11.22.1963: One Minute In Dallas

The strangest thing about the day was also the most welcome and surprising thing about the day. It was quiet — no protests, no angry demonstrations as expected — just blue skies, excited crowds, and an unseasonably warm and bright November day in Dallas. In fact, the most startling aspect was just how colorful the day was — a truly, aesthetically colorful day. That may be the first thing people noticed — the color. The color of the majestic Presidential aircraft, Air Force One; the color of that endlessly blue Texas sky; the color of the red roses handed to the beautiful First Lady after she walked down the steps of the plane at Love Field; the color of her pink Chanel dress and signature pillbox hat as she shook hands with the throng of cheering people greeting her and her husband; the color of the healthy glow on the tanned face of the young, yet secretly unhealthy, President; the color of the shiny blue and black limousines organized in a motorcade set to transport John F. Kennedy and his party to the Trade Mart in Dallas for a political speech thought to be the kick-off to the President’s 1964 re-election campaign.

Yes, it was the color that most people noticed at first. It’s the color of that day that people still notice. In a time where the images we look back upon are frozen in black and white, the color of November 22, 1963 jumps out at us as if it was the day the world was finally painted. In a way, it was very similar because this was the day that the world changed. This was the day where America became a jaded adult. And, even now, the colors still strike us as being from another world. Beautiful, horrible colors illustrating our history, stirring our souls, and destroying a new frontier as we watched in disbelief and wondered what was happening to our hopes, wondered who was extinguishing our dreams, and wondered what reason there was for dragging us into a cold, modern reality.

Umberto Eco has written that “time is an eternity that stammers”. But time is as abstract as it is definitive; as much a matter of opinion or judgment as it is measurement or tool. For example, doing something for 46 years is long enough to make you experienced; yet dying at 46 years old means you died too soon. Living for 24 years is barely an instance in comparison to a long, full life; yet 24 years of bitterness and anger and misguided actions is equal to torture. However, you can change the world just as much at 24 as at 46, and it only takes a fraction of a second. In Dallas that day, in a collection of nightmarish seconds bracketed within several sudden minutes, a 24-year-old man who had never accomplished anything changed not only a nation’s leadership, but its attitude, by killing a 46-year-old man who had accomplished more than almost anyone else ever had at that young of an age.

John F. Kennedy had given power to youth. The first President born in the 20th Century; the torch-bearing, charismatic leader of a new generation of Americans; the first President who Americans didn’t view as one of history’s statues but, instead, as an agent of progress. Youth put JFK in the White House. Youth drove JFK’s message and his administration. The United States — a young country — was being led by a young President who energized young Americans, kicked down old walls, and set the nation sailing towards a new era.

John F. Kennedy gave power to youth, youth gave power to JFK, and on November 22, 1963, a young man killed the young President in front of his young wife and a young, ever-changing country — a country that would never be as young again.

In front of the world, in a few short, hectic minutes which seemed to last forever — a new beginning was brought to an abrupt and violent end.

•••

After greeting the crowd at Love Field that came out to welcome them to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, climbed into a highly-customized, dark bluish-black Lincoln Continental limousine code-named SS-100-X by the United States Secret Service. The driver is 54-year-old Bill Greer, born in Ireland, and the oldest man on JFK’s Secret Service detail. Next to Greer is Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman, the designated agent in charge of the President’s trip to Texas. SS-100-X is built specifically for Presidential use, heavily armored and fitted with running boards for Secret Service agents to stand on, as well as hand grips on the trunk that agents can hold on to as they ride on the vehicle. A United States Air Force C-130 accompanies Air Force One on its stops, hauling vehicles and equipment such as the Presidential limousine, from city-to-city. It is not easy to do this, nor is it cheap, but it is necessary. The protection of the President requires complete control by the Secret Service when it comes to the planning and execution of Presidential trips.

