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 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 one of the highlights of my educational career to date had been a book report on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln — I was amazed at how that event had loomed on the political landscape for so many years. 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? How could this have happened twice? At the time I was already 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 dreaded the national debate that quickly arose over whether or not Oswald had acted alone.
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.
By now it was the early 1980s, and I was reporting a People magazine profile of Aileen Quinn, a Yardley, Pennsylvania, resident who had the title role in the film version of "Annie." I followed her to the Dallas premiere of the movie. 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?
Someone had the bright idea to hire a cab to drive us from the hotel to the infamous Texas School Book Depository. 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 I knew the Book Depository to be someonething 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 and exited the cab. The driver hung around to witness our amazement. Jaws soon dropped. We were amazed. Forget the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Think instead of the Fleet bank building at the corner of Witherpoon and Nassau streets in downtown Princeton. Forget the interstate highway. Think instead of Nassau Street. In fact, as I recall the scene, the sidewalk in front of Fleet Bank is considerably wider than that of the Book Depository. The street is narrower than Nassau. Look up: 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.
The visit to Dallas laid to rest a lot of nagging uncertainties about the assassination. Twenty years later, prompted by this issue of U.S. 1 and enabled by the Internet, I took a virtual tour of Dealey Plaza and the Book Depository. The diagram on page 47 comes from one of the links at www.jfk.org.
The records indicate that the Book Depository is 100 feet long. If the diagram is roughly to scale, then the point labelled "Z-224," the approximate location of the limousine when Kennedy was first hit, is not much more than 100 feet from the edge of the Book Depository. I drew a diagram with two triangles, recollected the Pythagorean theorem, and calculated the hypotenuses.
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; the Princeton University gates on Nassau Street are about 100 feet from the Fleet Bank building.) By the time Kennedy was hit he was probably 150 or 175 feet from Oswald. Kids on Farm-to-Market Road in Endwell, New York, used to shoot woodchucks at distances greater than that.
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, hidden in a replica of the book cartons Oswald apparently used to prop up his rifle while he took aim.
Wading through the Internet surf to get to the webcam, which provides that same grand — and unrealistic — panorama that the CBS documentary did, one passes by the flotsam and jetsam of all sorts of conspiracy theorists. In the small world department, one of the most prominent figures in the alleged government cover-up is Nicholas Katzenbach, the deputy attorney general (see page 17).
The most prominent journalist aiding and abetting that cover-up — according to these conspiracy theorist — is Richard Stolley, the managing editor during most of my days at People Magazine and in 1963 a reporter for Life magazine. Stolley threw the Life Magazine money at amateur movie-maker Abraham Zapruder, thus securing that piece of prime evidence for Life, and leaving government investigators with a second-rate copy. Imagine that: The brass balls reporter who seizes the movie in 1963 turns into a government patsy editor who turns his back on the story of the century. That’s not the Stolley I remember.
So 40 years later I am still a little frustrated. How could the Dallas police fail to protect Oswald? Who knows. Could there have been another shooter? Possibly. Did he act alone? Maybe not. But could he have done it all on his own? Sure as shootin’.