A Whole New Year
New Year’s Eve, the night The Bergen Evening Record published the letter, my father’s buddy Scrubby was having cocktails with us. My father had the paper folded open to the page that featured his letter. He hoisted his martini glass to us—me, my brother Davey, my mother and Scrubby—from his favorite chair, the one he found on clean-up week and re-upholstered himself, and looked it. The rest of us sat on the couch which used a stack of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books for one of its back legs.
“Here’s to the new year ahead of us and so on,” he said. “A whole new year,” and took a big slurp.
We all raised our various glasses. Me and Davey our RC Colas, my mother her VO, Scrubby his rye.
No one knew for sure where my father first met Scrubby, but none of the smart money was on the library. Scrubby was not the name his parents gave him, way back in the lost mists of time, but everyone except my mother had called him that since about the fourth grade. My mother insisted on ‘Lloyd,’ his birth name, believing it sounded ‘less vulgar’ than ‘Scrubby.’
“He has nowhere else to go and you know how I feel about people being alone on holidays,” my mother said, as if his presence required an explanation. My mother and father were going to the Kaplans’ party later. Scrubby was invited to stay for dinner at our place, but most emphatically not to the Kaplans’. That she also called him a ‘foul-mouthed little drunk’ when he wasn’t around probably figured heavily into her thinking.
My father had written The Record innumerable letters on a broad variety of subjects. He had an entire drawer in one of his filing cabinets full of his past efforts. They’d never printed a single one.
“I don’t know why you bother anymore because I can assure you they’re no longer reading them,” my mother had taken to telling him when he would post yet another one. “At this point, they’re probably just dropping them in the round file without opening them.”
“I don’t think they can do that,” my father said. “It’s a law or something.”
“All right, then they’re sticking them in the ‘crackpot file,’” she said.
That The Record had published his latest letter surprised my father as much as anyone but he wasn’t about to let on; besides, gloating around my mother always backfired; all of us knew that and figured, “Why bother?”
He read the letter from his chair.
“I see, they’ve taken the liberty of writing a headline of their own. ‘Never Liked Kennedy.’ Not necessarily the head I would have chosen, but so be it.”
He pulled himself straight and tall and began.
“‘Editor, The Record:’”
He paused there for dramatic emphasis, letting what little anticipation there was build.
He cleared his throat. Adjusted his glasses.
“OK, already,” my mother said. Scrubby giggled watching his best friend get bested by his wife.
He gave her one of his looks that said, “and now you, too?” and began.
“‘I regret the loss of human life as much as the next man, if not more; but let’s keep things in their proper perspective. The man who was shot on November 22 was a human being and not a god. As a matter of fact, he was a pretty sad example of a man, much less a President.’”
My mother did her best to look attentive but the rest of us picked at invisible imperfections in the couch’s covering.
“‘This horrible display of extremely bad taste we have all had to endure for the past 30 days has taken a revolting toll on every thinking person not carried away with the adoration for this phony. We have suffered in silence and watched those who have never displayed a flag in their lives suddenly put one out at half-staff. We have listened patiently to the wailing in the streets by former critics. We have witnessed the wearing of sackcloth and ashes beyond the demonstration of the loss of a loved one from one’s own family.’”
He paused to look around the room, seeing if we were getting it all.
“‘But the hypocrisy today at the Lincoln Memorial has reached the point of nausea.’”
Weeks before, he and I watched President Johnson light the National Christmas Tree in front of the Lincoln Memorial on TV. Johnson spoke briefly, comparing Kennedy to Lincoln, at which point my father descended into his basement office, swearing, and tapped this latest out on his aging Royal. I had forgotten about the whole thing until the moment he began reading it to us.
“‘What a defamatory thing to do to the memory of a great American…the emancipator of mankind…the freer of slaves…the champion of the downtrodden!’”
Here he stopped with a scowl.
“Hmmm,” he said.
“What?” my mother said.
“They seem to be inserting ellipses here. They’re not printing what I wrote.”
