DALLAS — The mementoes are everywhere, preserved from a day five decades ago by people who wish they could forget: Letters of grief and thanks, in a widow’s hand. Yellowing news reports. An unwanted wedding band. A rose stained with blood.
Those who were closest to events on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated still talk about what they witnessed as if it happened yesterday. And they frequently mention a keepsake, some small but often heavy burden they’ve carried since Nov. 22, 1963.
For some, this tangible thing helps make real what remains hard to believe. For others, it may be a touchstone to happier memories or just an artifact proving history brushed their lives.
Some can’t even explain the items they have kept from those awful, convulsing, world-changing 24 hours.
• • •
Dawn was approaching – it was past 6 a.m. on that Friday.
In a bungalow in the Dallas suburb of Irving, the only one up was Lee Harvey Oswald. He made coffee, dressed for work, then paused before leaving his wife, Marina, and two young daughters.
He drew most of the cash from his pocket, removed his wedding ring and left both behind. Gathering up a parcel he’d retrieved from the garage, he crept out.
“Lee left a coffee cup in the sink,” recalls Ruth Paine, whose house Marina and the girls were staying in. Oswald had come the previous evening to try – unsuccessfully – to reconcile with his estranged wife.
When he departed, leaving the ring, Paine says, “My guess is that he did not expect to live.”
She would later retrieve the ring for investigators, and it would find its way into a lawyer’s file for decades. Only recently was it returned to Oswald’s widow, who put the bitter memento up for auction.
In a letter, she explained that “symbolically I want to let go of my past” and what she has called “the worst day of my life.” The ring sold last month for $108,000.
Walking from Paine’s house, Oswald reached the home where Buell Frazier, his co-worker, lived with his sister. He put his parcel in Frazier’s black Chevrolet for the ride to work.
“I’m just about through eating my breakfast,” Frazier said from the back door.
They’d be driving to the Texas School Book Depository, where both had $1.25-an-hour jobs filling orders. Oswald had just started working there – and not by coincidence. Frazier’s sister had mentioned to her neighbor, Ruth Paine, that there might be an opening for the out-of-work Oswald.
Much was unusual about that morning. Normally, Oswald would wait to be picked up; normally, he would have carried a sack lunch. Unlike most Fridays, he told Frazier he would not need a ride home that night.
And then there was the long, paper-wrapped package in the backseat. When Frazier asked, Oswald said it contained curtain rods.
As they drove off, a misting rain had Frazier flicking the windshield wipers on and off.
“I wish it would just rain or something,” he complained, but nothing of substance was said before they arrived at work.
By then, it was about 7:55 a.m.
• • •
At that same time, 25 miles away, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Secret Service agent Clint Hill was walking down a hallway toward Room 850, where Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were staying in a suite that locals had specially decorated.
They had loaned art treasures – 16 originals by Picasso, van Gogh, Monet and others – and hung them on the walls in welcome. Today, these artworks themselves have become mementoes of that day, reassembled in an anniversary museum exhibit.
Emerging from the suite, Kennedy called out, “Good morning,” to Hill, whom he knew well as the agent who’d been protecting the first lady for three years.
And it did feel like a good morning, Hill said in a recent interview. He recalled how just then, “I heard the noise outside” of a large, friendly crowd gathering, despite the drizzle, for a speech – Kennedy’s first event of a packed day. Next was a breakfast speech inside the hotel, where another crowd erupted when the first lady entered.
“Everybody was just stunned by her. And of course everybody in the world would later see the pink outfit she was wearing,” recalls Associated Press writer Mike Cochran, who stayed with the couple as they headed to the Fort Worth airport for the hop to Dallas and a motorcade to a planned luncheon speech.
It was part of a trip to help mend a rift among Texas Democrats and try to secure the state for Kennedy in the 1964 election.
The misty skies had cleared by the time Air Force One touched down at Dallas’ Love Field, which allowed the bubble top to be removed from the dark blue Lincoln that would carry the president through downtown.
As the limousine cruised out of the airport, 11-year-old Stephanie Landregan snapped pictures with her Brownie camera. Watching with her grandparents and four siblings, the schoolgirl felt a “giddy” thrill.
Her mother was at the Trade Mart, where Kennedy was headed for lunch. The only family member who’d miss the rare presidential visit, it seemed, was her father. He had to be at work – at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
• • •
It was a few minutes before noon.
Hill and other agents riding in the Secret Service vehicle just behind the president scanned the jubilant throngs, which thickened as the motorcade neared downtown. At one point, the cars slowed, then halted for a group of students.
“There was a banner: ‘Mr. President, please stop and shake our hands,’ ” Hill says. “Whenever that happened, we knew pretty well he was going to stop.”
As Kennedy leaned from the car, Nancy White reached out from the crowd.
“He shook my hand,” she says, amazement still in her voice.
