We were watching 60 Minutes the other night. All this old footage of Walter Cronkite and his cohort of newsmen. Black and white drama-free news. The Kennedy assassination. The newscasters were using phones…and smoking…
I was working on my VW (1958) in Joe Verbiesen’s garage on Ventura Blvd. I remember walking out of the garage toward Ventura and noticed that there was a silence….everything just sort of slowed down or stopped dead. I can’t imagine anything like that happening today. Joe had put his tools down and was listening hard to the radio. There was fear on his face. As a European he grew up on wars and political upheavals and the news of Kennedy’s assassination held a particular foreboding for Joe.
Across Ventura and a bit up the street from Joe’s was a strip joint, The Zomba Cafe. The building seemed to epitomize both the mood and the mystery of what might come next. There were no transparent windows and the building was painted black. There were, however, a few large display windows, maybe 30 x 50 inches with large, colorized posters of the strippers, one stripper per display, Oh did they look good to a 16 year old. Ventura Blvd was also US 101 and maybe 3 miles northwest of Cahuenga Pass which separated Hollywood/LA from the San Fernando Valley. The Zomba, on the southwest side of Ventura, was up against the valley side of the Hollywood Hills. It was a place where the not-so-swells would go. Jack LaLane had his gym a few blocks north of the Club. I came of age in those hills. Tuesday Weld lived there and flirted hard. There were a lot of Hollywood folks who made their homes on the Valley side of the hills. King Vidor’s son was in my class along with Lowell George, founder of the band Little Feat (whose name probably related to Lowell’s feet, which were so small he called them Earth Pads). Just thinking about those times now has the memories lapping into my consciousness like gentle waves at the beach…
I was living in my bomb shelter and driving that 1958 VW. It was my second car. The first, an MG-TD, my mother made me return after I went past her on a curve in a 4 wheel drift and the driver side door flew open as I passed her. I was at Joe’s garage because me and a couple of buddies were cruising Sunset Blvd the previous weekend trying to pick up girls. The traffic was about bumper-to-bumper and I rear-ended the car in front, caving in the VW’s hood. Joe was teaching me to pound metal and do bodywork. The garage next door belonged to a guy we used to call, Putty Pete. He had built the first Boston Blackie car for the TV series. He got his nickname because instead of banging out the metal, he’d use body filler to make the repairs. Sometimes he put it on so thick that after the client drove off it fell out. Still, Pete was a nice, generous guy, ready to help the kid who would sweep his floor and cleanup. So was Joe Verbiesen. He was a hard-working Dutch immigrant whose son, Arnie, was a hot-rodder. I got to know Joe and Arnie because my best friend, Paul, worked there as a mechanic in the afternoon when school was out. There was another guy on that shift, Roger, who’d come from Detroit where he’d had a job sweeping the floors of a GM plant. My best memory of Roger was his line, “Can’t never did nuthin.” He could no more diagnose a problem than do brain surgery, but if you told him to pull the heads off an engine so you could do a valve job, he could handle that and you never had to worry that he might lose a bolt. Roger was OK.
The president who had stared down Khrushchev, the muy macho man for whom Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday, the King of the Camelot we’d all believed in, was gone. The nightly news was mostly chaotic. Questions were coming at double-time and there were few answers. Suddenly everyone was living in the present. It was impossible to daydream your way through the news. Conspiracy theorists bloomed like mushrooms in a cow pasture after a rain. The images of the bullet’s impact to Kennedy’s temple and the action that followed…seeing that happening, almost in real time…seared it into people’s memories. To this day, even as most of the sealed files have been released, questions remain unanswered and the conspiracy theorists are coming out again.
Meanwhile I had to buff up my high school academic record if I was going to ever get into a decent school. Hollywood High School had been one long party. By my senior year a few of us declared that Wednesdays should be deemed Big Wednesdays. On those days we’d take to our cars at lunch, buy a case or two of beer and head to the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park which were used as a set for Hollywood Westerns.
Los Angeles City College (LACC) was my last shot. It was a commuter college of about ten thousand students with a majority from immigrant communities, first and second generation kids and adults. LACC offered a two year degree and a second swing at the four year big-time colleges. The students didn’t really have time to protest. They were too busy trying to better their lives and to realize their versions of the American Dream. Most of them never noticed that a big part of that Dream had died with Kennedy.
My VW was fixed and running. The draft hadn’t caught up with me yet and I was bound for a place in a four year school. It was early in the war and my parents weren’t really sure what it was about. Most people probably thought we were right to be there, but there was a wariness from the start. Here we were, the most powerful nation on earth, armed to our eyeballs trying to kick the shit out of a nation not much larger than one of our midwest states and we were having trouble. Was this an extension of Kipling’s Great Game? Couldn’t possibly be; there were no trade routes of any significance through Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia. Instead we were fighting for the supremacy of a national ideology, though that creed’s most vibrant and eloquent spokesman had been murdered by one of his own countrymen.
Of course by then the Vietnam War was raging because our government thought it knew better. We had to contain and kill those commie bastards. Tens of thousands of American kids killed, hundreds of thousands maimed, families destroyed…and that was just our side. Did we learn anything? Apparently not. Just a few decades later we rolled into the Middle East, guns blazing. It wasn’t the Commies now, it was the Tin Pot, gold-plated despots weighing on their people like the butcher’s thumb on the scale. We loaded our gas tanks with the self-righteousness of Crusaders and stormed across the desert kicking sand, like the beach bully in the Charles Atlas cartoons, into the faces of the new enemy.
As for history’s lessons…after yet another ignominious withdrawal from the Middle East, our military heroes and valiant generals have yet to learn the lessons from the histories of wars…there are no quick wins and that massive capacity for overkill is impotent in the face of a determined guerilla force. Meanwhile authorities like the FBI, the CIA, and the State Department, are frantically redacting documents yet to be released, insuring that the speculating theorists will always have a few seats at the table. I’m reminded of the creation of the Book of Genesis, a group effort, coming up with a story created by material redacted from ancient texts and oral histories…a work of art really, built from the detritus of history. When the final assassination documents are released, a new Genesis will have been written and served up in history classes from high school to college, only this time it will be not about the birth of hope but about its death.