Kevin McAleer on his obsession with JFK’s murder 52 years ago today
JFK’s funeral was the first thing the comedian saw on television. This may explain his fascination with the subject, which he tried to turn into a novel and now here into a poem
Kevin McAleer: I decided to write a novel to make sense of it all, but just to make it a bit harder for myself it would be narrated by the Mannlicher Carcano bullet that killed Kennedy, and the action would take place over a duration of 0.12 seconds, the time taken to travel the 90 yards from rifle to target. This surreal plan had the desired effect of making the novel impossible to write, and it remains gloriously unfinished, in the fine old Irish tradition of non-fiction
Former US president John F Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Texas governor John Connally and his wife riding in the presidential motorcade moments before Kennedy was shot in Dallas,Texas, on November 22nd, 1963. Photograph: Reuters
I didn’t realise I had a thing about JFK until about 10 years ago. I started to notice that he had wormed his way uninvited into every comedy show I’d ever written, and I got curious to find out what he was up to, hanging around my subconscious all those years.
I went back to 1963 looking for clues. I was seven when Kennedy was killed in Dallas; I don’t remember any emotional reaction from my parents, big or small, but there are a few hints that it was a big deal. We had a small farm in Tyrone, no electricity, no car, but we all six of us piled onto the grey tractor (don’t ask) to go and see the funeral on TV in Peter Tammy’s house. Peter was a very advanced scholar with his own generator. That was the first thing I saw on TV, and it was a very sober intro for a child, just a single shot of lots of people moving slowly past the coffin for hours.
Another thing was that President Kennedy’s name was added to the inner circle of dead relatives we prayed for every night after the family rosary. He stayed in the prayer charts for many years, only dropping out of the top ten in ’68 when Jackie remarried and dragged him down with her.
So much for the slim file of personal memories. I did a lot of research then about the assassination– the online conspiracy stuff, the novels, movies, documentaries. It all struck a very deep chord with me, and stirred some kind of trauma or fear I still can’t explain. It’s not that I’m a big fan of JFK the man or politician, and the Irish/Catholic angle cuts no mustard for a lapsed nationalist like myself.
The conspiracy theories bore me, all 437 of them. I like Noam Chomsky’s take on it; when asked “who killed Kennedy?” he answered briefly “who knows? who cares?” For the sake of simplicity and convenience, I’m with the Lone Nutters faction (LN) who say that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all by himself, one man and his rifle. Of course the CT (Conspiracy Theorists) hate the LN with a vengeance, and it is a minor miracle that no one has been shot over it.
I witnessed this tension at first hand when I went the whole hog and visited Dallas in 2007 for the 44th anniversary. November 22nd happened to be Thanksgiving Day that year as well, “a perfect day for a turkey shoot”, as one local CT wag put it. On November 19th there was a world premiere of the documentary Oswald’s Ghost in the Texas Theatre, the same spot where Oswald was arrested in ’63, having felt a sudden urge to catch the matinee double bill Cry of Battle/War is Hell on his lunch break from the Texas School Book Depository. I guess we all use the movies as a means of escape.
I was delighted to get a ticket to the premiere. I’m not sure who got Oswald’s seat but there was an edgy sense of history as we waited in the dark, a big mugshot of the ghost himself staring vacantly at us from the screen. The documentary was fairly balanced until towards the end, when it lurched heavily in favour of us Lone Nutters, helped in no small part by a cameo appearance by Norman Mailer. Mailer had just died himself nine days previously, so his words were given extra gravitas from beyond the grave. He laid it all squarely on Oswald, just as he had in his detailed biography of Lee Harvey in 1995.
When the lights came up and director Robert Stone took the platform to answer questions, some conspiracy diehards walked out. You could have cut the atmosphere with a bullet, and I was seriously worried that somebody would, but the moment passed.
I spent my two weeks in Dallas hanging around the scene of the crime in Dealey Plaza, visiting the Sixth Floor Museum with the sniper’s nest in the corner window looking down Elm Street, with its X on the road marking the spot. There’s even a Livecam from the sniper’s window, so you can go online any time and get an Oswald’s eye view of American reality. There are two types of people in Dealey Plaza – normal Texans going about their 21st-century business, and lone nuts like me from another time and place looking for answers to questions that don’t exist. I did notice, though, that they keep the street lamps on 24 hours a day– it’s a place that still needs all the illumination it can get, even in broad daylight.
Back home among the grassy knolls of Tyrone I decided to write a novel to make sense of it all, but just to make it a bit harder for myself it would be narrated by the Mannlicher Carcano bullet that killed Kennedy, and the action would take place over a duration of 0.12 seconds, the time taken to travel the 90 yards from rifle to target. This surreal plan had the desired effect of making the novel impossible to write, and it remains gloriously unfinished, in the fine old Irish tradition of non-fiction. Indeed I am well through not finishing that difficult second novel by now.
And that’s where the matter would happily have rested, if the bullet itself had not got in touch with me out of the blue a few months ago from Washington, and ordered me at gunpoint to write the following poem. Where will it all end?
The bullet that killed JFK breaks its silence
Twelve miles between us now.
Me in the national archives outside Washington,
Him across town in Arlington with his eternal flame.
Twelve miles as the crow flies,
A bird after my own heart.
I was born in East Alton, Illinois in nineteen fifty-four
And died with him in Dallas in sixty-three.
I was way too young, too headstrong
Charging round at twice the speed of sound
Head spinning like a universe
Until I met my match.
There’s not much left of the pristine me
In this acid-free wooden box.
A blob of lead where my heart melted,
A torn copper jacket where
Secret molecules of him still cling,
Our chemistry and dna confused forever
In the heat of the moment we met.
I didn’t miss him then but I miss him now.
My love is four times stronger than bone.
Are you awake Jack? Come and see me one last time.
Cross the Potomac by dead of night
Don’t look twice at the White House
Stay on highway one ten miles, east onto Berwyn
I’ll meet you on the corner like before.
My occultation, my first and last communion.
You’ll know me when you see me.