I’m not sure why I chose Howie Herskovisy to be my partner in solving mysteries. Perhaps it was because, a year younger than me and living one very long block away, he dwelled outside my everyday social circles. Or perhaps, in his freckled blondness and quiet dreaminess, I recognized both the exotic and the familiar.
Our first case involved Mrs. Alter, the woman my parents had hired to come to our house two afternoons a week to cook and clean while they were at work. She was a broad, lumbering Polish woman in her early fifties, with wide shoulders and thick ankles that ballooned out of the tops of the black laced boots that she wore on even the hottest of summer days. A thin layer of greasy perspiration coating the broken blood vessels in her nose and cheeks gave her clenched face a red and glistening veneer. Her light blue eyes were locked in a perpetual squint, and when the sun streaming into the house struck the wire frames of her glasses, they seemed to emit predatory daggers of light. Swollen and sagging, the bosom that strained against her flowered dress created the impression of someone both inflated and defeated at the same time. Or, as I thought then, mean.
Beyond the fact that she spoke very little English, Mrs. Alter was profoundly foreign, smelling sourly of cabbage and sweat, and always grumpy. She’d scrub the counters with a frightening vigor, as if expecting to uncover gold dust beneath the robin’s-egg Formica. Then she’d take a break and sit down at one end of the narrow kitchen table, a glass of hot tea in front of her, with a tablespoon resting in it, she explained, to “eat the heat.” Pressing a sugar cube to her front teeth with her tongue, she’d take frequent, short sips, imbibing in loud, hissing bursts that reminded me of a snake I’d seen on a TV show, inhaling a live mouse.
My brother and I complained about her to our parents. Why did we need her? How come she smelled so bad? Why did she only make stupid hard cookies with poppy seeds instead of soft ones that oozed with melting chocolate chips?
“Don’t be mean just because she’s different,” my mother would chastise us. “Mrs. Alter doesn’t have an easy life.”
That brought our complaining to a dead stop. We were supposed to feel bad for people who didn’t have easy lives. We were to treat them with kindness and respect, and help them if we could. But what was so hard about her life?
“Her son’s a no-goodnick,” my mother said to my father over dinner one night, “and her daughter-in-law’s even worse. It’s not like they’re hurting for money. Who puts their mother out to work cleaning other peoples’ houses if they don’t have to? It’s not just unkind. There’s something, I don’t know, unseemly about it.”
“Unseemly” sounded criminal to me. If Mrs. Alter’s son and daughter-in-law were mean to her, surely they were up to other nefarious activities as well.
Our love of detective stories wasn’t unique to Howie and me. Children are still drawn to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, to Encyclopedia Brown and Timmy Failure. These characters have physical courage but also smarts. They’re spunky, with a sense of their own agency that all kids aspire to and lucky ones have. But there’s more to it than that. Adult interactions are encrypted. Grownups use code words for sentiments that are too impolite to explicitly express, small gestures like shrugs and eye rolls to convey who is to be pitied, scorned, or simply ignored. They borrow phrases from other languages, exchange long and opaque gazes when someone has transgressed by being too noisy or too quiet, too demonstrative or too restrained, too smart or too stupid. Kids understand that to grow up, they must first decipher, then adopt the code. So they learn to love looking for clues. They seek triumph in the face of the dangers they have invented.
Howie and I started, as all good detectives do, with footprints. In 1963, Cote St. Luc was a neighborhood expanding into a suburb as it strained ever westward, and even the four-block walk from Westminster School to my house revealed its striations. The two-block area surrounding the school comprised bungalows and small ranch houses built immediately post-war. When we moved into our split-level ranch house in 1956, we were its first occupants, and Howie’s family was the first to inhabit their semi-detached townhouse. But just a couple of blocks south and west of mine, new roads and large brick homes – free standing and almost palatial with their arched doorways, multiple floors, and garages that opened and closed with the push of a button – were being built in what had been empty fields.
And in front of them were freshly poured sidewalks, rich with clues. Despite being cordoned off by thick red string, the rectangles of wet concrete held imprints and etchings. Howie and I tried to decode them as we patrolled the new streets, looking for footprints. Some, my father had told me – the ones with neatly stenciled arrows and letters like SW or 30V – indicated where water lines and electrical cables met in submerged junctions. Others – the messy scrawled initials, five- and six-pointed stars, and the handprints – were clearly made by other kids.
We ignored the handprints, and after only a couple of forays, found signs of steps. But they were never more than one or two consecutive footprints, traces that trailed off like an unfinished thought.
“They must be trying to escape detection,” I told Howie. Still, we stayed on the trail, scouting the newly named Wolseley Avenue, speculating as to why the evil daughter-in-law and weak-willed son wanted Mrs. Alter out of the house. It might have been so that they had time and space in which to sort their stolen jewels, or so that they could counterfeit their money in peace. Or perhaps, given the proximity of the train yard, they were smugglers.
