This Time Comes From That Time

I witnessed the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald. It happened on a Sunday morning, clear and cold. I was thirteen and living with my grandparents. Neither of them had spoken of President Kennedy's assassination two days prior. Their faces were empty, their eyes distant. The house silent.

Sunday mornings, unlike weekdays, were casual and free. In summer, Grandmother cut Gerber daises and zinnias on these mornings. In late July she picked figs. In winter she sometimes enjoyed solitary walks or harvested collars and turnip greens on Sundays. On this day, she started the dinner meal before reaching for her hat and shawl. My granddad, who thought highly of his beliefs, usually read the paper or watched religious programs on the old Zenith set. Other mornings like this one he smoked cigarettes and exchanged lies with neighborhood farmers at the crossroads store. Each of us enjoyed our Sabbath day privacy.

On the morning of November 24, 1963, I sat alone on the living room floor watching as the cop wearing a cowboy hat escorted Oswald through the crowded basement of the Dallas jail. I saw the killing unfold in black and white. The killer, Jack Ruby, stepped before the camera and put a slug in Oswald's gut. I sat wide-eyed and motionless, the smell of fresh boiled turnip greens and baked sweet potatoes in the air.

It is unlikely that Jack Ruby would have killed Lee Harvey Oswald if Oswald had not killed John F. Kennedy, who planned, some say, to end the war in Vietnam, where, a few years later, I killed people with names I couldn't pronounce. Sometimes history can be described as a chain of killings.

In 1968, following Robert Kennedy's murder and the Martin Luther King murder four weeks later, at a time when America's cities burned and cops shot looters and the CBS Evening News broadcasted from Vietnam, I sat with my grandparents in the dark living room of a quiet farmhouse in Darlington, South Carolina and watched Fess Parker portray Daniel Boone on the same television screen where Kennedy and Oswald died many times. Fess Parker smiled often and we always felt that things would turn out just fine in the end no matter Fess's dilemma. Parker never disappointed or shamed us. We never cried. It was our favorite television program. We even watched the reruns as if we didn't know what was going to happen a minute from now.

At school, I was the runt in my class. "Wiry," my grandfather—everybody called him Pop—said. I came to be called Skeeter, a South Carolina translation of "mosquito," a small, stealth, agile creature sometimes associated with yellow fever and death. In "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen calls the Vietcong "the yellow man." We called him Charlie, which in Vietnam meant a small, stealth, agile killer. Some speculated that my slight build was related to the cancer that killed my mother, but I never saw the connection. Still, I was of a size to volunteer for the Army in 1968. And small enough to become a tunnel rat. Now that I'm the age of Pop when Oswald was murdered, my belly round and my jowls saggy, I look more like a gerbil than a rat. And like a gerbil, I have a thing for digging. I have to do it. I have no choice.

Pioneer. Frontiersman. That's me.

I'm not like the many who think they live inside a history of their choosing. These days, people believe they can organize history to suit themselves. Recreate the past as if it belongs to them. Use it as currency. Like junk bonds. Or seek to create a history that never was. They assert the prerogative to pick and choose. But all they have are their beliefs to guide them. That's all they have. But what are beliefs without ideas? Mortar without bricks? Slogans on a sign? Because they can bend the present—you know, create a fictional cyber identity, record a TV show and see it tomorrow, or purchase worthless diplomas in their pajamas at three in the morning online—they think they can bend the past. They think they can take the out-there and make it fit the in-here. And next week, what they'll think—if they think at all—is, Damn, I should'a seen that coming. The economic crash. The drug dealer's bullet. The fall of Iraq. That's history for you.

Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Grandmother and Pop, they are all history now, as you and I will be. The question is, what history will we leave behind? That history is inside us now, you and me, and it's working its way out, like it or not. I'm digging for what's in there. Digging for all I'm worth.

I'm looking for a sign. I need one, you need one. And this is the season for looking.