EPISODE 6.4: “The Great American Conspiracy Roadshow (part.4),” feat. pol. scientist Michael Barkun
Updated: Feb 17
My (Illustrated) Road Trip Musings, Part 4:
I left Dallas early on June 18, 2022, and headed northwards to Oklahoma, making an obligatory stop at Buc-ee’s before hitting the border to get myself a hot sandwich, large coffee, a decorative ornament for my wife, some Texas barbecue sauce, a coffee cup that reads “Why Y’All Tryin’ To Test the Jesus in Me?”, and a bag of Buc-ee’s brand teriyaki beef jerky, which was both delicious and a damn chore to pick out of my molars.
I made it to Oklahoma City in the mid-afternoon, making sure to avoid the nosy, no-good, movie Sherriff who ain’t too fond of foreigners, easterners, and big-city folk (all of which I represent) and pitched my tent at a family-friendly KOA campground a few miles out of the city. There I soaked my steamy carcass in the outdoor pool and chatted with a retired American couple (Mark and Kelly) who recently sold their house, bought an RV, and now live on the road 12 months a year. I got to admit I felt a little bit jealous.
I then took a ride back into the city to visit the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial where an angry young ex-soldier called Timothy McVeigh detonated a fertilizer truck bomb at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people and injuring 600+ more, many of whom were children. The Alfred P. Murrah Federal building was a total loss. It was eventually destroyed and converted into the impressive memorial that I describe in the podcast (see pictures below). The Murrah building had housed, among other things, the offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—the agency that conducted a raid on the Waco, Texas, Branch Davidian compound in 1993, which led to an armed showdown, a month-long FBI-run standoff, a tear gas attack, a blazing inferno, and the deaths of four ATF agents and 82 cult members (again, many of whom were children). McVeigh held the ATF, FBI, and Justice department responsible for these deaths, and also for a botched raid on a survivalist family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 that also ended with civilian fatalities. The unrepentant McVeigh was found guilty and executed for domestic terrorism in 2001. I can’t say much more than I said in the podcast about the memorial. It is impressive, humbling, unsettling, and comforting all at the same time; another lieu de mémoire that captures the essence of the past while imbuing it with the hopes and fears of the present. This one does so more successfully, I believe, than the other memorials I visited in Gettysburg, Washington, Dallas, and even Memphis and Birmingham, since it does not push an overt political agenda (or, at least, it does so less brashly and didactically).
Oklahoma City struck me as a pretty small city (by northeastern standards), but in a good way. Nestled in the open plain and rolling hills, the city seemed small enough to accomplish Aristotle’s vision of a self-sufficient polis where every stranger you meet probably knows someone else that you know. The downtown seemed awfully quiet for a Saturday night (some might say boring), but it was not without a few pockets of restaurants and nightclubs that were chirpy and well-attended, like the Midtown Plaza Court, where I enjoyed some Naughty Apple Cider at James E. McNellie’s Public House, a faux-rustic yuppie Irish pub that serves some pretty good chow.
The next morning I drove straight up to Stanton, Missouri, and to the Meramec Caverns, about an hour south-west of St-Louis, in the fringe of Ozark country, where I had my first (and possibly last) dining experience at the Cracker Barrell. The hospitality was great, but the food was, how shall I say, meh! I spent the night in a relaxing and scenic campsite that lacked much of the comforts and amenities of the KOA I stayed in the previous night (e.g., clean air-conditioned toilets and a coffee bar), but was a little more memorable, in the way that the familiar and mundane safety of a McDonalds might be compared to a mom and pop diner on a deserted stretch of Route 66. The next morning was spent casually spelunking underground (see photos below) and joking around with our tour guide, buying shiny rocks for my kids, and wondering if I might, perchance, get bit by a covid-infected bat or other cave creature.
In Missouri, reading never gets in the way of a good time!
I wish I had had a chance to discover St-Louis, but just like Clarke Grizwald in National Lampoon’s Vacation, I had no time to waste climbing the Gateway Arch or sniffing around for any rumours of a possible conspiracy, because I had to be in Chicago by sundown… And you know what happens in Chicago after sundown, don’t you?
Well, it turns out that downtown Chicago is pretty nice after sundown, especially on Juneteenth, on which day many buildings and Buckingham Fountain were lit up with festive colors. I took in a late evening walk after checking in at my international youth hostel, and I didn’t even get shot, mugged, stabbed, or stalked in the process. (I did get stalked by a trans prostitute in San Francisco once, but that’s a whole lot of trauma I’d rather not revisit!).
Much of the next day was spent visiting bookstores and the University of Chicago, where our former guest and old friend Dr. Royce Lee had me give a guest lecture on Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK conspiracy theories, and paranoia, and discuss trauma and personality disorders with some of the other professors and graduate students. While I wouldn’t make too much out of the event, it certainly serves as a boost to one’s ego to give a guest lecture at the University of Chicago psychiatry department. Though it also made me feel a bit like an impostor. (But then, I feel like an impostor most of the time!) Royce and I had dinner at a beach-front outdoor pub in Montrose later that evening, during which I realized that psychiatrists can be pretty funny in their own way (and not as evil as what Tom Cruise’s space ghosts might tell you).