Besides being the possible site of the Alter family iniquity, the train yard held another fascination. With its lack of houses and people, its expanse of nothing but track, dirt, and a handful of mute, permanently parked freight cars, it was the most likely site in Cote St. Luc for quicksand. I knew all about quicksand, having seen not just the Lassie episode in which Timmy gets stuck in it, but also the Sky King episode in which, thanks to some mighty fine piloting by Sky King, Penny is able to toss a lasso down from the low-flying, circling Cessna to the robber who is sinking fast below them. As the viscous sand laps him in, the robber faces a choice: throw away the satchel of loot that he’s stolen from the bank in order to grab hold of the lifesaving rope that will lift him to safety, or be swallowed alive, a victim of his own greed. For that was the nature of quicksand – it didn’t distinguish between the good, like Timmy, and the bad, like that stupid robber, and it was indistinguishable from solid ground.
We went to the train yard prepared. I wore my red pedal pushers so that I wouldn’t get any quicksand on the cuffs of my pants, and though I had no lasso, I did bring my yo-yo. As usual, Howie was sitting outside on the front stairs to his house, and silently joined me as I parked my bike in front of my aunt and uncle’s. We had walked to the dead end of Westluke before, but this was the first time that we’d ever actually stepped over the rounded curb and onto the hard-packed dirt, studded with bottle caps and rounded bits of glass. As we neared the tracks, we turned left and, eyes to the ground, paced slowly in parallel to them. But if there were footprints, we couldn’t discern them in the mottled mix of hardened mud and tufted weeds. The rusty CNR freight cars had no hobos sleeping in them, nor were there small bands of white slaves or fugitive Nazis cowering beneath them. Even now I’d like to say that there were bills of counterfeit money blowing forlornly in the late afternoon breeze, or that we’d found the papery skeleton of a rabbit or a lost cat. But we saw little besides rocks and puddles, and the naked sides of the last houses on each block.
It was nearing dusk, and the blue-grey sky was made darker by rain clouds blowing in. Thunder growled nearby, and as we headed back, first jogging, then in a flat-out dash, the skies opened up and we were blasted by rain. The already-damp ground turned instantly slick and I slid, falling flat on my chest. Howie helped me up; we kept running. The hard-packed dirt loosened under the pounding, turning into a sticky, oozing mud, and a minute later, one of my canvas sneakers got stuck in the muck and my foot lifted right out of it. I stopped for a second to try to retrieve it, but Howie kept going, and I was afraid to stand still, panicked that the ground would grasp more than my shoe.
I was covered in mud by the time I got back to my bike. Howie was already in his house. He’d left me alone on the abandoned block. When I got home, my mother made me strip off my dripping clothes in the foyer, despite the fact that Jerry Marcus was there playing floor hockey with my brother. She wrapped me in a bath towel, and as she marched me through the house to the tub, Jerry, the friend of my brother who I most despised, poked his head out from the top of the basement stairs and, in his best Woody Woodpecker voice, cawed Uh uh uh AW uh. My humiliation was complete.
That was probably the last of my adventures with Howie. Years later I heard that he’d become a dentist, and that his mother left his father for a failed affair with Sheila Fineberg’s father down the block. I can no longer hear his voice, let alone anything he may have said. I remember his fair complexion and his placidity, which I didn’t recognize as sadness. He was my uncritical companion on those still afternoons when we strayed from the familiar onto brand new blocks, where nobody was known, nobody knew us, and everything but the inscrutable faces of the houses themselves was imagined.
Were we just like any suburban kids, living at any time in any place? Or were we attuned to the zeitgeist, sensing if not knowing that 1962 held some very real, very big secrets.
Three years earlier, the United States’ satellite program had been launched, not to promote communication, but surveillance. An orbiting Corona satellite would shoot photographs of secret facilities around the world, then jettison the film canisters. Fifty thousand feet over the Pacific, as the canisters delicately drifted downward – their flight slowed by a brightly colored parachute – a crew of ten skilled pilots, lassoers, and winch operators would snatch the film capsules out of mid-air and reel them in to their aircraft. After landing, they’d place the film on another aircraft that would transport it to Maryland for analysis. This process, making it possible to see what was going on around the globe in an operation that required mere days to complete, demanded an extraordinary meld of engineering, logistics, and human skill. But of course, it wasn’t publicized, let alone celebrated.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, provoked by satellite images of Soviet missiles ensconced in Cuba, there had certainly been nothing festive about our family’s abrupt mid-week excursion to the country house in St. Adolphe. Secretly warned by the head of the Canadian military – brother of a Canadian Air Force friend of my Uncle Herbie’s – that nuclear war was imminent and we should get out of Montreal, our parents loaded up the cars with my cousins, my brother, and me and cases of canned goods and fled the city. Though the five of us kids often played soldier, marching in lockstep while chanting “Left, Right, I had a good job and I Left, Right …,” on that October day we filed silently between house and cars with suitcases, lanterns, jugs of detergent, milk, bleach, and a lone can of maple syrup.
