Nightmare on Elm Street: 50 years later, JFK’s motorcade still makes the turn

Kennedys Riding in Dallas Motorcade

Fifty years after, the motorcade still makes that fateful turn, from Houston onto Elm Street.

Dealey Plaza.

Just a few minutes more and its onto the Stemmons Freeway and the trip to the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon speech.

It will never change, will it? We’ll never get away from that moment frozen in time, never run the film in reverse.

John F. Kennedy still is riding in the incoherently open limousine, tanned, grinning, waving at the crowd, as Jackie, in her eternal pink wool suit with the pill box hat, smiles at his side.

It’s her first political trip of an up-and-down presidency not quite three years old, and so far, the trip is going well.

The night before, she and Jack show up at Houston’s Rice Hotel for a meeting of LULAC, the League United of Latin American Citizens, where she startles the crowd and the Mexican band on stage by speaking to them, in her always breathless whisper, in Spanish.

The next morning, Friday, Nov. 22, the couple leaves Fort Worth, where they’ve spent the night at the Hotel Texas. The Kennedys take a 13-minute flight on the silver-and-blue Air Force One, decorated by Jackie, to Dallas’s Love Field — even in 1963, politicians were aware of the press and public impact of an airport arrival.

Guided by aides and Secret Service agents, the Kennedys are joined by Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife Nellie in the limo for the ride through Dallas. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his wife Lady Bird, ride in a separate car.

The route has been well publicized in the local papers. Social media is 40 or so years away. But the press — mainly TV and print — is out in force, trailing the motorcade in their own bus as it rolls through Dallas.

But then Lee Harvey Oswald — we’ll always know him by the three names, even though he was only “Lee” to his Russian-born wife, Marina, his mother, Marguerite and his brother Robert, along with friends and co-workers — already knows all that, doesn’t he?

Lee is waiting, waiting … this time, he will matter. This time, he will make a difference.

He’s only 24 years old and already he’s survived a misshapen and fatherless childhood, a controlling and self-centered mother, a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps that taught him to be a marksman but ended with a dishonorable discharge, a decision at age 15 to become a Marxist (Lee is always quick to point out that doesn’t mean he’s a “communist”), then, in 1959, his strange odyssey to the Soviet Union.

The Soviets don’t know what to make of the young man, and consider booting him out. But after he slashes his wrist and is found in a Moscow hotel bathtub, they let him stay, sending him to Minsk, where the security apparatus can keep an eye on him.

Lee gets a job at a radio factory. Meets a Russian woman and marries her. They start a family.

Disillusioned he decides he wants to return to the U.S.

Always, always believing he’s intended for some greater purpose.

As a returned defector, he comes to the notice of the CIA and FBI, but no one takes him that seriously. Lee begins to advocate for Fidel Castro’s Cuba and tussles in New Orleans with anti-Castro Cubans. All this as Kennedy’s presidency is marked by the botched Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba, then the missile crisis, as the U.S. and Soviets stare one another down over the USSR’s decision to install land-based missiles on the island. Kennedy and many others in the top levels of government think nuclear war is imminent. Finally, the Soviets blink and both sides back down.

Lee, meanwhile, returns to Dallas-Ft. Worth. His marriage is on the rocks, but there are two small children now.

On April 10, 1963, he makes his next move to change history — attempting to kill right-wing Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker. He fails again, his rifle shot from outside a window narrowly missing the general who is sitting at a desk in his Dallas home.

He had purchased the rifle, an Italian-made 6.5 mm caliber Carcano along with a telescopic sight, by mail order for $19.95 plus postage just a month before, using the alias “A Hidell.”

In late September, in an attempt to get to Cuba, he travels to Mexico City by bus. On his return, he is hired to work at the Book Depository.

Catching a ride with a co-worker this morning, Nov. 22, he carries a long package. Curtain rods, is how Lee describes the package.

A few hours later, Lee is holding the mail-order rifle, in his sniper’s perch in a sixth-floor storeroom of the Book Depository. It’s 12:30 p.m.

