JFK: Mementoes kept 50 years mark awful day
The mementoes areeverywhere, preserved from a day five decades ago by people who wish they couldforget:
Letters of grief and thanks, in awidow's hand. Yellowing news reports. An unwanted wedding band. A rose stainedwith blood.
Those who were closest to events onthe day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated still talk about what theywitnessed as if it happened yesterday. And they frequently mention a keepsake,some small but often heavy burden they've carried since Nov. 22, 1963. Forsome, this tangible thing helps make real what remains hard to believe. Forothers, it may be a touchstone to happier memories or just an artifact provinghistory brushed their lives.
Some can't even explain the items theykeep from those awful, convulsing, world-changing 24 hours.
Dawn was approaching - it was past 6a.m. on that Friday.
In a bungalow in the Dallas suburb ofIrving, the only one up was Lee Harvey Oswald. He made coffee, dressed forwork, then paused before leaving his wife, Marina, and two young daughters. Hedrew most of the cash from his pocket, removed his wedding ring and left bothbehind. Gathering up a parcel he'd retrieved from the garage, he crept out.
"Lee left a coffee cup in thesink," recalls Ruth Paine, whose house Marina and the girls were stayingin. Oswald had come the previous evening to try - unsuccessfully - to reconcilewith 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 forinvestigators, and it would find its way into a lawyer's file for decades. Onlyrecently was it returned to Oswald's widow, who put the bitter memento up forauction. In a letter, she explained that "symbolically I want to let go ofmy past" and what she has called "the worst day of my life." Thering sold last month for $108,000.
Walking from Paine's house, Oswaldreached the home where Buell Frazier, his co-worker, lived with his sister. Heput his parcel in Frazier's black Chevrolet for the ride to work.
"I'm just about through eating mybreakfast," Frazier said from the back door.
They'd be driving to the Texas SchoolBook Depository, where both had $1.25 an hour jobs filling orders. Oswald hadjust started working there - and not by coincidence. Frazier's sister hadmentioned to her neighbor, Ruth Paine, that there might be an opening for theout-of-work Oswald.
Much was unusual about that morning.Normally, Oswald would wait to be picked up; normally, he would have carried asack lunch. Unlike most Fridays, he told Frazier he would not need a ride homethat night. And then there was the long, paper-wrapped package in the backseat.When Frazier asked, Oswald said it contained curtain rods.
As they drove off, a misting rain hadFrazier flicking the windshield wipers on and off. "I wish it would justrain or something," he complained, but nothing of substance was saidbefore they arrived at work.
By then, it was about 7:55 a.m.
At that same time, 25 miles away, atthe Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Secret Service agent Clint Hill was walking downa hallway toward Room 850, where Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were stayingin a suite that locals had specially decorated. They had lent art treasures -16 originals by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet and others - and hung them on thewalls in welcome. Today, these artworks themselves have become mementoes ofthat day, reassembled in an anniversary museum exhibit.
Emerging from the suite, Kennedycalled out, "Good morning," to Hill, whom he knew well as the agentwho'd been protecting the first lady for three years.
And it did feel like a good morning,Hill said in an interview. He recalled how just then, "I heard the noiseoutside" of a large, friendly crowd gathering, despite the drizzle, for aspeech - Kennedy's first event of a packed day. Next was a breakfast speechinside the hotel, where another crowd erupted when the first lady entered.
"Everybody was just stunned byher. And of course everybody in the world would later see the pink outfit shewas wearing," recalls Associated Press writer Mike Cochran, who stayedwith the couple as they headed to the Fort Worth airport for the hop to Dallasand a motorcade to a planned luncheon speech. It was part of a trip to helpmend a rift among Texas Democrats and try to secure the state for Kennedy inthe 1964 election.
The misty skies had cleared by thetime Air Force One touched down at Dallas' Love Field, which allowed the bubbletop to be removed from the dark blue Lincoln that would carry the presidentthrough downtown.
As the limousine cruised out of theairport, 11-year-old Stephanie Landregan snapped pictures with her Browniecamera. Watching with her grandparents and four siblings, the schoolgirl felt a"giddy" thrill. Her mother was at the Trade Mart, where Kennedy washeaded for lunch. The only family member who'd miss the rare presidentialvisit, it seemed, was her father. He had to be at work - at Parkland MemorialHospital.
It was a few minutes before noon.
Hill and other agents riding in theSecret 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. "Wheneverthat happened, we knew pretty well he was going to stop."
As Kennedy leaned from the car, NancyWhite reached out from the crowd. "He shook my hand," she says,amazement still in her voice.
The motorcade moved on, growing ranksof spectators bulging into the traffic lanes. At times, Hill ran from hisvehicle to a foothold on the moving Lincoln's rear bumper.