Our first afternoon there, we sat on the porch steps, and looked across the grey lake to the Franklin’s, a house long-abandoned and most probably haunted. After a brief caucus, we decided that after all these years of wondering, it was time to finally explore it. We piled into the boat. As my cousin Paul rowed towards the house across the lake, we girls sang. Just you wait, ‘Enry ‘Iggins, Just you wait, You’ll be sorry but your tears’ll be too late – shouting out the sorry, investing it with as much Cockney malice as our skinny throats could summon.
But our song faded as the boat neared shore. We scrambled up the barren rock, climbed soggy, leaf-covered steps, and pushed open the unlocked door to the Franklin’s house. Splinters of fading light slanting through gaps in the walls illuminated a couch with a broken leg, spewing out mildewed stuffing. A brown, straight-backed chair had fallen on its side. An empty, greasy, blackened pan sat atop a cold wood stove. Next to it, the delicate carcass of a mouse was still clamped in its trap.
Walking cautiously through the dank room, I kicked something and looked down. A soggy game board lay littered with animal droppings, and strewn about the floor, in garish oranges and blues and greens, were the shriveled remains of popped balloons and faded Monopoly money.
Children had lived here.
Silently, we left. We girls tried singing on the boat ride back. You’ll be broke and I’ll have money. Will I help you? Don’t be funny. Our song sounded like a whimper.
I was only eight and remember little of that time – just that first and last trip to a house that would never be lived in again; the sound of our parents listening to the radio; we kids playing desultory games of Sorry; the two families’ dogs writhing in the damp autumn leaves.
Our house was cold and after a couple of days of awaiting the apocalypse, we decamped and went back to town.
“We probably just told you that we were taking a fun school vacation,” my mother says when I ask her how she explained these events to us.
“And why were you advised to leave the city?” I press her. “Why would the Russians have bombed Montreal?”
“I don’t know why he told us to leave. Maybe he thought there’d be rioting or pillaging.” She pauses. “Now that I think about it, our going to the Laurentians made no sense. If anything was going to be bombed, it would have been the NORAD radar towers in Morin Heights, right near St. Adolphe.”
“But you didn’t realize that then?”
My mother looks perplexed. “I guess not. I don’t know if we were panicked or just incredibly passive back then. It simply didn’t occur to us to ask those kinds of questions.”
But my parents, many parents of the 1950s and ‘60s, were acutely afraid and thus deeply angry in the face of such madness. This was not what so many of them had risked and lost their young lives for in World War II. Some of them managed their anxiety and rage at how their lives had shrunk so soon after blossoming, with Valium and Librium, what the Rolling Stones would later call “Mother’s Little Helper.” Some doubled down on their denial. They pursued stability and wealth and, when their children revolted, dismissed or, in severe cases, disowned them. And some, like my parents, looked for the other closeted malcontents who shared their restlessness.
For a few years, Jack Kennedy served as the vessel for their vague ambitions. For them and so many of their generation, JFK’s inaugural address was more than lofty rhetoric. Since August 6, 1945, they’d known that, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” They felt that union of hope and terror every day.
But that ended on November 22, 1963. Just before school ended that day, Mrs. Bailey told us that JFK had been shot and killed.
Susan Hirschorn and I dawdled on our walk home. It was a slow, leisurely journey, past new street signs and stop signs, each block bearing its own landmarks. (That’s the poet’s house, I’d recite to myself. There’s where that girl Ruth with the mustache lives. On this street used to live the man that disappeared – killed or a runaway, nobody knows.) As we walked, we discussed what would happen next.
“Do you think the Russians will take over?” I asked Susan. As third graders born and raised in Montreal, though our airwaves were dominated by American culture and politics, we knew nothing about American laws of succession.
“They might,” Susan answered. “Or they might not. I mean if they tried, the US might drop the bomb on them.”
“Americans would never start a war,” I protested.
“Wouldn’t they?” she answered archly. With her brassy voice and already budding breasts, she struck me as very mature. “They’re very bossy.”
I’d seen televised Russians at their May Day parades. With their jowly faces, in their square suits, they looked grumpy and mean. But they seemed too glum to terrorize anyone. In fact, they looked not so different from John Diefenbaker, until recently Canada’s own petulant Prime Minister. (And his successor, Lester Pearson – well, he seemed friendly, but was named Lester and therefore couldn’t be taken seriously.) Besides, it was the Americans who had dropped the two atom bombs, right?
