As throngs in Dallas gather today to celebrate the life and accomplishments of JFK in the spot where his head was blown off, demarcated with an eerie “X” – an “X” paved over last week, a symbolic sweeping under the rug of the city’s historical dirty laundry – on Elm Street, one group will be left off the remembrances. For four years, from 2005-2009, I was a member of that group, albeit in a position that, in retrospect, was not the ideal. I was not a passionate JFK researcher, but from 2005 through 2009, I worked in various capacities on the day-to-day operations at the Mary Ferrell Foundation, an organization, in the interest of full disclosure, where I am still the vice president of the Board of Directors.
One fateful July in 2005, I answered an ad on Craigslist seeking someone to help with data entry. Having been fired from my job at a wine shop in Boston (long story), I was in the market. The job posting satisfied two criteria: one: it intrigued me; two: it triggered the “why not?” notion. In August I got the job, and on August 11, 2005, I began the process of entering millions of pages of documents related to the JFK assassination into the Foundation’s archive. My role expanded to include filmmaking (it was my film school), early crude attempts at transmedia storytelling, and finally, taking over as Executive Director in 2007. During this time, I learned every skill I apply daily to my writing career, from Python programming to book cover design, to the ins and outs of publishing (I think there was some surprise on the part of my publishers when I negotiated my book deal and found tiny details that needed changing), to the most important skill I learned, one that was never honed in music school: I learned to listen.
Without that lesson, I never would have been able to write COMING TO QUIET COUNTRY. I never would have been able to hear what the characters I create in fictional worlds have to say. It showed me that people are not only their beliefs, but the fascinating combination of all of their interests to little habits to the laugh they produce. And I owe all of that to my time as part of the community non-grata in Dallas today.
It was intoxicating being around such passionate and driven people, such characters. I had wonderful experiences, some not so wonderful: getting to smoke in a bar for the last time with three wonderful friends, one a staggeringly beautiful Romanian woman who spoke fondly of a double feature of THE KARATE KID and CITIZEN KANE; chatting at the bar with various authors and friends, learning of their lives outside of the conference; Texas-sized margaritas; the wonderful shock when I received a beer at an airport with a shot of tequila and being told that that’s the norm; the most horrendous bout of near-pass-out food poisoning from dessert at the Adolphus before my final speech; the pre-keynote shots of tequila that my predecessor and I engaged in as our tradition; the “buy-a-beer” alternating years; passing the butter; seeing CASINO ROYALE on its premiere date in a movie theatre with huge seats and one of my best friends; running across the freeway from one hotel to the next, and encouraging the others trying to cross the road that they had enough time if they just manned up and ran for it; walking through the night streets of Pittsburgh on its 250th anniversary with fireworks shooting from the buildings with a group of researchers, and asking one why he read all of the plaques on monuments (his answer, “if I’m walking on someone’s blood, I want to know whose it is” or something infinitely more profound); meeting someone who became a great friend and inspired me to take stock of my life at the moment; listening to theories and postulations, all delivered with nothing less than the most absolute of conviction and passion; being told by high school students that I really spoke to them in my final speech (during which I was holding myself up to keep from passing out, thank you terribly bad and over-poweringly sweet chocolate cake), one where I called President Obama’s election the culmination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s respective campaigns for an ideal; receiving a handwritten letter from a brilliant journalist stricken with Parkinson’s and our phone conversations about his work on the House Select Committee on Assassinations and most importantly, how much he loved working on his boat.
It was the little stories within the big that moved and shaped me, stories all brought together by one thing:
I remember my first visit to Dealey Plaza in 2005, when I first interviewed people with a camera. I was a nervous wreck, making sure I remembered how to put the lights together. I remember thinking how small the place was, and how much that “X” freaked me out as tourists waited for a pause in traffic to run out into Elm Street for a photo op. I remember the slogans in the fence on the Grassy Knoll. I remember looking up at the sixth floor window of the Depository. But that “X,” man. That “X.”
Every visit since, in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (my final), that “X” haunted me. It clearly still does. “X” marks the spot. “X” is the reason for the passion, for the vitriol, the laying bare of everything that was simmering beneath the surface of this country for its entire existence; “X” represents the idea that you can “believe,” but you cannot “know;” “X” represents a distrust of government, that “the greater good” functions only as a perception on the part of those claiming to work for it; and with that “X,” history made its final plea: stop with the shit and live together, a plea that hasn’t been realized and I fear won’t be as the 50th anniversary passes into the annals of history and the day after meets with something new, some listicle, some new distraction, a cat video, a manufactured hyperbolic outrage on the vaudevillian stage of modern political discourse, mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains.
But then again, the “X” was paved over, swept under the rug when inconvenient, to smooth out “tripping hazards.”
My youth – I wasn’t even a glimmer in my 10-year-old mother’s brain as she played tetherball in Killbuck, OH at 1:30PM (Eastern) on November 22, 1963 – doesn’t give me the visceral, personal connection to JFK’s assassination, but it does grant me a perspective on the happenings in the 50 years since, one that I hope is free of the myth making, one instead grounded in reality, in its shades of grey, where history is of a whole cloth, not a pretty one, but a necessary one, a window shade of experience with which to look at the present and hope that we learn from the mistakes of the past and grow as a people beyond the myth and the vitriol into the best ideal we can hope for: agreeing to disagree.
On that note, I’ll close with a quote from the man himself, one that we would do well to remember and keep with us, no matter our beliefs, so that the lesson of the “X” never goes away, no matter how many coats of asphalt may lie over it: