clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Those who rode by Kennedy remember

DALLAS — For retired Secret Service agent Winston G. Lawson, the memory of Nov. 22, 1963, is an endless stream of windows. "From Love Field to Dealey Plaza," he says, "there were 20,000 windows. How could we possibly check them all?"

For TV cameraman Mal Couch, then a precocious 25, seeing the rifle that he believes killed President John F. Kennedy — its barrel sticking out of one of those windows — marked "the beginning of the end of the world."

Lawson, 75, and Couch, 65, are survivors of a presidential motorcade that began in splendor and ended in horror.

Forty years have passed — a span of two generations, a lifetime for some — since JFK's assassination. But for the people caught in the maelstrom of the motorcade, the horrific day comes to life not only in the passages of a textbook or the images of a documentary.

It lives within them because it transformed them.

For Nellie Connally, 84, the only surviving passenger of the Lincoln convertible that carried the president and his dazzling first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the 40 years since have made her circumspect and fearful, something she never was before.

"Since that day, I have never fully stopped looking over my shoulder at the horror that might be behind me," says the widow of former Texas Gov. John Connally, who was critically wounded in the shooting that killed the president.

Bobby Hargis, 72, then a Dallas police officer whose motorcycle flanked the left rear bumper of the president's car, has a recurring dream in which he chases but never quite catches Lee Harvey Oswald.

For Hargis, the ensuing years have taken him on his own spiritual journey. "It makes you think about life," he says, sitting at his breakfast table in Cleburne, Texas. "The shortness of it, the preciousness of it, every breath we take. And what did I learn that day? That we're never that far away from being nothing."

For Jim Wright, 80, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the events of that day cut short the life of a president he loved — a friend — and in their own crude way, reshaped the course of history.

"I was in such an ebullient mood that day. Cloud nine!" said Wright, who teaches at Texas Christian University. "Wow! And then, in such a short time, I would be plunged to the pit of despondency, numbing sadness, pathos. In many respects, none of us has ever been the same since that moment.

"And it won't leave our minds, no matter how hard we try."

Win Lawson grew up in western New York, where his father was an accountant, his mother a teacher. He worked in counterintelligence in the Army and developed an interest in law enforcement. So he applied to the Secret Service when he and his wife, Barbara, were living in Syracuse. He did so just in time: In those days, applicants could not be over 30, his age when he applied.

Prized for being a stickler for detail, he became one of the agency's most valuable "advance" men, the job he held when President Kennedy came to Texas.

It was his job to check out the host city — in this case, Dallas, where citizens had recently heckled both Vice President Lyndon Johnson and U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson.

"The city was absolutely going out of its way to be cordial," said Lawson, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

As the motorcade left Love Field, en route to downtown Dallas, Lawson and the other agents — all of whom were in the procession — were staggered by the number of people who lined the streets, the thousands who waved and cheered.

As the motorcade began the last leg of its journey, heading down Elm, the feeling was one of triumph and vindication for Dallas.

And then came the first shot.

Like most witnesses, Win Lawson recalls two more, though puzzled by the quicker pace between the second and the third, which all but tore the president's head off.

The madness that ensued found him and other agents racing to Parkland Hospital, where he was among the first to see the president's body, crumpled in the Lincoln.

"You could see the damage to the head, which was devastating," he says. "You could see the color of the skin, which was gray, but not gray, really. I knew it had to be a fatal wound. I never saw the president alive again or his body again."

Instead, he embarked on a 40-year trial of re-examination. "I must have thought a million times, what could I have done to prevent it?" he said. "And what could I have done about 20,000 windows?"

He says he believes fervently that Oswald acted alone. Conspiracy buffs, he says, neglect to consider the 10 miles of the motorcade's route, stretching from Love Field, to Lemmon Avenue, to Turtle Creek, to Cedar Springs, to Harwood, to Main, to Elm, to history. The trip was to take 35 minutes before arriving at the Trade Mart.

"There were a million better places from which to have fired a weapon," said Lawson.

He did not let the assassination derail him. Rather than go to a field office, as most agents eventually do, he remained at Secret Service headquarters until he retired. He also chose to remain in the agency's protective division, a decision he admits was influenced by Dallas.

Whenever he returned home from work, he would drive past the eternal flame at President Kennedy's grave at Arlington National Cemetery. "So it never left me. It's something you want to remember, because you don't want it to happen again. But you want to forget it because it happened. It's a paradox."

