Recalling the events of Nov. 22, 1963 while living in Dallas, Texas
Nov 22, 2013
105 days ago
As a 14-year-old impressionable kid growing up in Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963 is a day I have carried with me all of my life.
I attended Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School in South Oak Cliff, a Dallas suburb, and went to school as usual that day. We had been told the day before the president arrived that we could have an excused absence if we chose to go downtown to watch the president's motorcade, but we'd have to write a report on it. Most of my friends and I chose to attend class because we thought the crowds would be too large to really see anything. It was a decision I have always regretted.
The first inkling of anything wrong for me was during our lunch period at school when I saw a teacher rush into the lunchroom and whisper something to the other teachers at the teachers' table. There was some commotion and all the teachers immediately left, some crying. Many of us thought something had happened to another teacher -- perhaps a heart attack.
During recess after lunch, everyone was speculating on what had happened. I remember one kid had little transistor radio with an earpiece and he told everyone that the president had been shot, but we didn't believe him and thought he was making it up. When we got to our homerooms after lunch , the principal announced over the loudspeakers that the president had indeed been shot and had died at Parkland Hospital. School was let out for the remainder of the day.
I took a city bus downtown, as I often did on the weekends. When the bus arrived in the middle of downtown, I walked west to Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository -- well known to most people in Dallas because it had a large Hertz time and temperature sign on top of it that faced the nearby Stemmons Freeway, just past the triple underpass.
I arrived sometime after 2:30 p.m., two hours after the President was shot and an hour after his death was announced. Police blocked the area off with men and police cars. This was before the emergence of the ubiquitous yellow crime scene tape. Back then, Dallas police used small “street closed” signs and their own commanding voices to manage the crowd. If you stepped into an area you weren't supposed to be, you got yelled at to back up. The crowd was confined to the corner kitty-corner from the book depository -- and I saw police with long rifles walking around. Detectives and sheriff's deputies could be identified by the white Stetson hats they wore with their suits. Dealey Plaza was also blocked off as investigators went over the area.
I remember seeing a person with a news film camera leaning out a second- or third-floor window dropping two film canisters to a colleague on the ground below. Apparently no one was allowed out of the depository building at that point. Being short, I stood at the front of the group of onlookers on the corner. Years later, while doing an interview on the 25th anniversary of the assassination at the Denver television station where I worked, I found archival film footage taken from the opposite corner I was standing on, showing the growing crowd across the street. The film was grainy, and in black and white, but I could make out a small figure at the front of the crowd and realized it was me. It was quite an eerie feeling.
At that point, I'm not sure the crowd was aware that Lee Harvey Oswald had already been arrested and I seem to remember standing across the street waiting for police to bring out a suspect. Mostly, we just wanted to see the place where it had happened.
After spending some time there, I walked back east into downtown where I would catch a bus home. I remember people not making eye contact, some sobbing, shoulders slumped. I even saw some people suddenly turn toward store display windows and start crying. The reality of what happened hadn't set in with me yet.
Once I got home late that Friday afternoon, I sat with my mother and I watched the news coverage. My mom was a Walter Cronkite fan, so we had CBS News on the local KRLD TV channel. We didn't flip around the channels too much back then. Changing the channel meant getting up and going to the TV to change the channel selector and then maybe adjusting the rabbit ears for better reception. It was a hassle, so we didn't change the channel too often.
My first inkling of how America felt about Dallas came that evening as people in other cities were interviewed about their reaction to the president's death. “They ought to go down there and shoot every one of those people in Dallas,” a man on TV told reporter. His sentiment was echoed by others on national television as I watched. I suddenly became ashamed to be a part of “the city that killed the president.” I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night.
The next morning, I had nothing planned for Saturday so I asked my mother if I could ride the bus downtown and see what was happening. My mother, wanting to encourage me to see history happening right in our town, agreed. After taking the bus downtown, I headed back to the book depository but the crowds were huge, so I turned around and headed to the library.
When I arrived at the library, I didn't go in because there seemed to be a lot of activity across the street. The first thing I noticed was a very large semi-truck with a TV station logo on it. Large cables and wires came out of the side and snaked up to the third floor windows of the Police and Municipal Courts building. I knew then, where I wanted to be: as close to the action as possible.
A lot has been written about the lax security at the police station that weekend and my experience shows that. I was able to walk up the steps of the building, walking inside and up and down the first and second floors without ever being stopped. I ran into two other kids about my age who said Lee Harvey Oswald was on the third floor, so we ran up the stairs as fast as we could. We came face-to-face with a very large Dallas police officer (remember, we were much smaller and also a few steps below his towering figure at the third-floor landing). Behind him, we could see camera flashes going off and TV camera lights among the wall-to-wall crowd of reporters -- all yelling. I later suspected we had arrived during one of the times Oswald was brought out into the hallway in what is now called a “perp walk.” The officer told us we could not be there and ordered us to leave.
The three of us considered our options on the first floor and one of them said he heard they were going to move Oswald from the police parking garage in the basement, so down the stairs we ran. We came out to a man setting up a studio-type television camera. We asked if Oswald was coming this way soon and he said, “No, it will probably be tomorrow. We haven't got the camera set up yet.”
The next day, I was one of millions of Americans watching television coverage of the president's funeral when the network cut away to Dallas to show Oswald being moved. I watched in stunned horror as there was a commotion and shot rang out on TV in the very spot I had been standing 24 hours earlier.
The experience of being in the middle of a news story was what got me interested in broadcast journalism, where I could see history being made first-hand and report it. By March of 1964, I was working at a small 66-watt, student-run, educational FM radio station in Dallas.