“They can do that, I’m pretty sure,” my mother said.
“Whaddaya mean eclipses?” Scrubby said.
“Of course they can edit it, but they’re changing the meaning here.”
He re-gathered himself and plunged on.
“‘The comparison between Lincoln and Kennedy is completely odious to a rational, thinking person…’”
Of course he considered himself the epitome of what a rational thinking person should be.
“‘The latter was the worst President in the history of our country. He looked upon mankind as just so many dollar signs. He gave the world nothing but lip service. He talked of new laws when he wasn’t man enough to enforce existing ones.
“‘Until this time I thought Kennedy did one good thing: select Johnson for his Vice-President. I stood behind Johnson as a man and a leader, but apparently he is cast in the same die…’
“Shit. More ellipses.”
“What’re eclipses?” Scrubby insisted.
He looked to Scrubby.
“’Ellipses,’ not ‘eclipses.’
“One uses ellipses when one punctuates something with three successive periods to show one has left something out of the original text and so on and so forth. That there was text there once that now has been left out.” Writing and grammar were in his wheelhouse—he was constantly correcting us, pointing out the fine points that we kids, and most of the rest of the humanity for that matter, were ignorant of.
“Is one going to finish or is one going to let four sit here all night?” my mother said.
“Eclipses are when the sky darkens during the day, when the moon gets in front of the sun and obscures its light.”
“I know what a fucking eclipse is,” Scrubby said, “I just don’t know what it has to do with all this bullshit.”
“There’s a passage in King Solomon’s Mines—Have we all read that?—where the explorers hoodwink the natives by pretending to cause the sun to go out, when in actuality it was only a predictable eclipse. The whole bit was a little too contrived for my taste; the eclipse coinciding exactly with the moment the explorers were about to get boiled in a pot and what-have-you.”
“I read it in Classics Illustrated,” I said. I didn’t even know there was a book; I thought it was a movie parody, like in MAD.
“Come to think of it, these ellipses are eclipses,” my father said. “They obscure the light of meaning that was in my original letter.”
“It seems pretty clear to me, so far anyway,” my mother said.
“I have the carbon down cellar, the complete text. I can go get it. It’ll only take me a minute to find it,” he said making like he was going to get out of his chair.
“Just finish,” she said. “Jesus.”
“‘I hope that the ending of the 30-day mourning period is really the end.
“‘Mine is probably a lonely voice crying out in the night. But I don’t think so!”
He thrust his index finger skyward to mark the exclamation point.
“‘Remember, this is the man who squeaked through and got the highest office in our land with considerably less than a 1 per cent plurality. I voted against him. I could never stand the man. Am I now expected to endure the hypocrisy of eulogizing him?’
“And they give my name and address and a post date.”
RICHARD D. OENSLAGER
1279 English Road
West Tanglewood, Dec. 22, 1963 (Published December 31, 1963)
“I hope the Kaplans haven’t read that,” my mother said, worried.
“And what if they have?” my father countered.
“Well, I don’t want to see the whole party turn into a big argument about the Kennedys. Like last year.”
“After the performance you two put on,” she said, indicating my father and Scrubby, “it’s a wonder any of us are getting invited back. I’m certainly not going to bring this misguided soul with us, whose only mission in life is to egg you on. You and your filthy jokes.”
“I remember that night,” Scrubby said. “They had a big bowl of Spanish peanuts and shrimp and gravy with wine in it. Outside it was cold as a brass monkey’s ass, thought I was gonna freeze my balls off that night. Good thing it was inside instead of out on the patio.”
“Good thing there was a lot of antifreeze handy,” my father said.
“And that’s another thing, Rich, no stingers for you this year, stick with the gin and you’ll be alright,” she said, rolling her eyes.
The phone rang out in the kitchen.
“I wonder who that could be,” she said jumping up to go answer it.
“No stingers? What will I ever do?” my father said, grabbing his chest, feigning a heart attack. Scrubby laughed at his antics, as always.
