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

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.

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)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 19… in which John Kennedy is murdered

November 22, 1963
At 8:00 we were all up. Our pre-ordered breakfast arrived shortly after, and we all ate in silence, running through our scripts and asking ourselves what-if questions. By 9:00 we had wheeled the food cart back into the hall and were making our last bathroom stops and loading our file cases and backpacks.

Picking up from Part 18, in which Robert and Jim returned.

November 22, 1963

At 8:00 we were all up. Our pre-ordered breakfast arrived shortly after, and we all ate in silence, running through our scripts and asking ourselves what-if questions. By 9:00 we had wheeled the food cart back into the hall and were making our last bathroom stops and loading our file cases and backpacks.

At 9:20 we all sat on the couches and waited in silence for 9:30, our scripted start. I think I must have looked more nervous and my friends more excited… playful, actually. They wanted to solve the mystery.

At 9:30 precisely (we had a clock sitting immediately next to us), we all looked at each other and stood.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s do our jobs,” feeling a little like Bill Belichick. But before we’d taken one full step I added, “Let’s find out what really happened.”

I’ve long believed that seeing the goal was more important, even in games, than being some version of a guided missile. We are thinking, adaptive, goal-seeking beings.

Robert rode the elevator down, while Jim and I walked down a stairway to the side exit and from there headed to the County Records building, looking very much like businessmen.

Jim leaned toward me discretely as we crossed a street.

“If we have to hide from someone… a watchman or whatever… just stand behind me from his or her perspective. Try to calm yourself and think about something very different and far away.”

I said, “I will, Jim,” and picked out a good and very distracting memory in advance. I’d think about that if the moment came.

“But can you tell me how that works?”

“I suppose so,” he said, “though I don’t think you’re ready to do it. Maybe if you were in a better atmosphere.”

“I don’t care so much about that,” I said. “Right now I’m mostly curious as to how such a thing can be done.”

“It has to do with induced expectations.”

Then he let that sink into me.

“You mean like how electrical circuits induce currents into one another?”

“I do,” he said.

“Okay, then, let me try to lay this out.”

He waited.

“Humans are sensitive to the expectations of others, even though they often don’t recognize it. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Then what you’re doing is somehow transmitting to the watchman what you expect him to expect. Does that make sense?”

“Yes. I send my expectations toward him… that I expect him to fill the visual space I take up with the scene that’s behind me… a scene he can easily recreate.”

“You expect him to use his imagination… you induce him to fill in the scenery behind you, as if you weren’t there.”

“That’s right. But… and this is crucial to success with this… I send that expectation as a concept, not as words.”

“Why?”

“Because words attach to the conscious, analytical mind. But if I send a concept, it attaches to his subconscious mind, bypassing analysis.”

I’m sure I was nodding my head as if I agreed, but I was mainly trying to absorb it.

“It’s not the nicest thing to do, you understand… we see it as an assault. But the damage is small and it’s necessary in cases like this.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That makes some sense now.”

He smiled and then our minds went back to our scripts and the complex field of play before us.

* * * * *

By 10:15 we were in our office on the eighth floor, with excellent angles on our targets.

By 10:25 we had cleaned the office’s two windows both inside and out. (We had brought paper towels wet with window cleaner.) There would be no problem filming and photographing without opening the windows, which could have drawn attention.

For the next hour and a half, we assembled our tripods, tested our equipment, tested disassembling and reassembling it, then tested our lenses and fields of view. We were ready, with a little more than 30 minutes to go.

We could hear the crowds gathering, though mostly outside our field of view. The place where Kennedy was shot (or was about to be) was at the far end of the route, heading out of town; it was not a place where the crowds wanted to be.

We made pencil marks on the floor and pulled our tripods back from the windows, just in case the security people were checking them out. We sat on the floor with our backs against the wall; Jim closer to the door than me, in case a security guard showed up.

* * * * *

Robert was dressed as a workman, in coveralls. He walked through the early birds along the parade route, then through Dealey Plaza with a coffee cup in one hand and a muffin in the other. And all along the way he was carefully picking up impressions from the people he passed.

After an hour or so he sat in a coffee shop to give his senses a break. Normally he would have preferred a secluded spot, but the excitement of so many people in such a concentration made it easy to let himself be swept away as if by an entertainment.

Forty minutes before the assassination, he wandered back out, slid through the crowd and made his way back to Dealey Plaza, which had a much thinner crowd. It was there that he sensed violent intentions.

Robert still had plenty of time, and so he sat on the grassy knoll for a few minutes to clarify the impulses he was feeling. Then walked to the south, eventually doubling back on the overpass. He ended up behind the grassy knoll and the parking lot adjacent to it. One thing he was sure about was that the violence-intentioned men also intended on escaping through the rail yard just past the parking lot.

Being that there was no elevated place to stand (save the overpass, which would have left him fully exposed), he climbed a tree. He did a version of the “don’t see me” trick and found a nice, elevated spot from which to shoot his photos.

* * * * *

As I say, the Kennedy assassination had been an intermittent entertainment to me. Over the years I’ve heard a large number of interviews from witnesses, and more or less all of them noted how fast it all happened. And they were entirely correct. Even knowing precisely where and when JFK was going to be shot, it was still shockingly quick.

At 12:25, Jim seemed to feel something, peeked out the window, slid back down and said, “Paul, get your camera ready and take a quick look at the Book Depository.”

I took off the lens cap, put it in my pocket as per the script, adjusted the focus and rolled over onto my knees.

Before I could blink, I made out two men on the sixth floor, one behind the easternmost window and another, larger man behind the window next to him. Seeing that they were conversing with each other, I took the time to zoom in.

The man in the eastern window was Lee Harvey Oswald. I pushed the disappointing implications of this out of my mind as best I could – in my heart I was rooting against the official story – and then I focused on the second man and recognized him as well. He was Malcolm Wallace, Lyndon Johnson’s personal fixer.

I took several photos and slid back down. I was sure they hadn’t seen me.

“This is a big deal,” I said to Jim, trying not to get excited.

“Great!” he said not too loudly. “Feel the elation for a few seconds.”

I did.

“Now, let it slide off and get back to your script.”

Again, I did, and it was easier than I expected.

Then we heard the crowd. I looked at my watch and it was 12:31 PM. The motorcade was close.

“Peek and see if the cars are in sight, Jim.”

He did and said, “Not yet.”

Again we waited.

Then he peeked up again.

“Let’s go,” he said. “The first car’s around the corner.”

Now, to be specific, what we were seeing was the motorcade turning onto Houston Street. That was the one block drive before they turned onto Elm… Elm being the street of the assassination.

Jim had his movie camera in position and turned on within 10 seconds. I had my tripod in position (it would help a lot for the long-range photos), but I hadn’t mounted the camera yet.

“Turn, focus and shoot, Paul. This is going to surprise you.”

And surprise me it did. I turned to see Lee Harvey Oswald in the so-called Sniper’s Nest, pointing a rifle at Houston Street, with Kennedy heading directly toward him. I took two clear photos.

“You’re getting all this, Jim?”

“Yes, and very well.”

“Good,” was all I said, realizing that this was the intended position for the assassination. Kennedy was directly in front of Oswald, moving straight toward him in a slow-moving, open car. Oswald had no obstructions and Kennedy had no way out. It was the perfect model of shooting fish in a barrel.

Except that Oswald didn’t shoot.

I could see Malcolm Wallace running up to him and speaking vehemently. And still Oswald didn’t shoot. In fact, he retracted the rifle.

Wallace, seemingly in a rage, picked up Oswald and tossed him away from the window.

I snapped photos of this but knew I was short on time. I hopped to my tripod and clamped my camera in place. I was glad I had practiced the maneuver so many times; otherwise, I might have had a problem.

I focused on the grassy knoll and took four good photos of everyone there and of the pergola area.

I pulled back from the camera for just a second and saw Kennedy on Elm Street, with people running toward him and yelling. I trained my camera on the stockade fence. I saw a man who looked very serious and determined, not happy like everyone else. He looked to the side at someone else. Quickly I zoomed out a little and took a shot of them both.

And then I heard the first shot. I zoomed in just in time to see the serious man pull up a rifle, lay it on the fence, and fire at Kennedy, possibly twice. I clicked nonstop until he pulled away from the fence, then widened my focus again and saw the other man acting like a bully while the serious man walked quickly away.

The bully, I think, had some type of badge or official credentials, and he directed people away from the area, including a few law enforcement types who’d heard at least the one shot and ran toward it. I took several good photos of him and then pulled back again, getting shots of everyone and everything in the area, as the limos sped off toward the hospital and the people stood, wandered or ran around in shock and wonderment.

“I still have five minutes of film left, Paul. Both men have left and I’m filming the front. When do you want to stop?”

“Are you getting everything down to the street?”

“Yes. Almost to the other side of the street.”

“Okay, then give me just a minute to review the area.” I went slowly, from end to end, seeing nothing that caught my attention and snapping wide photos, perhaps to find something in them later.

“Let’s get out of here, Jim. I don’t see anything worth further risk.”

We turned everything off, carefully repacked it all, and then Jim leaned against the door for a moment.

“I don’t feel anyone nearby,” he said.

And so we exited the room, walked down a floor and caught the elevator.

Once in the lobby, we matched the behavior of the other people there, moving agitatedly and asking, “Do we know for sure what happened?”

No one did, but several people assured the others that the president was shot and bleeding. We went out and moved with the crowd back toward the hotel.

The script called for me to take the bicycle to Oak Cliff and photograph the policeman’s shooting, but I gave that up long before we reached the hotel. For one thing, it would come off as odd behavior. But more importantly, we had incredibly good film and further risks would be foolish.

And so we went back to the room, started packing our things, and waited for Robert. Then I walked down to the desk and found the hotel manager, Randy Hartwine, whom I had come to know prior.

“Randy, is it true? Did they really kill the president?”

Being in the midst of the event, it really wasn’t acting on my part. It felt proper.

“I’m watching WFAA in my office, Mr. Rosenberg. The official word is that he’s still alive, but it looks very bad.”

I pulled him off to the side slightly.

“I think I’ll have to go back east. My people are going to be pretty upset by this. If I have to leave, you can go ahead and rent the room out.”

He nodded and was instantly accosted by other guests. I wandered away and found the bellman. I handed him a twenty and told him to have my car in front in half an hour.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 18… in which my special friends arrive

Three days before the assassination, November 19, I had all the hardware – cameras, film, lenses, tripods and carrying cases – ready and laid out. I was prepared for entry, filming and egress. And that night I put two rolls of clothing, with a gold coin inside, in the main room of my suite.

