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From Oswald to 9/11

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I ran across it recently, my old copy of the Los Angeles Times from Nov. 22, 1963. ASSASSINATE KENNEDY reads the headline, typeset so fast they got it wrong.

Los Angeles Times from Nov. 22, 1963.
ROOM FULL OF VIEWS A lifetime obsession with the
JFK assassination grew large enough to fill a wall space
with memorbilia, books, and magazines.

It’s an odd artifact that spooks me still. Not so much for my memories of that day but of a later time, the mid ’70s, when I got wrapped up the conspiracy madness that pervaded the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where I attended college.

My best friend in those days was a bit of an eccentric we called Audio Al. Slightly antisocial, possibly from one too many tabs of acid, he was a connoisseur of strange record albums and huge sound systems, and was a mentor at the campus radio station where he schooled me in the ways of FM radio and alternative rock.

There was an air of paranoia around Al—it was part of his attraction. Ever ready with new suspicions about the government, the day I met him he tried to tell me the CIA was stealing his cigarettes. I was never sure if he was putting me on or not, but the more I hung around him the more I kept a lookout for nondescript Ford Galaxies with tiny antennas and black-wall tires.

Al had a part-time job at the local TV station, Channel 6. One night he told me to pick up some beer and meet him there because he had something to show me that would “blow me away.”

Somehow, he’d gotten his hands on a copy of the Zapruder film. As any casual history buff can tell you, Abraham Zapruder was the guy who stood in Dealey Plaza with a home movie camera and captured the only clear motion pictures of the assassination of President Kennedy. Still frames taken from it had been published in national magazines, but for reasons that only played into our later suspicions, the film itself still hadn’t been shown to the public.

In fact, at the time that Al and I watched it in 1975, practically no one had seen it outside of government investigators within the CIA or the FBI. I don’t know where Al got his copy. Whenever I asked, he’d say, “You don’t want to know.”

Over and over, we watched the tape that night. There on the color monitors in the darkened master control room was the incontrovertible evidence. The shot that killed President Kennedy had obviously come from the front. Therefore Oswald—if he was involved at all—could not have acted alone. We were privy to the Great Secret: We’d been lied to by the government! There had to be a second gunman!

Energized by our discovery, we set out to solve the greatest whodunit of all time. We searched bookstores for conspiracy tomes, ordered assassination literature from underground magazines, and combed through all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report, chasing red herrings and likely suspects in the search for justice. We went public with our discoveries through radio specials and articles for the school paper, and the student council funded our efforts to bring the country’s foremost conspiracy theorists to speak on campus.

IN THE STUDIO Author Dean Opperman (left) and Audio Al
in the Cal Poly radio station in 1977. They were among the first to
view Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the Kennedy assasination.

Al and I had stirred up a hornet’s nest and we loved every minute of it. Reviled by our professors, endured by our friends, we were the self-ordained experts who’d bend your ear with stories of the Shadow Government and spook your girlfriend with tales of Badge Man, Umbrella Man, and the Babushka Lady. We could tell you everything from the name of Jack Ruby’s favorite dachshund (Sheba) to Oswald’s favorite song (theme from “Exodus”). We could argue all the theories from the logical (second gunman, grassy knoll) to the ludicrous (LBJ firing six-shooters from the follow-up car). We could tell you where Nixon was that day (just leaving Dallas), what Jackie smoked at Parkland (Salem), what Khrushchev said when he heard the news (“It smells oily.”).

Many were caught up in our enthusiasm. Al’s house became a hotbed of cynicism where truth was optional but conjecture was imperative, where any plot was plausible and conspiracy theories were passed back and forth like joints. One week the Mafia did it, the next week it was the Kremlin. Then it was the Dallas police, then it was the Secret Service. For a while it was Wall Street and big oil, then it was the John Birch Society and the far right wing.

On and on it went. It was the pro-Castro Cubans, the anti-Castro Cubans, then it was Castro himself. It was naval intelligence, munitions profiteers, and a revenge murder by the government of South Vietnam. It was the CIA, the FBI, the NSC, the KGB, LBJ, and the KKK. We never did hit on a theory that everyone agreed on other than a blurry consensus that it had something to do with the military-industrial complex. To hear us talk, with all the people who wanted Kennedy dead it’s amazing he ever got out of Boston.

Across the country there were enough conspiracy buffs to force Congress to open hearings on the subject. Each day our little contingent would gather at Al’s and watch the coverage of the House Committee on Assassinations as others might view the World Series. We rooted for our advocates, booed the single-bullet theorists, and raised our eyebrows at the disappearance of star witnesses. Then the House issued its verdict: Yes, there had been two shooters in Dallas that day and at least four shots were fired, but there would be no arrests, no prosecutions, and no further investigations. Case closed.

Undaunted, Al and I pressed on, long after we’d graduated and moved on to different cities. We talked every Nov. 22 and a new book or documentary would always prompt a call between us, but inevitably, as the decades passed, we talked less as Kennedy’s relevance receded in the rearview mirror of history.

