Bernie Brunza’s chemistry class, 11th grade, Maine-Endwell High School, Farm-to-Market Road, Endwell, New York. That’s where I was at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, when the principal announced on the PA [as the public address system was called at the time] that shots had been fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas.
I can’t recall the immediate reactions of anyone else — not Mr. Brunza or any of my classmates — but I still recall that I told myself that this was a time to remain calm.
But I was clearly unsettled. From my 16-year-old viewpoint, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a buffoon of a vice president. And if I was angered by the loss of the president, I was even more shocked when I saw Lee Harvey Oswald gunned down on live television by Jack Ruby.
How could the Dallas police have failed to protect Oswald? At the time I was editor of my high school newspaper, and I might have had just enough of a reporter’s instinct in me to realize that a huge amount of historic evidence went into the grave with Oswald. I began to dread the national debate that quickly arose over whether Oswald had acted alone.
[That’s how I began a column in this space 10 years ago, on the 40th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination. Now, with conspiracy believers even more prevalent, according to at least one national poll, the time has come to excerpt my 2003 column, with some addenda, based on the ever-shifting sands of history.]
Twenty years passed. Meanwhile the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination gained strength — Oswald must have been in cahoots with the Cubans, or the Russians, or the Mafia, or just some other crazy who was backing him up from the grassy knoll. Jack Ruby was fodder for even wilder speculation. At some point Walter Cronkite narrated a documentary of the shooting. CBS put television cameras in the same relative position that Oswald had and then ran a car along a route identical to the route Kennedy’s limousine took. From the camera’s point of view the shot looked exceedingly difficult — a small, moving target at long-range from the shooter. Conspiracy theories grew.
In the early 1980s I followed a People Magazine subject to a Dallas movie premiere. During a break in the proceedings, several other reporters and I began to chew on that annoying old bone: Could Oswald have done it? Could he have done it alone? Three or four of us piled into the cab and announced our destination.
“The Book Depository,” the cabbie repeated. “Let me tell you right now: You’re going to be amazed when you get there. I’m not going to tell you why, but I can guarantee you’re going to be amazed. Everybody is.”
At that point we in the cab must have cast a pretty skeptical eye toward the know-it-all cabbie. In my mind [and informed by that television re-enactment of the shooting] I knew the Book Depository to be something on the order of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a hulk of a building, separated from the broad boulevard below by a spacious park — the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza. The boulevard gave way to a divided highway of interstate highway proportions. From one end of that dreaded site one lone gunman with a cheap Italian rifle (always cheap and always Italian, as I recall the media reports) had to squeeze off shots at the tiny figure in the moving car at the far diagonal corner of the crime scene.
Finally we arrived. The driver hung around to witness our amazement. Jaws soon dropped. We were amazed. Forget the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Think instead of the Bank of America building at the corner of Witherspoon and Nassau streets in Princeton. Forget the interstate highway. Think instead of Nassau Street. In fact, as I recall the scene, the sidewalk in front of the bank at 90 Nassau Street is considerably wider than that of the Book Depository. The street is narrower than Nassau. Oswald isn’t hundreds of feet above you — he’s in the sixth floor window. That’s 60 feet, the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.
When Kennedy turned the corner from Houston onto Elm he was probably no more than 100 feet from Oswald. (A catcher has to throw a baseball 130 feet to nail a runner at second base.) By the time Kennedy was hit he was probably 150 or 175 feet from Oswald. Kids from Endwell, New York, used to shoot woodchucks at distances greater than that.
[In the 10 years since I wrote the original column, more information has made it into the halls of Google. The distances of the shots that struck the president were estimated by various experts at around 190 and 265 feet, further than I had guessed but still within range.
[In a story published November 22, 2007, the New York Times reported that some now believe that Abraham Zapruder’s film starts after the first shot was taken. The Times report speculated that the first shot was taken from a much closer distance, but may have been deflected by the arm of a street light in front of the Book Depository. If this is correct, the Times said, “it has the virtue of solving several puzzles,” including “how did Oswald, who was able to hit President Kennedy in his upper back at a distance of around 190 feet, and then in the head at a distance of 265 feet, manage to miss so badly on the first and closest shot?” Moreover, it would show that the three shots occurred in 11.2 seconds, with 6.3 and 4.9 seconds between the shots. Plenty of time.]
A few things have changed at the Book Depository since 1963. Now the sixth floor has been preserved as the Sixth Floor Museum. While visitors are kept from standing at the window ledge itself, a webcam has been installed there, providing that same grand — and unrealistic — panorama that the CBS documentary did.
So 40 years later I am still frustrated. Could there have been another shooter? Possibly. Did he act alone? Maybe not. Could he have done it on his own? Sure as shootin’.
[Now 50 years later, with the newest conspiracy theory detailing how Lyndon Johnson ordered the assassination, I am still fascinated. One of our deliverers, Mark Cehelyk, recently showed me a facsimile of the Dallas Morning News of Saturday, November 23, 1963. The 50-page paper — four sections — cost 5 cents then; I ran out and bought the replica at the Wawa for $5. Three reports jumped out at me:
1.) Dallas police were investigating the possibility that Oswald may have been responsible for an April 10 sniper attack that nearly killed Major General Edwin Walker in North Dallas.
2.) A reporter from the “Women’s News” section of the paper detailed how she and three other women from that department had planned to spend their lunch hour watching the motorcade. They saw the approaching president smile and wave “directly.” Then they heard a “horrible, ear shattering noise.” At that point, she wrote, the car came almost to a halt. Then “there was another shot and I saw the president start slumping in the car. This was followed rapidly by another shot.” The account seemed to jibe exactly with what the Times would report in 2007.
3.) Given all the circumstances of Oswald’s life, his travels, military service, marriage, and fatherhood, I would have pegged Oswald’s age as 39 or 40. In the second sentence of the lead story chronicling the day’s events, the Dallas paper reported: “A 24-year-old pro-Communist who once tried to defect to Russia was charged with the murder.”
The facts sometimes defy our memories.]