When I got home I found my mother in the basement, crying and painting. The canvas showed faces streaked and blistered in strokes and pools of brown and beige, faces ravaged and weeping like hers. I’d never seen her use such dismal colors, or apply the brush with such sweeping violence.
We spent lots of time in the basement for the next few days, as that’s where our brand new television was installed, its bulbous glass eye gazing out from the knotty pine paneling of the wall. We were there, planted on the scratchy blue couch, when Lee Harvey Oswald was escorted through the basement of the Dallas City Jail, obscured by a gauntlet of police and reporters in suits and trench coats carrying wired microphones attached to portable reel-to-reel tape recorders hanging from their shoulders. We were probably still digesting the bagels and scrambled eggs we usually had for Sunday brunch when we saw the back of a man in a hat lunge into the frame, then heard the pop of Jack Ruby’s gun. Two men grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground.
“There seems to be a scuffle of some sort,” an unseen broadcaster said. Then we heard cries of “He’s been shot! Oswald’s been shot!” Bodies crowded around something or someone, the viewers’ line of sight obscured by jostling men. The correspondents gathered around Pierre, a man with a French accent who witnessed a flash coming from the gun of a man in a black hat and a brown coat. Bob Huffecker, a flustered KRLD reporter breathlessly announced the arrival of an ambulance, the sight of the victim looking “ashen and unconscious.” The video suddenly shifted to the exterior of the jail, an announcer said we’d be going “back to Harry Reasoner in New York,” but we didn’t. Instead, paralyzed and mesmerized, we gazed at big cars pulling out of the garage and speeding down a Dallas street.
At least that’s what I imagine now, as I watch remastered footage of the event on YouTube. In one video, Oswald’s right arm hangs off the stretcher and trails along the basement floor before he is hurriedly lifted into the ambulance. Bob Huffecker (who, with no earpiece to provide a guiding voice, persists in referring to the victim as “Lee Harold Oswald”) struggles to be centered in the camera’s frame, but police and other reporters walk to and fro in front of him as he interviews a Dallas police officer. Hands grab the jackets of those blocking the camera and yank the offending men out of the way.
“Does he look like he’s dying?” Huffecker asks the officer.
A long pause. “I wouldn’t want to say.”
The blocked visuals, the wrong names, the dead air – it all looks so amateurish, nothing like the aerial view of O.J. Simpson’s white van from the CNN helicopter in the blue sky. But on November 24th, the botched production values give events an immediacy that’s re-evoked even now, over 50 years later. Millions of North Americans were sharing in the same televised experience.
It was a murder.
On November 29, 1963, after a fevered bidding contest, Life magazine published 30 black-and-white frames from the 26.6 second, color, eight-millimeter movie that Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder took of the presidential procession. It would become the most studied film in history. Over time, its 486 frames have been reproduced as 35-millimeter slides and as black and white photos. They’ve been color corrected, slowed down, and sped up. Missing frames have been identified and 16-millimeter copies of the film have been made. The Zapruder film has gotten almost six million views on YouTube, alongside the dozens of other videos showing other assassination-related footage (including one claiming to document Texas governor John Connally pulling a gun out of his jacket pocket at Love Field in preparation for shooting the President a little later on their sunny drive through Dallas).
Some conspiracy theorists denounce the Zapruder film as a fraud, buttressing their case by citing photographic consultants who point to gaps, unnatural jerkiness, and other anomalies in the film.
And today that’s what we notice – the production values of the lives (and deaths) streaming to us in real time. Visual information no longer floats down to us under a brightly colored parachute; it’s not snagged from mid-air by skilled and ingenious experts. It inundates us. It washes into our consciousness like a seaweed-clogged tide. Slow motion, instant replay, high definition – whether we’re watching a running back dive into the end zone or a jet fly into a skyscraper, we’re tempted to feel that by manipulating the image, we can understand the reality.
But back then, when Howie and I had gone looking for footprints in the newly poured concrete, events suddenly made it clear that there were big, invasive mysteries beyond our brand new sidewalks.
Who or what could be so powerful as to make our parents weep?
Children playing detective is a timeless activity, but the clues they find and the narratives they construct from them are historically specific. As kids, my parents had pretended to be rum runners and cops, Eskimos and Arctic explorer. They’d played store, enacting the most mundane transactions that signified rescue for their immigrant parents.
But my generation looked for hints to how the world worked in the unmediated impact of real-time events. We began to recognize that adults weren’t always in control, at least not the ones we knew. Old women were sent out to work by their disdainful children. Mothers and fathers got divorced. Presidents could be killed. Prisoners could be killed, even when surrounded by police.
The blocks we patrolled were like postage stamps, colorful and square-edged, rich with detail magnified by our imaginations. But beyond their borders lay train tracks and wilderness, quicksand that would swallow both the robber and Timmy if either entered it alone. There were large forces at work, glacially cold and transformative, that not even our parents understood.