Sixty years ago this date, on a cold and sunny Dallas day, the world changed forever. All of us have been affected in some way, even if distantly or indirectly – rather profoundly, in my case. I’ll tell it short (for me), and intersperse some personal connections.
Books and long-form essays aplenty have been written about that day and its aftermath – some reliable and evidence-based, others rife with wildly speculative and unsupported conspiracy theories by the hundreds, and everything in between. Countless movies and videos have been made, from Oliver Stone’s controversial “JFK” to cheap, low-budget films, then untold many YouTube clickbait videos. Whatever your preferred scenario, there’s a theory to support it, with highly varying levels of actual, tangible evidence. Here’s a summary of what I do understand after decades of both osmotic and proactive learning, in Dallas and since, skipping numerous details!
A motorcade cruised west on Main with an open-air convertible limo seating President John F. Kennedy, glamorous First Lady Jackie (looking adoring and adorable, but suffering secretly through her husband’s marital indiscretions covered up by mainstream “journalists”), Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife Nellie. Passing cheering throngs dozens of rows deep alongside each street, minutes before world history redirected forever at the pull of a trigger.
My dad was on a Main St. hotel balcony above the motorcade, taking advantage of the view from a visiting friend’s room, a couple blocks east of Houston St. He didn’t care much for Kennedy as a President in some ways, and had voted for Nixon, but nonetheless respected both the office and JFK personally, especially for his military service and courageous, principled stand in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was there to show that respect and witness history, among many thousands of others.
West on Main St. they went, out of his sight, then one block north on Houston St. Then the limo turned left onto Elm, toward a grassy knoll and past an unobtrusive six-story brick building with an innocuous purpose, destined for eternal infamy: the Texas School Book Depository. My dad retreated back to his buddy’s room.
On Elm St., about 150 feet downhill from the turn, a rifle bullet blew John Kennedy’s head open, snapping it in recoil and spraying his brains visibly into the air. Connally was hit too, non-fatally. Jackie, in understandable shock and panic, crawled out of her seat and onto the trunk. “X” marks the spot, still today.
My dad heard the shot(s) and their echoes unseen through the urban canyon and recognized them instantly for what they were, hoping against hope it wasn’t what he feared. As it turns out, his dread was justified, as the wail of sirens from speeding police cars drowned out remaining crowd noise, then went away. The radio in the room crackled with awful news. One by one, those remaining in the thinning crowds fell silent and stood in horrified stupor as the word spread. Soon, the city was the most deathly daylight quiet it will be until, perhaps, next year’s total solar eclipse.
The limo sped the short distance northwest up what’s now I-35E, Stemmons Freeway, straight to Parkland hospital, where the already-dead President was declared so. The blood-and brain-splattered limo arrived a few floors below the “poor folks’” maternity ward where I was born 3-1/2 years later and a little over a year after he married my mom, who did not yet know my dad in late 1963, and who was not downtown.
Instead, by her account as I recall it, she was in front of a radio when the news hit, then a TV. She cried for hours, from then into ensuing days and weeks, mourning over what happened to JFK, her childhood city, this nation, and the world. Five years after divorce from her first husband in Houston, and with no one else yet in sight, her world and that around her seemed like it was descending into a long, cold winter, literally and figuratively. The awful memories would send her quivering with tears again as she recounted them to me in the ‘70s. She was not the crying kind in my experience: a compassionate yet steadfast, easygoing and hardship-overcoming presence, always seeking joy and looking at the positives amidst ever-present hardships. This was different and troubling on another level.
That day in ’63 gave my dad (who had met Jack Ruby and spent time at his bar) an experience he’d only discuss reluctantly, curtly, rarely, a reaction I saw quite unlike any other from a typically open-book and unrestrained storyteller, free and flowing with his opinions on anything, a towering figure of physical strength to a little boy, rife with his own endurances, tough as Texas. Strangely, his recounting of witnessing his own brother’s murder just a block away from that hotel and at another, while hard for him, was more matter-of-fact. This was different and troubling on another level.