The motorcade moved on, growing ranks of spectators bulging into the traffic lanes. At times, Hill ran from his vehicle to a foothold on the moving Lincoln’s rear bumper.
Up ahead was Dealey Plaza and a corridor of buildings including the book depository, where Buell Frazier stood on the front steps, taking a break with co-workers – though not Oswald.
Happy pandemonium greeted the presidential Lincoln, and suddenly Frazier could see Jackie Kennedy.
“She’s as pretty as the pictures,” he remembers calling out to a woman nearby.
The motorcade quickly glided by, enveloped by more cheers ahead. But then came another sound that Frazier first thought was a police motorcycle backfiring.
Then another pop. And another. Frazier recognized the sound of gunfire.
Instantly, all was mayhem.
“People were running and screaming and hollering,” Frazier says. “Somebody came running by as we were standing there on the steps, and she says, ‘They’ve shot the president.’ ”
In the agents’ car, Hill heard the first shot, sprinted to the Lincoln and scrambled aboard. As he strained to hold on, he saw Jackie Kennedy climbing onto the rear of the car, now speeding toward a freeway to the hospital.
“She’s going to go flying off the back,” he thought, and pushed her back to her seat.
In the motorcade and amid the crowd, reporters struggled to grasp the events, then get the news out.
In the Dallas Associated Press office, the phone rang and bureau chief Bob Johnson grabbed it. On the line was staff photographer James W. “Ike” Altgens, breathing hard. He’d recorded the Dealey Plaza chaos, including images of Kennedy grasping his throat and of Hill reaching for the first lady across the limo’s trunk.
“Bob, the president’s been shot,” he shouted from a pay phone.
“Ike, how do you know?” Johnson demanded.
“I was shooting pictures then and I saw it.”
“Ike, you saw that?”
“Yes, there was blood on his face.”
Johnson typed furiously, folding in Altgens’ details.
“Dallas – President Kennedy was shot today just as his motorcade left downtown Dallas. Mrs. Kennedy jumped up and grabbed him. She cried: ‘Oh, no!’ The motorcade sped on.”
It was sent at 12:40 p.m. Central time. Instantly, in newsrooms everywhere, bells clanged on wire teletype machines as they churned out the unimaginable news, line by line, and broadcasters tore the copy from the machines and relayed the unthinkable.
Fifty years later, that first bulletin – its type spilling down the page from being pulled by some forgotten editor as it printed out – is an artifact of the moment, preserved in the news service’s corporate archives.
• • •
The Lincoln, meanwhile, with agent Hill spread-eagled over the wounded president, raced to Parkland Hospital.
Because it was lunchtime, many on the Parkland staff were in the cafeteria when calls suddenly blared over the public address system, summoning specialists – “stat.”
Ronald Jones, a physician, called the operator to learn why.
“Dr. Jones, the president’s been shot,” she said. “They need physicians.” The cafeteria cleared.
Through the open door of the trauma room, Jones saw a stoic Jackie Kennedy, moving from a folding chair placed for her outside the room to standing quietly inside as doctors assessed her husband.
“His eyes were open; they were not moving,” Jones says.
He used scissors to cut through Kennedy’s coat and shirt to find a vein to insert an IV. Other physicians worked frantically, trying to think of this as any trauma case, any patient.
Malcolm Perry, a physician who’d been at lunch with Jones, was examining the wound in the president’s neck. Perry asked physician Robert McClelland to stand at the head of the gurney and hold the retractor in the incision they were making to explore the wound.
“As soon as I got into that position,” McClelland recalled recently, “I was shocked. ... I said to Dr. Perry, ‘My God, have you seen the back of his head?’ I said, ‘It’s gone.’ ”
Kemp Clark, professor of neurosurgery, was standing by a heart monitor at one point, McClelland recalls. Kennedy’s heartbeat had flatlined.
“Dr. Clark said to Dr. Perry – and I remember the exact words – he said, ‘Mac, you can stop now because he’s gone,’ ” McClelland says.
The trauma room door opened moments later, admitting the Rev. Oscar Huber, who anointed the president’s head with oil and administered the Catholic last rites.
The hospital official who phoned for Huber at his church, learning he was already on his way, and who later called a funeral home for a casket was Steve Landregan, whose daughter had taken snapshots of the first couple at the airport.
When the end came, eyes turned to Jackie Kennedy at her husband’s side. McClelland recalls a kiss. Kenneth Salyer, who had done external cardiac massage, says, “She sort of laid on his chest … in a sort of compassionate motion.”
Afterward, in the empty trauma room, two young residents noticed the first lady’s roses, discarded and bloodstained. Each picked up one and would preserve the flowers in Lucite.
“You can’t really tell what it is,” says physician Michael Ellsasser, “but I still have it anyhow.”
McClelland was changing clothes later when he remembered once seeing in a museum a piece of clothing stained with Abraham Lincoln’s blood after he was shot. Struck by the sense of history in his own simple white shirt – soaked in blood from where he leaned over the gurney – he decided it should be preserved. He has it still.