His time is now.

The motorcade turns onto Elm. The rifle pokes out the sixth-floor window.

The first shot misses. The bullet will never been found.

Down in Dealey Plaza, Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder begins to film, using his 8 mm Bell & Howell movie camera. Zapruder waits atop a concrete pedestal along Elm Street, as his receptionist Marilyn Sitzman prepares to steady him from behind.

He begins filming as the President’s limousine turns onto Elm Street in front of the Book Depository. The next 26.6 seconds are captured on 486 frames of Kodak Kodachrome in what will become the most infamous home movie ever made.

In the film, the President and his limousine pass behind a road sign. Emerging, JFK clutches at his throat. Gov. Connally soon begins to turn, grimacing. He too is hit.

About five seconds pass.

A third shot rings out and the right side of the president’s head is blown off.

Jackie crawls out onto the back of the limousine, trying to retrieve her husband’s missing brain and skull matter. The limousine races off with Secret Service Agent Clint Hill hanging onto the back.

And pulls into Parkland Hospital. The president is all but dead. Two priests are called in, to administer the last rites.

Absolute chaos, mixed in with shock and horror, reigns. Finally, the dead president’s body is placed in a coffin and, almost by force, removed from Parkland and transported back to Air Force One, then almost immediately, after Johnson is sworn in as president, back to Washington D.C., away from the madness or, as LBJ initially thought, even a plot to bring down the entire government. A botched military autopsy would follow and forever haunt a murder investigation that continues today.

At the Book Depository, Lee quickly departs, leaving the rifle behind and three spent bullet cartridges.

After a visit to the rooming house where he has been staying, he moves out on foot. In his flight, he uses his pistol to shoot and kill a Dallas police officer, J.D. Tippit, then runs into a movie theater, where police find him, dragging him out before any more shots can be fired.

In the ensuing days, Lee is questioned by Dallas police, paraded before the press, answering questions, describing himself as a “patsy.”

Then, against the backdrop of the state funeral for the fallen president — as about 300,000 people in person and countless millions on TV watch a horse-drawn caisson carry Kennedy’s flag-covered casket from the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol Rotunda to lie in state — Dallas police announce they will be moving Lee Oswald to the county jail.

The press gathers.

Just before Lee is brought out, local strip club operator and former low-level gangster Jack Ruby shows up. Most of the Dallas cops know Ruby as a police groupie. He’d been hanging around since Lee’s arrest, so who would question his appearance this day?

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It’s 11:21 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 24. Ruby moves forward, his pistol aimed at Lee’s midsection and fires from close range. Lee loudly groans and collapses.

The ambulance carrying the accused assassin speeds off, eerily pulling into the same emergency bay at Parkland Hospital where JFK’s limo had arrived just 48 hours before.
Lee’s condition is just as hopeless as the President’s had been and at 1:07 p.m. he is pronounced dead.

The next day, JFK is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. That same day, Nov. 25, six newsmen will carry a plain casket into a nondescript graveyard, where Lee Oswald is buried, as his wife, children and mother look on.

***

For too many years, I allowed myself to be captured by thoughts that history could not change because of the twisted intentions and actions of someone thought to be as insignificant as Lee Oswald, that some greater forces had to be in play.

A conspiracy.

What else could explain … Vietnam. The murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Race riots. Charles Manson. The drug culture. Watergate.

It all started on Elm Street.

About a decade ago, I finally made peace with these tortured thoughts and gave up trying to make sense of an event that not only changed the 1960s and the course of history, but that spawned a distrust in government and leaders that continues to our present day.

The truth? Ah, said Pilate, what is truth? Lee Harvey Oswald was gunned down himself and with him went any ultimate explanation for what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.

But, there are no phantoms waiting in the shadows, behind the picket fence, above the grassy knoll.

The collision of flesh, blood and human nature will have to do.

Even as, a half century later, the motorcade still makes its fateful turn.

Posted from San Lorenzo, California, United States.

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