Many decades ago, six-year-old Dennis Green was channel-surfing (three channels, didn’t take very long). He landed on KMTV, the Omaha NBC affiliate, just in time to see this creature fill the TV screen, all twelve inches of it.
Scared the shit out of me.
Years later, like all young geeks of the era, I started watching Star Trek reruns after school, and saw the creature that had given me a week’s worth of nightmares again, the famous Salt Vampire from the fifth Star Trek episode filmed, “The Man Trap.” Or the sixth, depending on how you want to count “The Cage.”
Still later, I learned that the network suits chose this episode as the Star Trek premiere.
It’s possible I watched a rerun. Although this was before they were common. I do remember that by six-year-old standards, it was very, very late at night, perhaps eight o’clock. And a school night. Wikipedia tells me the premiere episode aired on a Thursday from 7:30-8:30pm Central Time, which tracks. Therefore, I choose to believe that I watched the Star Trek premiere on September 8, 1966.
At least fifteen seconds or so of it.
What is it about the Kennedy assassination that continues to fascinate us decades later?
No one who was alive at the time, even if you were a toddler, as I was, can keep from thinking that things would have been different if John Kennedy hadn’t died that day. Usually, we imagine things would have turned out better. My first published story, “First Sight,” referenced JFK’s death. And I came back to it years later in Traveler, dancing up to, if not around, the opposite conclusion that Stephen King would later examine in “11/22/63.”
This Interlude from Traveler hints at ideas about how the Traveler-verse works that I return to in Traitor, the trilogy’s conclusion.
OFFICER BRIAN LOWE stood at the corner of Houston and Elm, shifting his weight from one foot to another.
The special noontime duty meant he wasn’t getting his lunch on time, and he tried to ignore the growling in his stomach while he waited for the presidential motorcade to approach his duty station.
His partner, Hopkins, was in their squad car a few dozen yards away. Hopkins’ head was bent over the two-way as he tried to follow the day’s action through the squawks and squelching of the extra-large duty shift overloading every frequency the department had.
“Couple of blocks,” Hopkins called.
Lowe nodded, sweeping his eyes back and forth across the crowd. Not that there was anything threatening about the throng of secretaries and businessmen lining the street. It was a big crowd, enjoying the unseasonably warm November day while waiting to catch a glimpse of the president and his wife as they slowly proceeded to his luncheon speech at the Trade Mart.
“Big day,” said a voice behind him.
Lowe turned to look into the smiling face of another patrolman. “Lowe, right?” asked the newcomer, extending his hand.
Lowe took it automatically. “Yeah,” he replied. He frowned, studying the other man. After ten years, he thought he knew everyone on the force, but although this guy looked familiar in some way, he certainly wasn’t someone Lowe could recall seeing around the station.
“Charlie Powell,” he supplied. “On loan from Austin for today. They, uh, told me to check in with you.”
“Ah, I see,” Lowe said. “Didn’t know they’d brought in any ringers. Pleasedtameetcha.”
“Likewise,” Powell shrugged. “You know how it is with the brass and the feds. Better to pull fifty cops off the streets than to admit to J. Edgar you need help from the feebs.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” chuckled Lowe. “Austin, eh?” Powell nodded.
“Ever work in Dallas before?”
Powell shook his head.
“That’s funny, because when you introduced yourself, for a second I thought I knew you.”
“Yeah.” Lowe had turned back to face the street, but kept the conversation going. “Have we met?”
“Don’t think so,” Powell replied slowly. “You get to Austin much?”
“Nah, it’s just that…” Lowe’s voice trailed off.
“Well, now that I think of it, there was a cadet named Powell, couple of classes behind me at the academy. He kinda looked like you.”
“Huh,” Powell said. “What happened to him?”
“Got shot on his first ride along, only time the force has ever lost a trainee. Stuck in my mind.”
“Ouch. Tough break.”
“That wasn’t me.”
Lowe smiled. “Guess not.” He swept the crowd again. “What’s your beat today?” He inclined his head toward the car. “Hopkins and I got this corner covered.”
“I drew the short straw,” Powell said. “Shortest you could possibly imagine.”
Lowe wasn’t really listening. His attention was distracted by the first motorcycles leading the parade, which had turned the corner a block away.
“Nothing,” Powell replied. “Just…uh, crowd control. Wander around, show the badge. From that little hill over there, I think.”
He pointed to a grassy spot where only a few people were gathered, despite a clear line of sight to the street. He turned to go.
“I better move on. Nice to meet ya.”
Lowe grunted in agreement, focused now on the convertible coming around the corner.
“Because sometimes the only way to keep disaster from happening,” Powell continued softly, “is to do the worst thing anyone can imagine.”
His shoulders slumped as he trudged up the hill.
Had Lowe been paying attention, he might have wondered how the pleasant, talkative officer with whom he’d passed the time now looked old and weighed down with doubt as he made his way through the crowd.
The escort cycles had dropped back to either side of the president’s limousine to keep the onlookers from crowding in the street. Four Secret Service agents perched on the running boards of the next car, joining Lowe in sweeping the crowd.
The president had passed Lowe’s station and he was starting to relax when he heard the shots. Three soft pops. Lowe’s eyes flashed to the president’s car, just in time to hear another crack, but this one came from nearby.
That little hill, just on the other side of the concrete pedestal.
All hell was breaking loose. The Secret Service guys leapt from the car and ran toward the president, who was slumped next to the other guy in the car—Lowe couldn’t remember which Texas politico it was. The first lady was screaming, blood all over her face and coat.
