. . . Five Minutes Later, He Was Dead
From my book, Wrapped in the Flag, © 2013. With permission from Beacon Press.
At 11 a.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, I stood in the crowd on Main Street. The early morning rain had stopped and it was nearly seventy degrees. For a Chicago girl used to bundling up in November, that morning in Dallas was glorious. I stripped off my light jacket and lifted my face to the sun.
Above me, red-white-and-blue banners hung in rows. As far as I could see, those pennants marched toward Dealey Plaza. People lining the street waved miniature American flags along with the occasional Confederate and Lone Star of Texas flags. Around me, people chatted. Some talked politics; others talked weather. Everyone seemed perfectly polite. Given the anti-Kennedy drumbeat that characterized this right-wing city, I was surprised. It looked like the efforts of the Dallas officials, the chief of police, and the newspapers to tamp down the vitriol had worked.
“So this is Texas-nice.”
Sometime later, people surged to the curb. To my right, I saw a line of motorcycles and a white convertible. I didn’t recognize any of the passengers. A long, black, open-top limousine followed. John Connally, governor of Texas, and his wife, Nellie, were in the first seat, but I barely noticed. My eyes were on Jackie Kennedy, sitting in the back seat and wearing a bright-pink pillbox hat. The president sat to her right. For the briefest second, he turned in my direction, smiled, and waved. I waved back.
“We’re with you all the way!” some people cried. “Help Kennedy stamp out democracy!” others answered. In less than a minute, the motorcade had passed. A few Dallas cops on motorcycles brought up the rear. Folks pushed to cross the street and headed for their cars. I heard comments about “beating the worst of it” and “the traffic will be deadly.”
A Mug Shot
As I stepped off the curb, I noticed a rumpled paper on the ground. Staring up at me were two photographs of John Kennedy, a front and side image. The banner screamed “Wanted for Treason” in bold black letters. “Oh God, it’s a mug shot.”
I picked up the sheet and scanned the list of grievances.
THIS MAN is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States.
- Betraying the Constitution (which he swore to uphold): He is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist controlled United Nations. He is betraying our friends (Cuba, Katanga, Portugal) and befriending our enemies (Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland).
- He has been WRONG on innumerable issues affecting the security of the U.S. (United Nations—Berlin wall—Missile removal—Cuba—Wheat deals—Test Ban Treaty, etc.
- He has been lax in enforcing Communist Registration laws.
- He has given support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots.
- He has illegally invaded a sovereign State with federal troops.
- He has consistently appointed Anti-Christians to Federal office; Upholds the Supreme Court in Anti-Christian rulings. Aliens and known Communists abound in Federal offices.
- He has been caught in fantastic LIES to the American people (including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce).
These indictments of the president were not news to me. Over the last three years, I’d heard my father and other John Birch Society leaders attack Kennedy repeatedly for these same “crimes.” Just a few weeks earlier, Robert Welch, the leader of the John Birch Society, decried President Kennedy’s “fake” anti-Communism. The president was never really anti-Communist and people claiming otherwise “know that they are lying,” Welch wrote. In fact, Welch insisted that Kennedy was doing everything to “help the Communists, not to harm them.” (John Birch Society Bulletin, Sept. 1963)
No doubt, the society hated this president. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Birchers in Dallas had printed the flyer. I hoped that this bit of nastiness would be the only black spot in an otherwise perfect day.
I threw the “Wanted for Treason” poster back on the street and followed my friend to our date with the Kips Big Boy on Mockingbird Lane. Unknown to me, at that moment Lee Harvey Oswald crouched in the window of the Texas Book Depository waiting for his target.
The President Was Dead
As John Kennedy’s motorcade turned onto Houston and then on to Elm, Nellie Connally, the wife of Texas governor John Connally, turned to Kennedy and said, “You certainly can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” A few seconds later, the thirty-fifth president of the United States was dead.
By the time I got back to campus, I needed aspirin more than food. I had a headache behind my eyes. My stomach growled, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but I knew I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach. I needed to call my parents at home in Chicago.