• • •
The shooting of the president was now a homicide case, and investigators fanned out everywhere.
Buell Frazier, who had driven Oswald to work, was rounded up for hours of fierce questioning.
Across town, after a rare lunch break at home, Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit hurried back to patrol. He soon spotted a man matching the description of the suspected assassin that had just been circulated; he pulled up alongside him and got out of his patrol car. In a flash, the man shot Tippit dead, then fled, shaking spent cartridges from his revolver as he ran.
As radio news reported an officer’s shooting near the shoe store where John Brewer was manager, he noticed a man suspiciously engrossed in a window display instead of the police cars streaming past. When the man darted into a movie theater, Brewer followed and raised the alarm.
The suspect pulled a handgun when confronted by a police officer, who wrestled it from him.
“Cops were coming over the backs of the chairs. … In just a little while, they had the cuffs on Oswald,” says Brewer, whose keepsakes of that day include a poster from “War Is Hell,” the movie he fatefully interrupted.
Today, Tippit’s widow, Marie, speaks of the blessing of his brief return home for lunch that day and of their years together. She is a great-grandmother now but as a young widow treasured a letter she received from another young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.
“She said that she had lit a flame for Jack and she was going to consider that it would burn for my husband, too, that it would burn forever,” she said.
She keeps her husband’s badge in a bank vault.
That afternoon, police arrived with a sharp knock on Ruth Paine’s door in Irving as she and Marina Oswald sat transfixed by the television news.
“We have Lee Oswald in custody for shooting an officer,” Paine remembers them declaring. They began questioning the women.
“And then one of the policemen asked Marina, whose native language was Russian, ‘Did Oswald have a gun?’
“And I said, ‘No’ but translated to Marina, who said, ‘Yes, he did.’ ”
Paine continues: “She led us to the garage and pointed to a blanket roll.” That, she said, was where Oswald kept his rifle.
The rifle was gone.
“That was my worst moment,” says Paine.
She keeps few mementoes of the time – just some old news magazines to be donated to an archive. What she does carry still, she says, is “a sense of grief and loss.”
“If only I had known that Lee Oswald had hidden a rifle in my garage.”
• • •
Around 2:30 p.m. at Dallas’ Love Field, Hill, the Secret Service agent, watched as Lyndon Johnson, flanked by his wife and Jackie Kennedy, was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One. The plane, with Kennedy’s casket secured inside, quickly took off for Washington.
It landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 5:58 p.m.
At attention stood a military team assigned a solemn duty: They’d attend the former commander in chief from then until his funeral on Monday, as pallbearers.
“We were proud to do it,” says Coast Guardsman George A. “Bud” Barnum. “We wanted to do it right.”
The capital was still. Stunned Kennedy aides steered through dark, silent streets to the White House to keep vigil. Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter and adviser, was one of them.
“Jackie Kennedy sent word that she wanted the East Room, where the president would lie in state, to look as it did when Lincoln’s body lay there,” Goodwin remembers.
He and others went to work. Someone was sent to the Library of Congress for a sketch and a newspaper description from Lincoln’s time; artists and upholsterers were called in, and black crepe was carefully hung.
“In the midst of all these activities, we would alternately break down in tears,” Goodwin says.
It was now well past midnight.
Hill had stayed at Jackie Kennedy’s side – as an autopsy was conducted on the body, and then as it was taken to the White House, arriving at 4:24 a.m.
A waiting U.S. Marine honor guard marched before the ambulance to the North Portico entrance.
Goodwin, watching the scene from inside the White House, described the transfer of the casket to the now-ready East Room. He, Hill and others stood back as Jackie Kennedy and family members entered, spent some moments in silent thought and prayer, then left.
With Jackie Kennedy retired for the night, Hill recalls, “I went down to my office on the ground floor. I made some notes for myself as to what had transpired that day.”
Then and long afterward, guilt consumed the agent; he believed he could have protected Kennedy from the fatal bullet by reaching the limousine more quickly.
There would be bouts of depression and of heavy drinking. He says he’s doing well now, but there was a process to reach this point.
For years, he talked little about that day and turned aside suggestions that he write about it. Eventually he agreed to speak for another agent’s book and then wrote his own memoir, “Mrs. Kennedy and Me.” He has another book, “Five Days in November,” coming out this month.
All of this has helped, he says. And the notes he wrote were a factor. But they’re not mementoes.
“I had them for a long time,” Hill says. “In 2008 or so, I burned them.”
Partly that was “an attempt to bury it. But that just hasn’t happened. You can’t get rid of it.”
He does keep the letters he received from Jackie Kennedy.
In his last act on that awful day, Hill closed his notebook, left the White House and walked to his car.
It was past 6 a.m. Saturday, and dawn was approaching.