. . . 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.
Best in Nonfiction 2013 by Kirkus Reviews
Best Book in Nonfiction for 2013 by Tampa Bay Times