The President does control some aspects, however. This trip to Texas is a political trip. This is the unofficial kick-off of the 1964 campaign, and Texas is a must-win state — probably the most important state in the nation to JFK’s re-election chances. The President has the ability to electronically raise his seat and footrests by as much as eight inches, in order to give the crowd a better chance of seeing him. The President also can make the call about whether or not the limousine should be open or covered. In Dallas, the weather was perfect — clearing up after a rainy start to the morning in Fort Worth. The President would go without the clear, plastic bubble-top which could normally be used to cover the limo. A lot of people had turned out in Dallas to see their President; he wanted to be certain that he could be seen. For that reason, as well, there would be no agents on the running boards of Kennedy’s limousine as it slowly drove through the streets of Dallas.

Besides Greer, Kellerman, the President, and the First Lady, the limousine also carries the Governor of Texas, John Connally, and his wife, Nellie. Connally is a protege of the Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, who is sitting two cars behind the Presidential limo. Connally is young, ambitious, popular, and rising quickly in the world of politics. Many observers believe that Connally could become the first Texan to become President. In less than an hour, they would already be incorrect.

Eight motorcyle escorts and a lead car with Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry at the wheel pilot the Presidential motorcade, with the District of Columbia license plate “GG 300”, out of Love Field and towards the Trade Mart, site of President Kennedy’s lunchtime speech. Following the President’s limousine is a convertible code-named “Halfback” containing Secret Service agents inside the vehicle and on the running boards, as well as Presidential aides Kenneth O’Donnell and Dave Powers, devoutly loyal, close friends of the President who help form his “Irish mafia”. Halfback is followed by Vice President Johnson’s limousine, also containing Senator Ralph Yarborough and more Secret Service agents, including Johnson’s lead agent, Rufus Youngblood. Another Secret Service follow-up car is behind LBJ’s limo, followed closely by press vehicles, photographers, cars full of Congressmen, local politicians, White House aides, military aides, and others.

As the motorcade makes its way towards the Trade Mart, it is sunny and bright and Jackie Kennedy wants to wear her sunglasses. After leaving Love Field, the caravan travels along lightly-populated roads with very few spectators. Governor Connally wasn’t expecting anyone to view the motorcade until it reached downtown, but here-and-there are a few people catching a glance at the President’s limo heading towards downtown Dallas. Inside the car, President Kennedy vetoes Jackie’s attempt to put on her sunglasses. The people want to see her eyes, want to see her smile, and this is a political trip — you have to give the people what they want. So, Jackie does. But she welcomes every overpass that the motorcade travels under because it provides a brief respite of shade and whenever the crowds momentarily thin during the drive, she slips her sunglasses on quickly to shield her eyes from the glare. Presidential aide Ken O’Donnell had reminded Jackie prior to the motorcade’s departure that she should do her best to look to the left side and greet those people who were on the opposite side of the street from the President that were prevented from getting a good view of JFK. Help temper their disappointment by allowing them to see you, Jackie. A lot of the time, she forgot that people enjoyed seeing her, too. She had a habit of looking at the President, watching the President greet the crowds. She admired his ability to turn on that switch and release that charisma that attracted her to him in the first place. For the most part, she did just as requested. For the most part, she wasn’t looking at the President. For the most part.

For weeks, fears gripped the Presidential advance team planning the Texas trip because of anti-Kennedy tension in many Texas cities, particularly Dallas. With the motorcade greeting happy, smiling, excited crowds, Governor Connally relaxes a bit. He was worried that this trip through Dallas would not be an easy one. Dallas is the most conservative city in Texas, and for the past few days, leaflets attacking the President have circulated amongst every level of Dallas society. Governor Connally thought that this would be an ugly trip through an unimpressed citizenry. President Kennedy wasn’t much more confident about Dallas than the Governor — noting earlier that “We’re heading into nut-country today.” Yet, as they inched closer downtown, Connally is relieved and the President appears to be genuinely enjoying himself.

In the follow-up car behind the President’s limousine, the Secret Service is scanning the crowds which are gaining in size as the motorcade gets closer to the Trade Mart. In that same car, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers also scan the crowd. Probably more worried about a hostile crowd than the President, these two aides are satisfied. O’Donnell is pleased that the First Lady remembered his suggestion and is facing the people on her side of the limo. Over the noise of the cheering crowd, O’Donnell tells Powers, “There’s certainly nothing wrong with this crowd.”