A simultaneous, scarring disturbance in the space-time fabric of life somehow independently brought both to their limit of restraint and composure. What? How could something have such disparate yet similarly dark effects on them both? I had to learn more.
It led to countless hours of reading and study at the library downtown. [And you thought I only visited for Dewey Decimal 551.5 (the weather section)!] Yes, I read hundreds of microfilmed newspaper and magazine articles …about both tornadoes and the JFK killing…strung up and projected all the movie reels of the 1957 Dallas tornado, over and over and over of course, but also, a first-generation copy of the Zapruder film that somehow found its way to the then-new library’s Texas History Collection in the early ‘80s. I wonder if it’s still there, even after digitization.
As a kid, and into my twenties, I read dozens of books on the assassination, until it seemed I had exhausted all there was to learn, factually and speculatively. There’s probably not a conspiracy theory I haven’t read. The Warren Commission offered the official company-line version of events in its report. I don’t think it’s total B.S., but it was heavily sanitized, with a lot missing pieces, some self-contradictions, and far too much unjustified certitude.
Missing pieces…if any event in modern lifetimes (even if before mine) still has the most of them it’s probably JFK’s murder. I don’t discuss it much, not because of any personal trauma, but because it’s too vast, uncertain, wayward, ridden and riddled with dead ends and bad leads. Following old clues stretches one too thin, leads everywhere and nowhere all at once. What I do know is redundant and banal by now. What I don’t is maddening. So I haven’t revisited that realm much of late. Today takes me back, as does every November 22 to some extent. The cycle is ingrained and has been since each anniversary’s editions of the local newspaper arrived at the childhood door – newspapers I read daily, year-round, with strong interest in many issues. This one was among the most interesting and frustrating.
Since those teen library days and age-twenties books, some missing pieces (but far from enough!), in the form of declassified documents, have trickled out in small chunks. They added minor, tantalizing insights, unfortunately often adding fuel to hitherto idle speculation from conspiracy mongers about deep-state involvement. At some point I couldn’t dismiss all of them as cranks anymore (just most of them). With known enemies foreign and domestic, or at least “people in high places JFK pissed off” like J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles, what dark outcomes and speculations can be definitively ruled out? Fewer and fewer it seems, with each meager release.
So many questions…indeed, I’ll wager that no killing of one man in world history, outside that of Jesus Himself, has been the subject of more study, attention, speculation, hyperbole, legend, and influence in terms of the path of history altered permanently. Directly and by domino effect, it left a legacy of mistrust, overseas war, social turmoil, and perhaps most sadly, a collective, civilizational loss of innocence. No murder mystery ever penned can rival this one for intrigue, and not one single competent mystery writer ever would leave so many loose ends.
Who put Oswald up to it and enabled him, if anyone? Why? How and why did Ruby get downstairs and kill Oswald right in front of all those cops? These are among the greatest controversies of all time. The answers exist. I could ask dozens more questions.
Sunshine really is the greatest disinfectant, especially of untrue conspiracy theories. Want to knock out almost all conspiracy theories, even if it takes confirming parts of some? A lot more openness would help – namely declassifying *all* JFK assassination-related documents, which presidents from Clinton through Biden have pledged to do after the Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. By omission they all have failed, stonewalled, broken those promises. By law, all were supposed to be released by 2017. The law is being broken daily right now, and has been since. I don’t have the answers, but I want them. All of them! I’m not alone. Thousands of pages remain classified, against the law. No one is being held accountable.
We the taxpayer paid for the Kennedy files, and in the interest of full disclosure six decades later, we therefore are entitled to see them, declassified and fully unredacted. It’s 2023, not 1963.
If you agree, tell your representative or Senator, in certain terms. Let’s get as much of this mystery solved as possible, even if the truth is ugly. Even if the truth hurts. Even if the truth isn’t what we thought. Even if the truth is dismissed as more lies. Even if the truth worsens mistrust of previously respected institutions in government, journalism, academia, and corporations (that mistrust now is planted deep anyway, so what’s the difference?). None of that matters anymore. We deserve to know the truth still concealed by those whom we have elected to represent us, for decades.