DALLAS — The mementos are everywhere, preserved for five decades by people who wish they could forget: Letters of grief and thanks, in a widow’s hand. 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, perhaps a touchstone to happier memories or just an artifact proving history brushed their lives. Some can’t explain the items they keep from those awful 24 hours.
It was past 6 a.m. that Friday, and dawn was approaching.
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In a bungalow in the Dallas suburb of Irving, the only one up was Lee Harvey Oswald. He made coffee, dressed for work and 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 arrived 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. He put his parcel in Frazier’s Chevrolet for the ride to work at the Texas School Book Depository, where both had $1.25-an-hour jobs filling orders.
Normally, Oswald would wait to be picked up; normally, he would have carried a sack lunch. And unlike most Fridays, he told Frazier he would not need a ride home that night. Then there was that package in the backseat. When Frazier asked, Oswald said it contained curtain rods.
They drove off in a misting rain and arrived at work around 7:55 a.m.
Good morning, then …
At that same time, 25 miles away, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Secret Service agent Clint Hill was walking toward Room 850, where Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were staying in a suite that locals had specially decorated. They had lent art treasures — 16 originals by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and others — and hung them on the walls in welcome. Today, these artworks themselves have become mementos 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 had been protecting the first lady for three years.
And it did feel like a good morning, Hill said in an interview. A large, friendly crowd was gathering outside, 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.
Skies had cleared by the time Air Force One touched down at Dallas’ Love Field, allowing the bubble top to be removed from the dark-blue Lincoln that would carry the president through downtown.
It was a few minutes before noon.
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.”
Nancy White reached out from the crowd. “He shook my hand,” she says, amazement still in her voice.
The motorcade moved on.
Up ahead was Dealey Plaza and a corridor of buildings including the book depository, where Frazier stood on the front steps 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.
Quickly, the motorcade glided by. But then came a sound that Frazier first thought was a police motorcycle backfiring.
Then another pop. And another. Frazier recognized it was gunfire.
Instantly, he says, “People were running and screaming and hollering. 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 Mrs. Kennedy climbing onto the rear of the car. He pushed her back to her seat.
Meanwhile, reporters were struggling to understand the events and then get the news out.
In the Dallas AP office, the phone rang and bureau chief Bob Johnson grabbed it. On the line was staff photographer James “Ike” Altgens, who had been recording the Dealey Plaza chaos.
“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.”
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.”
The Lincoln, 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 blared over the public-address system, summoning specialists — “stat.”
Dr. Ronald Jones 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 said.
As he located a vein to insert an IV, other physicians worked frantically.
Dr. Malcolm Perry, who had been at lunch with Jones, was examining the wound in the president’s neck. Perry asked Dr. Robert McClelland to stand at the head of the gurney and hold the retractor.
“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.’ ”
Dr. 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, admitting the Rev. Oscar Huber, who anointed the president’s head with oil and administered Roman Catholic last rites.
When the end came, eyes turned to Jackie Kennedy. McClelland recalls a kiss. Dr. 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 Dr. 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.
A last lunch
The shooting of the president was now a homicide case, and investigators fanned out.
Frazier, who had innocently 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 saw a man matching the description of the suspected assassin, pulled up alongside him and got out of his patrol car. In a flash, the man shot Tippit dead and fled.
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.
“Cops were coming over the backs of the chairs,” Brewer recalled. “In just a little while they had the cuffs on Oswald.”
Today, Tippit’s wife, 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, Jackie 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 keeps her husband’s badge in a bank vault.
Around 2:30 p.m. at Dallas’ Love Field, Hill watched as Lyndon Johnson, flanked by Jackie Kennedy, was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One. The plane, with Kennedy’s casket secured inside, took off for Washington.
It landed at Andrews Air Force Base at 5:58 p.m.
The capital was still. Stunned Kennedy aides steered through 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.
Agent Hill had stayed at Jackie Kennedy’s side as an autopsy was conducted and then as the body was taken to the White House, arriving at 4:24 a.m.
A waiting U.S. Marine honor guard marched in front of the ambulance to the North Portico entrance.
Goodwin, watching from inside the White House, described the transfer of the casket to the now-ready East Room. Jackie Kennedy and family members entered briefly and then left.
When 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 it took time.
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 helped, he says. And the notes he wrote were a factor. But they’re not mementos. “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 letters 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.