Picking up from Part 17, in which I told Michael the truth about what I was doing.

Three days before the assassination, November 19, I had all the hardware – cameras, film, lenses, tripods and carrying cases – ready and laid out. I was prepared for entry, filming and egress. And that night I put two rolls of clothing, with a gold coin inside, in the main room of my suite.

The next morning I woke early, not really expecting Jim and Robert to arrive so quickly but in expectation anyway. They hadn’t arrived, but it was a perfect time to take a long walk. So I hustled out of the hotel, picked up a coffee at a nearby restaurant, and took a leisurely walk up to Dealey Plaza like a tourist. (I had to assume the Secret Service was watching.) At this point I wasn’t looking to learn anything new, only to get comfortable with the location. I wanted the comfort that comes through repetition.

On the way back I stopped at the restaurant again, this time sitting down for breakfast and reading the local papers, which were half devoted to the president’s upcoming visit. There was nothing to learn, but it did connect me to the people of Dallas… or so it seemed.

Back at the hotel, I began writing my scripts: first for myself operating solo, then for the three of us working as a team. In the afternoon I was called downstairs to take delivery of a bicycle I ordered and chained it up in the basement. Then I went back to my scripts, and by sunset I had them completed, triple-verified and rewritten for clear penmanship. I was as ready as I could be.

Michael and I had agreed on no phone calls between Dallas and Chicago, just in case someone decided to check me out. We needed a clean firewall. Nonetheless, I wrote Mike a letter that I was confident he’d get the day after the assassination. I wrote the letter with that in mind, then I walked down to the lobby and got it into the mail.

Tomorrow would be a day for preparing myself: some light exercise in the morning, nourishing meals, a nap if at all possible, and an early bedtime. Whether my friends showed up or not, I’d be in the game the day after, and it would be intense.

* * * * *

At about 11:00 I heard rustling in the other room. I had been sleeping well and more or less ignored it at first. But it continued.

Then I heard a voice saying, “Do you think we should wake him?”

“I think you already did,” I said in a half-awake voice.

The door opened and I saw the two of them, radiant in their expressions. They apologized for the late hour, saying that it was the best they could do. I told them not to worry about it, showed them the scripts, and excused myself to go to the bathroom.

I was still incompletely awake when I reemerged, but these two were like 10-year-old boys eager to play some awesome game.

“Is there anything we can do now?” they asked.

I sat on the couch and pulled up my mental overview of the mission.

“Do you know how to use a camera?” I asked.

“No,” Robert quickly responded, “but if you give Jim a quick explanation, he’ll be able to. He’s very good at such things.”

Jim nodded enthusiastically.

And so I began giving Jim a quick overview. (Professional-level cameras in 1963 required the proper use of f-stops and exposure settings.) He asked no questions, then declared that he was ready.

I must have stared at him for a while, because I could see Robert, who was sitting a few feet to my right, gesturing ever so slightly to Jim, telling him to be still and let me sort things.

I turned to Robert with my conclusion: “That’s not hyper-intelligence as much as it is unhindered intelligence, right?”

“Yes,” he said. “Your people have a lot of background confusion in you… background noise; more than you generally perceive. As you drop it, you’ll become much more efficient at such things.”

“Thanks,” I said, then got back to the mission they were so excited about.

I gave them the address of the Carousel Club, explained what kind of place it was, and described both Oswald and Ruby in some detail. In just five minutes I think they understood almost as well as I did.

Then I gave them a key to the room, some cash, a backpack to hide the camera, and told them I was going back to bed.

They were excited, but I was sleepy.

* * * * *

I woke the next morning to silence in the suite. I looked at the clock and it showed almost eight o’clock, a late morning for me. I walked quietly to the door between my bedroom and the main area of the suite and peaked out. They were crashed on the couches like a couple of college kids.

And so I went forward with my routine. I did my stretches and exercises, then shaved and showered. When I stuck my head back out an hour later, they were still asleep. And so I lay back down myself.

It was after eleven when I heard Jim tiptoeing into the bathroom. I rolled out of bed and walked to the main room, where I found Robert rolling out of bed himself.

“What time did you guys get back?” I asked, half reminding myself that these were beings from another world.

“Almost three AM,” he said, then broke into a smile. “And we got photos of your guys.”

“You did!?” I was instantly fully awake.

If they had photos of Oswald and Ruby together, that changed everything.

He smiled more broadly. “We definitely did. It took a long time…”

I involuntarily shook my head, imagining advanced beings in a burlesque house.

“Yeah,” he said, obviously inferring my thoughts, “not our usual. We acted as if we had drinking problems and got drinks without liquor.”

“Good idea.”

“Thanks.” Then he smiled with slightly humorous intent. “The women were very pretty of course.”

At that we both laughed and I added, “Thank God some things never change, huh?”

“Indeed,” he said, “indeed.” Then he got somber. “All of them were wounded, though. That’s fairly standard for this era?”

“As best I know, yes.”

We both paused a few beats, mourning.

“But what happened after the girls?”

“Well, we waited a long time, and then we saw them walk inside. Right away Jim went out with the camera and found a good spot just around the corner. He waited there until they emerged a good while later.”

I stood and started pacing.

“Wow.”

“He got four clear shots of them talking, two more that may or may not be useful because of the angle, and then a few of Oswald getting into a car driven by a third man.”

“It was a man, not a lady?”

That would mean it wasn’t his wife or Mrs. Paine. With just this I had enough to blow the official story out of the water.

“Definitely a middle-aged man,” he said.

I paced the room more, muttering a little and calming myself.

“We pulled the film from the camera, marked it O-slash-R and put it in the travel bag you seemed to have dedicated to that,” he said pointing.

“You guys are wonderful,” I said. “This is a really good start.”

I quickly debated mailing the film to Michael for safekeeping but decided instead just to stay with the plan.

Simple, simple, simple, I repeated to myself.

* * * * *

“You’re going to need one of us in the office at the Records building.”

I turned to look at Robert. “You’re that certain?”

“It’s your plan of course. We’ll help you either way, but if anything goes wrong, you’re not likely to emerge from that building very well without one of us.”

I looked at Jim, who was nodding.

“Besides, it would be useful to have someone to use the movie camera intelligently, not just to leave it in one position.”

I started nodding my own head, thinking that he was right.

“Then let’s rewrite the scripts, I suppose.”

“I’ll come with you,” Jim said. “If that’s okay. Robert will do better in the crowd than I will.”

And so it was decided. Jim would shoot the School Book Depository windows and then the front of the building with the 16mm movie camera. I’d cover the car, the grassy knoll and the pergola with my telephoto-equipped Nikon. Robert would be on his own with another camera, working by feel.

I spent another hour telling them everything I could think of about who would be in the area: the Umbrella Man, the Babushka Lady, the Newmans, Abe Zapruder, and so on.

* * * * *

I normally sleep very well. On this night, however, sleep didn’t come to me, for obvious reasons.

We’d had a calm evening. All our plans had been made, reviewed multiple times and put aside till show time. The three of us shared a nice dinner in the room and even watched some TV. (They were curious about it.) All of that should have led me directly to sleep, but again, for obvious reasons, it did not.

After I had lain in bed awake for some time, I heard a knock on my door.

“Feels to me like you could use some help sleeping.”

It was Robert, whom I was learning to recognize as a somewhat more advanced being than Jim… and wondered whether that was why I felt a bit more kinship with Jim, his being closer to me in that way.

“Come on in, Robert. You are quite right. I’ll take the help.”

He walked in, grinning slightly and carrying the small desk chair. And then he sat next to my bed and started telling me what it’s like to travel through interstellar space.

I wish I could recount here what he told me, but it was said not just with words, but with impressions… impressions I was able to sense. That made remembering the words by themselves difficult. In fact, I had a hard time retaining very much of the experience. The reason, I think, is that it was something I had no prior experience with. It had no root to hold to in me… or at least not a lot.

He explained that in deep space “pressures” upon us are gone… that our bodies, our minds, and even our DNA slowly relax toward more ideal forms. The impression I got with this description, however, was profound: that my progress would be less about pushing and striving and more about extracting myself from contrary forces and circumstances… that the good is already in me… I don’t need to find it, I merely need to unpack it and engage it.

He described the black of deep space and the pinpoint stars at unfathomable distances, and the clear sense of looking into the black… not just into distance, but into eternity.

I sensed him leaving the room from behind closed eyes and dreamed of flying.

* * * * *

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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 17… in which I tell Michael the truth

The week Michael was with me in Las Vegas was a return to my youth, a happy, healthy return to my youth, and to Michael’s as well. We were two boys from Rogers Park in a terrific playground.

Picking up from Part 16, in which I prepared for the Kennedy assassination.

The week Michael was with me in Las Vegas was a return to my youth, a happy, healthy return to my youth, and to Michael’s as well. We were two boys from Rogers Park in a terrific playground.

We watched a Rat Pack show and I told him what would happen to these guys in the future. We went to see a Streisand matinee. We worked at photography while playing records on my stereo system, which was a new and very high-tech thing in 1963. We scoured newsstands for oddball publications. In short, we played. All day, every day.

The nights, however, were more adult. We went through Michael’s diaries while listening to classical music and sipping watered-down brandy.

Doreen had died in 1933, leaving Mike and a teenaged Mike Jr. behind. But they did at least have each other, and it was clear from the entries that they grieved together. Michael had felt guilty about showing his grief – it was the era of “men don’t cry” and such – but in the end it was showing his feelings that allowed Mike Jr. to deal with his own, and for them both to heal, however slowly.

It was in 1936, when young Mike went off to college, that his dad slid toward despair. That and the coming of the Second World War. Mike was essentially a sensitive man and a man who was always out of step with the bulk of the world. He had been able to pass off his difference for more than a decade – between Doreen’s illness, negotiating the Depression and single-parenting, he had been nonstop busy – but now that things quieted down, he returned to facing himself.

At first, Michael was happy with his quiet time; he spent it reading and attending to what remained of his real estate business. He hadn’t gone hog wild during the Roaring Twenties, as so many had, but he had overextended himself and lost three properties.

His stocks had suffered along with everyone else’s, but he had been investing for dividends rather than escalating prices. That left him with sound companies. Their prices on the exchange had fallen badly, but they weren’t going to go bankrupt. And nearly all of them kept paying dividends, even if reduced.

Still, the real estate business didn’t require a great deal of his time, and he found himself bored. He knew better than to meddle with his property management companies, and so he began attending lectures of all sorts just to keep himself busy. And that drove him to continuous questioning of things.

