Friday, November 22, 2013


C.S. Lewis, who died less than one hour before President John F. Kennedy was shot, wrote in The Magician's Nephew, "What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are."

Today's date speaks to everyone who lived through the events 50 years ago no matter where they were standing. No one stood in exactly the same place, and today none of these people I will write about here have any connection to one another except the death of their president. And that they told me their story. These  people have sealed in the vaults of memory their own newsreels of that ominous day.


Meet David––"A primary source of data"

David is my brother-in-law, whom I have known for over 40 years.  Fifty years ago today, he and 3 of his friends were among the throngs that turned out to see President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive first at Love Field in Dallas. Afterward they sped downtown to situate themselves on Market Street under a viaduct, where "We knew the driver would make a hard right turn and we'd get a really good look at the president." These 4 high school seniors knew how to navigate the surface streets of Dallas.

They had skipped school that day after persuading their teacher in "Problems of Democracy" class to let them do some first-hand research on their project "Subversive Organizations in the U.S."

At Love Field, David said, contrary to expectations, there were no protest signs. "The sky was blue. He was the most handsome man I'd ever seen," he said, "and she, the First Lady, was stunning. I had never seen fashion like that. They both looked so happy."

By coincidence, he says, the street where these 4 students later parked was "exactly the street to take to Parkland Hospital. We were standing about 15 feet from his car when it sped past us. I saw his wound … there was no backside of his head. Horrible. Really emotional … 45 minutes earlier seeing this vibrant man and now," as David tells this story to me he says he remembers "a big bloody piece of nothing."

The 4 guys jumped into their car and followed the president's limo to the hospital. "We thought it was weird that it [the limousine] didn't slow down." The Press Corps behind the limo got caught in traffic.

Senator Ralph Yarborough and Mayor Earl Cabell were in the second car. David said he talked to Yarborough, "who was crying, inconsolable." And later, it was Yarborough who told the press to talk to David and his friends.

"These boys saw him," Yarborough said.

David said, "And then the press swamped us." David's friend Will had used his student press pass to get into the hospital press conference. "He had an ABC News Press card and went to the official press conference."

Meanwhile, in a second limo, in the backseat, the roses presented earlier to Jackie Kennedy lay strewn across the backseat.

The photo on the right shows what David was looking at: Jackie's roses. You can almost see in his expression and body language the wheels turning––should I or shouldn't I?

"I reached into the limo––I can't believe I had the nerve. There was blood on the rose I got."

The next thing he did was turn on the radio in the limo. "We didn't know what was happening… We heard Walter Cronkite saying," and here David couldn't finish his sentence. After a pause, he said, "I knew he was dead."

This picture of David ran in the Houston Chronicle on the front page of the 25th Anniversary of the assassination, November 20, 1988.

David has framed the blood stained rose as well as newspaper clippings and prints made from his friend's camera.

Dallas Times Herald, November 22, 1963

Behind the policeman, a man moves the glass bubble that could have shielded the president, but President Kennedy had asked that the bubble top be removed.

Crowd gathered outside Parkland Hospital Emergency Room

At the hospital, David's friend, Charles, took pictures with the camera he had brought with him that day. By the time reporters got there, people (Secret Service or local cops?) had cleaned up the car. They wiped off blood, took the top out of the trunk, put it on and drove away the limo Kennedy had been riding in. Charles, who later became a lawyer, started negotiating with reporters, who bid on his camera "sight unseen" and paid $700. for its film, with Charles retaining first prints and credits for any photos used.

"When I testified, 10, 15 or 20 years later," David said, "I flew into Dallas to the museum to record a filmed testimony. The only thing interesting [to them, those who questioned him] was that President Johnson came out surrounded by Secret Service men, guns out, and loaded him into a VW Beetle with at least 4 agents with him. They covered him with their bodies."


Meet Dr. Bob McClelland, a friend of a friend

I met Dr. Bob McClelland this past summer, a mutual friend introducing us, because she knew I had been particularly interested in the Kennedy history. Sitting around my friend Norma's kitchen table with her husband Royce, also a doctor, and their son Todd and my friend Pat, Dr. McClelland shared with us his first-hand testimony of that day in Trauma Room #1 at Parkland Hospital. Bob and Royce have been friends and colleagues for over 50 years.

This is the shirt Dr. McClelland was wearing that day, the shirt he has preserved, he says, because he once saw a piece of clothing in a museum that was stained with President Lincoln's blood after he had been shot.

"To start," he said, "with a worm's-eye view in the OR, 2 days after my 34th birthday, I had been on the surgical faculty [of Southwestern Medical School] since 1962. I was in a conference room showing a movie to senior residents on how to repair hernias."

