Return Engagements (Book One) PART 21… in which we prepare for Michael’s death

The next morning I called Mike’s doctor and discussed his case. Then I made a list of things that had to be done every day: Morning, noon and evening pills, no caffeine, no fried foods, and gentle walks every day, weather permitting. We set up my room, drove to the supermarket and back, ate lunch, and then took a nap.

Picking up from Part 20, in which I experienced segregation and agreed to stay with Michael.

The next morning I called Mike’s doctor and discussed his case. Then I made a list of things that had to be done every day: Morning, noon and evening pills, no caffeine, no fried foods, and gentle walks every day, weather permitting. We set up my room, drove to the supermarket and back, ate lunch, and then took a nap.

Then, in the afternoon, we drove to the darkroom Mike had set up for me. It was in an old building on Shermer Road in Evanston. I took an hour or so to go through everything very precisely. Only one or two things were missing.

Then we took a drive down Western Avenue to the big camera store at Devon Avenue. We picked up the items we needed and a few other things.

Enough for one day, I thought as we started driving back to the apartment, but then I realized that the best thing for Mike was not boring bed-rest but something that made him happy.

“Hey, Mike, it’s only four o’clock and the roads are clear. You wanna take a drive somewhere?”

He smiled.

What Mike wanted was a travelogue of the future. And so we drove for the next two hours, as I recounted the events of my life and tied them to what was going on in the wider world at each point. We both enjoyed it a great deal, and I probably explained more science than anything else. It was fun.

The next day we settled into a schedule: We’d do our morning things, drive to the darkroom, work carefully and slowly on our various developing processes, and then take a walk to downtown Evanston for lunch. After lunch we’d walk back, put the finishing touches on whatever we were working on that day and drive back to the apartment for a nap.

After our naps, we’d sometimes go back to the darkroom and sometimes take another drive. Sometimes a walk to the supermarket for whatever suited our fancy. The weather that December wasn’t too bad, and we were able to do one of these just about every day.

There were two days where I drove Mike to a doctor’s appointment (condition unchanged on both occasions) and another when he wasn’t feeling up to much, and I kept him either in bed or on the couch.

On those days we discussed the attitudes of my other-worldly friends as they walked off to purposely die. I think it helped Mike a lot, and while I’m not feeling death’s approach myself, it feels nice to have those experiences in the back of my mind.

* * * * *

By December 19 we had all the developing done, and with the exception of just four blurry images, we lost none. We had almost a hundred high-quality still shots, showing Oswald talking to Wallace, Oswald ready to shoot Kennedy on Houston Street with a tortured expression on his face, Wallace crouching over him as he pulled the rifle back in, Wallace tossing him away from the window, clear facial images of the shooter on the grassy knoll, clear images of his associate, images of the grassy knoll shooter from behind, the shooter escaping, his associate following him down the tracks, and a three-minute film of everything that happened at the School Book Depository.

On top of that, we had several good images of Ruby and Oswald talking and a good-enough image of the man who drove Oswald away from his meeting with Ruby.

In short, we had far more than enough material to expose the Warren Commission, Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover as the grossest of frauds.

Now, we just had to wait for the Warren Commission to issue their report and supplemental materials. That wouldn’t happen for almost another year.

* * * * *

In the days leading up to Christmas we made dozens of copies of each photo and 12 copies of the movie. We stored the negatives in a safe deposit box in downtown Chicago, saved the prints in a different safe deposit box in a different bank, and I started making up lists of reporters, newsrooms, and so on.

And then, the day before Christmas, Mike had another “event.” I came around a corner to find him slumped on the couch. I half carried him to the car and drove him to the emergency room at St. Francis, only a mile or two away.

After 20 minutes of examination, one of the doctors informed me that it was another mild heart attack but that it had passed. The damage was minimal and Michael could go home in a few hours.

I debated not calling Mike, Jr. but felt I had no choice. Once we were back to the apartment and his dad was in bed, I called young Mike and explained what had happened. He drove over to see for himself, but there was nothing else either of us could do.

I staged the following day carefully and got Mike to Christmas dinner mid-afternoon. He had been feeling weak but not so weak that he didn’t light up at the sight of his grandchildren. We all had a wonderful time, sharing stories old and new, but at about eight o’clock, Mike leaned over and said, “You should take me back now.”

I told everyone that we’d have to leave, had the grandson help me get our coats, and stepped back while the family made tearful goodbyes. No one touched the subject, but they were all concerned that this might be the last time.

As we loaded Mike into the car, young Mike, in a very touching moment, thanked me and asked me to call him if anything changed. I agreed, with a shared understanding that such a call would likely be a death report.