Slowly, Michael began to understand the world, and what he found disturbed him.

“The more power someone has,” he wrote in his journal in late 1936, “the more they see only other holders of power. Their thoughts are in relation to very little else. Their actions, then, are addressed solely to the large and consolidated. And when their concern turns to individuals (as with Mr. Roosevelt), it is to consolidate them into something large that can be controlled and acted upon as a single unit.”

This concept was the background upon which Michael considered Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill. They were addicted to the large, to consolidating the masses into tight containers they could manipulate. Everything else was invisible and insignificant.

Step by step he watched the giants fight among themselves. He saw the Germans and Soviets use the Spanish Civil War as a testing ground for their weapons. The dead were numbers, not beloved mothers, fathers, siblings and children.

“The large,” he concluded, “is inhuman.”

Then he saw Hitler and Stalin agree to divide the world between them, then to double-cross each other for advantage. He saw the Japanese go crazy attacking the Chinese, Roosevelt set up the Japanese for a confrontation, and the rest of the obvious march toward global war: giants facing off against each other as if it were a sport tournament of the grandest scale… the only scale that really mattered to such entities.

This was when Michael began drinking: Everything large was inhuman and murderous, while at the same time the small worshiped the large and gave themselves to die for the large.

There was a tavern half a mile from Mike’s apartment that played sports on the radio nearly all day and night, and that’s where he hid from the insanity. (If news flashes came over the radio, he’d go to the men’s room.) When the weather was especially cold he’d drink at home, playing the radio or records, a habit that increased until he was at the tavern less than half the time.

Mike Jr. was drafted in 1942, but mercifully he was assigned to the maintenance of radar facilities along the American and Canadian East Coast. But it kept him away from his dad all the same, and he never realized the extent of his father’s problem.

But Mike, even in our conversations in 1963, didn’t quite see it as a problem. How does one, after all, deal with universally esteemed insanity? Mike dulled himself to it and survived. It was damaging his health but also keeping his soul intact… and he stopped drinking right after VJ Day. The brandies he and I had were an unusual thing for him, and as I say, they were watered down.

* * * * *

One thing Michael did for me during his visit was get me a Nevada driver’s license. He pretended he was moving to Nevada and fudged the height and weight numbers on the license a bit. He had to surrender his Illinois license, but once back home he’d just ask for a duplicate, saying that he lost his. This sort of thing was easy to do in 1963; photos wouldn’t be used on licenses for another 12 years or more.

* * * * *

“I can tell you’re up to something, Paul.”

Not five minutes earlier I felt the question coming, and I couldn’t blame him. Were our positions reversed, I’d be saying the same thing.

“If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll try to understand, but I think it would be a mistake on your part.”

Thank God, I exclaimed to myself silently. Thank God I thought this through.

And then I laughed.

“You’re right on both counts, Mike. I had fairly well decided to tell you later today” (it was at breakfast in my suite the day before Michael was to leave), “but now seems like a good time.”

He looked pleased with himself, shifting to curiosity.

“Let’s finish our breakfast” (we were sitting at a small kitchen-type table) “and then we’ll move to the couches and I’ll explain.”

He agreed and we were soon seated at right angles to each other. Again I was so glad that I had thought it through.

“You ready for this?” I asked with a smile.

“I think so,” he said, “and doubly so if you’re smiling.”

“Okay… then let’s start with this: What we’re in now is a pocket of time. In two years, maybe two and a half… I don’t know precisely… I’ll go back to my time and you’ll forget I was ever here.”

I paused to let him digest the statement.

“But you’ll remember me?”

“I will, Mike.”

“And there’s nothing you can do so that I’ll remember this too?”

“There isn’t, I’m sorry. But the exercise is important, because if you and I improve the world in any way, we’ll be improving the future.”

Mike became silent for a while, then looked at me and asked, “Are you going to write about this?”

At first I wasn’t sure what to say. It had crossed my mind, but I hadn’t decided.

“You said you’re a writer back in 2016, right?” I nodded my head. “Then write about this… write about me.”

There was no way I could turn down such a request.

“I shall,” I replied.

“Fine, then,” he said as if it were a monumental conclusion. “I’ll help you any way I can. What are we doing?”

* * * * *

For the rest of that day I told Michael about everything from Jackie Kennedy showing up in October with Aristotle Onassis on his yacht to the Kennedy assassination, the theories about it, Jack Ruby, the ineptitude of the Warren Report, the murder of Dorothy Kilgallen, and so on.

And he wasn’t surprised in the slightest that societal attitudes changed in the wake of it all. All the more so when I added the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. He strongly agreed that solving the mystery of “Who killed JFK?” was important.

We debated at some length on the wisdom of Michael coming to Dallas to help, but in the end we decided to wait and see how his blood pressure was doing in November. Dealing with the assassination, and especially getting out of Dallas afterward, was going to be stressful, and that might not be the best thing for him. But he was very definitely going to get started on office space for developing and reproducing the images we got from Dallas.

I got Mike to the airport the next day on schedule but just barely. We had talked late into the night and very nearly overslept. Walking back to the car afterward, I felt like a tired boy going home after playing a hard game at the park with his friends.

May we all encounter that feeling regularly.

* * * * *

The nearly three months leading up to the assassination in Dallas are mostly a blur to me now. I kept up my daily schedule nearly the whole time, but everything else was a storm of details.

I made a long checklist and went through the items one by one. I did all my groundwork in Dallas (which took, by far, the most of my time). I arranged for a suite at the Adolphus for the month of November and paid for it in advance. I had all my camera equipment shipped there by November first. And I wracked my memory day after day to create lists of relevant facts I was “sure about,” “almost sure about,” or only “partly sure about.” It came to 24 pages in all.

On October 31, Halloween, I checked out of the Sands, crawled into my car, and headed to Dallas. The drive was uneventful and I arrived November 2.

The next day I did another walk through the County Records building (definitely my number one spot), tested my lock picking skills, and verified all my points of egress.

That night I made my way over to the Carousel Club, and went in for a drink. I’d never been in an old burlesque joint before, and as expected, I didn’t care for the atmosphere. But I did familiarize myself with it – the layout of the offices and bathrooms, the ways in and out, and so on – and I found some good vantage points across the street in front.

What I really wanted were pictures of Oswald and Ruby together. One of my little entertainments over the past decade or two has been the Kennedy assassination. I’ve never taken it too seriously, but it’s a great mystery.

 And so I read books on the subject as time allowed and became convinced that the official story was false. The real smoking gun in it all was the Warren Report itself and especially the work that Harold Weisberg and Sylvia Meagher did tearing it apart.

And then there was Dorothy Kilgallen, ace reporter of her time and the only person to interview Jack Ruby… an interview she never talked about in public. But Kilgallen wrote quite a lot about the assassination and was doggedly determined to break the story… until she died under some very odd circumstances (well clothed, sitting upright in her bed, of a drug overdose). Dorothy’s file on the assassination was missing, of course. And whose best friend died unexpectedly the next day… perhaps the only other person who knew the details of her investigation.

Anyway, there were scattered reports of Ruby and Oswald meeting at the Carousel, and so I hoped to get a photo of them.

A day or two after that I scouted the Texas Theater in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. (I remembered only that it was “Oak-something” but clarified it quickly enough.) That’s where the police officer was shot and killed, and not, I thought, by Oswald. The shooting was about 45 minutes after Kennedy was shot, but it turned out not to be the easiest route to get there, and probably harder in the aftermath of such a public murder.

I did, however, decide that I could get there on a bicycle easily and quickly enough, so I made plans for that. If Jim and Robert showed up for the event, we could make that work. If they didn’t make it, I’d have to give that up, since it would take me time to gather up all the cameras and film, then safely get out and away from the County Records building.

I found a store where I could buy a gold coin (they weren’t as easily available then as now). I bought some clothes for Jim and Robert, but I didn’t want to put their target into place until a few days before the event. If I were they, I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in the Earth environment.

Michael and I corresponded the whole time, but we decided against his coming to Dallas. His pressure still wasn’t great. But he had set up a nice darkroom and would be waiting for me after the assassination.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 16… in which I prepare for Dallas

The next day… or maybe one more, I didn’t keep a diary… I found myself feeling better but absolutely stuck on what to do. This time I had an answer; this was simply an odd version of writer’s block, something with which I was familiar.

Picking up from Part 15, in which I finally accepted the strange job I had fallen into.

The next day… or maybe one more, I didn’t keep a diary… I found myself feeling better but absolutely stuck on what to do. This time I had an answer; this was simply an odd version of writer’s block, something with which I was familiar.

“So,” I said to myself while getting ready for another day of doing nothing (which is exactly what I had been doing), “if you can’t come up with a ‘great thing’ to do, then at least start doing something.”

And “something” was sitting right in front of me: my appointment in Dallas, November 22. That was a large and engaging project and something I could throw myself into.

More than that, I realized, if I was right about the Kennedy assassination, exposing it could make a very significant difference in the world. Half the good things of the 1970s had the Kennedy assassination at or near their roots. For millions of people it slashed through the blinders of status-quo worship, freeing them to broaden their field of view. What if I could increase that effect?

This, then, became my job. Perhaps something else might be better, but I didn’t know what it was, and this was something that might be very potent and positive. I had my project.

* * * * *

Instead of finding a house, I made another deal with the Sands: a small suite for the months of August, September, and October. I’d get maid service three times per week and an excellent price.

For my photography, I found myself a small, slightly rundown office near the new university, just a couple of miles away. It had air conditioning and enough electrical service for whatever kind of lighting I wanted. I put a sign in front that said 20th Century Photography, just for grins.

A week into August, my office was set up and I was accumulating photographic equipment and literature, partly from local camera stores, partly from another in LA (where I went to see Koufax pitch, twice) and partly via mail order. I sent Michael the address and either wrote or received a letter twice per week.

Perhaps most tellingly, I fell into a normal schedule: waking up early, going to work learning and practicing photography, going to a good gym midmorning, then to lunch, then back to work, mayb-e a nap in the afternoon (I bought a couch for the office), working again till I needed dinner, then back to the Sands. It was pleasant and it was productive.

* * * * *

“Paul, it’s Mike.”

Long distance phone calls were expensive in 1963 and their quality was fairly poor, so we didn’t call very often.

“Hi, Mike. How nice to hear from you. All is well?”

“Yes, and almost surprisingly so. The doctor says my pressure has improved and I should be fine to travel. So, how’d you like a visit?”

