.” Tucker, apparently recalling the birth of a man thirty-five years his senior, says “I thought it would be fitting to be here, at his birthplace, remembering that, as opposed to overwhelming myself with negative feelings about his death.”

On the same broadcast, in full HD, I see a twenty-something promethean teacher instruct her class of six-year-olds to bow their heads in somber silence, and remember fifty years ago. Come she says, imagine there was once a brilliant, scrupulous, healthy leader living in a less-brutal America. Come join the conspiracy of nostalgia. But without pictures, how can they make a memory? She may roll some prescribed, sanitized, Kennedy highlight reel, but if she plays Kennedy’s greatest hits today, she does so not because of the brain, but because of the bullet. Eventually, these children will go home to google Zapruder. And so goes the mythmaking. So, how shall we observe trauma next year?

Me? I already miss the lone cameraman.

Allan Musson is with Tucker, and he looks to be about Tucker or Taylor’s age. He sports a T-shirt that reads “I’m Retired.” He smiles wistfully into the camera. “I didn’t believe it until Walter Cronkite took his glasses off, and looked up, and said he died,” says Musson. Somehow, seeing Cronkite reach up and remove his glasses, a move that would become a signature, a hallmark of Cronkite’s hallowed gravitas, somehow that spontaneous, involuntary, muscle-memory move—the idea of his hand, not his brain—that was what made it real.

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