The motorcade is heading towards Dealey Plaza — “Dallas’s Front Door” — where the biggest crowd is gathered to see the President pass on his way to give his speech. It’s 65 degrees and the motorcade makes a turn onto Houston Street from Main Street. The crowds are now thick in numbers and bursting with anticipation. Cheers are drowning out the noise of motorcycles and big cars. The trip down Houston is short and leads the motorcade into a sharp turn on to Elm Street — almost a U-turn and fairly difficult for the long, awkward limousine to handle. From Main to Elm, less than one minute ticks off the clock. They are just five minutes away from the Trade Mart and this trip has been a pleasant surprise — astonishingly positive despite Dallas’s reputation as being virulently anti-Kennedy.

As they are navigating that sharp turn on to Elm Street, Governor Connally’s wife, Nellie, turns to the President and smiles. “Mr. President, they sure can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, can they?”. Smiling back, the President responds “No, they sure can’t.”

A non-descript building called the Texas School Book Depository stands guard over the sharp turn where the motorcade merges on to Elm Street. At the top of the seven-story brick building, a large Hertz sign displays the time to Dealey Plaza. For hours, anxious Texans have been glimpsing at the clock from the positions they staked out in Dealey Plaza, waiting for their glimpse of the President of the United States. There are people with their children, pointing out the motorcycle escorts that signal that the President’s arrival is imminent. There are white people and black people, old people and young people, men and women, standing on grassy areas of the plaza or along Elm Street’s sidewalk, waiting and watching. There is a man named Abraham Zapruder, a local dressmaker, who is excitedly waiting to use his new Bell & Howell 8mm video camera to film a few seconds of the President’s visit to Dallas. In the buildings surrounding Dealey Plaza, there are workers who have interrupted what they are doing so they could flock to the windows and watch history pass through their city.

The motorcade is only moving at a speed of 11 miles per hour, but the trip through Dealey Plaza will be measured in seconds, not minutes, so the crowd is ready to catch their quick glimpse. On the sixth floor of the Book Depository building, an employee has taken a break from work to watch the motorcade. He is young — the type of person who is likely to have voted for John F. Kennedy if he was actually old enough to vote at all in 1960. He is also focused, even determined. Everyone wants to see the President, but this young man can’t miss him. He won’t miss him.

Just above that young man, the clock on the Hertz sign changes. It is exactly 12:30 PM in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. The sky is blue. The temperature is warm. Pigeons on top of the Book Depository building seem to be just as interested in the activity below as the young man in the sixth-floor window. Below him, crowds are cheering wildly. The President and his beautiful wife are finally passing by, along with the Governor and Mrs. Connally. There are smiles and waves and cheers. But when that clock strikes 12:30 PM everything changes.

It’s inexplicable, but time acts unnaturally in the next few minutes. The minutes seem long while the seconds seem instant. At 12:30 PM on Elm Street, however, everything changes. Some think it’s a motorcycle backfiring, some think it’s a firecracker, but the pigeons on top of the Book Depository building think it’s time to fly away quickly. A smiling President doesn’t even have time to stop smiling as everything changes.

•••

What can you do in 4.6 seconds? It takes twice that amount of time for the fastest human being who has ever lived to run 100 meters at top speed. Some people take longer than 4.6 seconds to process thoughts, to start sentences, to absorb facts and make conclusions. Some people only need 4.6 seconds to leave an indelible imprint upon history, to make a wife a widow and children fatherless. For some people, 4.6 seconds is all the time required to change the world.

The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade has passed the building and is on Elm Street, in the open air of Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, en route to the Trade Mart, just five minutes away.

