BELOW THE WATER LINE
(pt. 127) section a:
I was in seminary school the day President
Kennedy was killed. In the library, in fact. It
was about 1:30 maybe, and one of the priests
came in and announced that the President had
just been shot, and was in Dallas, in someplace
called Parkland Hospital, I think it was. There
were maybe 15 of us around there, in the library,
doing various things. The library had a central
seating area, nice chairs and stuff, and an entire
two-level metal-stairway wing of elevated book
stacks with a little balcony overlook. We were
told to get down on our knees and begin praying
for the President. I think the one priest began
reciting The Lord's Prayer and some other stuff.
That was kind of always supposed to be on our
lips and mind anyway, Hail Mary's, all those
little litanies of prayer and supplication, Lord's
Prayer and all that. It wasn't much of anything
different. So, following orders, I did as was told,
but I don't remember much, except that everything
just sort of stopped until someone else then came
in and said he was dead, the President I mean. Then
the whole routine began again, but this time really
in earnest. And then, as it transpired, it lasted for
three solid days. No one did a thing except watch
all the TV stuff in grainy black and white. In the
lounges we had; there were three or four TV's
scattered around. Nothing I ever watched, but they
were there. These were the years of like Mr. Ed,
and Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and Beverly
Hillbillies and I think something called My Mother
the Car. Weird stuff. In later years whenever
anyone mentioned those shows it was incumbent
on me to say I had no knowledge of it, and try
to explain then why I wasn't lying. No one ever
believed me. I just never watched. The one time
we were actually force-fed all that TV junk was
like about 1964 maybe, when Pope Paul VI
visited New York City. Again, all that black
and white, grainy mush mumbo-jumbo. I never
cared; made no never-mind to me. Traveling
Popes and darting minstrels, all the same.
The other two really cool times I remember
watching TV were pretty vivid : we were
watching the live coverage when that Jack
Ruby fellow, also in Dallas, darted out of
the crowd of bystanders and put two bullets
right into the gut of Lee Harvey Oswald,
who was right then being walked to his
arraignment in I think an underground
police garage or something. I'll never forget
the look on his face as he got shot. I knew
he was down for the count on live television.
The other time, almost equally cool, was
when Malcolm X was shot and killed at the
Audubon Ballroom up at the top of New York
City. I can't remember if that was live, or even
why I was watching it all, but he too got shot
and twirled around pretty good, and then
he too was dead.
In that library, and as that seminarian that I was,
I was reading a photo book - captions and
photographs and an introductory essay, I think
by Carl Sandburg. It was a volume I often returned
to and, at that time, it was considered a sort of
groundbreaking exercise in photo-essay journalism.
It was entitled 'The Family of Man' and had been
a photo-show curated at the Museum of Modern
Art, by Edward Steichen, and it had traveled the
world since the MOMA installation in the mid-50's.
This was a book made from the exhibit. It was always
fascinating to me, worldwide, photos from everywhere,
all sorts of people and activities. That what I was
viewing as the President was shot. It's always been
funny how people say 'What were you doing when
Kennedy was shot?' Stuff like that no one cares about
these days, unless it's some rap star who got sucker-
shot by his homies or some regurgitated pop star
dropping dead. Then everybody goes nuts with
all that 'where were you you heard Kurt Cobain'
blah, blah, blah, don't bother me. In actuality,
another thing about that seminary library - which
I always thought horrendously unfair - was that
they had a reproduction, a pretty good sized one
too, about 2 feet high, of some half-famous old
painting from somewhere, of a young woman,
eyes all a'blaze, fleeing from something - all
stressed and contorted looking but beautiful as
hell too - and she was wearing lace and a cloak
and all this stuff, except that it was all windblown
and really sheer - which of course enabled her
breasts to be clearly portrayed and seen, nipples
and all. That was a little too much for this 12 year
old, at any time. I never figured quite what they
were thinking but though I never leered that
painting was enough times on my mind to, say,
distract me from whatever I was reading -
in this case the photo book. It was, until that
point, by far the best anatomical surmise I'd
ever gotten of a woman's breasts, and I was
always up to refreshing myself on the lesson.
So, truth be told, what I was doing when Kennedy
got shot was closely gazing at a woman's breasts.
Now, how's that sound, respectful enough?
One other philosophical quandary brought up by
all this, and one that immediately set the usual alarm
bells ringing for me, was that those prayers for the
President's life, in that period after he'd been shot
and we were told to pray, had obviously failed.
The priest, of course, had, without comment, just
immediately kicked it up a notch to then pray for
his 'Soul' on its post-death endeavors, or whatever.
Essentially he was hiding from the actual truth
that we'd failed miserably at whatever we'd
undertaken to do. What did that mean? What
then was the efficacy of any of this 'Prayer' stuff?
How can one explain away such a failure? By
simply ignoring it? None of that was enough for me.
I needed answers and a re-directing of mind and
reason. What was everyone up to? Was this just to
be yet another endless con game? I know, of course,
the answer was already 'yes', but I had to figure my
new way through all this somehow.
