Umbrella Man, Umbrella Man, Please Stay Away. Don't Come to Dealey on JFK Day.
Louie Steven Witt, are you still out there somewhere, alive? Would you tell me if you were? You know you're back in The Dallas Morning News this morning, but only as a ghost. I wonder if you really are a ghost yet. I can't find you with Google, which may mean ... well, we know what it may mean. It's a sinister fact, is it not, not being Googleable?
I happen to be working on a column for next week's newspaper about the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of the Kennedy assassination at Dealey Plaza on November 22. Oh, I'm sorry, that's not the name. They say it's a celebration of his life, not the killing. But his life didn't happen at Dealey Plaza, as you well know, Mr. Witt.
You have something in common with the old rich Dallas people sponsoring the 50th whatever-it-is this year. A half century ago all of you were abducted and transported into the bizarre quantum universe of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory. When he wrote about you in particular, Mr. Witt, in The New Yorker in 1967, the late great novelist John Updike described the alternative reality that consumed you as "a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth."
You are Umbrella Man. You will always be Umbrella Man. History has named you Umbrella Man. History is written by the link-clickers, and the link-clickers will always refuse to recall the sober modest account you gave in 1978 when you dragged yourself reluctantly before the House Select Committee on Assassinations and tried to explain that damned umbrella.
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You told how chagrined and embarrassed and deeply regretful you were about going down to Dealey Plaza on that clear sunny day in 1963 and standing on the motorcade route beneath a black umbrella. The umbrella was an obscure historical reference that you yourself didn't fully get.
You had read about people in Phoenix or maybe somewhere else bringing black umbrellas to a JFK political rally as a political jibe aimed at JFK's father, Joseph. It was supposed to be a reference to charges that Joe Kennedy, as FDR's ambassador to England, had supported British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. Chamberlain carried an umbrella a lot, and ... uh ... yeah. One of those jokes that just reaches a bit too far, couldn't we say?
When you testified before the House Select Committee, a congressman on the panel accused you of being "a pretty cool cat" that day in the midst of chaos at Dealey Plaza. Pretty cool, as in maybe a bit too cool. Hmm, Mr. Cat? As in maybe you were down there shooting poison darts at the president from your trick umbrella? Possibility?
I loved your answer. You said, "I can assure you I was not all that cool. I think one of my reactions was knowing that I was there with this stupid umbrella and heckling the president."
You described it as a really bad gaffe. "I would have to describe it," you said, "as kind of like a bad joke that had gone sour, or a practical joke you pulled on someone that had gone sour."
Two years ago documentary filmmaker Errol Morris did a short film about you called Umbrella Man, in which he interviewed Josiah "Tink" Thompson, a Yale-educated Kierkegaard scholar who wrote Six Seconds in Dallas, the definitive book about the Zapruder film. In the Morris documentary, Thompson recounts your saga as an illustration of the principle Updike was trying to explain in '67 in The New Yorker, a decade before you emerged briefly from hiding to speak to the House Select Committee: that in investigating things it is possible to burrow beneath the surface of life and find oneself in a quantum universe of weirdness where every single ordinary event becomes a trap-door leading to an even deeper weirdness, not because of anything intrinsic in the event itself but because of the investigating.
Well, he puts it better than that. Thompson tells Morris: "If you have any fact which you think is really sinister, it's really obviously a fact which can only point to some sinister underpinning, hey, forget it man, because you can never on your own think up all the non-sinister perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale."
Yes, a cautionary tale that was your life, was it not, Mr. Witt? Anyway, if you're still around somewhere in the flesh, I wanted you to know that your ghost is still prancing around Dealey Plaza in fine fettle. In its story about the 50th Anniversary Dallas-Shot-JFK Festival, The Morning News again today reminds people that even if it rains on the day of the 50th, there will be no umbrellas allowed in Dealey Plaza.
No umbrellas. Even if it rains. Isn't that weird, man? Isn't it kind of sinister? Isn't this whole 50th thing weird and sinister? You know you're not supposed to say the 50th what, right? The mayor gave orders: It's just the 50th, like the 50th mm-mm. You can't say what it is the 50th of, because if you say the word, assassination, the bad scary thing might come back up out of the ground. Just like if you took an umbrella down there.
In some ways, the legacy of the JFK assassination may have made Dallas the weirdest city in the world. But you already know that, don't you, Mr. Witt? You of all people know why we can't have umbrellas down there that day. You know what umbrellas can do. Mr. Witt? Are you out there? Or are you ... here with me?
Man, am I ever ready for Halloween.