Dr. Crenshaw said, "Mac, will you step out here? Got a call to ER. They're bringing President Kennedy in."

"He and I got on the elevatior, rode 2 floors down, trying to cheer each other. The door to 'the Pit' opened," a space he compared to the size of Norma's kitchen and den, with patient cubicles separated by curtains off that hallway. "Trauma rooms 1, 2, 3, and 4 were opposite, where we took seriously injured patients."

"What I saw … the area was jammed with people, men in business suits, a sea of hats … the crowd parted [to let them pass]. On a chair outside Trauma room 1, Mrs. Kennedy was sitting … I walked toward her. I forced myself."

"Oh, no," I thought. "I was it, or so I thought."

"There were 4 of us [doctors] inside now, and Doris Nelson, the nurse in charge of the ER." Later, Parkland hospital records would indicate 6 doctors attended the president.

"A surgical drape on the president, I saw him lying, cut out of his clothing, covered in blood. It was a horrible sight. Dr. Malcolm Parry and Dr. Baxter were there, and I [was glad] I wasn't by myself. Parry on one side and Baxter on the other," Dr. McClelland stood at the end of the gurney, noting that the doctors were working on a wound "the size of my little finger in his neck." Did a bullet hit the carotid artery? he wondered.

"Dr. Carricho put a tube in the trach [tracheotomy]. He was a resident at the time, but later he was chief of the department."

Here, at this point in the conversation, Dr. McClelland reached up and touched his own head near the crown, indicating where he saw "a huge hole in the back of the President's head." He thought before he spoke, "The right side of his head is gone, meaning the right half of the cerebral hemisphere is gone. However, he was breathing and had good cardio on the monitor."

The doctors completed exploration of the neck wound, about 6 minutes spent, he said, before they cut Kennedy's chest open and Mac [Dr. McClelland's nickname] massaged his heart.
Here Dr. McClellan looks at one of the countless books he has read about the assassination of JFK. The plastic bag contains the shirt he was wearing while he treated President Kennedy in the Parkland ER

Dr. Clark, a neurosurgery professor, noted that the ECG monitor had straight-lined. "Mac, you can stop now. The President is gone."

"Shows how news media can bend things," Dr. McClelland said. "Mrs. Kennedy wasn't in the room when Dr. Clark made his pronouncement." With that, he said, the crowd left the room.

"Dr. Baxter and I were shoved up against the wall of the trauma room, after the others left. Just as we got around the cart, a priest came in. Couldn't knock him down, could we? Father Huber, there to administer Last Rites. He bent down to the President's left ear, saying 'If thou livest' and then his voice dropped."

"Next, the door opened and Mrs. Kennedy came in. I couldn't hear, but I surmised [that that the priest had given] 'conditional absolution.' She grimaced but said nothing. She exchanged the ring from her finger to his, and his to hers. She stood by the President's barefoot, leaned over and kissed his foot. Then she left the room.

This detail, which I had never heard mentioned or written, was the most poignant, personal aspect of what Dr. McClelland witnessed that day. 

Meanwhile, Forensic pathologist, Dr. Earl Rose, later described to Dr. McClelland what he had seen while sitting downstairs in his office. He looked out into the corridor and saw O'Neal funeral home arrive with a coffin. The president's body was brought out [up to that place in the hospital] to an ambulance on the same cart he had been treated on. Two Secret Service men walked in front and Mrs. Kennedy was on the side opposite her friends Kenny O'Donnell and David Powers.

"Dr. Rose stepped out of his office to stop them saying, 'I'm required by Texas law to conduct a postmortem on any murder committed in this state. Dr. Rose said a Secret Service man picked him up, and set him down and waved his finger [back and forth] in front of his face."

Besides being in Trauma room 1 when Kennedy was shot, Dr. McClelland was called in on Sunday to Trauma room 2 where Lee Harvey Oswald lay mortally wounded.

"That's where our personal part goes," Dr. McClelland said, noting that it would be years later when he saw the Zapruder film on Geraldo Rivera's show in the early 1970's that he began to question what had happened at Dealy Plaza that day. He and the other doctors who treated President Kennedy found themselves in the midst of a battle, in an undeclared war, treating the Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America. 


Meet Clint Hill, Secret Service Agent assigned to protect First Lady Jackie Kennedy

Earlier this week, I wrote about the book Mrs. Kennedy and Me, written by Clint Hill. Here, the view from where he stood that day reflects a different angle. Agent Hill continues to see things, not only in light of his protective detail's concerns, but also from his personal attachment to Mrs. Kennedy. 