A few years later at the radio station, I noticed the station manager had kept the rolled up Associated Press teletype copy that contained the minute-by-minute account of what happened that Friday and Saturday. During a cleanup project, it was about to be tossed out and I asked if I could have it. I kept it with me everywhere I moved while working in broadcasting the next 40 years and moving around the country. Although I toyed with selling it, I felt it really belonged somewhere where everyone could read it, since it really wasn't mine. I eventually donated it to the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. I was told it was the first complete AP wire copy they had been given that came from Texas, which meant it contained the “Texas Split” -- a 20-minute period every hour where the national wire was stopped and Texas stories were filed by teletype. It encapsulated what happened in the minutes and hours in Texas before after the assassination.
As I grew up working in radio in Dallas I became friends with many of those who covered the assassination that day:
Ron Jenkins from KBOX, the newsman who was driving a mobile news unit ahead of the motorcade as it approached the triple underpass at the end of Dealey Plaza and who could be heard saying, “There's something.... something appears to have happened in the motorcade....” He testified before the Warren Commission because he saw Jack Ruby on the third floor at Dallas Police Headquarters the night of the assassination. We became good friends while I was in high school and he let me sit with him in the KBOX newsroom and make beat calls on the weekends. He also taught me how to write news.
Gordon McLendon, the owner of KLIF, who led his team's coverage of the assassination and who I went to work for five years later at KLIF's FM station.
Russ Knight, who did the night shift at KLIF and who let a wide-eyed sixth grade fan in to his studio a few years earlier to see a radio station behind the scenes. He's in the Warren Commission Report because he saw Jack Ruby at Dallas Police Headquarters while Oswald was being held and had let him into the radio station to deliver sandwiches during the coverage. I later ran into Knight in Denver in 1973 when I was applying at the newly renamed KLZ broadcasting complex for a radio reporter position and Knight was the program director at the radio station. The building where I applied that day and chatted with Knight about Jack Ruby and the Kennedy assassination is the same one I went to work in 10 years later, after KLZ TV became KMGH TV. I've been here for more than 30 years.
Nationally known newsmen also worked in Dallas-Fort Worth and covered the assassination, including Dan Rather, bureau chief of CBS's Southern Bureau in New Orleans. He was in Dallas covering the visit and was standing just beyond the triple underpass with a large mesh bag labeled “CBS.” The CBS photographer filming in the motorcade press poool was supposed to toss Rather his film canisters so Dan could run them back up the street to KRLD, the CBS TV station in Dallas to get developed. The bag was how the photographer would recognize Rather. The motorcade raced by without stopping and Rather had to run back to KRLD, through the area where Kennedy had been shot, in order to relay information by phone to CBS News in New York. He was the first reporter to break the story that Kennedy had died at Parkland Hospital before the official announcement was made.
Jim Leher worked for the Dallas Times Herald during the assassination. Leher was one of the many reporters on the third floor of the police station while Oswald was being questioned. He later realized he had been sitting next to Jack Ruby during a third-floor news conference when Oswald was being held. Because of the lax security and Ruby's friendliness with Dallas Police, he was not stopped when he got onto the third floor.
Robert MacNeil worked for NBC News and was in the basement of police headquarters when Oswald was shot. He later started the MacNeil-Leher Report on PBS.
Bob Schieffer was working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time of the assassination. While at the newspaper he picked up the phone to hear a woman asking if someone could take her to Dallas. He told her the president had been shot and they weren't a taxi service. The woman said, “Yes, I heard it on the radio. I think the person they've arrested is my son.” It turned out the caller was Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald's mother. She got her ride and Schieffer got an exclusive interview.
As a result of my experience in Dallas, I made journalism my life-long career and tried to emulate the reporters who kept us informed during time. A few years after the assassination, I was named the editor & chief of my high school newspaper in Dallas. A year after graduation, I ended up working in the KLIF building at the new FM radio station Gordon McLendon owned. It was there I helped report on the almost back-to-back 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
Fifteen years after that dark weekend in Dallas, I became the first broadcast journalist in Texas to be jailed for refusing to reveal a news source in a federal investigation of an East Texas sheriff who was later convicted of racketeering and conspiracy to commit murder. I later found out my life had been in danger reporting on the sheriff. Because of that investigating, I landed a job at KRLD Radio in Dallas, a long-time dream for me. By 1980, I had come full circle, working as KRLD's police reporter out of the press room on the third floor of Dallas Police Headquarters, the same place I had tried to see so many years earlier.
I also started collecting everything I could get my hands on regarding the assassination and I followed the various investigations with keen interest. While I do not subscribe to any of the conspiracy theories out there, I do have two nagging questions about Nov. 22, 1963:
1) How could a rifle bullet that passed through both the president and hitting Texas Governor John Connally in three places end up in such good shape? It is the so-called “magic bullet.”
2) Where was Lee Harvey Oswald going after he went back to his boarding house at 1026 N. Beckley Ave. in Oak Cliff and grabbed his .38-special snub nose revolver? Had he meticulously planned the assassination of the president but not thought far enough ahead to figure out what he'd do afterward? Or was he going to meet someone, if he had not encountered and killed Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit who was sitting in his patrol car, out of his assigned patrol area, when he was shot?
Oswald had left his wedding ring in a cup on the dresser in his room at the boarding house before he went work the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, carrying his mail-order rifle, wrapped up as “curtain rods.” He didn't put the ring back on when he returned to the room to grab his revolver. Did he know he was never coming back?
I sometimes think back to that terrible weekend in Dallas and I know it still affects me to this day. I wonder what might have been if it hadn't have happened and what career path I might have chosen instead. I see that event as the end of my childhood innocence. Since then, I've met and talked to future presidents on the campaign trail, covered the first Apollo moon landings from Houston, and the tragedy of Columbine here in Colorado. But nothing has effected me more than that weekend did 50 years ago.