After a few days, the threatening phone calls let up and things seemed to be calming down a little when the Record printed another letter:
THE HATE HANGS ON
Editor, The Record:
The letter of Richard D. Oenslager blasting the memory of our late President and printed in your paper of December 31 was a vicious declaration of hatred…
For the benefit of Mr. Oenslager and others like him I’d like to name just two of Kennedy’s achievements. One, he succeeded in changing the course of mankind from a threat of total annihilation to thoughts of permanent peace. Two, he helped the Negro reach a stature of greater dignity and equality.
John F. Kennedy was a man concerned with the problems of mankind, and he was endowed with an ability to solve those problems. He will long be remembered for his achievements.
(Mrs.) RAE KAUFMAN
3-17 Kenneth Avenue
Fair Lawn. Jan. 2, 1964 (Published Jan. 8, 1964)
“I think ‘hate’ is a little strong, don’t you?’” he said, looking to my mother for confirmation, “I said I never cared for him. I never used the word ‘hate.’”
“We should never hate people,” my mother said, turning toward us. “Hate only makes things worse.” A couple of days later another letter appeared.
POOR MR. OENSLAGER
Editor, The Record:
I felt so very sorry for Mr. Richard D. Oenslager that I was moved to tears for him after reading his caustic sentiment for the late President Kennedy.
Judging from the response of the many to his view (not vision) I propose that a 30-day mourning period for him and his kind is in order.
MARY JANE VERBOS
419 First St. Carlstadt,
Jan 8, 1964 (Published January 10, 1964)
He read this one to us, like the other ones.
“Har, har, har-dee, har har,” he said, quoting Ralph Kramden.
“I think The Record needs to put a stop to this—and this instant!’ my mother said.
“What would you have me do?” he asked.
“You’re the one likes writing to them so much, go write them another one and explain to them what we’re going through.”
The phone calls had resumed with the publication of the first rebuttal letter; sometimes the callers would just hang up, other times they had some choice words for my father or whoever happened to pick up the phone, “As if it’s my fault my husband is a crank,” my mother said.
The men came to the door right after dinner. My mother immediately shooed us upstairs.
“Go on, scoot.”
We were already in our pajamas; it was the dead of winter and black and ground-frozen outside. The men wore suits and ties under their overcoats.
I got into bed even though it was early for me. I waited a minute or so, hoping to hear the conversation from my bed, but it was too far away. I crawled soundlessly from under the covers and crawled across the floor to the top of the stairs. I lay on the floor and hung my head at the triangle where the stairs met the living room ceiling. From there I could watch and listen.
They sat around the cocktail table on the couch, my father in his chair, leaning forward from the edges of their seats, huddled elbows on knees, not casual at all.
No one had a drink.
“The letters started coming in, when?” the older one said. They had various-sized pieces of paper and envelopes, torn open, spread on the cocktail table between them.
“Oh, pretty much the next day,” my mother said.
“And the phone calls?”
“That evening, suppertime,” my mother said.
“So, as soon as the paper was delivered, the calls started, there had never been anything like this before that evening?” the younger one said.
“Never,” my father spoke for the first time.
“You didn’t call anyone?”
“We thought it would blow over,” my mother said.
“The police didn’t do anything when we finally did call. Those bastards…” my father said.
“One of them said not to sit in front of the window, that they know where he sits, they can see him through the window,” my mother was saying.
“This was one of the callers?” the younger man said.
“Uh-huh. I mean, yes.”
“Well, keep your drapes closed, the way you have them now, day and night. When we came up the walk we looked things over and those drapes don’t let much through. No one from outside can see enough to…” the younger one said.
The older one said, “You should change your number to an unlisted one right away and only give it to people you know and tell them not to give it to anyone else. We’ll talk to New Jersey Bell and put them on notice that this is going on, that’ll expedite things, that’s all we can do there.”
“They’ll probably figure out a way to charge me extra, knowing those sonsofbitches,” my father muttered.
“What about the car? They said…” My mother again.
“Was that a call? One of the letters?”
“A letter,” my father said. He shuffled through the papers, found it, and handed it to the older man.