On Elm Street, Jackie Kennedy sees another overpass that will provide a brief, shady respite from the glare of the bright Texas sun. Those quick seconds of a cool shield from the unseasonably warm November day have been welcome interruptions from the waving and smiling that she has been greeting crowds with since the President and the First Lady arrived at Love Field just a few minutes earlier. As Presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell had reminded her to do, Jackie is looking at the crowd on her left while President Kennedy looks to his right. Directly, in front of the President is Texas Governor John Connally, pleasantly surprised at the friendly Dallas welcome the President is receiving. Next to the Governor is his wife, Nellie, who just finished joking to the President that it would be impossible for people to say that Dallas didn’t love him. Driving the President’s Lincoln limousine at 11.2 miles per hour, Secret Service agent Bill Greer just navigated a sharp turn below the Book Depository building while agent Roy Kellerman scans the crowd from his front passenger seat. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

On Elm Street, a large crowd has gathered on the grassy expanse in Dealey Plaza, as well as along the sidewalks, hoping to catch a wave or a smile from their popular President before he disappears underneath the triple railroad overpass that Jackie anticipates while give her a momentary break from the sun. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

On Elm Street, Secret Service agents in follow-up cars search the large crowds for unnatural movements, suspicious characters, and anything which might interfere with or cause harm to the Presidential motorcade or the President himself. The car behind the President, code named Halfback, also carries the President’s close aides, O’Donnell and Dave Powers. They watch the President intently, studying his interaction with the crowd, soaking up what is working and what is not working on this almost purely political trip into suspected hostile territory for JFK. Up until now, they too have been surprised by Dallas’s warm welcome. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

On Elm Street, the car behind Halfback carries Vice President Lyndon Johnson, his wife Lady Bird, Senator Ralph Yarborough, and several Secret Service agents. This is his home state, but Lyndon Johnson is just along for the ride. He’s not happy with his role as Vice President. He’s not thrilled to be riding with Senator Yarborough, who he has been feuding with for several years, and he’d rather be home at his LBJ Ranch or running the country that JFK is in charge of. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

Above Elm Street, 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald sits in a sixth-floor window of his place of employment — the Book Depository building — watching, waiting, and ready. Oswald has an Italian-made, 6.5 x 52 mm Carcano rifle which he purchased by mail order eight months earlier. Inside of the rifle is a round-nosed bullet with a copper jacket. With this rifle and this bullet, Oswald is going to change the world. Before the clock on the Hertz sign a couple of floors above him ticks off another minute, Lee Harvey Oswald will change the world with something that weighs just 10 grams. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

The loud crack that everyone hears at exactly 12:30 PM is difficult to figure out, even for the highly-trained Secret Service agents guarding the life of the President. Most think that it is a motorcycle backfiring, perhaps even a firecracker. The First Lady would later say that was what she thought. Only one of those highly-trained Secret Service agents reacts immediately. He is Rufus Youngblood and the instant he hears the crack of Oswald’s gun, he leaps into the backseat of his car and shoves the 6’3” Vice President as far down into the limo as possible, screaming “Get down!” while covering him with his body. Later, Youngblood notes that he briefly worried that he he might be overreacting. He wasn’t.

One person does realize that the sound he heard isn’t a motorcycle backfiring or a firecracker exploding. Governor Connally is an avid hunter and he realizes that someone just fired a rifle. The Governor — relieved that the Dallas trip was going better than expected to this point — also realizes that the perfect trip just turned into an attempted assassination. Immediately after hearing the first shot, Connally begins saying, “Oh, no, no, no!”. In the 2.3 seconds after the first shot is fired, people are still trying to figure out what just happened. The clock on the Hertz sign still reads 12:30 PM when a second shot is fired.

Still looking to her left, Jackie Kennedy shifts to the right when she hears the Governor’s words. The President is smiling at a young boy and beginning to wave when Oswald’s second shot tears through the back of the President’s neck just to the right of his spine. The bullet causes damage to Kennedy’s right lung, shreds his trachea and exits through the front of his throat, slicing through his tie. The bullet doesn’t stop there. Governor Connally had jerked quickly to his right upon hearing the first gunshot. The same bullet that passed through the President rips into Connally’s back, exits his chest, re-enters his body at his right wrist and plunges through to his left thigh. Greer, the driver, looks back over his right shoulder. Kellerman, the passenger, looks over his left. Inexplicably, they don’t react. Agent Clint Hill, on a running board of Halfback, does. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