I’d be happy to see Mike of course – beyond everything else, he’s a good man, and I’d just barely begun to know him – but the schedule concerned me; I needed to get to Dallas, and I didn’t want to tell him about it.

“That would be lovely, Mike. Any thoughts on dates?”

“Not really. Next week or the week after, I suppose.”

“Great, then let’s make it the week after. I have some plans for next week.”

He said he’d call a travel agent and get back to me, I told him I’d have a room waiting for him at the Sands, and we finished the call. (As I said, they were expensive.)

And then I called the concierge at the Sands and had them get a travel agent for me too. I’d need to fly to Dallas soon. If I was going to do this, I’d need to do a lot of reconnaissance beforehand.

* * * * *

Two days later I was on a morning flight to Dallas. I took a taxi to the Adolphus Hotel, which looked to be a perfect base for me. If I could make friends with the management, they would be a terrific asset. And grooming those assets before anyone knew Kennedy would even come to Dallas would keep things very clean. Furthermore, the hotel was a short walk to Dealey Plaza, and I could get cabs day or night, for checking on Ruby and Oswald.

My problem for Dallas was clear: how to take the photos (and hopefully movies) I wanted, without standing out from the crowd. Here’s an annotated photo I found that shows the layout of the assassination scene as it was in 1963:

Courtesy Wikimedia

The photos I really wanted would be of the windows at the School Book Depository, the pergola nearest Elm Street (where Kennedy would be shot) and the back side of the grassy knoll right next to the pergola. I’d need to get into a good position, take my photos, then get the hell out, all without drawing attention to myself. If I got dragged in by the Secret Service, it could end my mission.

* * * * *

The hotel was terrific and I was able to make some associations with the bosses there. We settled on weekly rates for October and November, when I told them I’d be in town to look at setting up a photography studio. And to make that legit, I’d have to set up a meeting with a couple of Dallas newspapers or magazines, which sounded entertaining and possibly useful for later. That would be for October.

Finding spots, however, was tricky. The County Records building looked ideal, but it would require breaking into an office with a western view. The roof might provide a nice vantage point, but it would leave me exposed. Getting into an office, on the other hand, would require me to pick locks. I could learn that skill easily enough – there were always locksmith courses in the old Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines – but I’d also have to find the right offices.

And so I arrived early one morning, prepared with a pad of paper, took the elevator to the top floor, then walked the hallways of each subsequent floor, recording every suitable office that seemed empty. I found 11 candidates and noted the make of lock they had. I’d check them again in October, and then, if possible, right before the assassination. I’d have to identify the building’s security procedures too. I could see why the people who do this kind of work always complain about the length of the preparation stage.

The Criminal Courts Building, as I suspected, had too much security to be a serious candidate.

The Old Court House was a possibility, but most of it was closed off. If I wanted to use it, I’d have to sneak both in and out. And if someone tried to stop me, I’d have to run. Either that or subdue them, which would be ugly. I could brew up some homemade pepper spray, but that was just one more complicated piece I’d have to invent and test.

My last good choice would be one of the upper floors of the Post Office. But even so, it was awfully far away, easily a thousand feet from the assassination site. Telephoto lenses that could shoot that distance existed, but they’d also require a good tripod and fast film.

Nothing about this was easy. I could find a decent spot in the crowd, but that would limit my field of view substantially and expose me to stray bullets, which could ruin my mission as well.

I stayed in Dallas four days and came away from it with a legal pad filled with notes and a tentative plan: I would get into one of the offices in the County Records building, train a movie camera on the School Book Depository, and shoot the best telephoto stills I could while letting the movie camera run.

Then, if Jim and Robert showed up, I’d try to get one of them into the Post Office and another behind the grassy knoll… which wouldn’t be easy either.

The work was harder and slower than I had expected, and I never did get around to checking out Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club. But I did have the address.

* * * * *

Michael showed up the last week of August. I greeted him at the gate and we walked down to the baggage claim area almost arm in arm. He pointed out his two large suitcases and asked me to pull them from the rack.

“I presume you had the skycaps load these for you in Chicago?”

“Doctor’s orders,” he said. “Maybe we should get someone to carry them for us now too.”

“No, it’s okay,” I answered. “They’re not too bad and I missed the gym today.”

I smirked and he laughed.

And they really weren’t that heavy… or at least one of them wasn’t. I switched hands about halfway back to the car.

Aside from his clothes, Michael’s bags contained two other things. First was a box of photos, which he wanted to sort and have me make large prints. Second were a number of journal notebooks.

Once we got to the room at the Sands, he started showing them to me. They were journals he’d kept since his wife Doreen died in 1933.

“Michael, this is very personal stuff,” I said quietly and carefully. “Are you sure you don’t mind me reading it?”

“No, Paul, I want you to read it. My son can’t bear it, and I have no one else in the world who could read it and appreciate it.”

I was honored, and I began to read them late that night. More than that, I was overwhelmed. It reminded me of the writings of Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher,” except that it was far more intimate and emotional.

The notebooks contained the most personal thoughts of a true saint. Not that all his life was particularly divine… it was more than that. This was the story of a man of whom, as Hebrews says, “the world was not worthy.” Or at least for whom the world was not ready. These were the records of a gifted man trying to thrive among people who were capable of being like him but who couldn’t be convinced of that fact.

What impacted me most about these journals, however, was the fact that they were about to be erased from human history. Once I got back to 2016, I could try to find them of course, but the likelihood that they still remained in an attic somewhere was slight. Almost certainly they would have decomposed in a garbage dump.

And I definitely wasn’t bringing anything back with myself. The only record of these journals in the entire universe would be whatever I could carry in my mind. And while my memory is good, it’s not yet good enough to transfer it all.

But having learned the value of a good concierge, I engaged mine to obtain the services of a Xerox machine, which I learned were fairly new but available. It took some doing, but by the end of the week, I had a Xeroxed copy of Michael’s journals. And if I could read them two or three times before going back, I’d certainly retain the most important parts, and I’d certainly incorporate them into my writings over time.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 15… in which I struggle in Las Vegas

I woke up with half a hangover. I opened the window shades and lay back on the bed, content to stay there all day, if that’s what felt best. This was my recovery time, not from the hangover but from the onslaught of ideas and events that brought the hangover about. And this time I hadn’t forgotten the Do Not Disturb sign. I would be left alone.

Picking up from Part 14, in which I got Michael back to Chicago (and to his doctor).

I woke up with half a hangover. I opened the window shades and lay back on the bed, content to stay there all day, if that’s what felt best. This was my recovery time, not from the hangover but from the onslaught of ideas and events that brought the hangover about. And this time I hadn’t forgotten the Do Not Disturb sign. I would be left alone.

I woke again somewhere around noon, doing something that I suppose I’d have to call praying. This wasn’t religious in any definable way; it was simply pouring our my heart toward the creator.

I’m not sure how or why it started; I didn’t remember any sort of dream that led to it. Nonetheless, it felt not only good, but right. Half-intentional, half-instinctively, I let it all out, passing sometimes into another language… or at least what seemed to be another language. But I didn’t care about the details; it all had a healthful outflowing to it.

After what seemed about 10 minutes, it subsided, then ended. I still felt tingly for a few minutes after and just lay there feeling it, maybe two-thirds awake and one-third asleep. It was after two o’clock when I finally decided to get up and shower.

I gathered up my laundry and called down to the front desk. The lady said there were two machines in the basement I could use, and so I went down to do that.

One machine loaded, I wandered onto the streets of Omaha, knowing I had 45 minutes or so to spend. This was a Sunday, however, and the streets were fairly quiet.

I found a Chop Suey Restaurant just down the street and put in an order to be picked up in an hour. That is, to be picked up and eaten while my laundry was drying. And then I rounded a corner and found a bookstore that was open. This was what I needed most: food for the real me.

I was surprised how good the selection was. I found Maxwell Maltz’s classic Psycho-Cybernetics, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and a fascinating book I’d never heard of, called Culture Against Man. The quality of new books had clearly fallen over my lifetime, and badly.

I bought all of them save Maltz’s (it didn’t seem useful for my current circumstances) and got back in time to switch my clothes. Then I picked up my food and slowly mixed reading with eating. Nourishment doubled, I called the endeavor, and managed not to drip on the pages, save for one minor blotch.

* * * * *

After a short evening of reading, I was asleep by nine o’clock and up at about five. Within an hour I had checked out, gone to a full-service gas station (as they all were), had the fluids, belts and hoses checked, and was back on the open road, heading west. To get to Las Vegas I’d follow the route I took in 1974: west to Salt Lake City, then south to Vegas. It felt nice to head out on an early Monday morning… like a workman headed to his job.

It was on this drive that the days began running together for me. The reason for that, at least mostly, I think, was that I set my habits for life in a virtual world. With my routine the same every day, one day didn’t stand markedly apart from another unless there was some large or surprising event. Which is probably as it should be, at least in our present condition.

My first habit every morning, and very much a necessity for me, was, upon first waking up and generally without having opened my eyes, to spend time thinking about my wife and children. First, I always saw them where they really were: in their beds, sleeping peacefully.

After that, the days varied. Some days I would see them getting up from bed and starting their days. Other times I’d imagine that I was back, surprising them that I missed them so badly. At still other times, I’d revisit events from our mutual pasts. This was fundamental to me, and I rarely missed a day.

After that, I set my habits for efficiency. I sat down with one of my legal pads at a truck stop restaurant in Evanston, Wyoming, and charted my days: how many minutes spent showering, shaving, doing laundry, maintaining the car, reading, and so on. I tried to combine or overlap activities to save time. Then I came up with a regular schedule and stuck to it.

Saving 10 minutes per day adds up to 61 hours per year. That’s a lot of time, and once it becomes a habit, it becomes the easiest thing to do.

The drive to Vegas took two and a half days. I turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard before noon on Wednesday, July 17. I pulled into the Sands and made a deal with the manager for a nice room on a weekly rate, far cheaper than the daily rate. That would give me time to find a nice house rental. If I was going to learn to develop my own film – both still and movie film – I’d need a spare room in which to do it.

But I very much did not want to get intense and rushed. I’d done that far too much of my life, and I wasn’t going to blow my energy that way anymore. The ability to be intense should be saved up for when it is needed, not spent wildly.

What surprised me was that my Las Vegas Reset, as I came to call it, took weeks rather than a few days, as I had expected. I slept well and was back to normal in that way by the second or third day.