Up ahead was Dealey Plaza and acorridor of buildings including the book depository, where Buell Frazier stoodon the front steps, taking a break with co-workers - though not Lee Oswald.
Happy pandemonium greeted thepresidential Lincoln, and suddenly Frazier could see Jackie Kennedy.
"She's as pretty as thepictures," he remembers calling out to a woman nearby.
And that quickly the motorcade glidedby, enveloped by more cheers ahead. But then came another sound that Frazierfirst thought was a police motorcycle backfiring.
Then another pop. And another. Frazierrecognized the sound of gunfire.
Instantly, all was mayhem."People were running and screaming and hollering," Frazier says."Somebody came running by as we were standing there on the steps and shesays, 'They've shot the president.'"
In the agents' car, Hill heard thefirst shot, sprinted to the Lincoln and scrambled aboard. As he strained tohold on, he saw Mrs. Kennedy climbing onto the rear of the car, now speedingtoward a freeway to the hospital.
"She's going to go flying off theback," he thought, and pushed her back to her seat.
In the motorcade and amid the crowdnow, reporters struggled to grasp the events, then get the news out.
In the Dallas AP office, the phonerang and bureau chief Bob Johnson grabbed it. On the line was staffphotographer James W. "Ike" Altgens, breathing hard. He'd recordedthe Dealey Plaza chaos - including images of Kennedy grasping his throat and ofHill reaching for the first lady across the limo's trunk.
"Bob, the president's beenshot," he shouted from a pay phone.
"Ike, how do you know?"Johnson demanded.
"I was shooting pictures then andI saw it."
"Ike, you saw that?"
"Yes, there was blood on hisface."
Johnson typed furiously, folding inAltgens' details:
"DALLAS - PRESIDENT KENNEDY WASSHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UPAND GRABBED HIM. SHE CRIED: 'OH, NO!' THE MOTORCADE SPED ON."
It timed off at 12:40 p.m. Centraltime. Instantly, in newsrooms everywhere, bells clanged on wire teletypemachines as they churned out the unimaginable, line by line, and broadcasterstore the copy and relayed the unthinkable.
Fifty years on, that first bulletin -its type spilling down the page from being pulled by some forgotten editor asit printed out - is an artifact of the moment, preserved in the news service'scorporate archives.
The Lincoln, meanwhile, with agentHill spread-eagled over the wounded president, raced to Parkland Hospital.
Because it was lunchtime, many on theParkland staff were in the cafeteria when calls suddenly blared over the publicaddress system, summoning specialists - "stat."
Dr. Ronald Jones called the operatorto learn why.
"Dr. Jones, the president's beenshot ...," she said. "They need physicians." The cafeteriacleared.
Through the open door of the traumaroom, Jones saw a stoic Jackie Kennedy, moving from a folding chair placed forher outside the room to standing quietly inside as doctors assessed herhusband.
"His eyes were open, they werenot moving," Jones says.
He scissored through Kennedy's coatand shirt to find a vein to insert an IV. Other physicians worked frantically,trying to think of this as any trauma case, any patient.
Dr. Malcolm Perry, who'd been at lunchwith 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 inthe incision they were making to explore the wound.
"As soon as I got into thatposition," McClelland recalled recently, "I was shocked ... I said toDr. Perry, 'My God, have you seen the back of his head?' I said, 'It'sgone.'"
Dr. Kemp Clark, professor ofneurosurgery, 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'sgone,'" McClelland says.
The trauma room door opened momentslater, admitting the Rev. Oscar Huber, who anointed the president's head withoil and administered the Roman Catholic last rites. (The hospital official whophoned for Huber at his church, learning he was already on his way, and wholater called a funeral home for a casket was Steve Landregan, whose daughterhad taken airport snapshots of the first couple.)
When the end came, eyes turned toJackie Kennedy at her husband's side. McClelland recalls a kiss. Dr. KennethSalyer, who had done external cardiac massage, says, "She sort of laid onhis chest ... in a sort of compassionate motion."
Afterward, in the empty trauma roomtwo young residents noticed the first lady's roses, discarded and bloodstained.Each picked up one, and would preserve the flowers in Lucite. "You can'treally tell what it is," says Dr. Michael Ellsasser, "but I stillhave it anyhow."
McClelland was changing clothes laterwhen he remembered once seeing in a museum a piece of clothing stained withAbraham Lincoln's blood after he was shot. Struck by the sense of history inhis own simple white shirt - soaked in blood from where he leaned over thegurney - he decided it should be preserved. He has it still.
The shooting of the president was nowa homicide case, and investigators fanned out everywhere.