The President is hurt, but his wound is not mortal. In fact, Governor Connally is injured far more severely from the shooting. Blood is pouring out of his chest, but a delayed reaction means he doesn’t feel pain for a second or two after being hit. When the pain hits, it is excruciating and Connally moans, “They are going to kill us both!” as his wife grabs him and pulls him towards her. Jackie now realizes that something is terribly wrong because the Governor of Texas is screaming with fright and pain. She looks to her husband and he has a look on his face that reminds her of when he’d get a headache or was in the middle of a deep thought. Later, she would describe his look as “quizzical”. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

President Kennedy jerks into an odd position as he is hit. He grasps at his throat, his hands clenched in fists and his elbows higher than his shoulders. This movement — exceedingly unnatural-looking — finally elicits a response from the Secret Service. While Greer unsconsciously slows the Presidential limousine down and Kellerman freezes, Clint Hill has bounded off of Halfback and is running towards the back of the President’s car. Several Secret Service agents reach for their guns, still unsure of what happened, but positive that something has gone wrong. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

The President slumps slightly towards his wife, as if he is choking and needs assistance. Jackie leans towards the President. With her white-gloved hands, she gently grabs JFK’s left elbow and begins pulling him towards her. It has been less than five seconds since the first shot was fired, but it is now clear that the glare of the Texas sun is the least of Jackie Kennedy’s worries. She glances briefly towards the front of the limo at Governor Connally, whose lap is drenched with blood; at Nellie Connally who is pulling her husband into her lap; at Bill Greer, who actually slowed the limo down in his confusion; and at Roy Kellerman, who is looking back at the President, yet still sitting in his passenger seat. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

As the President leans towards his wife and the First Lady leans towards her husband, it appears as if Jackie is looking now at the area of the throat that Kennedy is clutching. Their faces are just inches apart from each other. Jackie is no longer looking to her left. There are no more waves, no more smiles. Kellerman remembers hearing the President say, “My God, I’m hit”, but no one else in the limo remembers that. In fact, it was probably impossible for the President to speak after the bullet tore through his throat. The clock on the Hertz sign above the Texas School Book Depository building reads 12:30 PM.

On Elm Street, the glamorous First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, is wearing a bright pink dress and spotless white gloves and has a bouquet of fresh red roses in her lap while the dark blue Presidential limousine passes a crowd of diverse colors gathered in a plaza full of green grass as a third shot rings out. The clock on the Hertz sign on top of the ugly, brown Book Depository building still reads 12:30 PM.

If there was any doubt about what was happening as the first two shots were fired, the doubt disappears in a thick mist of blood, bone and brain matter when the third shot hits its mark. Motorcycle cops escorting the President’s limousine are sprayed first by the sickening result of Lee Harvey Oswald’s third shot. One likened it later to being hit with “wet sawdust”. Before the third shot, there is no blood other than that pumping out of John Connally’s wounds. John F. Kennedy has been wounded, but he is not bleeding noticeably. Yet, as Jackie leans into her husband everything turns red — the limousine, Jackie’s fashionable dress, the Connallys, Greer, Kellerman, the naturally red roses, the windscreens on motorcycles near the limo, and the faces of Secret Service agents inside Halfback.

By the third shot, Secret Service agents have turned their attention to the the Presidential limousine and many are watching President Kennedy’s head when the final shot hits. Later, people remembered the sound just as distinctly as the sight. One agent recalled the dull sound as being similar to the noise of a watermelon being smashed or a bullet being shot into a jug of water. Almost all of the agents watching the President immediately know that the wound is fatal. Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, two of Kennedy’s closest friends as well as longtime aides, begin praying. Clint Hill is almost to the back bumper of JFK’s car when the third shot hits and covers him in blood and flesh.