And I entertained myself as well. One highlight was listening to a very young Barbara Streisand, who was doing her first series of shows at the Riviera. I went to see her twice. Another was a Rat Pack show at the Sands. It was wonderful to see these things in person, after having known them only as history. Next on the list was a drive to LA to see Koufax pitch.

And of course I read books, which always feeds me. I also found a surprising number of narrowly focused newsletters on everything from anti-communism to photography. I even began to form friendships with a few hotel employees.

From these things and my morning anti-homesick routine, I was feeling good. Once I began planning my work, however, I ran into a pit. Every time I started, I felt like I was walking in sand… and sometimes in deep, loose sand. I just couldn’t get to conclusions. I clearly had some kind of internal impediment.

A view of the problem passed through my mind right at the beginning of the journey, but for some reason I lost my grasp on it and was still grappling with it two weeks later in Las Vegas. But since that has happened to me before – and seems to happen to others at least as much – it has to be a common human problem, pointing to something important. And so I started keeping notes on the subject.

It finally became clear to me as I sat in an all-you-can-eat buffet just off the Las Vegas Strip. I had taken a walk in the blistering heat of Vegas in July as an act of desperation. I was feeling fine and didn’t go too far, but I needed to do something out of the ordinary to reset myself somehow.

And so I sat in the cheap buffet with a dozen other semi-happy and semi-desperate customers. On the way I had complained to myself (almost at myself) about the insane opportunity that had been thrown into my lap and the fact that I was coming up with nothing to do with it.

“The opportunity…” I muttered to myself, “no human has ever had it before.”

Something about that, however, was the problem; that much I could feel. But again I got nowhere. I finished my steak in a sort of disgust. It simply couldn’t be that I was pulled through time, or whatever, to 1963, just to sit around, finding nothing to do.

I went to the counter to pay my bill and by chance saw some kind of anti-Mormon tract that someone had left there. For no particular reason I sat down and started reading it. It told the story of a twisted middle-aged man who took over a splinter group of Mormons, convinced people that he was a great prophet, and started marrying young girls.

The end of the story was that he was finally caught raping a woman and arrested. But the story got to me more deeply than I would have supposed.

I walked back to the Sands in afternoon heat that had to be 110 degrees. Involuntarily, I kept remembering other men who got people to think of them as a prophet and abused them. I’d known of several such stories and even met such people, and the whole thing disgusted me.

And as one part of my mind was busy with this stream of stories, another faintly wondered why these stories were so all-consuming to me right now. But they were, and I walked another quarter mile past the Sands to give myself time to finish up.

As I turned at the end of the extra quarter mile, the missing piece fell into place.

“Then how the hell do I become the one person on the planet – in history – who is chosen for this job?” I said openly and even fairly loudly, and continued: “And if I could believe that I’m that special, what’s my next step? To call myself ‘Christ’? Or maybe if I’m feeling kind of humble, just call myself ‘Elijah’?”

I was apparently the only person foolhardy enough to walk the streets of Las Vegas at three o’clock on a hot day in late July, but the overwhelming nature of my feelings right then were such that I might have erupted the same even in a crowd. The people driving past must have thought I was daft.

But at least I finally knew what was bothering me. I considered the possibility that I was simply delusional, but two weeks in a 1963 had fully killed that possibility. And that left me being “the special one,” which I couldn’t accept.

And then, as I walked into the air conditioning of the hotel, it struck me: What am I assuming here? That being the only guy to do a certain job makes me a god?

But that was what I was assuming, or something close to it… and it was simply wrong.

Maybe the job simply fell to me because I was the most convenient. Or maybe I was just better suited to it than anyone else they could find. Just about everyone is unusually good at something or another. Maybe I’m just the guy who was right for this job.

I walked around the casino a time or two thinking such thoughts and getting myself comfortable with them. I wasn’t entirely over it yet, but I would be, and fairly soon at that.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 14… in which I am again stranded in the past

As I walked out Mike’s door, I knew the newspaper would be worthless (and it was: a coup, a ferry tragedy, and the ubiquitous political crap), but by the time I reached the elevator I realized that I could use it as a reference for further thoughts. And so I got a few pieces of scrap paper from the man at the desk and borrowed a pen.

Picking up from Part 13, in which I met Michael.

As I walked out Mike’s door, I knew the newspaper would be worthless (and it was: a coup, a ferry tragedy, and the ubiquitous political crap), but by the time I reached the elevator I realized that I could use it as a reference for further thoughts. And so I got a few pieces of scrap paper from the man at the desk and borrowed a pen. As I read the paper I made notes on random ideas that it spawned:

A new car. How far from Vegas to Dallas? Shows I could see in Vegas. Flights between Vegas and Dallas. Magazines and newsletters dedicated to photography. Banks with safe deposit boxes in Vegas. Getting a driver’s license in case I ever got stopped. Sporting events I’d like to catch. People I’d like to meet.

This was starting to get exciting again.

After nearly an hour, Michael showed back up in the lobby, but he didn’t walk directly to me. Instead he walked to the man at the desk and made some kind of arrangements. I folded up my notes, stuck them in my pocket, and waited.

Finally Michael came back to me with a somber expression and sat.

“I had to call my doctor,” he said, “and it was bad news.”

“I’m so sorry, Michael. What can I do?”

“Nothing that I can think of, Paul. But I need to get back to Chicago right away. I have a heart condition and high blood pressure. I saw the doctor the day before I started following you, and the test results say that I’m pretty close to the brink. I should be on some new medicine right away.”

He looked like he was grimly contemplating his death.

“Then let’s stop worrying and start doing, shall we?”

He smiled. “Yes, that’s a good idea. Let’s go get some dinner and hash it out.”

* * * * *

The doctor had stressed to Michael the urgency of the matter. His blood pressure was far too high and his heart weak. He had to get back home fast.

I was sure we could find a pharmacy in Minneapolis with the right drug, but that would require multiple phone calls and a lot of coordination. Another option was for Michael to drive back home. I could go with him and help of course, but that would still take two days… either that or driving day and night, which would be too stressful.

“I have an idea Mike, and it could solve problems for both of us.”

“What’s that?”

“Sell me your car and I’ll get you on a flight directly to Chicago from Minneapolis. I’ll bet they have three or four per day.”

“Then I’ll have to buy a new car when I get back home.”

“Yes, but time seems to be essential here, and I’ll pay you whatever it’s worth. It’s a reliable car, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s only two years old and still has less than 10,000 miles.”

“Then name your price. This plan will get you home tomorrow, with a minimum of strain.”

He agreed to sell me the car for $1,400, and we went back to our menus at the same restaurant from the night before. My dinner there with Robert and Jim – literally 24 hours prior – seemed a week in the past.

We ordered and discussed Mike’s condition, his son and daughter-in-law (with whom he might stay for a few days upon returning), and the fact that he wouldn’t be telling anyone about our conversations. He trusted his son, but this story would simply sound crazy to him and would only cause trouble.

“I do have one thing I need to ask you,” he said over the main course.

“Anything, Mike.”

“What happened to the blond lady?”

“Yeah, we passed over that, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, we did.”

Now I had more decisions. I took a sip of wine to buy a few seconds as my mind worked quickly. How should I explain the reason she let herself die?

“That lady, Mike… that lady was not from Earth. She was human but not from Earth.”

He sat almost entirely still.

“Yes, that means that humanity – our race here on Earth – is just one branch of a larger family.”

He still sat unmoving, but at least he blinked.

“Now, I can’t swear that it’s true, but that’s what I was told, and I do believe it.”

He took a sip of wine himself and seemed to be absorbing what I had said. So I continued.

“She had a very hard time with what she called the Earth ambient, and I know what she meant.”

“What?”

He was engaging again, a good sign, especially considering his heart condition.

“I could feel a difference between 2016 and 1963 as I popped from one into the other. 1963 is heavier, for lack of a better word. And the difference between this and her world was much more than the difference I felt.”

His eyes began to glaze and he got a far-off stare. At first I worried, and then I saw he was starting to cry.

“The pain and fear and worry and shame,” he said, not to me so much as to himself and even to the universe. “It’s worse here than it should be… It wasn’t me that was deficient; it was the conditions that were bad.”

I reached across the table and placed my hand on his.

“It was never your fault, Mike. This world and the people in it are underdeveloped. They’re making progress, but you’re ahead of them, and that’s a painful position to be in.”

The waitress noticed him crying and started over, I presume to see what was wrong. I waived her off and let Michael’s emotions work themselves out.

He was wiping his face a few minutes later and drained his water glass.

“So,” he finally said, “what happened to her?”

“It was a strange thing, Michael… she died… on purpose.”

“Like suicide?”

“No…” I struggled to find any word for it. “She said this was too rough on her and that to get back home, she was going to let herself die. She had me take her to a fancy hotel in Minneapolis, where they had a doctor on call. She checked in, went to her room – she told me it would take a few hours – then called for the doctor when it was almost done. That way there would be almost no fuss over it. It would be just a minor mystery.”

He said nothing and sat there looking stunned, as before.

“I saved the newspaper from the next day with the story in it. I can show it to you when we get back.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

We continued eating and chatting about the details of checking out of the hotel and getting to the Minneapolis airport.

Then Michael turned to me and asked, “Was she confident?”

“You mean my blond friend?”

“I do.”

“Actually, yes. But it wasn’t an overt confidence. She talked about dying like I’d talk about… maybe taking a nap. Of course I’ll wake up afterward… I don’t even think about anything else. The truth is, Michael, that her attitude about dying – about really, truly dying, in just an hour or two – it was a revelation to me, and I think I’ll be coming to grips with it for some time.”

“I can see that… and I’m a lot closer to it than you are.”

“Your condition is that bad?”

“Apparently so. The doctor says that even in the best case, I’ll be lucky to get two years. You have better medicine in your time, I hope?”

“We do. There are still things we can’t fix, but it’s definitely much better.”

“Good,” he muttered. “That’s the way it should be.”

* * * * *

We were both checked out of the hotel by 6:30 the next morning and were driving north a few minutes later. I had Michael write out a bill of sale on one of my legal pads as we drove. On the next sheet, Michael wrote his address and phone number. I promised to both write and call, something I felt a strong need to do. Not only was Michael an exceptional man, but he was literally my only friend in the world. And I very much doubted I’d tell anyone else the things I had told him.

I walked him into the airport, to the ticket counter for Northwest Airlines, and then to the gate. We hugged before he boarded and wished each other luck. I sat another half hour at the airport bar, sipping a Coke and writing him a four-page letter. I was able to coax an envelope and stamp from the bartender and mailed the letter at the mailbox in front of the terminal.