One he would not have been able to weather, he says, without the love and support of fellow agents.

"They would say to me, and it's hard for me to say without breaking down or tears coming to my eyes, 'Win, if it had to happen to anyone, we're glad it happened to you.' Because I was known for doing the best, most thorough advance in the entire agency. They know I would have done everything and more" to prevent what happened, he says.

"And I can't tell you how much that support has meant over the years."

Lawson's desire to protect continues, even at 75. He handles security for a high-profile client whose name he declines to reveal. But nothing in the present can stop the litany of what-ifs involving the past.

When the president's day began at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, a persistent drizzle had forced the Secret Service to consider covering the motorcade's cars in Dallas with protective bubbletops. (Hours later, Dallas would end up sunny.)

Though the bubbletops were not bulletproof, the metal and the contour of the covering, says Lawson, would have made it difficult for a bullet to do much damage, and might have kept a gunman from even firing in the first place. So he's asked himself a million times:

Why couldn't it keep raining?

"I've spent years puzzling over thousands of what-if scenarios," he says. "Was there anything else I could have done? I guess I'll never have all the answers."

Idanell "Nellie" Brill grew up in Austin, where her father owned a leather-goods business. She enrolled at the University of Texas and met her college sweetheart, John Bowden Connally, whom she married on Dec. 21, 1940.

Connally became the first lady of Texas when her husband was elected governor in 1962. She holds the distinction of having said the last words President Kennedy ever heard.

As the president's car prepared to turn left onto Elm, she felt dazzled by the cheering throng and turned to share her enthusiasm, feeling like "a proud parent."

"Mr. President," she said, "you sure can't say Dallas doesn't love you."

He responded with a dazzling smile, followed only seconds later by gunfire.

"His hands flew up to his neck," she said, "and he sank down in his seat. He didn't say a word. John, who was seated in front of him and was a hunter, knew it was a gunshot. He turned to his right and couldn't see him, so he flips to his left, and he still can't see him. And he says, 'No, no, no ' And when he was trying to turn back, the second shot came. John said, 'My God, they're trying to kill us all!' Meaning the four of us in the car. Then he collapsed, and the front of his shirt was covered in blood. He fell forward.

"My only thought then was, I've got to do something for John. I've got to get him out of the line of fire so they won't hurt him anymore. I reached over and pulled him over into my lap. He was looking up, and he was bloody all over. He had his Stetson in his hand like he always did. So I leaned over and put my hand on that spot, on the wound. Later, the doctors said by closing the wound I may have saved his life, that he probably would have died before we got to the hospital."

The Warren Commission concluded there were three shots, with one striking both the president and Gov. Connally — the so-called "magic bullet" theory — and one missing altogether before the third shot hit the president.

But Connally contends that all three bullets reached their intended targets. She believes the first struck only the president, the second only the governor.

"They were wrong," she says of the Warren Commission.

Then came the third, most damaging shot.

"I'm sitting with John on my lap, and suddenly, brain matter has covered the car. It's like tiny, bloody buckshot," she said.

Soon, Mrs. Kennedy was trying to climb out of the back of the car, her pink pillbox hat clinging to the top of her hair. "She said later she was going after a piece of his skull," said Connally, whose book about the assassination, "From Love Field: Our Final Hours With President John F. Kennedy," was released earlier this month. "I don't know but I will say this. You don't know what you would have done had you been in that car. She may have been trying to get out of the car — and you would not blame her one bit if you had been in that car. And that is not a derogatory remark about Jackie. Had I not been pinned down, I would have tried to get out of the car, too."

Clint Hill, a Secret Service agent riding in the car behind the president's, rushed forward to force Kennedy back in. He shoved her and the president to the floor and kept them pinned until the motorcade reached Parkland Hospital.

In the tense moments that followed the transport from bloody car to operating room, Connally and the first lady were left to stare at each other while sitting outside the trauma rooms. Neither said a word. Soon, the first lady would leave the hospital, to return to Washington with her husband's body and the new president, Lyndon Johnson.

She and Nellie Connally would exchange a pair of heartfelt letters but never again see or speak to one another. The governor's wife had to deal with her own demons.