It was also curious how it involved fate : The man had
already been shot - in fact half his brain was splattered
on the car's seat and on his wife too. That had occurred.
By whatever means of altered states or manipulations,
that part of the factual deed had transpired, and yet we
were attempting to change something of it by prayer?
Now? Was this Catholicism then nothing more than a
medieval seeking for some bizarre magic? An alchemy
of the moment, sought? We were most obviously to be
unable to change a moment of the previous two hours,
and this bloated, not so great anyway President was dead.
Period. The flapping gates of the twisting nation were
still slamming with their awkward noise when everything
rushed in : the church and its quaint 'connection' to a
Catholic priest. Down the drain on that count. It all
held little reason. We'd always been taught sternly about
a separation of church and state, how those who arrived
here came for religious freedom. It was all malarkey. They'd
obviously, in their peripatetic Puritan ways, set up very
quickly their own nation-state of religion. Which included
the death and dismemberment of any other tribe, culture
or people in their way. I didn't know much, but I was from
Avenel - we'd been taught at least to know what shit smelled
like. I detected the enormous aromas of endless piles right
off. There wasn't anything I could do about it here, trapped
as I was in their endless playbook - page after page of
sentiment and sadness. Maybe this Kennedy dude would
rise from the dead? Was that the catch. For the next number
of days, hell, I watched, and watched carefully. As Fats
Waller or one of those fat, black Jellyroll guys used to say,
'One never knows, do one?'
Everyone in the seminary, if they wished, had these little jobs
or tasks they could latch onto. Mine were twofold : one was
an agricultural bent, slopping the pigs. Out behind the barn,
a good ways walk anyway, there was a pigsty where were kept
some 10 or 12 really good sized porkers. I guess they were all
different and kept getting replaced. I never knew, not really
being THAT involved. There was this farmer guy, Brother
Cornelius or Brother Sebastian - I forget which one - a
small hairy guy, all big-bearded and such. Very much like
that Avenel hermit I've written of earlier. (Jeez, I wish
people would just read this stuff, and then I wouldn't feel
the need to always drop in that 'previous chapter' phrase).
He was the one who had slapped Hitler. I haven't told you
that story yet, and I probably won't - unless someone actually
asks me to as proof of 'readership'. But anyway, he was a
totally quiet guy. I'm not sure he ever talked. All these priests
and brothers were German guys, the old ones from Germany
itself, and the younger ones from some German religious
colony in Wisconsin somewhere, their outpost. Sebastian,
or Cornelius, he was straight out of Germany, long time
back. He ran the barn and the farming operations, totally.
Hard work, constant attachment. You hardly ever saw the
guy if he wasn't at the barn. My daily task, for a while, was
to take the pails of food garbage which would somehow
materialize at the barn each evening or late afternoon, and
wheelbarrow the loads over to the pigs, along the winding,
sandy, dirt path (there were any number of these) which ran
to the areas of the pigsty. I'd then just flip it all in to the big
feed-troughs that ran along the fencing, and all the giant
porkers would come snorting and raging to begin their
nosing and rummaging through all that food junk to eat.
And eat they did. I could go on how, to me, that was
a perfect analogy to most anything else in this Human
life : religion, politics, sports, knowledge, whatever.
Throw out some shit, heave it in front of the hungry,
dumb hordes, and they'll lap it all up in no time. Well,
there were a few occasions when I did go on, but no
one quite wished for me to continue. I always thought
that was what was nice about girls and sweethearts and
love and all that - which to that point I'd not had. A
girlfriend right there, then, if I had had one, would have
made all the gentle difference - they listen, they let you
go on, they take what you say and weave it back some with
those nicer and softer incidentals of only a girl's ways. I
never cared a whit what people said; girls had a different
feel and touch - not just to them, their persons, but in the
entire way they held and wove the sweeter world. I was
really getting tired of all the bitter charm of Manhood's
ways. So, I daily fed the pigs, worked the barn,'grooved'
on Brother Sebastian, or whomever it was. Okay? My next
task was as a seminary barber. All these stupid boy-heads
always had hair growing, and we were there to maintain
nice, short haircuts - not buzz-cuts or anything, but just
the old, normal short, boy's haircut. I did that - barber chair,
2 or 3, in the barber room, guys coming in, sitting down, the
big white sheet, the clippers and the brushes. Just like that
Floyd the Barber guy, I later saw, in the old Andy Griffith's
or Mayberry's or whatever that silly show was called. All
during this Kennedy funeral crap - the slow horses, the
upside-down boots in the stirrups, all that sickening
bewailing and endless TV mourning, that's what I did.
Like three-days of constant haircuts. Everybody had
something to say - constant chatter, sad boys, portents
of doom, and all the rest - except for me. My role was the
wisecracker, barber asshole. You come to me, you're gonn'a
hear some shit. 'You know that the last thing that went
through Kennedy's mind was? A bullet.' You know what
Jackie was saying in that limo, to the Secret Service guy?
'Get me the fuck out of here!'. None of that holy, sentimental
sad-royalty stuff. I was a regular Lenny Bruce with scissors.
No stopping me now. No stopping me then.