“Is that non-fiction?”
I looked up from my book–Stephen King’s 11/22/63–to see a man sitting on the other side of the waiting room at Merchant’s Tire. It was 7:30 on Saturday morning and I had been up since 6:00 because I’d wanted to make sure I was early enough to be the first in line to get my wife’s car inspected (it’s a sure sign of getting older–you camp out for car inspections and miss the boat on concert tickets). I glanced at the cover and half-wearily replied, “No, it’s a novel. It’s about a guy who goes back in time to try and stop the Kennedy assassination. So far it’s pretty good.”
He nodded and turned his attention back to the local news on the waiting room’s television. After a few moments of silence, he muttered, “They couldn’t have prevented that anyway.”
“Yeah,” I replied, half-heartedly, trying to get back to reading.
“It was a huge conspiracy.”
“I’ve heard a lot of people say that. I guess when you have a conspiracy like that, you need to keep it secret, so it couldn’t have been prevented.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think …” he began.
I closed my book. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, even though I tend not to believe most of them. I think I just like a good story. He began to talk about the Bay of Pigs, which I’d known about since the sixth grade when I did a report on JFK for a biography project, but then went into elaborate detail on something called “Operation Northwoods,” a rejected plan in which the CIA would commit acts of terrorism in the United States and blame Fidel Castro.
And I think at that point, he definitely had me, because he didn’t go into anything about second shooters and grassy knolls, but was tracing all of the reasons why higher-ups in the U.S. Government–the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the mafia, the FBI, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson–either plotted to kill Kennedy or knew about the plot. I told him I would go look up Operation Northwoods when I got home and then let him continue on his path, which ultimately led to how he prevented World War III and how he himself was leaking information to the Russians. Supposedly, he set up a “messaging service” of sorts where his brother Bobby would give certain information to a contact at the Russian embassy and that would then get relayed to Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev.
This was, by the way, the reason Bobby was killed in 1968, too. The powers that be wanted to make sure that another Kennedy didn’t make it to the White House, and the gentleman I was talking to said that he knew a guy working in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and that Sirhan Sirhan’s gun only had eight bullets in it and eleven were fired. It was the first time I had heard of a theory concerning RFK’s assassination, but then the only thing I ever knew about it was from the footage I had seen on documentaries. But his story does match what is noted on Wikipedia as the “second gunman theory,” so while I’m not sure how right he is, I have to say that I like how I was able to find some information on a reputable site because my curiosity about whatever he was saying was piqued and I would have been disappointed if the only place I could find such theories were on a random Angelfire site created in 1996.
As the man finished up his RFK assassination theory, the mechanic came in to tell me that the car passed inspection and I could go ahead and pay. I stood up and said goodbye, shaking the guy’s hand and telling him that I hoped he had a good weekend. On the ride home, I really could do nothing but smile because that made my morning. I mean, usually when I go to do something like get my car inspected on a Saturday morning, I wind up covering a decent amount of a book or knock out a podcast or two and my conversations rarely go beyond, “I wasn’t watching it, you can go ahead and change the channel.” But here I got a bit of a history lesson, as “out there” as it seemed at times.
What’s funny is that when I was younger, I probably would have listened intently to this guy but in my head, I’d be thinking about how this guy was a loon and then would be laughing my ass off about it after I’d left, because I had a typical teenage lack of respect for my elders (and even that was kind of an act in the same way I listened to Metallica because I felt that’s what teenagers did). But now I see a real value in the stories that everyone–whether they are notable people or not–has to tell.
Earlier this year, I did a project with my advanced English class called “Legends of Your Family” (to give credit where credit is due, my wife came up with the title). We read a smattering of short stories and essays that had to deal with the relationships between parents and children, the mysteries that older generations leave behind, and even a Washington Post piece about teens adopted from other countries searching for their birth parents that just happened to run while we were reading all of this. We also watched the Tim Burton film Big Fish (also my wife’s idea), which centers around a writer and the tall tales his “doddering old fool” of a father tells. Their assignment was to talk to a relative and uncover some of the stories their families have. While quite a few students got frustrated and met with several dead ends either with ideas or people to talk to (but still wound up with a decent genealogical research project), several others had some great stuff. I heard about haunted houses, murdered relatives, and someone who spent most of her childhood sailing on a boat throughout the Caribbean.
I don’t teach history and aside from political history courses I took in college (courtesy of the late, great Hans Maier, political science professor at Loyola College in Maryland), I’ve never truly been a “student” of history. But what I love about our age is how even people who simply love stories about particular periods of history (I have a fascination with 2oth Century America, which is probably why I DVR so many American Experience episodes) have an enormous amount of information available online. And what I hope is that such a wealth of information will lead myself and my students to further research, asking people who were there to share their stories.
Even if they are conspiracy theories.