"It kept going through my mind like a phonograph record playing over and over and over. But for John, it was even worse. His first night home, he cried out in his sleep. I would just pat him on the shoulder, and he'd go back to sleep. Ten days after, I asked him, 'What is it you dream, dear?' And he said, 'Nellie, somebody's always after me. With a gun.' So I just let him cry out. He did that for a month or six weeks and they were always after him."

Her own waking nightmare "has us all in the car. Everyone's having a wonderful time. Everyone's being so good, and then all of a sudden the horror starts. There is never anything good after that happening in that car. The car is filled with yellow roses, red roses and blood. And pieces of the president's brain."

Connally regrets that President Kennedy's legacy — and, by extension, the nation's — could have been so much brighter in the years ahead. "We were all in our 40s," she says of the passengers in the top car of VIP's. "We all had so much to give."

But Dealey Plaza would come to dictate an entirely different reality.

"For the first time in my life, I feared for my family," she said. "And I never had before. Mark, our youngest, was 11 at the time. There was this wall at the governor's mansion (in Austin) that he loved to walk around. Well, he could no longer walk around that wall. We were afraid somebody would snatch him off of it. Sharon, 14 at the time, could no longer go anywhere without someone going with her. It became, in some ways, a difficult life for us, and for me. And even to this day, I still take a glance behind me, just to make sure."

Gov. Connally, who survived his wounds, went on to serve as Treasury secretary in the Nixon administration and ran unsuccessfully for president in 1980. He died in 1993.

Mrs. Connally, who lives in Houston, says Nov. 22 will always be a part of her.

"I push it to the back of my head. I can bring it out any time I want, but I know it's not constructive. It was such a sad day. We all wanted to be there to begin with, but if you'd been in that car, believe me, you would never ever want to be there again."

Jim Wright was born in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a chamber of commerce manager, who moved his family across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

After serving as mayor of Weatherford, Texas, he ran for Congress in 1954, launching a 35-year career on Capitol Hill. He flew with President Kennedy on Air Force One to Texas, where, among several stops, the president would be speaking in Wright's beloved Fort Worth.

Historians contend that President Kennedy had come to Texas to repair a widening rift between the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, which at the time enjoyed a one-party stranglehold on Texas. The rift had worsened relations between liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough and his longtime rivals, Vice President Johnson and Gov. Connally. The president felt compelled to repair the rift before his 1964 re-election bid.

What better way than by coming to Texas, accompanied by the world's most glamorous woman, Jackie Kennedy? Stopping in San Antonio and Houston, the president had engineered a perfect political strategy. It wasn't that Yarborough and his adversaries were getting along any better, but who could tell?

"I know the cynical wisdom says he wanted to repair rifts in the party, but part of his motivation was he wanted to come to Texas to say thank you to the people of Texas for their support," said Wright. "He had carried the state in the 1960 election. So I saw the overriding motivation as one of good will."

When the motorcade began its journey from Love Field to downtown, Wright could not have been more pleased. He and fellow Rep. Jack Brooks, riding 11 cars behind the president were "blown away" by the "warmest reception of any Texas city."

And then came the carnage. Not until the third shot did Wright believe it was someone trying to kill the president, whose death brought grief and, yes, even shame.

"I was horrified that it happened at all," he said, "but could never get over the fact that it happened in my state, in the city where I went to high school."

Wright became Democratic majority leader in 1976 and was elected speaker of the House in 1986.

"The assassination affected my whole approach to life and was easily the most shocking day of my career," he says. The night after the president's death, someone told him, "We'll never laugh again."

But Larry O'Brien, one of the president's top aides, said, "Oh, sure, we'll laugh again. We'll just never be young again."

At one point during the 1980s, he asked longtime friend and ally Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to consider a trip to Dallas, if only for the sake of closure — his and the city's.

"Sorry, Jim," said the president's brother. "I'm just not ready yet."

"And he still isn't," said Wright.

Bobby Hargis was born in Rio Vista, Texas, 37 miles south of Fort Worth. He took a job as a Dallas police officer because it paid better than being the manager of an auto parts store. His father was a barber, his mother a beautician. He loved police work, which, on Nov. 22, brought him face to face with a world leader.

One of four motorcycle officers assigned to the president's car, he began the day by meeting the president at Love Field. He and his colleagues got a handshake and the famous Kennedy smile.

"It was like meeting a movie star," said Hargis. "He said, 'I'm glad you're here. Thank you for being here.' "

On Cedar Springs, the president startled Hargis by leaping out of the car to shake hands with some of the hundreds who pushed forward for a closer look.

