On the morning of June 28, while the sun was shining and the birds were singing, several hundred people gathered in a cold, dark auditorium to discuss brain tissue. Also, entry wounds and exit wounds, one as big as a baseball.
It was all part of a three-day symposium on President John F. Kennedy's assassination, sponsored by a research organization called The Third Decade. The event, held at Northwestern University's Chicago campus, attracted the wild-eyed yahoos who publish the newsletter Criminal Politics ("King" George Bush is a puppet of International Zionism, that kind of thing); the JFK researchers who have written some of the 600-plus books on the assassination; and the plain old people who just happen to have rooms in their homes dedicated to JFK.
It kicked off on June 26 with a dinner at the Chicago Marriott hotel, with the conspiracy theories served long before the soup.
Among those letting loose was reformer Sherman Skolnick, who runs a recorded phone-message service called "Hotline News" and who made news himself several years ago with his allegations that the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington had been murdered. He and some of his pals at the banquet were passing conspiracy theories around like trading cards. Here are just a few:
* The Tribune Conspiracy: Why was the Chicago Tribune covering this event? Mr. Skolnick wanted to know. It's well known in certain circles that the Tribune, along with the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS and the wire services, are all intent on keeping vital information about the Kennedy asssassination from the American public.
So why was I there? "She's going to write about all the nuts who are here," said Paul Hallisy of Chicago. Bingo!
* The Dan Rather Conspiracy: In this one, Dan Rather, just a fledgling reporter back in 1963 when he was covering Kennedy's trip to Dallas, happened to be positioned where he could see everything. "The car passed right under his nose," said Mr. Skolnick. But Mr. Rather has been rather quiet about what he saw.
And what happened to his career because of his silence? "He shot up like a cannon," said Harriet Sherman of Chicago. "They" rewarded him with an anchor job.
* The Mother Oswald Conspiracy: This one contends that Lee Harvey Oswald, better known in assassination circles as "the lone nut, yeah, right," was not the redneck he is made out to be in the media but is part of a rather well-known, influential society family. "Mother Oswald rode in parades in New Orleans," said Ms. Sherman. "They don't let just anyone do that."
* The Jim Wright Conspiracy: The former speaker of the U.S. House is the evening's master of ceremonies, by dint of having ridden in the motorcade, five cars back from Kennedy. But was he really there? Mr. Skolnick shrugs his shoulders, hinting that Wright may be like those millions of Chicagoans who are adamant that they were in the New Orleans Superdome when the Bears won the Super Bowl.
* The Follow-the-Money Conspiracy: This one says that JFK's father, old Joe Kennedy -- who, by the way, was never a bootlegger according to Ms. Sherman -- wanted some German patents and . . . she loses me here. Anyway, millions of dollars wound up in a Swiss bank account. I'm not sure whose.
* The Don't Mess With "Them" Conspiracy: "They" gave Jack Ruby cancer pills. "They" also ruined Mort Sahl's career because he made fun of the Warren Commission.
My dinner companions and I introduce ourselves. Douglas Carlson, who put the symposium together, says that for some of the people here, the assassination remains "a great unsolved mystery. They also love Agatha Christie novels. They're idealistic people. A lot of them have the same crossword puzzle mentality of computer programmers."
My table mates include Richard and Kris Buyer, a doctor and his wife from Crown Point, Ind., who have a room in their home devoted to JFK, including a very special pair of salt and pepper shakers (the salt is a little Kennedy statue in a sitting position; the pepper is the chair).
There's Karen and Tom Marshall from "a northwest Chicago suburb," who spend every dinner hour discussing the Kennedy conspiracy. Joy and Alan Gruidl of Plano, Ill.; Alan teaches high school history, and his students can't wait for the part about Kennedy. And Steve Scott, a Chicago radio interviewer whose interest in the Kennedys goes back to when his parents woke him up to tell him that Bobby Kennedy had been shot. He was 6.
These people, all nice, normal -- not one of them looks like a refugee from a health-food store -- know their obsession with Kennedy is considered extreme.
"People have likened us to Trekkies," says Joy Gruidl.
"We're like Deadheads," says Kris Buyer.
"I have close friends who say, 'Let it go,' " says Dr. Buyer. "But that's the tragedy, the public has let it go."