By Jamie Stengle and Christopher Sullivan
The Associated Press
DALLAS — The mementoes are everywhere, preserved for five decades by people who wish they could forget: Letters of grief and thanks, in a widow’s hand. An unwanted wedding band. A rose stained with blood.
Those who were closest to events on the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated still talk about what they witnessed as if it happened yesterday. And they frequently mention a keepsake, some small but often heavy burden they’ve carried since Nov. 22, 1963 — perhaps a touchstone to happier memories or just an artifact proving history brushed their lives.
Some can’t even explain the items they keep from those awful, convulsing, world-changing 24 hours.
Dawn was approaching — it was past 6 a.m. that Friday.
In a bungalow in suburban Irving, the only one up was Lee Harvey Oswald. He made coffee, dressed for work, then paused before leaving his wife, Marina, and two young daughters. He drew most of the cash from his pocket, removed his wedding ring and left both behind. Gathering up a parcel he’d retrieved from the garage, he crept out.
“Lee left a coffee cup in the sink,” recalls Ruth Paine, whose house Marina and the girls were staying in. Oswald had come the previous evening to try — unsuccessfully — to reconcile with his estranged wife.
When he departed, leaving the ring, Paine says, “My guess is that he did not expect to live.”
She would later retrieve the ring for investigators, and it would find its way into a lawyer’s file for decades. Only recently was it returned to Oswald’s widow, who put the bitter memento up for auction. In a letter, she explained that “symbolically I want to let go of my past” and what she has called “the worst day of my life.” The ring sold last month for $108,000.
Walking from Paine’s house, Oswald reached the home where Buell Frazier, his co-worker, lived. He put his parcel in Frazier’s Chevrolet for the ride to work at the Texas School Book Depository, where both had $1.25 an hour jobs filling orders.
Normally, Oswald would wait to be picked up; normally, he would have carried a sack lunch. And unlike most Fridays, he told Frazier he would not need a ride home that night. Then there was that package in the backseat. When Frazier asked, Oswald said it contained curtain rods.
They drove off in a misting rain and arrived at work around 7:55 a.m.
At that same time, 25 miles away, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Secret Service agent Clint Hill was walking toward Room 850, where Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline were staying in a suite that locals had specially decorated. They had lent art treasures — 16 originals by Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet and others — and hung them on the walls in welcome. Today, these artworks themselves have become mementoes of that day, reassembled in an anniversary museum exhibit.
Emerging from the suite, Kennedy called out, “Good morning,” to Hill, whom he knew well as the agent who’d been protecting the first lady for three years.
And it did feel like a good morning, Hill said in an interview. A large, friendly crowd was gathering outside, despite the drizzle, for a speech — Kennedy’s first event of a packed day. Next was a breakfast speech inside the hotel, where another crowd erupted when the first lady entered.
“Everybody was just stunned by her. And of course everybody in the world would later see the pink outfit she was wearing,” recalls Associated Press writer Mike Cochran, who stayed with the couple as they headed to the Fort Worth airport for the hop to Dallas and a motorcade to a planned luncheon speech.
Skies had cleared by the time Air Force One touched down at Dallas’ Love Field, allowing the bubble top to be removed from the dark blue Lincoln that would carry the president through downtown.
It was a few minutes before noon.
Agents riding in the Secret Service vehicle just behind the president scanned the jubilant throngs, which thickened as the motorcade neared downtown. At one point, the cars slowed, then halted for a group of students.
“There was a banner: ‘Mr. President, please stop and shake our hands,’” Hill says. “Whenever that happened, we knew pretty well he was going to stop.”
Nancy White reached out from the crowd. “He shook my hand,” she says, amazement still in her voice.
The motorcade moved on.
Up ahead was Dealey Plaza and a corridor of buildings including the book depository, where Buell Frazier stood on the front steps with co-workers — though not Lee Oswald.
Happy pandemonium greeted the presidential Lincoln, and suddenly Frazier could see Jackie Kennedy.
“She’s as pretty as the pictures,” he remembers calling out to a woman nearby.
And that quickly the motorcade glided by. But then came a sound that Frazier first thought was a police motorcycle backfiring.
Then another pop. And another. Frazier recognized it was gunfire.
Instantly, he says, “People were running and screaming and hollering. Somebody came running by as we were standing there on the steps and she says, ‘They’ve shot the president.’”
In the agents’ car, Hill heard the first shot, sprinted to the Lincoln and scrambled aboard. As he strained to hold on, he saw Mrs. Kennedy climbing onto the rear of the car. He pushed her back to her seat.
Meanwhile, reporters were struggling to grasp the events, then get the news out.
In the Dallas AP office, the phone rang and bureau chief Bob Johnson grabbed it. On the line was staff photographer James W. “Ike” Altgens, who had been recording the Dealey Plaza chaos.
“Bob, the president’s been shot,” he shouted from a pay phone.
“Ike, how do you know?” Johnson demanded.
“I was shooting pictures then and I saw it.”
Johnson typed furiously, folding in Altgens’ details:
“DALLAS — PRESIDENT KENNEDY WAS SHOT TODAY JUST AS HIS MOTORCADE LEFT DOWNTOWN DALLAS. MRS. KENNEDY JUMPED UP AND GRABBED HIM. SHE CRIED: ‘OH, NO!’ THE MOTORCADE SPED ON.”