Lowe’s eyes swept the crowd of onlookers, attracted by a dark shape whipping around. He squinted and clearly saw the guy who had called himself Charlie Powell atop the hill, holstering his weapon.
Keeping the man in site, Lowe tore across the street, waving frantically at Hopkins. “Tom!” he cried. “Get up here! The shooter’s in the park!”
Hopkins waved him to silence as he ran up to the car, leaning down over the radio.
“…and it came from the Texas Book Depository…”
The rest of the message was lost in static as a half-dozen other radios all tried transmitting at once.
“No!” Lowe shouted. “There was a shot from over there!”
He pointed back toward the plaza. “There’s a guy. He said he was a cop, but…”
“Shut up, Brian,” Hopkins cut him off. “The shooter was in the book depository.” He pointed at the radio. “You heard ’em.”
“But…” Lowe looked back toward Powell, standing still as a stone as people rushed all around him, staring straight at Lowe.
“I’m telling you, Tom. Something’s not right. We need to go up and get that guy before he takes off.”
“Fine,” Hopkins replied. “Where is he?” “He’s right…” Lowe began.
What the hell?
“Where?” Hopkins demanded.
But Lowe didn’t answer.
In the chaos that followed, Tom Hopkins forgot all about this short exchange.
Lowe didn’t. But fortunately, it was never brought up in the dozens of interviews he endured—first by the feds, later by writers and journalists. He was by now eyeing his pension, and he had witnessed more than one career destroyed by saying the wrong thing to one of the conspiracy nuts. No way he was going to go down that road.
By the end of his life, Brian Lowe had pretty much convinced even himself that Charlie Powell had simply been a badge imported for the day, even though there was no Powell on the Austin roster.
And he worked equally hard to erase his own memory of the other thing he saw, just as he was turning to charge back up into the plaza— the figure in a police uniform that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight.
What he chose to remember was the view of the grassy knoll a second later.
Safely empty of anything remotely resembling a man with a badge.
So, as the band comes to Hancher for two shows on Nov. 19, it was a huge honor to talk to Roxanne Layton, a member and friend of founder Chip Davis since the 90s. If I would have had more time, we definitely would have talked more about her attending high school with the Marsalises and Terence Blanchard, not to mention sailing around the world with her dad. But we kept it between the lines, and I learned some things about Mannheim Steamroller that even I didn’t know!
It was a delight to talk to Roxanne about one of my favorite groups, and I hope our paths cross again soon.
In 2016, I got a pic and autograph from Kevin Conroy at Wizard World. A few years later, the KCCK-FM staff, (instigated by Ron Adkins) went together and got me a Cameo for Christmas. It’s one of my favorite things. So sad that this unforgettable voice has been stilled.
In November 2015, Debbie and I had the privilege of visiting Pearl Harbor. It was a cloudy day with intermittent sprinkles. The exhibit docents took great pains to remind each tour group that they were visiting a gravesite, and to comport ourselves with that in mind. Our group didn’t seem to require the caution, as we milled quietly about on the U.S.S. Arizona memorial after the journey across the harbor.
The experience was every bit as emotional as you would imagine, as we all thought of the young men whose names were inscribed on the memorial wall, many of them just teenagers.
What affected me most was a video of divers taking a waterproof urn containing the ashes of a recently deceased Arizona veteran into the wreck. I thought of how these men made it through the war, went home, married, raised families and had careers, but that Sunday morning in 1941 remained such a part of them, that when the end of their lives came, the thing they wanted most of all was to be return to their friends who never had that privilege.
I will always spend a few minutes on December 7 to contemplate and honor their sacrifice.
The Mannheim Steamroller is bringing its Christmas show to Cedar Rapids again this year. And it’s special, because 2021 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of “Christmas,” their first holiday album, a collection that completely changed how people listened to Christmas music.
And it’s all thanks to me. Because I was the first person to play Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas album on the radio.
Yep. To the best of my knowledge, at least, the former WMT-FM (now a country station) was the first station anywhere to put that record on the air.
And if you were around Cedar Rapids back then, you heard that music pretty much before anyone else in the world. Even before a lot of the people in Omaha, where the group got started.
I was familiar with the Mannheim Steamroller from their Fresh Aire series of albums, which founder Chip Davis, at one time a high school orchestra teacher, had originally conceived as a way to mix rock and roll rhythms with classical forms to make orchestral music more accessible to his students.
Heck, I actually go back even farther than that. I saw the “Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant Band,” the name Davis and his Steamroller compatriots played under when they were C.W. McCall’s backup band. Yes, that’s the Mannheim Steamroller playing behind the Seventies anthem, “Convoy.”
Anyway, we were so taken with “Christmas” at 96 1/12 FM that we went a little nuts. I think we played every tune on the album. WMT-AM, at that time also a music station, got into the act as well.
Months later, I chatted with a rep from American Gramophone, the Mannheim Steamroller’s record label, who confided to me that their statistics showed an unusually high concentration of album sales in Cedar Rapids. I told her I knew why.
And the album’s success in Cedar Rapids was what catapulted it into pop culture, changing holiday music forever, and giving Chip Davis a pretty nice retirement nest egg.
OK, maybe that’s pushing it. But regardless, we were first. So whether they know it or not, when Mannheim Steamroller plays Cedar Rapids, they’re coming back to the place where it all started.