My father picked up on the second ring. He immediately launched into a litany of the facts as he knew them. “Don’t talk to anyone about this,” he warned me. “You may need a lawyer.” “Me? Why?” I asked. “They might think we did it,” Dad said. “Did the Birch Society have anything to do with this?” I asked my father. He hung up without answering.
I walked back to my room, pasted a “Sleeping” sign on my door, and curled up on my bed. I needed time to think about my father, what he’d said—and what he hadn’t said.
If the John Birch Society had anything to do with the murder of the president of the United States, he’d become an accessory to the crime of the century. I knew there would be lawyers, investigations, testimony,trials, and . . . prison for the guilty. I could only imagine what would happen to me. I finally fell asleep despite a raging headache.
Several hours later, I awakened with my first full-blown migraine. The campus nurse gave me a pat on the shoulder and a pill to kill the pain. “Get some rest,” she said. “You’ll feel better in no time.” Soon, the crashing pain and the lights pulsing behind my eyes vanished.
All the drugs on campus could do nothing to ease my heartache, however. Until that day, I’d never, ever imagined that my father and his friends might—and this is still hard to write so many years later—be part of killing the president.
* * *
What the Hell?
On Saturday, the university buzzed over the assassination. Oswald had been arrested and identified as a Communist, but it was a stretch to believe that he’d hatched and executed the plot all alone.
Some folks insisted that the radical Right had to have played a part. Cuban freedom fighters had plenty of reasons to want revenge, and local anti-Kennedy groups, including the John Birch Society, had created a toxic atmosphere in Dallas. Others thought that Kennedy had run afoul of the Communists during the Cuban Missile Crisis and that they’d decided to avenge their humiliation.
I was still too fragile to talk much. As soon as I finished my breakfast, I walked back to the dorm and climbed into bed. On Sunday morning, my friends and I jammed the TV room. In front of me, a dozen kids sat on the floor. Behind the last row of chairs, a dozen more stood. Scattered around the room were remnants of the weekend: partially eaten sandwiches, empty Dr. Pepper bottles, and overflowing ashtrays.
We watched the formal procession of the president’s flag-draped casket down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. We heard the clack of the horses’ hooves and the methodical drum beat of the military escorts. At the Rotunda, the honor guard carried the body of their commander-in-chief up the thirty-six stone steps to lie in state.
Around 11 a.m., KRLD-TV switched to its live, local feed for the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald to the Dallas County Jail. Just as Oswald appeared on the screen between two police guards, we saw a hat move toward the prisoner. A second later, Oswald crumpled into the arms of the deputies. The reporter screamed,
“He’s been shot! He’s been shot! Lee Oswald has been shot. There’s a man with a gun. It’s absolute panic!”
Behind me, someone whispered, “Shit. What the hell?” When the shooter was identified as Jack Ruby, one of my friends said, “He’s the Mob’s man in Dallas.” At 1:07 p.m., Oswald died in Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where Kennedy had died two days earlier. It was my turn to ask, “What the hell?”
* * *
We’ll Never Be the Same Again
By Monday, shock, chaos, and confusion had given way to raw grief. Whatever I’d thought before, whatever my politics, on Monday, November 25, I was an American burying my president.
I watched as the white horses pulled Kennedy’s coffin toward St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Behind the caisson, Jackie, draped in a black veil, walked to her husband’s funeral followed by family, friends, and world leaders. Units of the armed services came next, with the Black Watch piping a haunting dirge.
My roommate put her arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. Tears streamed down our cheeks. It was hard to see how we’d ever be the same again.
A few days later, I talked to my father. “Don’t get emotional,” he reminded me. “Kennedy was a traitor. The Commies killed one of their own.”
Read more in Wrapped in the Flag, available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and Audible version. http://www.amazon.com/Wrapped-Flag-Learned-Growing-Americas/dp/0807033316/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1455227986&sr=8-1
Best in Nonfiction 2013 by Kirkus Reviews
Best Book in Nonfiction for 2013 by Tampa Bay Times
Robert Hodge says
Dear Claire, (please forgive the length of this ‘comment’!)