Then I headed to my new car, found my way back to I-35 and headed south to Des Moines in a haze. Again I was back on my own – alone to stay this time, I was sure – in 1963. It was troubling and exciting at once. Again I wanted very much to be home, and again I could barely believe the opportunities that were laid open to me. How does a man reconcile all of that?

I forced myself out of my haze just before Des Moines and pulled into a truck stop. I gassed up, bought some food and drinks (bottled water was nowhere to be found), and pulled back onto the road in the early afternoon, headed west.

I-80 was under construction in western Iowa, and the going was slow. But I flipped on the radio and entertained myself with old songs and then an agricultural report read by a young Orion Samuelson, which blew my mind: Samuelson was still the agricultural reporter for WGN in 2016! It was rush hour as I got to Omaha, and so I decided to stop for the day.

* * * * *

It was at dinner, and especially when I got to my room after, that the depth of my situation really came down upon me. There were no more hyper-intense situations to keep my mind focused, and the crazy reality of it all surged in. I was alone, stranded in 1963 and scheduled to be blipped out of existence in January of 1966.

I wouldn’t see my family for more than two years. I couldn’t call or peek through a bedroom door to be sure they were okay. I was hopelessly, impossibly far away, beyond the borders of the known universe!

It would be hard to convey the depth of that loneliness. Without scientific knowledge it would have been serious, but with that knowledge it was staggering. Yes, I believed Jim and Robert and the woman (whatever her name was) that I’d end up back home in my bed – and that was in fact comforting – but until then, I was still utterly stranded.

But was I really alone? I knew dozens of people currently alive in Chicago. They might not know me, but if we became friends in 1970 and ’80 and ’90 and 2000, it was highly likely that we could become friends now too.

And then came the issue of improving the world… my 2016 world. No human had ever had this opportunity, at least as far as my friends knew, and they were in positions to know. I had to give that my strength, but exactly how?

Lying in my bed, I could feel that I was going to make myself sick if I kept those thoughts going. Then, out of nowhere, I recalled a conversation with a psychologist friend. I had said something about the uselessness of booze, and he corrected me: “It can create lots of problems,” he said, “but it does reduce stress.”

Immediately I got up, went to the hotel bar, and ordered a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks. Jackie Gleason was on the TV, followed by Joey Bishop and then a few boxing matches. All the while I kept up conversations with a couple of businessmen stuck in town for the weekend.

I reminded myself to ask them questions, which would be lighter work than answering theirs. And they seemed happy to play along. I must have had four whiskies. I remembered to drink lots of water too, but I kept enough booze going to beat back those stress levels, as I laughingly repeated to myself.

It was after midnight when I crawled into bed, purposely thinking about anything but my earlier thoughts: the last boxing match, a silly skit on one of the comedy shows, and a funny story told by the salesman from California. I soon enough fell asleep, thinking only of trivialities.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 13… in which I confront Michael

“Hi,” I said in as friendly way as I could, “if you’re 309, I’m the guy you’re looking for.” I smiled and extended my hand. He shook it but seemed too nervous to speak. I sat across from him.

Picking up from Part 12, in which I learned a great about what was happening to me.

“Hi,” I said in as friendly way as I could, “if you’re 309, I’m the guy you’re looking for.”

I smiled and extended my hand. He shook it but seemed too nervous to speak. I sat across from him.

“I know this is a wild situation, and I suppose I have a lot to explain to you, but I want to put you at ease first. I’m human just like you, and if you sensed us driving past your window, as I think you did, then we’re neighbors of a sort. I spent nearly all my early life within a few blocks of Touhy Avenue.”

I smiled again, and this time he smiled back slightly. He was starting to relax.

Step one, I thought. I sat back and waited for him to initiate something.

“I’m Michael,” he said after a bit.

“And I’m Paul.”

We both smiled again, but he still seemed too nervous to open up.

“If you don’t mind me asking, where exactly is the window I drove past?”

“On Rockwell, just north of Touhy.”

“Oh, the apartment building that faces the park?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve lived there for many years.”

“What a nice spot,” I went on, trying to comfort him by recounting things that only someone from the neighborhood would know. “The park right in front of you, a big Jewel [that’s a supermarket] not far past the school, dozens of shops on both Touhy and Western, and a quick jump to either Lake Shore Drive or the Edens.”

“You really do know the place,” he said.

“Oh yes, I do. I’m a little out of date, maybe, but I definitely know Rogers Park.”

Then I slid to the edge of my seat, as if getting ready to stand.

“Hey,” I said in the same way I spoke to my friends in Rogers Park when I was young, “I’m kinda hungry. You wanna get something to eat while we try to make sense out of what’s happened to us?”

Michael was still a bit hesitant, and I couldn’t blame him. But he agreed and we walked into the street, as I told him about a restaurant down the block that I liked.

* * * * *

I decided right away that I couldn’t tell him this was a virtual world. That would mean telling him that he was a temporary and essentially fake Michael Burroughs. And that, I was sure, was a step too far.

But still, I didn’t want to stray from the truth any farther than I had to; that’s no end of trouble. And so I decided to say that I was from 2016 and leave it as close to that as I could. With any luck he wouldn’t be a physicist.

But first, I wanted him to understand that I had been thrown into something utterly unexpected, just as he had.

And so, after we sat, discussed food for a moment, and ordered, I said, “You wouldn’t know this, Michael, but when you felt me driving past, I had just fallen into this situation… maybe 10 minutes before. So, while I got a little bit of advice as I started, I’m still getting over the shock of it.”

“And where did you come from?” he asked.

I looked at him and smiled.

“That’s the big question, then, isn’t it?”

He smiled too, and for the first time treated me as a fellow being. That is, he had compassion for me.

“If that’s too much of a question,” he said with concern, “you can answer later.”

“Thanks, Mike… do you mind if I call you Mike? I’m more used to that.”

“That’ll be fine,” he said.

“Thanks. The thing is this: my guiding star for everything I’m doing here is, ‘Will this cause more benefit than harm?’ So, I have to guess at whether spilling my guts to you will create more improvement on Earth than damage.”

He nodded his understanding.

“Now, you’re very clearly a very special guy, or you never would have noticed us… and you certainly wouldn’t have been able to track me down. So I think I have to answer your questions, even though I hardly know you.”

“What kind of harm are you worried about?” he asked.

“Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m probably being overcautious, but I’ve never done something like this before… I guess my concern would be that the information would be too much for you, and you’d freak out somehow.”

He nodded, but then looked at me quizzically and asked, “Freak out?”

Immediately I realized that this term wasn’t used until the 1970s.

“Sorry, that means something like ‘come unglued.’”

This, he understood.

“Well, let me just tell you that I’ve been through a lot of surprises and tough moments in my life. I’m relatively sure I can handle it.”

“Okay, Mike, I’ll give you the short version. Then we can pick it apart piece by piece slowly, okay?”

“That will be fine.”

“All right, then.” I leaned in and smiled. “I really am from Rogers Park. And I came here directly from the suburbs of Chicago. But I came here from a different time. I came from 2016.”

To my relief he seemed to handle it well, then came back at me with, “So, you know the future?”

It was a child’s question, asked in a child-like tone of voice, but what else could be expected from such a piece of news?

“I do. From my perspective it’s the past, but I have a good memory and I remember a lot.”

“How far back?”

“Really till just about now. I turned five in ’63, and that’s about the beginning of my conscious memories. Now, my early memories are those of a boy, not a man, so I really can’t tell you a lot of details about this year or the next few. But after that I can recount a lot of things.”

“Like?”

I laughed. “Give me a second to think, okay?”

“Sure,” he said just as our food arrived.

We both started eating and I thought about what to tell him, quickly deciding that I couldn’t tell him about anything he’d be tempted to change, like the Kennedy assassination. That could make a mess, and I couldn’t really ask him to refrain from stopping a murder. And so I decided to go for a few mundane things.

“Okay, let’s do a few near-term trivialities. Next year a movie, called Mary Poppins, will become a big thing. Kind of a children’s movie but fun and pleasant, with good music. I remember that because my mom took me downtown to see it… neither the Cubs nor the Sox are gonna win a World Series for a long time… Oh! And you’ll never guess who’s going to be governor of California in a few years.”

He guessed a few names, then gave up.

“Ronald Reagan, the actor.”

Michael got thoughtful for a moment.

“You know,” he soon enough said, “I can see it. He’s kind of leading up to it.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right… I remember people talking about it after the fact.”

Then we talked about Reagan and the political machinations of the 1950s. It kept us away from heavier subjects.

* * * * *

To my relief, we spent the remainder of our lunch and a walk through a shady park talking about small things: him filling gaps in my boyhood memories and me telling him about cellphones and computers, “sci-fi” things that I didn’t see causing any real disturbances.

After a while, both of us silently understanding that we had done this to become comfortable with one another, we headed back to the hotel. I was still in need of naps and decompression, and Michael seemed to be feeling weak. That brought back Jim’s brief comment about Michael’s health being fragile. I pushed the idea of long naps, then a slow dinner. Mike agreed.

Ten minutes later, we were back in the hotel.

“Shall I call you after a few hours?” I asked him.

“Actually, just come up and knock on the door.”

He was opening his world to me, which I took as a warm compliment.

“Then I shall. I’m guessing that it’ll be three or four hours. I’m ready to sleep.”

“That sounds good.”

* * * * *

While I napped, and mostly as I slowly woke up, Vegas again came to mind, but this time as a staging area for the Kennedy assassination. I would need cameras, and I’d need to learn how to use them and to practice with them.

I’d need to learn to develop my own film (I certainly couldn’t give such photos to a commercial service), and I’d need to make several trips to Dallas to scout locations. This was a serious undertaking. Things would have to be put carefully into place.

I could very much use help for this, but I also felt clear on the fact that Michael shouldn’t – couldn’t – be part of this. I’d either have to hope Jim and Robert made it or find local help, which would be quite a trick.

I got to Michael’s room as he was getting up. I offered to come back, but he directed me to sit in the chair and wait. And so I complied.

Once he was through washing up, he sat on the bed and said he had more questions. But before the conversation went any further, the phone rang. It was his son calling from Chicago.

“I should take this call,” he said.

I began to stand, saying, “No problem, I’ll give you some privacy.”

But he waived me off, pointing back to the chair. And so, again, I complied and sat.

Michael’s son – Michael junior – was concerned about his father’s health and rather upset that he had run off on a spur-of-the-moment road trip.

“No, son,” I couldn’t help overhearing, “I didn’t hear back from the doctor… Oh, I see. Then I’ll call him momentarily.”

