Thursday, November 21, 2013


Everyone in my generation knows where he was the Friday that JFK was assassinated.  Fifty years later it’s not hard to recall many of the details.

I was an Oregon high school freshman, sitting in Mr. Taylor’s third-period math class.  A senior named Mike entered the room and mentioned a radio report that the president had been shot in Texas.  Few of us seemed to believe it but, being sly in a feral teenage sort of way, we urged Mr. T to turn on the television.  (Even if the rumor were untrue, it could buy us some time away from algebra, or something.)  His room, which doubled for science and chemistry, was the only one in McEwen High with a TV.

Tall, rail-thin, and bright, Elvin Taylor succumbed to our pleas.  He turned on the black and white set, and sure enough: there was Walter Cronkite in shirtsleeves. 
We sat through the remainder of the class period, then heard from the principal.  Mr. Simpson said that we could go to lunch but classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.

Walking to the grade school cafeteria five blocks away, I was aware of some juniors and seniors hollering around me.  “Hey Joey, why’d you do it?” 

“Why do you think?  To get out of class!”

I was old enough to be disgusted but too young to challenge the imbeciles.  Only much later did I wonder what crass antics occurred at other schools across America.

Most of what I knew about Kennedy was from popular lore—the Camelot PR machine.  The handsome young war hero and devoted family man (!) with the elegant wife and two young children.  My parents were Republicans—my mother especially so—but they were also hard-over patriots.  Mother was a political junkie even before Watergate a decade later, and she had snagged JFK when he campaigned in 1960.  He inscribed a copy of Profiles in Courage to each of us boys, and I still have mine.  I hardly dare take it off the shelf, but the distinctive green ink remains fully legible: “To Barrett Tillman.  Warm regards, John F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator.”

Another thing I remember was sitting with the family watching the previous vice president address the nation.  In his slow, measured tones, Lyndon B. Johnson (events demonstrated that the B stood for Bastard) reassured the public that the government was stable and the country would recover.  My mother, a devoted Baptist who always thought the best in people, said, “He has a strength about him, doesn’t he?”  Little did we know.

That Sunday morning we skipped church to watch news coverage as Oswald was brought out by police.  Suddenly a burly figure emerged from the right, fired one shot, and the scene descended into chaos.  I remember exclaiming, “He shot him!”  Another four years passed before I saw someone killed in person (three others ensued) but the black and white TV image remains vivid.

Finally, the lingering memory is audio.  JFK’s funeral procession proceeded at the surprisingly brisk pace of muted drums playing a repeated cadence.  I was a serious percussionist at the time—school band and American Legion drum and bugle corps—and would win my first state championship the next year.  For days afterward I found myself playing the dirge with my fingers: flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, flam, roll; flam, flam, tap-tap.

Then came 1964.  The Beatles and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (17 years later I wandered into Ringo’s wedding); the National Boy Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge; the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and LBJ (remember that middle initial) grabbed an opportunity to launch a war 90 days before a presidential election.

Much later I became interested in the mechanics of Lee Harvey Oswald’s infamous Six Seconds in Dallas.  As a competitive shooter, I wondered if he really could have pulled off the deed attributed to him.  Apart from the FBI reports and the flawed Warren Commission findings, it did seem possible that a marginal rifleman could have accomplished the feat.  People forget that the first round is a “freebie,” since the shooter starts the clock.  He is not responding to a Go signal such as the beep of a timer.  So in truth, LHO only had to get off two more rounds in five-point-something seconds—eminently possible even with a stiff bolt in the Mannlicher-Carcano.

Reportedly the three shots were fired at a target angling slightly away from Oswald at about 12 mph, apparently between 46 and 88 yards.  Even with a four-power scope, that is not world-class shooting, and Oswald had shown he was an OK rifleman in the Marines.  My longtime shooting partner participated in controlled tests with a Mannlicher-Carcano and went three for three in the allotted time.  So did some others, and several duplicated LHO’s two hits.

Then there’s the Grassy Knoll.  Assuming a second shooter behind the fence, he could not have shot JFK from the front because Governor John Connolly was in the way.  In the time JFK was fully exposed to the fence, he presented roughly a 30 degree tracking shot from the right.  Even from roughly 30 yards that is not an optimum setup—Oswald chose the least challenging aspect, from above and almost straight behind.  Essentially a stationary target.

The other thing about the Grassy Knoll is that JFK’s wounds do not match the geometry.  If we can believe the autopsy, both hits came from above and behind.  A rifle shot from the right likely would have struck Jackie as well, sitting on the president’s left. 

Finally I’ll touch upon “the magic bullet.”  The round that hit both JFK and Connolly has been erroneously described as “pristine.”  But the base of the 6.5mm round is slightly compressed into an oval shape.  That’s because after exiting Kenney’s neck, it decelerated and deflected in the three feet between the seats.  Photos show Connolly’s entry wound as a profile of the bullet, typical of high-velocity projectiles tumbling after hitting objects as inconsequential as thin twigs.  The fact that it remained intact has been addressed by my friend and colleague, novelist Stephen Hunter.  In discussing his JFK novel, The Third Bullet, he notes that the bullet did exactly what its Italian designers intended in 1891.  It remained intact to penetrate the thick winter clothing and blood-bearing organs of Austrian soldiers.  That it inflicted multiple wounds on two bodies is not surprising, especially given the short range.

After half a century there is no lessening of fascination with the Kennedy mystique and the vagaries of the assassination.  I doubt that it will be any less on November 22, 2063.