Buell Frazier, who had innocentlydriven Oswald to work, was rounded up for hours of fierce questioning.
Across town, after a rare lunch breakat home, Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit hurried back to patrol. He soonspotted a man matching the description of the suspected assassin that had justbeen circulated; he pulled up alongside him and got out of his patrol car. In aflash, the man shot Tippit dead, then fled, shaking spent cartridges from hisrevolver as he ran.
As radio news reported an officer's shootingnear the shoe store where John Brewer was manager, he noticed a mansuspiciously engrossed in a window display instead of the police cars streamingpast. When the man darted into a movie theater, Brewer followed and raised thealarm.
The suspect pulled a handgun whenconfronted by a police officer, who wrestled it from him. "Cops werecoming over the backs of the chairs.... In just a little while they had thecuffs on Oswald," says Brewer, whose keepsakes of that day include aposter from "War Is Hell," the movie he fatefully interrupted.
Today, Officer Tippit's wife Mariespeaks of the blessing of his brief return home for lunch that day and of theiryears together. She is a great-grandmother now, but as a young widow treasureda letter she received from another, Jacqueline Kennedy. "She said that shehad lit a flame for Jack and she was going to consider that it would burn formy husband, too, that it would burn forever."
She keeps her husband's badge in abank vault.
That afternoon, police arrived with asharp knock on Ruth Paine's door in Irving as she and Marina Oswald sattransfixed by the television news.
"We have Lee Oswald in custody,for shooting an officer," Paine remembers them declaring. They beganquestioning the women.
"And then one of the policemenasked Marina (whose native language was Russian), 'Did Oswald have a gun?'
"And I said, 'No,' but translatedto Marina, who said, 'Yes, he did.'"
Paine continues: "She led us tothe garage and pointed to a blanket roll." That, she said, was whereOswald kept his rifle.
The rifle was gone.
"That was my worst moment,"says Paine, who late the night before had switched off the garage light, whichhad been left on.
She keeps few mementoes of the time -just some old newsmagazines, to be donated to an archive. What she does carrystill, she says, is "a sense of grief and loss."
And regret. "If only I had knownthat Lee Oswald had hidden a rifle in my garage."
Around 2:30 p.m. at Dallas' LoveField, Clint Hill watched as Lyndon Johnson, flanked by his wife and JackieKennedy, was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One. The plane, withKennedy's casket secured inside, quickly took off for Washington.
It landed at Andrews Air Force Base at5:58 p.m.
At attention stood a military teamassigned a solemn duty: They'd attend the former commander in chief from herethrough his funeral on Monday - as pallbearers. "We were proud to doit," says Coast Guardsman George A. "Bud" Barnum. "Wewanted to do it right."
The capital was still. Stunned Kennedyaides steered through dark, silent streets to the White House to keep vigil.Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter and adviser, was one of them.
"Jackie Kennedy sent word thatshe wanted the East Room, where the president would lie in state, to look as itdid when Lincoln's body lay there," Goodwin remembers.
He and others went to work. Someonewas sent to the Library of Congress for a sketch and a newspaper descriptionfrom Lincoln's time; artists and upholsterers were called in, and black crepewas carefully hung. "In the midst of all these activities we wouldalternately break down in tears," Goodwin says.
It was now well past midnight.
Agent Hill had stayed at JackieKennedy's side - as an autopsy was conducted on the body, and then as it wastaken to the White House, arriving at 4:24 a.m.
A waiting U.S. Marine honor guardmarched before the ambulance to the North Portico entrance.
Goodwin, watching the scene frominside the White House, described the transfer of the casket to the now-readyEast Room. He, Hill and others stood back as Jackie Kennedy and family membersentered, spent some moments in silent thought and prayer, then left.
With Mrs. Kennedy retired for thenight, Hill recalls, "I went down to my office on the ground floor. I madesome notes for myself as to what had transpired that day."
Then and long afterward, guiltconsumed the agent; he believed he could have protected Kennedy from the fatalbullet by reaching the limousine more quickly. There would be bouts ofdepression and of heavy drinking. He says he's doing well now, but there was aprocess to reach this point.
For years, he talked little about thatday and turned aside suggestions that he write about it. Eventually he agreedto 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 thenotes he wrote were a factor. But they're not mementoes.
"I had them for a longtime," Hill says. "In 2008 or so, I burned them."
Partly, that was "an attempt tobury it. But that just hasn't happened. You can't get rid of it."
He does keep letters from JackieKennedy.
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 dawnwas approaching.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sullivan reported fromNew York. AP writers Hillel Italie in New York and Calvin Woodward inWashington, D.C., and news researcher Monika Mathur contributed to this report.The writers can be reached at featuresap.org.