Mike finished the call and turned to me.

“Maybe I should come find you once I’m done with this.”

“No problem, Mike. I’ll be in the lobby. I’ll see if I can find a newspaper and familiarize myself with 1963 a bit more.”

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 12… in which I make friends and Michael closes in

As we sat at the restaurant I began to miss home. I noted the strangeness of this feeling to myself: Here I am, about to hear things that no man has ever heard, and I’m feeling homesick… after just a couple of days. I’m sure it was the repetitive eating at restaurants – away from home – that set it off, but it made me appreciate the complexities of the human consciousness.

Picking up from Part 11, in which I met Robert and James.

As we sat at the restaurant I began to miss home. I noted the strangeness of this feeling to myself: Here I am, about to hear things that no man has ever heard, and I’m feeling homesick… after just a couple of days. I’m sure it was the repetitive eating at restaurants – away from home – that set it off, but it made me appreciate the complexities of the human consciousness.

We have multiple streams of thought… or at least something akin to thoughts… running through the back of our minds all the time. Some jump to the front only when they’ve ripened, some can be drawn forward by associations, as in this case, some can be coaxed forward with careful effort, and others thrust themselves forward even when least expected.

We are complex creatures, which means that any theory of human psychology that calls itself anything more than descriptive or partial is wrong.

James – or Jim, as he decided he liked – broke me out of my self-analysis. Robert, who understood Earth culture much better, was using the men’s room, and someone had just handed Jim a wine list.

He leaned in toward me and asked, “What is this?”

I was amused and comforted.

“Wine is the fermented juice of fruits, mainly grapes. People like it with dinner, but it is mildly intoxicating… relaxing in small amounts, intoxicating in larger.”

“Ah, I see,” he said as Robert sat. “Do you like wine with dinner?”

“Actually, I sometimes do,” I said, “and tonight I think I’ll have some. Now, the usual choice is to have red wine if you plan on eating beef and white if you’ll have chicken or fish.”

One difference I noticed about these men was that they understood very easily. It didn’t seem to be because of screaming intellects but because they had no obstacles in their way. They seemed to absorb knowledge like small children do. But again, that was a thought I chose to lay aside rather than examining. My time with these men was precious.

We ordered our wine, then our meals (I had to help them a good deal), but through it all I felt a longing for home, for my wife and family. At first this felt like a wild business trip, and the overwhelming nature of the events kept that going. But since my last nap, it was feeling like a protracted absence. A big part of me would rather have been home eating a simple meal.

But the nature of these events being what it was, my thoughts were soon pulled back from the comfortable to the amazing.

“Our people, compared to yours,” Jim said, “and even compared to your lady friend’s, are quite advanced.”

I took a swig of wine and decided just to go with the flow, trusting my memory and my choice not to go beyond two glasses of wine.

“You seem quite the same as me, Jim. Am I wrong on that? If we analyzed our DNA, how significant would the differences be?”

“Do you understand genetics?” He asked, surprised.

“Well, I understand the basics…” and then realized that “basics” is a very relative term. “Or let me put it this way: I understand how DNA and RNA work, and I understand that genes, at least some of them, can be turned on and off by various means.”

“And is this common knowledge in your time?”

“No, not really. It’s available knowledge, but few people have the time or inclination to seek it. I presume one of the reasons my lady friend chose me for this experiment is because I have done such things.”

“Well, that would be essential,” he said, nodding his head. “The answer is that our DNA would have differences, but if you had taken the DNA of our ancestors, it would be very close to yours. We are of the same family. You could, for example, procreate with one of our females.”

“Wild,” I said almost unconsciously. “One big family.”

“One big family,” they both repeated.

“So,” I said, feeling loose and deciding this was a good way to conduct the discussions, “why exactly did you guys come here? You sensed something out of the ordinary?”

“Correct. Some friends asked us to do this a long time ago, and we decided that it would be an adventure if anything ever came up. But as I mentioned before, this is the first time.”

“And are you enjoying your adventure so far?”

At this they both began to smile and even effuse some sort of feeling. So much so that a woman at a nearby table seemed to react to it.

“No one we know has ever come back into one of these,” Robert said. “We have other things to do, and we’re not overly concerned with history anymore.”

I nodded, having considered that scenario.

“But yes, we’re enjoying it a great deal. The environment here is quite heavy compared to what we’re used to, so we won’t stay long, but it’s wonderful to experience just the same.”

“Then I am pleased.”

And I really was. They’re good men, and they should be satisfied.

“Let me ask you another one…”

Their laughter interrupted me.

“This is going to become a pattern, isn’t it?” James half-talked, half-laughed.

“It is,” I half-laughed back. “But here’s the question: Do you have limits on the questions you’ll answer for me?”

They looked confused at the question.

“Oh, do you mean like rules?” When Robert said “rules,” he treated the word as strange, even foreign.

“Well… I suppose so, more or less.”

“We don’t do rules,” he said. “If an answer would somehow hurt you or your people – and nothing really comes to mind – we’d just tell you that it could lead to damage and we’d decline to answer.”

I nodded my head, alternately feeling slightly embarrassed – I more or less knew that would be the case – and excited, because nothing was off limits to me.

* * * * *

The conversation was generally light for most of the dinner. They asked more questions than I did, about the food, the customs of my people, and so on. We ordered three different desserts, solely for the purpose of them trying them. One was a peach Melba, and it sent them nearly into orbit. They’d never tasted anything quite like peaches before, and they loved them. (It was a very well made peach Melba.)

Before we finished, however, I needed to ask one more fundamental question to give myself a clear view of where I was.

“You called these spin-off worlds, and my friend explained that they are temporary, like the particles that come and go inside atoms.” They both nodded their heads. “Then into what space are these worlds spun? They are somehow outside what I think of as the universe?”

Robert smiled. “What you think of as the universe – millions of galaxies and so on – sits inside of uncharted, and so far as we know, unchartable space. There is active space – the universe as you say – and there is an empty infinity in which it resides.

“These temporary autonomous systems form in the empty infinity. We call them spin-offs because everything in the active universe spins, and these carry that spin with them.”

“Does that help?” Jim asked.

“Yeah, I think it does, thanks,” glancing at both of them. “But it’s something I’ll certainly be coming back to later.”

“Good!” They both exclaimed, seeming to be pleased with themselves.

* * * * *

As we walked back to the hotel, I indulged them with explanations of Earth in general, the contrast between my time and this one, and peach-growing.

We agreed to spend one more day together, and then they would return to their homes. They were minded to sit in the lobby and discuss details, but I needed to sleep again, so we decided to meet at the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

* * * * *

“Excuse me, Mr. Rosenberg?”

It was the lady behind the desk, calling out to me as I walked into the lobby the next morning, heading toward my friends. Hearing my name shocked me. I remember using it as I checked in, but just barely… I was fairly dazed at the time. I remember thinking that it was the easiest thing, and besides, who would care in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1963?

I approached the woman. “A man is looking for you, Mr. Rosenberg… or rather, he’s looking for the owner of your car.”

There’s no way it could be the cops, I thought. This is 1963.

I said “Excuse me?” as I collected myself.

“Well, the gentleman is also a guest here, since last night. He came to the desk early this morning and asked where we parked the cars… that he had left something in his. One of our young men took him to it, and I guess he spotted yours. He says he’s a friend and would like you to ring him in his room.”

She handed me a slip of paper that said, “Room 309.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Can you describe this man to me?”

“Oh, sure,” she said brightly. “He’s somewhat older than you, not quite as tall, about the same amount of hair, a bit… round… and he’s also driving a car with Illinois plates.”

I thanked her again and said nothing about contacting the man. I didn’t want her to point me out to him.

As I walked to them, my friends saw my expression and asked what was wrong. I told them.

“This is a complicated little planet you’ve got here, isn’t it?” Jim was half laughing about it, while I was grim and worried.

 The difference in our first reactions was striking.

“He’s got to be a normal Earth man,” Robert added. “Our instruments worked beautifully.”

Jim agreed.

I tried to move at least partly toward Jim’s attitude. “Well,” I said as cheerfully as I could, “I guess we have to check him out. You guys seem to sense things well.” (Over dinner they had explained how they had sensed me.) “So, why don’t you go check him out. He may be in his room now.”

And indeed he was, again calling his son and enjoying a conversation with his grandson. Jim leaned on the door to 309 while Robert watched, which also involved a conversation with the cleaning lady. Soon enough they met me at the restaurant, where I was eating some French toast and sipping coffee.

“He’s a regular Earth man,” Jim said as he sat down. “His health is more fragile than it appears, and he somehow sensed you and your friend as an intrusion… a helpful intrusion… as you drove past his window, very early in the morning.”

He paused and I sat very still, taking it all in.

Then I asked, “How’d he get here?”

““He sensed what you were doing. That can be done, but I wouldn’t have expected it here… not by a lot. Is this common in your world?”

“No,” I said firmly, “it’s not. A few of us do things like that once in a while, but to do what he did… that’s very rare.”

“Okay, Paul, listen.” It was the first time any of my new friends used my name. Robert continued, “We’re too far removed from this man to deal with him. We’d like to leave him to you.”

I was halfway into one of my immediate and dark responses when I stopped it. I pulled back and said, “What in the world should I do with him?”

Robert’s response was instant. “Whatever causes the most benefit and least harm of course… you know that.”

“Yes, of course I do… sorry.”

“Now, we have a plan for you. Consider this: We’ll take your stolen car to some deserted place and let ourselves expire in it. That will close that chapter, yes?”

“Yes, it will, though you should be careful that your bodies aren’t discovered by children. A parking area at a police station would be a good place to do it.”

“Good, then we will. We’ll also give you our currency. That will help you, yes?”

“It will. I’m getting low.”

“Good. Now, with that taken care of, is there anything else that you need from us?”

“Everything and nothing,” I said.

They both smiled, understanding very well. And then they stood, bringing the conversation to its end… and very shorty their visit to its end.

“Walk us back to our room, Paul?”

I did of course, and they handed me a briefcase full of cash, easily $100,000, more than enough for years. We conversed lightly as they packed up their things and I called for my car.

At a quiet moment Jim turned to me. “I’d say this a bit differently in my own language, but I envy you for your journey. Try to enjoy it.”

I told him I would… try, that is. I wasn’t remotely ready to promise that I would stop going dark at first opportunities. Fixing that was going to take time.

I walked them downstairs and to the car. Robert tipped the young man who brought it and turned to me from the driver’s seat.

