48 Hours in November 1963 and the vagaries of memory

November 24th, 2013 20:07 by Scott Paton

Oswald with rifle

With the endless media coverage commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, like many of my generation —and surely anyone who is older–I have found myself thrown back to that fateful weekend.

I was five-and-a-half in November ’63, a student in Mrs. Smith’s kindergarten class at Kirkmere Elementary School in Youngstown, Ohio. I remember a terse message coming over the classroom’s public address monitor, and a look on our teacher’s face that seemed strange. We were immediately dismissed from class and she seemed impatient to be rid of us. It was exciting to be cut loose a couple hours early, but if a five-year-old was capable of having a sense of foreboding, I did. Something about this didn’t seem good.

I started the several-blocks-long walk home with my best friend. Wish I could remember his name. As my mother wouldn’t even have known that school let out early, I figured it was okay to pass my house and continue on to my buddy’s place, a block further on up the street. In the kitchen was his mother, another neighbor lady, and our postman, who had a beer there at that house almost every single day as he canvassed his route. They were all talking about the President having been shot.

I knew this wasn’t good either, although the gravity was certainly lost on me. But something told me that I’d better go home. I walked down the street to my house and opened the front door to find my mother sobbing there in the living room, in front of the television. Normally at this time, she would have been watching “As the World Turns,” or at that specific moment, that particular channel might not have even been broadcasting any programming, just a circular test pattern with an Indian chief’s profile in its center. You see, TV wasn’t a 24-hour enterprise in those days. There were gaps in the broadcast schedule.

Mom did her best to explain to me what had happened. But just like my favorite TV Western characters, after tangling with the outlaws, the President was going to be okay, right? “No,” Mom said. “The President was dead.” Most of the next couple of hours are a blur. I remember my mother trying to compose herself, surely for my benefit and my sister, who was not yet three. And I recall thinking how scary it would be if something happened to my Dad-- and the President had kids slightly older and younger than me.

Dad came home a little earlier than usual that day, and I remember my parents embracing and consoling one another when he came in the door. I can remember watching TV that evening and seeing the casket being unloaded from Air Force One. I didn't entirely understand why "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show" was pre-empted that night. We would watch that every week and my father and I would laugh at different things in the show. He didn’t understand the same jokes I did.

Early the next morning, we packed the car to head from Youngstown to Manhattan (Staten Island, actually) to spend the weekend with my paternal grandparents. We must have had plans the following Thanksgiving weekend with my mother's folks. That info is lost to time. I do remember the long car ride being more muted than usual, and we listened to NBC’s “Monitor” program almost the whole way along the Ohio and New Jersey turnpikes.

My memory of arrival and that evening is fuzzy to non-existent, but on Sunday morning, my grandfather heard that Oswald's rifle was being flown to Washington, DC from Dallas via New York, and there was going to be a brief photo op at the gate. So Grandpa, Dad and I headed to the airport (don't know if it was La Guardia or Idlewild {soon-to-be JFK}).

The gate was packed with people with cameras. Within a few minutes, a guy in a suit walked in off the tarmac with a long package. I was surely the shortest spectator there, and I strained to see anything above the crowd, no doubt populated by dozens of press reporters and photographers. Most likely, Dad lifted me up for a better view.

The official-looking guy unwrapped and held the rifle aloft, and what seemed like a million flashbulbs went off. I wish I'd had my Brownie camera that day just to chronicle the event. In just a few moments, it was over, and as we headed back up the causeway, my grandfather stopped to call home and tell my grandmother that we'd be back soon for an early supper.

As he listened to her, my grandfather got a stern look on his face and muttered, "Jesus Christ," or something like that. He hung up and said "let's get home." I heard his exchange with my father, but couldn't make heads or tails of it. In the car I asked them what was wrong and they said that it was something else that had to do with the President and we'd find out more when we got home. Of course, when we got back to my grandparents' apartment, we saw NBC repeating the footage of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald.

I didn't often find myself confused by facts or events, but I remember that afternoon so well and feeling like I really didn't understand the world at all.

It disconcerts me a bit to think that there won't be many significant anniversaries of 11/22/63 left when any of the key individuals from that portion of our history --and soon thereafter, anyone who was alive then at all-- will still be around.

