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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 20… in which we encounter segregation

Picking up from Part 19, the murder of John Kennedy.

Robert was late. At first we did pretty well at not worrying, but after an hour it was getting hard. Jim and I were packed and ready to go; we even had all Robert’s things packed. But there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

After two hours I called down to the bellman and had him park the car again.

Three hours passed, then four, then five. The sun was setting. Then it was dark, and Robert was still gone. We debated going out to look for him, but that would have been a massive risk.

We forced ourselves to order dinner and added a third main dish for Robert.

Finally, an hour past dark, Robert appeared at the door, complete with his rucksack. There had been so many people milling about that his hiding trick wouldn’t have worked, and he had to stay in the tree till after dark. Then he finally slipped away and made his way back to us.

We ate our dinners and got ourselves ready to head out in the morning. I had wanted to watch the news broadcasts, but once Robert was back and my belly was full, it was only 20 minutes or so before I was wasted tired. All of us in fact were in bed and asleep quickly.

* * * * *

We all slept in, but by noon the next day, we were making our way through Dallas to Interstate 30. There were more cops on the streets than usual, but they weren’t aggressive. After all, Oswald was in custody and already he was universally believed to be “the guy.”

For the first few hours we listened to radio broadcasts, and my two friends asked me a long string of questions about solving the mystery and its implications for the world of the 1960s. I answered the best I could, and it was useful to me in clarifying how I’d deal with the explosive material I had.

By the time we passed Texarkana, however, I could see that they were getting tired of the Earth environment.

“Had almost enough of our difficult atmosphere?” I asked Robert as he rubbed his eyes.

He smiled. “Yes, I think you could say that. But I think we can stay for a few more hours… don’t you think, James?”

“I agree,” he said. “Probably best to make our exit when it’s dark.”

The big shock on that drive was stopping at a diner in Arkansas. There was a “Whites Only” sign on the door, and Jim, while not entirely Negroid in his appearance (he looked like a mixed Brazilian, I suppose), was clearly not white.

Growing up in Chicago I had never seen such a thing as a “Whites Only” sign. (In my childhood experience, Negroes were always treated with respect.) And so it stopped me in my tracks. Robert and Jim stopped along with me, sensing my shock.

I explained to them what this was and said that we could find someplace else.

“Do you think you can navigate this situation fairly well?” Jim asked.

I looked at him with deep questioning on my face.

“We’ve heard of these things before, but we’ve never experienced them. What would happen if the three of us walked in together? Would there be violence?”

“No,” I said, “not unless you refused to leave.”

“Then I’d like to experience it,” Jim assured me, “and I think Robert would too.”

Robert nodded his agreement.

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll act like we didn’t see the sign and just walk to the counter and see what happens. If they say something I’ll handle it, but we’ll comply.”

We all agreed and walked in.

I smiled at the lady behind the cash register as we walked to the counter and sat. Momentarily she walked to me and said, “He can’t be served here,” motioning toward Jim.

“Oh,” I said. “We’re from the North; that’s a segregation thing?”

We began to get back up.

“It is,” she said. “I think it’s barbaric, but some of the people here can get violent over it.”

As we filed back past her, Jim stopped directly in front of her, just long enough to say, “Thank you for acknowledging the barbarity.”

We went straight back to the highway and stopped someplace with vending machines further on.

We were approaching Little Rock as the sun was setting and decided that this would be the place for Robert and Jim to stage their exit. We didn’t want to do the same thing twice, so I found a hospital with an emergency room. That, again, would mean that the bodies would be found by people who wouldn’t be overly damaged by it.

They assured me that they could shut down faster than my friend had in Minneapolis. Jim said he could do it in a few minutes and Robert less. And so I pulled up around the corner from the University Hospital and parked.

They thanked me for the experience and I thanked them for their help. With the materials I had, I could expose the mendacity of rulership. Some people would care and some would dig still deeper into denial, but such was the way of progress in the 20th century. It was a slow business.

I pulled away, sorry that I couldn’t talk more with them. There were so many questions to ask. At the same time, and even more so, I was pleased that we had interacted as friends.

My buddies the space aliens, I thought and drove into the night.