Thank you for the email. If you remember, I came to see you at the invitation of my dear friend David Delk in Portland Oregon. I came early and sat midway in the ancillary ‘room’ of the church where your talk was to happen. David, running around here and there, stopped momentarily and sat behind me to thank me for coming and just generally chat and you approached us coming from the front to ask a question.
I didn’t have any idea I was coming to see YOU, you were seemingly a very nice attendee or volunteer, who needed assistance about something, and our short, poignant conversation lasted all too briefly. It wasn’t until shortly after, that you were introduced as our speaker! What a pleasant surprise to know that I had just chatted unbeknownst to me with our ‘Guest Speaker’. Your story was fascinating!
I was only 6 when Kennedy was killed and have little recollection of the events other than being ‘annoyed’ that this new thing called “television” was being taken over by some never ending story, when all I wanted to do was watch my new found cartoon friends on it! I’ve felt sad for my immature response periodically ever since. I know, I know…I was only a child, but as an adult, the hauntings and circumstances of that day and subsequent history have made me a keen observer of it ever since. It is my own personal homage or solace if you will.
Anyway… I have read your most excellent book and it has helped me immensely to understand the mindset of some of the current detractors we now face on a daily basis by seeing through the lens of your history. As frustrating as it can be, this glimpse of your past has helped me in my quest to understand and find a way to reach and help ‘those’ out of their prejudice if I can. I just wanted you to know. Thank you!
I have an ‘acquaintance’ who identifies as “Libertarian” but mentioned to me even before I was AWARE of the ‘birchers’ that he had been ‘influenced’ by it, or perhaps had actually been one. He was from Michigan I believe and is in his 70’s. At the time, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but I wonder… would you possibly think that he’d be open to reading your book? I’d be happy to loan it to him. I know you have no knowledge of him other than what I’ve mentioned, but if he would be ‘open minded’ as he claims to be (we have participated in a progressive “new thought” spiritual church – his son is the ‘minister’ actually!) I would offer it to him.
We haven’t seen each other in awhile since the structure of the ‘church’ has dissipated, and my “lefty” leanings have bristled him on many previous occasions, so I’m not sure if I’d be antagonizing him or if it would even do any good at all…so I just thought I’d ask. I’d really like him to see YOUR perspective on all this.
In conclusion, I remain steadfast in my activism and my cautious optimism about events of late, (the world and all its fear/anger etc…) frustrated to be sure, as is probably every other progressive, but thankful that your story and eventual outcome remain an inspiration for change and evolvement for everyone genuinely concerned about the future as well as the present!
If you are able, please keep in touch!
cynthia curran says
Texas is odd, at about that time interesting enough California was more of the home of the John Birch Society since it had a low minority population and low poverty because of a huge aerospace industry-the military industrial complex. There were some parts of Texas very conservative that appeal to the Birchers. With Ron Paul’s rise and California become more Democratic while Texas went more to the right even with demographic changes, California is now the hated state of birchers. Its called the New Detroit, which is kind of absurd since California is only 6.6 Afro-American while Texas is closer to the US average at 12.3 percent. Birchers and more far right use to like to go to states with less minorities but some states that are more white in population Washington for example are more Democratic and liberal. so the right wants to be in places like Texas with a high Hispanic population. I really don’t think the birchers did it. What is interesting the neo-conservatives like Jack Kemp liked John Kennedy because of his marginal tax reduction down to 70 percent.
Whether or not Texas was a ‘hotspot’ for the Birchers in 1963, it certainly sounds plausible that this group of right wingers, at a minimum, influenced Oswald. We will probably never know the full extent of the crimes committed by the Birchers. Indeed, many are still yet to be committed by this nefarious carnival, it would seem.
Claire Conner says
You might want to check out a new book by Jeffrey H. Caufield, MD titled “General Walker and the Murder of President Kennedy: the Extensive New Evidence of a Radical-Right Conspiracy. It is extensively researched and quite shocking. Let me know what you think.