Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reflections on Jack Ruby

Depending upon who you read, Jack Ruby was a petty strip-club gangster or an important mobster-friend of Sam Giancana.

It was November 24, 1963.

I remember that I was sitting on a footstool, my nose approximately 8 inches from my family's black-and-white TV set. If I got too close, I couldn't see anything, but I was intent on getting just as close as I could. I wanted to see it all.

It was Sunday morning, and I remember well the hubbub of the adults in the kitchen. I was the only one in the small dining room that served as our TV room. I heard the TV-news announcer say that Lee Oswald was going to be transferred in an armored vehicle. I didn't know what an armored vehicle was, but it sounded awesome. And yet... that little guy? As a six-year-old, I was surprised that such a skinny little guy could be the villain of the hour. I had expected the president's assassin to look something like Brutus, the dastardly evil man of the Popeye cartoons... or at least, he should bear some resemblance to Lex Luthor. This skinny, slight, soft-spoken fellow who calmly denied being near Dealey Plaza? Well, he was just spooky, that's all. They kept calling him a Marxist and a communist, words I didn't yet understand but knew meant that he was a bad person. (I would say the word "communist" in 1963 had the similar gravitas of the word "terrorist" in 2009.) I was enthralled by the constant TV-coverage, the switching back and forth from Dallas to Washington... to our new president, Lyndon Johnson and then back to the basement of Dallas city jail. It was as dazzling as space travel.

Middle-American culture had changed utterly and completely in only two days.

For one thing, the TV had not always been on before. You turned on the TV to watch something, and when it was over, you turned it off. Sometimes you left it on, but usually not. Among the working classes, it was not unusual for some families not to own a TV at all. There were often anti-TV holdouts in these families; cantankerous, old-school types who thought TV was all rubbish and probably unchristian. But after this weekend? This archaic viewpoint was consigned to the dustbin of history. Back in my first-grade class, I would hear about parents who had rushed out to buy a TV at long last. They simply could not bear to be left out.

The TV had been turned on, and stayed on. It was on when I got home from school, dismissed early due to the tragedy, and it was on throughout the funeral. And it stayed on forever after.

And the TV was on as they transferred Lee Oswald to the armored vehicle, or attempted to. There was much talk about security because tensions were running extremely high; there was palpable fury throughout the city of Dallas. When police had forcibly taken Oswald from the theater where they had discovered him, hostile mobs surrounded the police car, and it was said he might have been torn to pieces if the crowd had been able to get their hands on him.

Listening to all this, I was riveted. I remember peering intently as they brought him out, my nose almost right on the screen: There he is!

And then, the inevitable disappointment: such a nonthreatening little dude he was.

I peered and peered and then... bang. Oswald was down.


It was so quick. If not for the firecracker-noise of the gun, I would never have known.

"They shot him!" I shouted, "They shot Oswald! They shot him!"

The adults stampeded as one entity, from the kitchen to the small dining room where I was. My mother, grandparents, some other relatives I have since forgotten... possibly my cousin Charlene.

"I SAW it!" I was shouting, "I SAW IT!"

SSSSSSSssssssshhhhhhhh! Everyone was shushing me. Had I really seen that? The adults' eyes were collectively popping. I felt pretty important for being the one to see it.

"He must be really mad about the president, huh?" I asked.

Nobody answered. They kept shushing me, as obviously-shaken news-announcers talked about what they had just witnessed.

And then, the adults were all looking at each other, that way adults did when they were thinking things that they would not share with children.

Finally, my grandfather said, in what I have come to call his Christian Science Wisdom voice: "Well, that really stinks."

My mother's eyes were wide, wide, wide.

My grandfather shook his head and said "Stinks!" again, rather emphatically. My mother nodded gravely back at him.

I didn't know what he meant then.

The TV-announcers were saying his name: Jack Ruby. The man's name was Jack Ruby.


Like millions of Americans that day, I saw a murder on live television. Because the murder was widely perceived as an act of justice, nobody worried about the ill effects on all of us children who saw it. And later, many years and decades later, when we began to doubt that what we saw was justice and instead wondered if it had been the silencing of a co-conspirator... nobody worried about the erosion of our morality and the consequential development of our cynicism.

But I trace it all back to that day, the day in the basement of the Dallas city jail.

They ask us, do you remember where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated? But I always ask, instead: What did you think when his accused murderer was pronounced dead? Because the silencing began then, the questions asked that will forever remain unanswered. (As Norman Mailer once explained the existence of the angry kids of the 60s: They hated the authority because the authority had lied.)