“Sometimes we can get fingerprints off these, but not very often,” he said, “besides, this usually isn’t the work of someone we have in our files. It’s usually normal, solid citizen-types going a little off the rails…” the older one said.
“Keep the car in the garage and keep the garage door locked,” the younger man said, talking over his partner. “If it doesn’t lock, fix it so it will.”
“You can hardly open the doors as it is,” my mother said rolling her eyes. “They stick so.”
“We’ll go to the police station after we’re through here and arrange to have them run some extra patrols past here, keep an eye on the place, especially after dark.”
“The police seem to think he hates the Irish or something, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” my mother said.
“Those bastards were no help at all—Officers Delaney and Murphy—they all pulled together around their fellow Micks. They laughed at us, treated us like we were the ones in the wrong.”
I remembered when the cops came over. They’d read my father’s letter and looked at the same hate mail the FBI guys were looking at now. The one named Murphy said, “Well, what the hell did you expect? Who do you think you are? Ebenezer Scrooge? Trying to screw up everyone’s holiday with this stuff? Like it isn’t bad enough with our President martyred right under our noses, now you gotta go and do this?”
“’Ebenezer Scrooge!’” Delaney said, laughing. He thought his partner was a riot.
“I waited until the mourning period was over,” my father said defensively, “until after Christmas.”
“The fucking thing is dated December 22,” the one called Murphy said and turned to my mother with an apologetic frown “Pardon my French, ma’am.”
“Nothing I haven’t heard before,” she said with a shrug, “many, many times.”
“Me either,” Delany said, laughing again, “‘French!’ Jesus! Fuckin’ guy.”
“We’ll make sure they’re a little more helpful in the future,” the older one said. “No matter how they feel about you, that’s what we’re here for, partly at least. We’ll talk to the Captain or the Lieutenant down there. Whoever’s in charge.”
My father gave them a look that said. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“What about the kids?” my mother asked.
“Some of the other children are bullying them, threatening them,” my father said.
“Talk to the principal tomorrow, tell him what’s going on…” the older one said.
“…her…” my mother blurted, as though it was important.
“…tell her what’s going on. You might want to keep them out of school a week or so until this blows over, he…she…might even recommend that.”
They talked some more, going over details. They all sounded and looked worried.
“Look, I was only trying to make a point about the way we talk about this thing,” my father said. “About getting our terminology right. The Record edited it in a slanted and unfair fashion until it was robbed of its original meaning. They changed the punctuation, left parts of it out.”
“Still, did you really think you could write a letter like that, at a time like this, and not provoke a reaction?” the younger of the two asked.
“Well, yes. I…I thought I’d get a reaction, certainly, along the lines of angry letters to the paper, shit like that. I never expected anything like this.”
The two men got up to leave, their hats in their hands. My mother and father thanked them; they said all the expected stuff about just doing their jobs.
“It seems to me people used to be more civil to each other,” my father said.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” the older one said, “in this job we see both the good and the bad side-by-side all the time.”
“I mean as opposed to years ago,” my father said. “It seems things have coarsened.”
“I know,” the older guy said. “It does seem that way sometimes.”
“A lot of the time,” the other one said.
Byron Spooner retired as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library after 21 years. There he ran the Friends’ bookselling operation grossing $1.5 million in book sales through open bookstores, the Annual Big Book Sale, and online book sales. He also produced literary events including a highly-successful weekly poetry series featuring a diverse array of California poets, with co-producer San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman; three San Francisco International Poetry Festivals; and Latinx and Vietnamese poetry festivals. Byron founded and edited The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, he co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in LEON Literary Review, Arthropod Literary Journal, Passengers Journal, Manifest-Station, the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron served for ten years on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL. He is on the Board of Litquake and California Public Library Advocates and the advisory board of the Beat Museum. He has recently completed a novel. He is a co-owner of Andover Street Archives, brokering cultural archives to university libraries, and Andover Street Archives Press, publishing the work of Bay Area writers.