The fatal shot strikes President Kennedy in the back of the head, almost directly in between the ears. The entrance wound is small, but the bullet violently exits the right side of the front of his head, exploding into a cloud of blood, pieces of his cerebellum, skull fragments, and flesh with hair still attached. The President’s body jerks suddenly to the front and then to the back, awkwardly slamming into the seat and falling into the lap of Jackie. Blood is everywhere. Thick clumps of blood which immediately cover the limousine. Jackie screams, “My God, what are they doing? My God, they’ve killed Jack! They’ve killed my husband. Jack! Jack! I love you, Jack!”. Jackie is cradling her husband’s disfigured head in her lap as blood stains her pink suit and white gloves. The brain of her husband — a brain admired by so many for it’s ability and intellectual curiosity — is leaking out of his head along with bright red blood which is as thick as mud.

Suddenly, Jackie jumps up and climbs towards the trunk of the limousine. She is later asked about this action and doesn’t remember why she did it. In fact, she has no recollection of doing it at all, even when looking at photographs of herself doing it. Clint Hill has caught up to the hand grips on the back of the Lincoln as Kellerman finally acts and orders Greer to accelerate. Hill nearly loses his grip and is also unsure later why Jackie was climbing out of the backseat. To some it looks like she is trying to escape the horror, to others it appears as if she is trying to help pull Hill on to the limo. To a lot of people, it’s thought that she was retrieving pieces of her husband’s shattered skull. Despite Greer’s acceleration, Hill jumps on to the limo, grabs Jackie, puts her back into the seat, and lays spread-eagle above the mortally-wounded President. The site inside the limo sickens him. A flap of Kennedy’s skull is hanging to his head only by a thin thread of flesh. There is blood everywhere. Pieces of detached skull fragments with Kennedy’s hair still attached lie in the backseat.

Hill knows that the President’s wound is not survivable. As he shields the dying President and the shocked First Lady, he slams his hand against the car’s exterior, realizing that the Secret Service just failed to do it’s most important job. Nellie Connally cradles her husband in her arm’s as well. Not all of the blood is Kennedy’s. Governor Connally is bleeding profusely. He is also losing consciousness. Indeed, Nellie Connally believes her husband is actually dead until his hands move slightly. Jackie Kennedy is repeating over-and-over again, “They’ve killed him! I love you, Jack!”.

The President of the United States is still breathing, but barely. His eyes are open, staring blankly at Jackie as she tries to shield him from the horror that has already befallen her, her family, and her country. Kellerman orders the limousine to head to Parkland Hospital and the Greer slams the gas pedal to the floor, heading out of Dealey Plaza and underneath the triple overpass that Jackie was looking forward to. The people in the plaza are stunned. Most don’t even realize what has happened. Those who do are convinced that Kennedy is dead.

Before lapsing into unconsciousness from his wound, Governor Connally hears Jackie Kennedy’s tears. He hears his wife screaming. He hears static on the police and Secret Service radios as they frantically, belatedly take action. He hears orders being given, engines being revved, and his own heart pumping blood just as quickly as it pours out of his body.

What he doesn’t hear are frightened pigeons flying up and away from the Book Depository building. What he didn’t hear was empty shell casings popping out of Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle and landing on the floor of his sixth-floor perch. What he doesn’t hear are the labored breaths and gurgling sounds coming from the President’s wounded throat. What he doesn’t hear are the preparations being made to receive a Code 3 emergency at Parkland Hospital involving the President of the United States.

What Governor Connally most remembers hearing as he drifts into unconsciousness is Jacqueline Kennedy — elegant, beautiful Jacqueline Kennedy — sobbing and saying over-and-over again, “What have they done to you? I love you, Jack!”. And, finally — tragically, heartbreakingly, horrifically — he hears the First Lady softly tell Clint Hill, “I have his brains in my hand.”

In less than five seconds, Lee Harvey Oswald changed the course of history in the most dramatic, violent, brutal, and sickening way — and he made it look easy. As the President’s limo sped towards Parkland Hospital, someone who looked towards the building that the shots came from would have noticed the pigeons flying upwards and away from the building. And as those pigeons rose into the bright blue Texas sky of November 22, 1963, someone who looked towards the building that the shots came from also might have noticed a clock on the Hertz sign on top of the building’s roof.

If they noticed that clock on that sign, they would have seen that the time was now 12:31 PM.


Originally published at deadpresidents.tumblr.com.