FORT WORTH, Texas — In a corner of the Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery, close to a chain-link fence that separates the living and the dead, a patch of ground has been worn free of grass by all who come to stare at one particular gravestone. With just a surname, the marker says it all: OSWALD.
But in the half-century since a slight, sallow man named Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy, so much continues to be said about the assassination that the various conspiracy devices and theories are nearly as familiar as the tragic event itself. The Magic Bullet theory. The Zapruder film. The Umbrella Man. The Mafia. Jack Ruby. Fidel Castro.
And, of course, Nick Beef. Or, more accurately, NICK BEEF.
For the last 15 years, this curious name has vexed the obsessive assassination buffs who make regular pilgrimages to the Oswald plot here in Fort Worth. That is because a pinkish granite marker suddenly appeared beside the assassin’s grave sometime in 1997. And all it said was Nick Beef.
In their quest to make sense of a national catastrophe — to find a narrative more acceptable than that of one gunman, acting alone — some theorists have tried to divine meaning in a name that, more than anything else, evokes a private eye who specializes in agricultural intrigue. It added another question to their already exhausting list. Who wasNick Beef?
To begin with, Mr. Beef remains happily above the clay.
Affable, with gray-black hair slicked back, save for a stray curl or two, he sips tea at a cozy table at the Jack bistro in Greenwich Village, not far from his Manhattan apartment. With evident pride in possessing one of the more distinctive conversation starters in American discourse, he confirms that he owns the burial plot beside Lee Harvey Oswald’s.
As for his notoriety among the conspiracy cognoscenti, he says, he came by it innocently, even accidentally. But now, with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination less than four months away, he has decided to reveal himself, sort of, to The New York Times.
This scoop may not definitively link Castro, the mob, and the Central Intelligence Agency to the Kennedy assassination, but, hey, it’s something. And to prove that he is who he says he is, Mr. Beef reaches into a small satchel and pulls out a contract from 1975 for Burial Plot 258 in the Fairlawn section of Rose Hill ($175), as well as a receipt from 1996 for the purchase and installation of a granite stone to be engraved NICK BEEF ($987.19).
Mr. Beef, 56, is a writer and “nonperforming performance artist” with a penchant for the morbid, he says, who has never done stand-up comedy — an important point. He says that Nick Beef is a long-held persona; his given name is Patric Abedin. Here is his story.
On Nov. 21, 1963, President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, landed at the former Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth as part of a two-day Texas tour. Among the many gathered for the arrival — some holding “Welcome to Texas, Jack and Jackie” signs — was young Patric, the 6-year-old asthmatic son of an Air Force navigator. Having gotten lost in the crowd, the boy was sitting on the shoulders of a military police officer when the first couple passed by just a few feet away.
The future Mr. Beef was Mr. Popular the next morning at Waverly Park Elementary School, as he regaled his first-grade classmates with his presidential story. They soon went outside for recess, while his asthma kept him indoors. He was alone, then, when the principal announced over the loudspeaker that the president had been shot; alone, too, when the principal followed up to say that the president was dead.
As his class returned from recess, he told his teacher what he had heard. At first she suspected that he was vying for more attention. But soon, as everyone of a certain age remembers, classes were abruptly dismissed amid the weeping of teachers.
A young boy’s life continued. His father took him to the World’s Fair in New York. His older brother broke his jaw during some horseplay. His parents divorced. At the age of 10, he survived a car crash that killed a 9-year-old friend.
The lesson he was learning: “Things change really quickly.”
By the late 1960s, he was living with his remarried mother in Arlington, Tex. Every week they would drive to the Carswell base for his free asthma shot, then occasionally stop at the eclectic cemetery called Rose Hill on their way home. “She’d get out and look at Oswald’s grave,” he recalls, “and tell me, ‘Never forget that you got to see Kennedy the night before he died.’ ”
The years passed. When he was 18, he read a newspaper article’s passing mention that the grave beside Oswald’s had never been purchased. He went to Rose Hill, where a caretaker in a glorified garden shed thumbed through some cards and said, “Yep, that’s available.”
The young man put $17.50 down, and promised to make 16 monthly payments of $10.
Mr. Beef has often asked himself why. “It meant something to me in life,” is the only answer he can come up with. “It was a place I could go and feel comfortable.”
Around the same time, he and a friend were trying to make each other laugh while driving to Dallas from Lubbock. Stopping at a bar and grill, his friend decided to become Hash Brown; he declared himself Nick Beef. A joke.
As for his unmarked burial plot back in Rose Hill, he says: “I just sat on it. Not literally.”
Life followed its unpredictable course. He worked for a local television station, moved to New York, got involved with a sketch-comedy troupe called the Other Leading Brand. He did some freelance humor writing, sometimes using the byline of Nick Beef. He married, had two children, and amicably divorced. Somewhere in there, Oswald’s body was exhumed to address speculation that the buried remains were actually those of a Russian agent; they were not.
In late 1996, Mr. Beef’s mother died, and he returned to Texas to follow the detailed instructions she had left for her own funeral. During his stay, he visited his real estate in Rose Hill and decided, on the spot, to buy a gravestone the exact dimensions as Oswald’s. When the cemetery official asked what he wanted on it, he thought about protecting his two children.
“Well, here we go,” he recalls thinking.
Upon hearing the name, the official put down his pen. But he picked it up again when the customer pulled out a credit card in the name of Nick Beef.
With the gravestone planted, rumors and speculation took root. It was said that since the cemetery refuses to provide directions to Oswald’s grave — at the family’s request, a spokeswoman for the cemetery said — two reporters had bought the plot so that the curious could ask instead for Nick Beef. It was also said that Nick Beef was a New York stand-up comic who used references to the grave in his act. Assassination buffs swapped theories on the Internet.
Meanwhile, Mr. Beef just carried on, not answering e-mails or telephone calls or the doorbell’s persistent buzz. He began creating photographic haikus by using snapshots of tombstones that he had taken; he calls his work “DieKus.” For example:
Bishop. Block. Castle.
Knight. Leap. Castle. Spear. Bishop.
Queen. Downs. King. Chek. Mate.
Yes, he admits again, he has a penchant for the morbid. But this does not mean that he bought the plot next to Oswald’s as a joke, or a piece of installation art, or anything of the kind. It’s personal. It’s about change. The fragility of life. Something.
And no, Nick Beef will not be buried inches from the man who killed Kennedy.
“I’d prefer to be cremated,” he says.
This story, "Mystery From the Grave Beside Oswald’s, Solved," originally appeared in The New York Times.
Copyright © 2013 The New York Times