John Lisbon Wood is quite a character, and probably the most fortuitous encounter I had on my whole road trip (except maybe for my chat with Thomas, the manager at Washington’s Comet Ping Pong restaurant discussed in Episode 6.1). John reminded me in part of the JFK conspiracy researcher Josiah Thompson (except that he totally rejects any of Thompson’s multi-shooter theories about the JFK assassination): charismatic, quirky, quick-witted, eccentric, and on the whole pretty harmless—and I mean all of these things in a good way. No wonder he is an actor, though I’m disappointed he hasn’t managed to get more visible movie and TV roles like those played by the likes of Joe Pesci, Bruno Kirby, or Steve Buscemi. Keep in touch John!
I finished my second day in Chicago watching a live White Sox baseball game, the most important part of which was seeing Bo Bichette of the Toronto Blue Jays hit a grand slam.
The final leg of my road trip took me to Cleveland, most of which was spent chilling at my friend Peter’s house or going out together for food (and boy was there food!). The main tourist attraction I visited was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I can’t say that it blew me away, though it is nonetheless a very attractive museum. But perhaps the originality of the experience was lessened by having previously visited two dozen Hard Rock Cafes and Planet Hollywoods on my previous travels. Most memorable was the 360-degree Beatles musical and video experience, with rare and possibly never-before seen documentary footage and live concert clips.
Pete's mom did always say "if you keep that up you'll go deaf!" And by "that", she meant of course listening to heavy metal music (or whatever...)
Pink FLoyd: The Wall was always a little weird, but it's downright creepy when you're inside it.
"Make America Sick Again!"
Alice Cooper for President
When you go fuZZy, you never go back.
My time in Cleveland ended with Pete and I trying to watch the entire 4-hour black-and-white Zach Snyder re-cut of the Justice League. Not that the film wasn’t spectacular, but it just didn’t have the same level of… um… how shall I say this… titillating salaciousness as the Game of Thrones episodes we’d watched the night before. As for my “superpower”, well, unlike Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, I’m not really rich at all (but I’m willing to try). I do, however, have an overwhelming sense of righteous indignation. Does that count?
Finally, it was most appropriate for my road trip to end by chatting with professor Michael Barkun, one of the leading “conspiratologists” who greatly influenced my own research and thoughts on the phenomena of conspiracy thinking. May you enjoy retirement, health, and a long life, Michael.
Michel Gagné, 2023.
Don't even ask...
Documents related to this episode:*
1. Tenet (Warner Brothers, 2020). Dir. by Christopher Nolan. Feat. John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branagh.
2. Tania Opazo: "The Boys Who Got to Remake an Economy," . Slate, Jan. 12, 2016.
(on Chilean capitalism and the 'Chicago Boys')
3. Little House on the Prairie (TV Series, 1974-1983). Created by Blanche Hanalis. Feat. Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, and Karen Grassle. Theme music by David Rose.
4. Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. Oklahoma City, OK.
5. "Oklahoma City Bombing". Crimes of the Century: Season 1, Episode 5 (TV Miniseries, Scott Free Productions, 2013)
6. "Oklahoma City Bombing Conspiracy Theories" (Wikipedia article)
7. Meramec Caverns, Stanton, MO.
8. Land of the Lost (TV Series, 1974-77). Created by David Gerrold. Feat. Wesley Eure, Kathy Coleman, and Spencer Milligan. Theme song by Linda Laurie.
9. Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (New Line Cinema, 2008). Dir. by Eric Brevig. Feat. Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem. (And a little-known CGI compositor named Joan Daniel Lillo!)
10. The Legend of Jesse James (TV Series, 1965–1966). Theme song by Irving Gertz.
11. Lassie (TV Series, 1954-74). Created by Robert Maxwell. Feat. Lassie, Jon Provost, and June Lockhart. Theme music by Lee Baxter.
12. Norman Mailer: Marilyn: A Biography. Grosset and Dunlap, 1973.
13. The Blues Brothers (Universal Pictures, 1980). Dir. by John Landis. Feat. Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Carrie Fisher. Music and Lyrics by The Blues Brothers.
14. The Untouchables (Paramount Pictures, 1987). Directed by Brian De Palma. Feat. Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Robert DeNiro.
15. Chicago (Miramax, 2003). Directed by Rob Marshall. Feat. Renée Zelwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere.
16. Batman Begins (Warner Brothers, 2005). Directed by Christopher Nolan. Feat. Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, and Michael Caine.
17. Darkman (Universal Pictures, 1990). Directed by Sam Raimi. Feat. Liam Neeson, Frances McDormand, and (the amazing) John Lisbon Wood.
18. The Simpsons (TV Series, 1989-Present). Created by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon. Feat. Dan Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, and Harry Shearer.
19. Seymour M. Hersh: The Dark Side of Camelot. Back Bay Books, 1998.
20. Jonathan Nashel: Edward Lansdale's Cold War. University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
21. Richard F. Haines, et al: Report of an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon and its Safety Implications at O'Hare International Airport on November 7, 2006, NARCAP (National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena) Technical Report 10, May 14, 2007.
22. "UFO At O'Hare? Officials Say Weird Weather," CBS News, January 2, 2007.
23. Deborah Byrd: "Lenticular clouds look like UFOs," Earthsky.org, January 12, 2023.
24. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, OH.
25. Star Trek (TV Series, 1966-69). Created by Gene Rodenberry. Feat. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley.
26. The Littlest Hobo (TV Series, 1979-85). Created by Dorrell McGowan. Theme song by Terry Bush/John Robert Crossen.
27. Michael Barkun: A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Second Edition. (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, Volume 15). University of California Press, 2013.
28. The Royal Canadian Air Farce (TV Series, 1993-2007). Created by Gord Holtam, Rick Olsen, and Don Ferguson. Feat. Luba Goy, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, and Roger Abbott.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.