"The Secret Service liked to had a conniption fit when he did that," says Hargis. At that moment, he felt an eerie sense of dread wash over him. "They was hoppin' around like cats on a hot roof. It freaked 'em out big time. You could tell how nervous they were."

But once the procession reached Houston Street, preparing for the final turn onto Elm, Hargis began to relax. "I thought, 'Well, we've got it made now,' " he says. "And then bam! It happens."

Hargis differs with the Warren Commission and most eyewitnesses, insisting that only two shots were fired. With the first, "a thousand million things went through my mind," he says. After the last, "there was a plume of blood and brains and plasma. It was just like a fog, and I ran right through it."

Photographs taken in the seconds that followed show Hargis racing up the grassy knoll in pursuit of a sniper. He thought the shots came from there. But like most motorcade survivors, he believes Oswald acted alone, saying he saw "nothing" behind the knoll's picket fence to indicate anything suspicious — much less a second gunman.

"When I reached the School Book Depository, someone said, 'Bob, you've got something on your lip.' It turned out to be a piece of brain, mixed with bone from the president's skull."

Within seconds, a man approached Hargis, vowing, in the officer's words, "to get his hands on $17,000 if I'd agree to sell him my helmet. I couldn't sell it anyway. It belonged to the city of Dallas."

After the assassination, "the whole country changed," he says. Before then, "everything was so naive. ... We believed that everything was going to be fine, even if things didn't go right. But now, you can't believe that."

Two years after the president died, Hargis suffered his own near-fatal injury while patrolling on a police motorcycle. The accident crushed his leg and shattered his ribs. He took medical leave from 1974 to 1980, when he returned to the force. He held an administrative job until 1999, when he retired.

"The assassination made me more cautious and careful about every aspect of life," he says. And it continues to haunt him even now, even when he's asleep.

In dreams, he still chases the killer, spending what seems like hours racing up and down the stairways of the School Book Depository, almost touching the fabric of Oswald's shirt but never quite pulling him in.

"It starts out a normal dream and ends up a nightmare. Every single time," he says.

Mal Couch grew up in Dallas, where his father worked for Braniff Airlines and his mother was a housewife. Even as a Woodrow Wilson High School student, he got a job working as a part-time cameraman for WFAA-TV (Channel 8), for which he was still shooting film in 1963.

As part of the motorcade, he found himself riding in the "media" car, next to Bob Jackson, a photographerfor The Dallas Times Herald; Tom Dillard, a photographer for The Dallas Morning News; and a Channel 4 cameraman whose name he can't recall.

Jackson had taken his last picture and handed his film to Jim Featherston, a reporter waiting to receive it at the corner of Main and Houston. When the heavyset reporter fumbled it and began to chase after it, the men in the car found themselves laughing.

And then came the first shot.

Couch remembers someone shouting: "Look at the window — there's the rifle!" By the time the third shot rang out, Couch had spotted about eight inches of the rifle protruding from the sixth-floor window, and being pulled back in. He says he never saw a face, though some witnesses did.

Moments later, Couch and his fellow passengers scrambled out of the car to descend on the madness of Dealey Plaza.

"'God, don't let them do this!' I screamed. 'They can't kill the president!' And I'm running like crazy. In the plaza, it's mass confusion, total mayhem." So much so that the events began to feel overwhelm his instincts as a photographer.

"I didn't film the window," he said. "It was happening too fast. I did raise my camera to take black and white footage of a policeman pulling his pistol and people falling, which everyone has seen for years. But then I stopped filming. Why? Mercy, goodness, gracious, I don't know. When I ran back, I didn't film anything. I guess I was just too dazed to figure out what was going on. So nothing was filmed until I got to Parkland Hospital, where I saw Jackie getting into a hearse. So I filmed the hearse and people crying all over the place."

For him, the Kennedy assassination continues to be "a devastating marker." It was, he contends, the opening of a 1960s Pandora's box, leading to Vietnam and two more assassinations, which claimed the lives of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the president's brother Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968.

"That little piece of metal sticking out the window started it all," said Couch, who teaches at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and who believes in the prophecies from the Book of Revelations.

"I count that as the change in America, from that point forward," he says. "But for me, it cuts even deeper. The Bible speaks of the end of days. So I see it as the beginning piece of the train of the last days.

"And I was there when it happened."

© 2003, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services