* * * * *

I made it to Chicago the next afternoon. It was a Sunday… the day Ruby killed Oswald. I listened to it on the radio and found myself mourning the man. However many and serious errors he made to end up in that window in Dallas, he had refused to murder an innocent man in cold blood. That counts for something.

I drove straight to Michael’s apartment and rang the bell. Figuring it was me, he didn’t bother buzzing me in but came right down. It was good to see him again. He insisted that I stay the night, and so we unloaded my car, I washed up, and we walked to Miller’s Steakhouse for an early dinner. It was only a few blocks away, and I vaguely remembered it from my youth.

Walking out of Michael’s apartment, however, was a strange moment for me. From his front step I could see the townhouse where my family was currently living. It was nearly a quarter mile away, but the only thing between it and Mike’s front door was a park.

The prospect of seeing my mom, my dad, or my young self made me uncomfortable in some way, although I really couldn’t tell how or even if it was a good or bad thing. The feeling was new to me… and that was a bit concerning too.

Mike and I enjoyed a pleasant dinner. We talked about the assassination, but no more deeply than the other people at the restaurant. I said only that I had some great material and that I’d tell him about it later.

Soon enough, however, my mind was pulled far from the assassination, as Mike recounted his blood pressure statistics (his pressure was up again, almost as high as before) and that his heart was no better. That, and remembering Robert’s description of his health as “fragile,” scared me. It sounded like a serious heart attack was waiting for him.

We got back before six o’clock, turned on some boring broadcasts about the assassination, with endlessly repetitive details about the upcoming funeral (which were on every channel). Then we sat and discussed what had really happened.

And as we talked, I held back a bit, trying to protect Michael from stress. He noticed (I should have expected no less from this guy) and I admitted it.

“Okay,” he said, “but I want to hear it all just the same… slow it down if you must, but don’t overlook anything.”

I agreed, but I found it a telling self-assessment on his part. He was agreeing that he was awfully close to the edge. That concerned me still more.

Half an hour later there was a knock at his front door. He opened it to his son, Michael Jr., bearing two plates of food for his dad. (His primary purpose of course was to check on him.) Mike introduced us, then put the food in his refrigerator, and the three of us sat down to a pleasant conversation. I liked Mike Jr. almost as much as his dad.

Twenty minutes into our discussions, Mike Sr. excused himself to use the bathroom. Immediately Mike Jr. turned to me.

“Mr. Rosenberg…”

“Paul, please.”

“Okay, Paul… my father is in fragile health.”

“I know, Michael. He gave me the details over dinner, and between you and me, I’m worried, even for the near term.”

“As are my wife and I. We tried to get him to move into our house, but he refused. Then we tried to get him a live-in housekeeper, but he refused that as well.”

“I think, Mike, that he’s resolved himself to dying, but he wants to go out his own way… and I’m sorry to say that I think you have to let him do it.”

He half-laughed for perhaps a second, then got sad again.

“I know. I’ve thought the same thing.”

Then a serious look came over him, and he said, “How about if you stayed with him?”

“Mike… what you’re asking is for me to be here when my friend dies.”

“I suppose I am,” he said softly, “but I don’t see any better option for him… and honestly, for my children. They’ll both be home for Christmas, and I’d like them to have one more visit with their grandfather.”

“And you’re sure the end is that close?”

“The doctor says so, yes.”

“Wow.”

“Did he tell you about his attack in October?”

This surprised me.

“No,” I answered, “a heart attack?”

“Yes. Not a bad one, and it happened in the doctor’s waiting room, but it was a real heart attack and another could come any time.”

“I’m sorry, Mike, I didn’t realize it was that close.”

“No, of course not.”

That’s when Mike Sr. emerged, and before his son could, I recounted our conversation to him.

“So, Dad. What do you think of Mr. Rosenberg staying with you here?”

He hung his head halfway and said, quietly, “I’d like that.”

Then he turned to me. “If you’re willing.”

I didn’t want to watch Mike die, but virtual world or not, he was my friend.

“Okay, Mike. I’ll stay… at least through Christmas.”

I didn’t mention why I specified Christmas, and he thankfully didn’t pick up on it.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)