It happens every year, without fail.
There I am, diddy-bopping along, Old Man River himself, when as if by infernal clockwork, things change.
The change isn't sudden, shocking or even clear. Instead, while everything before was uneventful, now I've got a nagging sense of foreboding.
It came to a head this year as I walked by the Petrova School. On impulse, I checked the date on my watch. Nov. 20. Of course. Two days before the anniversary of JFK's assassination.
Petrova used to be a K though 12, and I was in school there the day JFK got killed. And while it's cliche to say I remember it like it was yesterday, it's also true. But I'll spare you the details because they're not important. What is important - at least for me - is the aftermath, which at this point seems less like historical fact than a haunting.
From shock to obsession
Right after the assassination I was in shock, like everyone else was. Next came sorrow and a sense of loss. Those, in turn, were replaced by small doubts which eventually grew into a full-blown obsession to find out if Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin or any assassin at all.
As the JFK assassination conspiracy books came out, I read one after another after another. Eventually, like many people, I decided Oswald could not have acted alone.
It only made sense. No matter how anyone cut it, Oswald was a guy who couldn't do anything right. He couldn't stay in school; he couldn't' stay in the Marine Corps; he couldn't stay in Russia. He failed in the workplace; he failed in marriage; he failed in friendships. The only consistency in his life was failure.
So how could a Sad Sack like that assassinate the president? It was incongruous to even consider that an American icon could be cut down in his prime by a complete nonentity.
Surely there had to be more to the story - more people, more plotting, more intrigue - a massive conspiracy held together by a web of intrigue and lies. The Warren Report was a whitewash, a rush to judgment, as Mark Lane labeled it in his book. Certainly there was no shortage of authors, TV programs and lecturers JFK assassination conspiracies, and I followed them all.
As for there being a massive cover-up? Within a few years of the assassination it became apparent the highest offices of our government had routinely lied to us about all sorts of things, about Vietnam; about the missile gap, about government corruption. And they certainly lied about their lying, so why not lie about the assassination as well?
I don't know how many assassination theory books I read - dozens, for sure. Add to that scores of magazine articles and interviews, and I became, if not expert about the assassination then certainly paranoic.
So after 20-plus years of research of one sort or another, who did I figure was behind the conspiracy? I never did, and it changed depending on whose theories I most recently read, or reread. Maybe the CIA. Maybe anti-Castro Cubans. Maybe the mafia. Maybe all of them combined; maybe someone else entirely. I didn't know. I only know who was not behind it - namely Lee Harvey Oswald.
The obsession lifts
About 25 years ago, my perspective started to change. It was due to a combination of things. One was I came to understand the essence of conspiracies, which is they're impossible to hide - especially for 40 years, in a tightly-wired world like ours. There are just too many inevitable leaks and slip-ups. There are letters, phone calls, telegrams, photos, conversations, all sorts of stuff that may once have been hidden but eventually becomes public.
Plus, let's get real: People cannot keep their mouths shut. I can't. You can't. And no matter what anyone says, conspirators can't either.
Beyond that, there were the theories and the theorists themselves: Almost none of them agreed with each other, and while most theories were pretty far-out, some were ridiculously so. Then I started to see that none of the theories were supported by actual facts, so much as with more theories. It was conjecture based on conjecture and I got sick of it.
Finally, two books were published that solidified my thinking. One is Case Closed by Gerald Posner, and the other is Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery.
Posner takes a forensic approach, using empirical evidence to show how Oswald could readily have carried out the assassination.
Mailer's approach is psychological. He draws on the KGB's files on Oswald when he lived in the USSR, interviews with those who knew Oswald when he lived in the U.S., and various authors' works. It's a huge book and it paints a thorough portrait of who Oswald really was.
Mailer presents his information but draws no conclusions. Thus it's up to the reader to decide about Oswald's guilt or innocence.
I decided he was guilty. Posner's book further reinforced that decision. So finally, after over 30 years, I laid the conspiracy mess to rest.
So do I feel bad I spent three decades studying and believing total paranoid nonsense? Not at all.
I was just naive: I couldn't believe a solitary lunatic with a mail order gun and a history of unrelenting failure could change the course of history. Now, unfortunately, I realize not only is possible, but that it happens all the time.