Disclaimer: I spoke with my father yesterday to mine his memories to fill in some of my gaps and reassure me that the vivid recollections I did have were accurate. When he confirmed that we were indeed at his parents’ the weekend after JFK’s death and of the Oswald shooting, I was certain enough of my own recall to offer the above account as fact, albeit from a five-year-old’s perspective and 50 ensuing years of media coverage that could cloud it. So here’s our exchange:

Roger Paton:

Scott --

Several things bugged me about our conversation yesterday and your memory (and my lack of memory) of seeing the Oswald rifle at a New York airport. Bad enough that I couldn't remember something like that, but it seemed to me that the FBI would not take commercial flights to deliver the rifle for analysis and they surely wouldn't hold it up unprotected for a crowd to see before their analysis was done, if ever.

I went to several sites through Google to try to refresh my memory. I checked Nov. 23 and 24 newspaper articles for mention of the rifle and its transport to DC. I couldn't find any focusing on that, but several mentioned it was taken by the FBI just before midnight of the 22nd and flown to DC. A Warren Report excerpt confirmed that and said that the FBI had protected key parts of the gun with cellophane to avoid damaging evidence. It also said the analysis took place on the 23rd and the gun was returned to Dallas on the 24th. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and died on the 24th.

There's no question in my mind that we were with my father and mother at the time of Kennedy's assassination*, but the rifle/airport incident doesn't hold up.

(*Actually, we were in Youngstown the day Kennedy was killed, New York when Oswald was shot. I believe Dad just misspoke here and accurately recalls our two disparate locations for each incident. --Scott)

Is it possible that you have pieced together recollections of different situations -- the scene in Dallas when the gun was held in the air for the benefit of the media and other time(s) we spent with my father? I can't recall when, but we did once drive to Kennedy Airport to watch planes take off and land. We also went to the roof of my folks’ apartment to watch the planes.

Sorry to burst the bubble, but "thems the facts".

Scott’s reply:

Dad,

Actually —and this is history for you–there are other accounts that dispute those specifics.

Geoff Edwards —a guy who was a prominent L.A. broadcaster for several decades–was just about to move from San Diego to L.A. to start at KHJ Radio the last week in November. Friday evening, KHJ asked him if he could fly to Dallas to cover the post assassination events. Geoff recalls that the rifle was brought out and displayed to the press several times on the 23rd. Geoff was there the next day, too, when Ruby shot Oswald, and he is interviewed by Tom Pettit in the famous NBC footage.

Meanwhile, the FBI was fighting with the Dallas Police over proprietary claim to the rifle. It was not then a Federal crime to kill the President, just your average murder rap. But DPD relented on the condition that the rifle would be sent back quickly.

Some accounts indicate that the rifle wasn't sent to DC for two days (the 24th) and returned until the 27th. But let's say the Warren Commission dates you found are accurate. The rifle could have been on its way back to Dallas.

With regard to the transport and FBI's handling of the rifle? Keep in mind that this was '63. It would be far more likely that an agent would be flying commercial, gun wrapped, in-tow. In that era, murderers were extradited across state lines and traveled, handcuffed to FBI agents, in First Class on commercial flights.

Considering that Oswald was a person-of-interest for numerous other reasons, not the least of which was allegedly taking a shot a General Edwin Walker (who lost in the gubernatorial race to Connally; metal of bullet later matched those from 11/22/63), the FBI completely bobbled the ball on keeping an eye on Oswald. They even knew he worked at the Book Depository.

And as far as providing a five-minute photo op for the rifle at the airport, compare that to how Oswald and the rifle were paraded around in public in Dallas, and there were several FBI agents there amidst the DPD staff. It all defies credulity in this post-9/11 world, but standards of security and protection of evidence were ludicrous then by today's yardstick.

This can all be resolved if I can find a NYC paper's photo of the rifle from that day. But in the meantime, my memory of that airport run is awfully vivid, both at the gate, and your father's call home afterwards from the payphone.

S

So you see? This is why contemporaneous capture of significant events is so important, because a moment later, it’s history. Here you have dueling memories of an 81-year-old who’s still sharp, but admits that his recall isn’t always superb…and a five-year-old’s vivid account of something that undoubtedly has been affected by electronic images over the ensuing five decades. Odds-makers would probably give us an even 50-50 split with regard to accuracy.

But then again, Dad never did laugh at the right “Rocky & Bullwinkle” jokes.

Okay, the first person who can find a photograph of the Oswald rifle at a NYC airport on November 24, 1963 wins a book on the Kennedy Assassination.