My grandfather was right. It certainly did stink. And the stench covered everything.

The lies of the powerful were uncovered and exposed before us, that morning in the basement of the Dallas city jail.

Some of us never forgot.


mikeb302000 said...

Thanks for a great post, Daily. I was one of the millions who watched the Oswald silencing live on TV. I was about 10 years old.

I've always traced my cynicism and rebellion back to Viet Nam, but reading your post made me wonder if it hadn't started earlier.

Doc Anchovy said...

I remember this day as well. Not quite as well as being let out of school when Kennedy was killed but I do remember it. I think it coincided with my lifelong decision to not trust anyone with wingtip shoes.

BTW, Popeye's nemesis: Bluto.

JoJo said...

GREAT POST! I am in awe that you saw Oswald's murder live on TV. I was born in '64, just days after the first anniversary of JFK's murder. I've only ever heard the stories of where my parents were when he got killed. In fact, for years, there was one paint stroke on the radiator in the diningroom. My mom had just started to paint it when someone called and told her to turn on the news. She never finished.

And of course, the Kennedys summered near where I grew up, so the fervor and despair was even worse on the Cape.

As to my cynicism & rebellion, as enamored as I was w/ the 60's, I grew up listening to the Sex Pistols, Clash, Boomtown Rats & other punk music, and that's how I became cynical. Kind of hard not to when John Lydon is screeching, "NO FUTURE FOR YOU!"

Marion said...

I was riveted as I read your post, Daisy. Even here in Canada, the television was on, always, during that terrible time. I saw Oswald killed as well,almost just like you did, and I've never thought about how that affected me. But I remember feeling really sick, for quite a few days afterwards.

Thank you for a great post!

Blue Heron said...

It's funny - I was thinking of Ruby the other day myself. I read E. Howard Hunt's biography a few months ago and he certainly leaves open the possibility that the whole thing was a CIA hit. Arlen Spector was the man in charge of vetting the lone gunman theory and somehow that doesn't leave me with a lot of faith in the final verdict of the Warren Commission.

I was in kindergarten when it came down, remember the yellow walls and the teacher walking into the class. 9-11 is the only thing that hit the country with such a punch in my lifetime. Thought I was seven but guess I was six since we are the same age.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Doc, Mr Daisy the comic expert informs me that "Brutus" was used between 1960-62 (in the cartoon, which is what I watched), but in the comic strip he was Bluto.

Predictably, Wikipedia has a whole entry on the Brutus/Bluto issue!

Bob, I used to hang with AJ Weberman, who believed the same about it being a CIA hit and co- wrote the book Coup d'Etat In America: The CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Coup d'Etat In America)

Re: Ruby's copious mob connections, I've always assumed Oswald was a mob hit. But why would they do that? Who ordered the hit on Oswald and why?

My fervent hope is that forensics will advance astronomically in the future, and future generations may know the answers. It could even be centuries, possibly after "the
USA" as an entity no longer exists (and organizations like the CIA will be extinct as well, their secrets no longer protected)... just as we have learned about the murders of ancient kings.

Blue Heron said...

I remember Weberman as the guy that used to paw through Bob Dylan's trashcan. Wasn't he an eminent garbagologist? The only yippie I knew was Dana Beal when I lived in the city. I did do a pot march on Martha Mitchell's apartment on 5th avenue with David Peel carrying a 20' bomber. Made Time Magazine on that one. It was funny he needed a drum roll when he issued his proclamation and no one could keep time on the snare. My only radical bona fides were that my older sis hung out with Jerry Rubin.

Speaking of bluto, there is a whole section of the Dead's version of Dancing in the Streets that sounds like Bluto laughing in a Fleischer cartoon. To me, anyway. I think about it every time I hear a tape. Thanks to Mr. Daisy for his input on the popeye deal.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Bob, yes, the same AJ, pawing through the garbage of the famous (he started with Dylan, moved on to politicians and people like Muhammed Ali). He wrote a book about that too, called My Life in Garbology, which was actually pretty witty.

And I knew Dana Beal very well! I met David Peel two or three times, what a strange person.

We may well have crossed paths at some point! :)

Blue Heron said...

We well may have - I think we are cut out of the same cloth. My late friend Douglas Monroe was a bit of a dope legend in soho way way back when and he told stories of Peel painting the cockroaches in his apartment fluorescent colors and then watching the pretty trails after he had ingested hallucinogens. I would mostly see Beal at the fountain or places like that. So fun to read your excellent blog.

sheila said...

WOW, I almost feel like I was in your living room But I wasn't born til 65, lol.


Forever remain.


Long forgotten.

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