* * * * *

The 26th was a quiet day. Mike and I sat and talked. He told me, for a second time, all the details of his early life, of Doreen, and of World War II. I realized that he was reviewing his life, satisfying himself that it had been worth living and that he’d been true to himself.

I asked him a long series of questions about it all, and not entirely sympathetically. I didn’t want to do the equivalent of patting him on the back and saying, “It’s all okay.” This was a serious man, and he deserved a serious opinion, even of his life.

In the end of course, I could give him an opinion that was both serious and positive. He had lived an honest life. He had used his proverbial talents and had used them well, especially considering the dark conditions he faced.

Almost the entire day was taken up with these conversations. They were something less than intense, but they were nothing short of honest.

Mike slept uneasily that night (I checked on him a few times), which convinced me the end was near. He hadn’t eaten much either. Bad signs.

On the 27th, our conversations turned to death and what waits beyond. We examined several ideas and resolved to a conclusion: that while Mike couldn’t be precisely sure that a benevolent afterlife was next for him, he was very definitely fit for it and was confident of that fact.

“That,” he said, “is more than enough.”

And it was. Mike went to bed happy and never woke up again.

The next morning I awakened, half knowing that he was gone. I felt something like a void. I went to his room and found him in bed, cold. I had been worried about finding a corpse… that it would be scary after some fashion, but it wasn’t. Mike wasn’t there anymore, and this body was no longer a being. It was merely a relic… a thing.

I called for an ambulance, called Mike Jr. and called the doctor. Then I dressed myself and steeled myself for a melancholy day… which it was.

The funeral was held on the 30th, with a lunch at Mike Jr.’s house afterward. After a while, young Mike asked me into his home office, and we talked privately.

“Thank you for all you’ve done, Paul. I couldn’t have asked for better for my dad.”

I told him that it had been a pleasure. And then he surprised me by offering me his dad’s apartment indefinitely, rent free. I tried to give him a polite out, but he was clearly his father’s son and he would have none of it.

“Look, Paul, that apartment’s going to stay unrented for at least another year. That was my dad’s place for 30 years, and I’m not remotely ready to lease it out. Honestly, I’d prefer that you’d stay there.

I explained that I’d resume traveling soon… that I’d be away for weeks at a time… but that I’d take him up on his offer.

At the same time I decided that at some point I’d let him know about what I was doing about the Kennedy assassination. Not until I was already making news, but I would tell him then. He deserved to know.

* * * * *

On a cold New Year’s Eve I walked to the local tavern out of sheer boredom. I wasn’t looking for a wild night, but I would have liked a few pleasant conversations. What I got was one decent conversation, followed by a lot of waiting and a vapid TV broadcast. After a while I trudged back home through snow, wind and slush.

I was invited to Mike Jr.’s home for lunch the next day, and that was a bright spot, especially talking at length with the children, who were both college age. I stayed fairly late and went home with two bags of food. That was nice too.

Mostly, I was bored, homesick and half depressed. Given Mike’s death, sadness and a bit of depression were understandable, but underlying those were the facts that I had been away from home for a long, long time and that I could make nothing public on the Kennedy Assassination for another 11 months. I needed to let the status quo condemn itself.

I remembered Sylvia Meagher saying that she got the Warren Commission’s exhibits in a box the day before or the day after Thanksgiving in 1964. I’d have to wait for that to happen and for a suitable time thereafter.

I decided that I’d take a drive to Florida and visit all the places I knew along the way. If nothing else, it would bring me back to the first job I had set my sights on in 1963: recalibrating my memories.

The problem with my idea was that it was January. There had been two significant snowstorms in Chicago, more were expected, and the temperature wasn’t much above zero (Fahrenheit). Driving would be hazardous, at least as far south as Indianapolis.

And so I waited for a break in the weather; I’d need two or three relatively warm days for the roads to clear. But I could at least spend some time in the Loop, Downtown Chicago. The buses and trains were operating normally and I had plenty of places to see. I could have some fun with that.

And I did have fun with Chicago. I went to several of my favorite places, visited some of the museums and the grand old movie houses, and made dozens of comparisons between 1963 and 2016. I bought a small notebook at a stationery store and made so many notes that I had to pick up a second notebook.

Then came a break in the weather, and on January 10 – I remember the date because it was precisely six months after my arrival – I woke up very early and headed south. And my path out of town was a precise reversal of my route on that first 1963 morning.

I even stopped and revisited the apartment vestibule. (For just a second I was afraid to walk back in, fearing I might pop back to 2016. Too many Star Trek episodes with time portals, I guess.)

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)