Incidentally, later that same day I gave my book review, I was seated at lunch with a man whose uncle, a professor at Baylor University, served as a forensic expert at a mock trial held in Dallas. This man told me that his uncle actually got to examine the bullets, and his uncle's conclusion? 
Two shooters. 


What's that mean?

Bob Shieffer said on CBS news this morning, "Nobody knew what this meant." This meaning, the end of the innocence in this country. The end of believing in idealism. The end of trusting those in authority.

This date also marks the beginning of an era of unrest, of divergence from values that once held the disparate states and opinions of people together in something resembling a whole. One nation under God had elected a young, vibrant Roman Catholic president. A new day dawning, even though in hindsight, we have to admit that John F. Kennedy had his concealed flaws.

We have the buffer of history to interpret for us meanings. The nation was not attacked. Oswald, presumed guilty, met death equivalent to a lynching. He got what most people believed he deserved. That's how things were done in 1963. Find a patsy, which is how Oswald referred to himself. Hang him publicly. Quiet the crowds. Show everyone, "We got our shooter."

No matter where a person stands today to reflect on events that occurred 5 decades ago, the conspiracy conversation continues. Whether Oswald was the lone shooter, a misanthropic loser who sought a place in history books, or a conscripted assassin, the country took a hit that day, one that continues to ooze as questions reopen the wound.

For my part, whatever was concealed from the public must have been dreadful. I don't trust the Warren Commission's report. I have never found a place to stand where I could see what the Commission presented as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Yesterday I gave a brief book review at the Sherick, a residence for senior ladies, where I serve as one of the board members. This year as librarian, I get to choose books to read and recommend––books available in large print. 

History I lived through as well as the recommendation of a fellow board member led me to read Mrs. Kennedy and Me, written by Clint Hill, the former Secret Service agent who for four years was assigned to protect Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the 34th President of the United States. Timely. 

Clint Hill is the agent in film footage and still shots seen jumping on the back of the president's limousine in Dallas, attempting to shield the First Lady.

I wedged myself between the left and right side of the vehicle, on top of the rear seat, trying to keep my body as high as possible to shield whatever shots might still be coming. I had my left hand on top of the left door frame and my left foot wedged against the inside of the right frame, my right foot hanging over the top of the car frame on the right. I twisted around to make eye contact with the follow-up car. They had to know how bad it was. With my one free hand, I gave them the thumbs down sign and shook my head.

An Infamous Date in History

Compare November 22, 1963 to 9-11-2001. People remember where they were and what they were doing when the unthinkable occurred. 

I was in gym class, right after lunch, standing in front of my locker changing clothes when an announcement by the principal came over the intercom. The President of the United States had been shot. Killed by an assassin's bullet. School dismissed. 

People gathered around mostly black-and-white television sets, watching history unfold as something fundamental about America changed that day. Walter Cronkite's face drained of color before cameras that could only record black-and-white images. 

As kids, we took our cues from adults, and like a death in the family, the news was devastating. My own dad had died the year before. In that moment, John F. Kennedy was everybody's dad.

An Insider's Story

This book, however, concerns itself mostly with the person Jackie Kennedy. As Agent Hill lovingly recalls what it was like for him to watch her move from private citizen to First Lady of the United States, to grieving widow who led the nation in mourning, his admiration for her poise, strength and courage swelled. When the president died at age 46, Jackie was only 34-years-old.
As Hill describes Jackie, she was the first President’s wife who herself became a celebrity. Jackie was the first First Lady to have her own press secretary.

Because Agent Hill accompanied the First Lady, almost like her shadow, once when Jackie asked, “Doesn’t anything ever impress you, Mr. Hill?” he writes, 

I wanted to say, “You know what impresses me, Mrs. Kennedy? You. Everything you do impresses me. The way you handle yourself with such grace and dignity, without compromising your desire to enjoy life and have fun. You don’t even realize the impact you have, how much you are admired, how you just single-handedly created bonds between the United States and two strategic countries far better than any diplomats could have done. And you did it just by being curious and interested and sincere and gracious. Just by being yourself. No politics. No phoniness. Just you being you.” But I was there to do my job, and my job did not entail saying things like that to her. So all I said was, “I guess it takes a lot to impress me, Mrs. Kennedy.” 


An Impressed Reader   

As a reader, this memoir impressed me for its candor as well as restraint. This book is no tantalizing, tell-all account of the inner-workings of the Kennedy family.

As a Secret Service agent willing to sacrifice his life for the person he was assigned to protect, Clint Hill, now 81-years-old, continues to protect the memory of Jackie Kennedy, a woman he not only admired but also grew to love.