“We may be able to come back,” he said. “Any idea on a time and place?”

At that I had to smile, it was one of the few decisions I’d made thus far.

“Yes, in fact I do. One of the great mysteries of my time involves a shooting that will take place in a city called Dallas just over four months from now. I’d very much like to be there and solve that mystery.”

That lit them up.

“We love solving mysteries,” Robert said enthusiastically. “We’ll try to come. No promises, but it will help us if you leave a couple rolls of clothes for us somewhere convenient.”

“How will you know where?”

“Good question,” he said, turning to James.

“Wrap a gold coin in with the clothes,” he said. “That will be enough.”

“Then I shall… and thank you both for your help.”

“It was truly our pleasure,” they both said, then pulled away.

I walked around the block, slowly, trying – again – to sort my feelings and thoughts about where I was and what I was doing. And again I missed home.

I circled the block a second time and saw a clock in a store window. It read 10:45.

I thought about finding the man, but I was in no mood to do so. This guy knew far less than I did and would need me at my calmest and best.

So, when I came around, I went to the desk and asked the same young woman to call 309 and to tell the man that I’d meet him in the lobby at a quarter after twelve. That gave me an hour and a half.

The day was another hot one, but I very much needed to walk, and so I did, wandering almost aimlessly until I decided it was enough and started making my way back.

Then I saw another clock reading 11:30… and realized I was a long way from the hotel and dripping with sweat. Thankfully I found a cab and got back with enough time to shower and change.

* * * * *

The walk and the shower did me a lot of good.

I walked down to the lobby five minutes early and saw him sitting nervously. I thought of what kind of sensitivity this man must have exercised to find me. This was a very special guy. I doubt that more than one or two people on the planet could have done what he did.

And yet he looked so ordinary, so vulnerable. I had to help him, but could I really tell him the truth? Could he handle it?

Maybe he can, I said to myself. If anyone could, it would probably be him.

That of course dropped another unprecedented job into my lap. How would I even start that conversation?

I looked at the clock over the front desk. My time was just all but up. I looked at the man again and knew that it was torture for him, just sitting and waiting. I couldn’t delay this by more than the space of a few deep breaths.

What do I do with such a guy? I asked myself. He may be one in a billion, but there he sits, almost shaking with apprehension.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

Return Engagements (Book One) PART 11… in which my pursuers confront me

Robert and James got to Mankato at around noon, took their driver’s phone number for the return trip, checked into the hotel, cleaned up, and lay down on their beds. After a while, they took their prayer position and spoke quietly. “James, I think it’s just one person now, do you agree?”

Picking up from Part 10, in which I made myself presentable and started planning my temporary future.

Robert and James got to Mankato at around noon, took their driver’s phone number for the return trip, checked into the hotel, cleaned up, and lay down on their beds. After a while, they took their prayer position and spoke quietly.

“James, I think it’s just one person now, do you agree?”

After perhaps 20 seconds, a long gap between a question and its answer, James said, “Yes, I agree. I’m as certain as I can be that there were two before, but now there’s only one.” He turned to Robert, “What kind of situation have we stepped into? One of them has died.”

Robert’s expression said that he was just as concerned. Then they both went back to their sensing position.

“He… and it is a ‘he’… is close, don’t you think?”

“Yes, James, I do… in this building somewhere.”

“Then I guess we see if we can locate him, yes?”

“Yes, but let’s try not to let him know. Let’s learn as much and sense as much as we can and then decide what to do next. Agreed?”

Robert nodded and in mere seconds they were out their door and into a stairwell, descending until they found the floor and then the room.

They stood outside, one leaning on the door like they did the bank vault and the other watching for passersby. After a minute they retreated to the stairwell, where they decided that I was: 1) sleeping, 2) likely to wake up within an hour, 3) not dangerous, and 4) a man from this planet, though somehow out of sync with the rest of it.

And so they went back to the lobby and waited, thinking that a pleasant and personal greeting, in a safe environment, would be the best way to handle such a meeting.

“These people have a lot of fear in them and around them,” Robert had noted, “and this man has been affected by it too. We need to avoid fear as much as possible.”

James agreed and they prepared themselves to be as open and caring as they could, while still not being overpowering. They wanted to match their new friend’s best intentions, perhaps exceeding them just a bit.

* * * * *

Michael Burroughs soon realized that the more he relaxed and cultivated pleasure in himself, the better he could smell his trail. And so he stopped twice more along his route westward, enjoying the journey.

By mid-afternoon, however, his full attention returned to his search, which rose to clarity as the thing he really wanted to do. And so he did it. Step by step, one small highway at a time, left at one intersection straight at another, he approached Mankato.

Before sunset he’d check in at the same hotel as the rest of our accidental group. But being tired, he’d put himself directly to bed.

* * * * *

It was close to 3:00 before I headed downstairs for an afternoon walk through the streets of Mankato. The area around the hotel was full of shops, so if the sun was too hot I could simply dive into one of them. As I strode through the lobby, I decided that I’d head toward the theater first, to check the show times for Cleopatra.

“Pardon me, sir. Do you think you could help us for a moment? We’re trying to make sense of something.”

The man seemed warm and pleasant, as did his friend. I felt a hint of something unusual about them and something in addition to what they were asking, but it felt like a benevolent something. I followed the man to where his friend was sitting at a low table with a road map open on it. I sat directly across the table from them.

“What we’re trying to figure out,” James asked with the proverbial raised eyebrow, signifying something more than he was saying, “is how and why a man could simply appear on the far north side of Chicago, drive cross-country with a companion, lose that companion and end up here?”

I dropped instantly and fully into self-protection mode. Automatically, I reminded myself of the exits and readied my body for action.

“Please,” Robert jumped in. “You have nothing to fear from us. We’re not here for anything except to understand.”

I tended to believe him, but I had no way of gauging his sincerity. If these guys, like my travel friend, were from some advanced group, they’d certainly be able to trick me.

I held up my left index finger in the common “wait” gesture. They understood, sat back in their seats and waited. And I took my time thinking about this. For starters, I could probably just run away from them; they didn’t seem like they’d chase me through a half-full hotel lobby and city streets. But if I did that, I’d lose any possible information I might get from them.

And what if I do talk to them? I wondered. I really couldn’t see how it could hurt me. To know how I got to this place, they had to be more advanced than I, and if they had wanted to hurt me in some way, they probably would have done it already… They wouldn’t have set up a meet in a public place.

“Okay,” I finally said, “I’ll talk to you. But first you have to tell me something.”

They looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders as if to say “seems fine.”

“Why are you here?”

“Oh, that’s not hard,” Robert said. “We’re on call for disruptions in what we call spin-off worlds.”

“And by spin-off world, you mean the large autonomous systems that pop in and out of existence like virtual particles do inside of atoms?”

That shocked them, noticeably.

“I presume the other person told you this?” James asked.

“She did indeed. I had some background knowledge about short-lived subatomic particles. And she used that toe-hold to explain the rest.”

As I said this, I realized that these men really were being sincere. Their involuntary shock at what I knew illustrated the sincerity of what they had said previously. It looked very much that they were not playing mind games on me.

“But she didn’t tell me a great deal more than that,” I went on. “And she died… let herself die on purpose… last night in Minneapolis.”

“Ah…” they both said.

“That makes sense now,” Robert went on. “The ambient conditions here were too difficult for her?”

“Very much so. And they’re not for you?”

“They’re bad for us too,” James said, “but we were prepared for them.”

“I see.” Again I could feel overload sliding in upon me. “But I think I need to rest again now.” They looked confused. “Put yourselves in my position gentlemen. I’m living my normal life, and then, one random night, I’m thrown into all of this. It’s a major load on my system keeping up with it… absorbing it.”

They nodded their heads.

“So how about this: I’m going to go back upstairs and lie down for a while. When I get up, I’ll call your room. You have a room at this hotel, yes?”

“Yes,” James said, “room 601.”

“601, good. I’ll call you once I get up, and the three of us will have a nice long dinner together and make some sense of all this. Deal?”

Both men stood and extended their hands.

“It’s a deal,” they both agreed.

I shook their hands and walked toward the elevator. By the time I reached my room I was almost staggering. The hits just keep on coming wafted through my mind. I had been recovering, but now I was tossed backward again, and further than before.

“It all sounds good in stories,” I said to myself as I relaxed into the bed, “but in real life, it sucks the energy right out of you.”

It seemed that I could feel – physically feel – a cluster of concepts and images as they sorted themselves in the back of my head.

* * * * *

This time, I rolled over and asked myself if it could really be a dream. My travel companion was clearly a real, flesh and blood person, with vulnerabilities and strengths like the rest of us. These two men as well. They seemed like actual persons, with concerns and doubts, who could be surprised. But unless I was just going crazy, these were beings from other planets… and that sounds nuts.

It comforted me that these people seemed just as human as anyone else, and I could find no reason to doubt that they were from a remote branch of the family. On top of that, they were waiting for my phone call, the same as any of my friends might, ready to go out for dinner. In no essential way did they feel foreign.

I got up to wash my face but decided to take a shower instead. It would give me some extra time, and it just felt like a better thing to do. But first I sat on the edge of the bed, called the desk, and asked them to connect me to room 601.

“Ah, we’re so happy to hear from you,” one of the two men said. “We had no better choice than to throw ourselves at you in the lobby, and we half feared that we had chased you off.”

The sincerity in his voice was compelling, and it made me laugh. Still, I came back with, “And what would you have done if I did run away?”

“Honestly,” he said, “we weren’t sure. We’ve never done this before. I suppose we would have left, then come back and checked on you after some time.”

It’s hard to turn away from honest and peaceful men. “How about if we meet in the lobby in 40 minutes?” I asked.

“That will be brilliant,” he answered. “We’ll get a restaurant recommendation from the hotel desk person.”

“Super. See you then.”

Cálmate, cálmate,” I muttered to myself as warm water rushed over my head. “Calm yourself, calm yourself.”

And I did feel calmer as I reminded myself that they were people with feelings and concerns just like me.

* * * * *

Walking into the lobby, I realized that my two new friends were dressed in precisely the same clothes as before, and the clothes looked like they needed to be changed.

I walked to where they were sitting, leaned in, and asked, “Gentlemen, are those the only clothes you have?”

“Yes,” they both said, with James adding, “We should change more often, yes?”

“Yes,” I half-laughed. “You’re okay for tonight, but tomorrow I’ll take you to a men’s clothing store. Do you have currency?”

“Plenty of currency,” he assured me.

And with that they stood and we walked out, discussing the restaurant as we went.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)