One day I looked around and realized that my obsession to disprove the lone nut theory had turned me into one. People were tired of hearing about it, I was tired of talking about it, and my shrink pointed out that it was probably unrealistic to think that if Kennedy had lived, everything would be the same and I could still be sitting on my parents’ living room floor in my red pajamas, waiting for the 41st season premiere of “The Patty Duke Show.”

how much he researched, author Dean
Opperman concluded, after many years of
theorizing conspiracies, that Lee Harvey
Oswald acted alone, putting to rest his fascination
with conspiracy. Then came Sept. 11.
nut theory had
turned me into one.
Dean Opperman

Clearly, it was time to move on. Besides, I’d read everything there was on the case except the books that claimed Oswald acted alone, but I wasn’t going to read that tripe! To believe Oswald did it would be an admission that the government had been right and where I came from, the government was always wrong. That was a given.

But it was bugging me. The Oswald case was the only one I’d never paid any real attention to. I’d come this far, I thought. I can’t just walk away without reading at least one book about the poor guy. So, I bought Norman Mailer’s “Oswald” and as a result, I was forced to reach two fundamental conclusions: 1.) Oswald did do it, and 2.) I’d wasted 25 years on nothing.

I gazed across my living room at the “Kennedy Library” on the far wall of my home. What had once been a polished mahogany credenza had long since turned into a grossly overloaded bookcase stuffed with videos, newspapers, magazines, and hardbound editions of every major book on the Kennedy case, from “Rush to Judgment” to the 26-volume set of the Warren Report. And that was just the shelves. The drawers were also packed with conspiracy literature. One held all the stuff about the shootings of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The other held the rest of the cover-ups, from Watergate to Iran-Contra and all the Bigfoots and Bermuda Triangles in between.

This was it, the sum total of my life. A quarter century of effort and all I’d managed to do was create my own schoolbook depository.

I called Al. “I hate to say this, but I think Oswald did it.”

“I know,” he said. “I decided the same thing last month.”

Al and I agreeing that Oswald killed Kennedy was like saying the Carpenters were better than Pink Floyd. It was unthinkable.

An hour later, Al was in my driveway with his pickup. Soon the bookcase would be transported to my storage bay on the other side of town.

It was dusk when we hoisted the credenza and carried it down the granite steps off my front door and down the walkway. Slowly we walked, struggling with our emotions as we placed it onto its carriage, unfolded a tarp, and covered the contents.

As the caisson moved slowly down the frontage road, Al’s truck strained under the load and backfired, creating an impromptu volley that scattered gulls and echoed off the hillsides to the east.

Reaching our destination, we paused briefly at high iron gates, then turned onto a drive leading to a small cubicle shaded by a stately eucalyptus. We faced each other, removed the tarp, and quietly folded it. No words were spoken. Then, with military precision, we offloaded our precious burden. There was no noise save the sound of our shoes sliding on the pavement, the great stillness broken only by the sound of a lone jet passing overhead.

Inside the forbidding vault, the burnished wooden case was lowered to its resting place and we paid our final respects. When the silver gray door slid shut that night, the great conspiracy credenza slipped from mortal sight and the saga finally ended for two ghostly figures in the eternal flame of the streetlight.

Domini, domini, domini. May we rest in peace.

You can’t imagine what this did for my psyche. I was a new man, determined to take things at face value. I refused to read between the lines anymore. I was lighter, freer, able to walk the road of blind patriotism again and was determined to stay that way.

When John-John’s plane went down, when the Florida fiasco came down, I didn’t call Al.

And then came Sept. 11.

“Are you watching this?”

“Of course,” Al said.

“You mean to tell me four hijacked jets were heading for Washington and New York and we couldn’t get any fighter jets in the air for an hour? And why did Bush just sit there with a bunch of kindergarten kids for 20 minutes after he was told?”

“Bush is a puppet, man! You know that. It’s the Shadow Government creating a pretext for another war. All the hijackers were Saudis! Get it? Saudis? Bush? Oil? Texas? Sound familiar? Hello!?”

An hour later, Al was in my driveway. It took us all of 19 minutes to yank the credenza out of storage and dump its contents on my living room floor. There amid the books and tapes and albums and magazines was my old yellowed copy of the Los Angeles Times. Al picked it up and tapped it with his fingers.

“See? And it all started right here. Assassinate Kennedy. They wrote it that way because it’s a GO signal. A command. An order to proceed.”

“Proceed on what?”

“Everything! The Kennedys, Vietnam, Watergate, this!”

“You know what, Al? You’re nuts.”

“Oh, really? You think there’s no one at the L.A. Times who knows how to proofread? Come on, dude. Get real. They did it on purpose. Or the CIA did. Or the FBI. Or somebody. Where’s the beer? You got any beer here?”

Oswald, we hardly knew ye. ³

Dean Opperman is a Carpinteria resident.

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