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“The hair is reddish brown and abundant…”

The Warren Commission report on the assassination of JFK is somber reading 60 years on. It covers Oswald and Jack Ruby, dismisses conspiracy theories and includes the president’s autopsy.
ERIC MORTENSON  —  Substack
NOV 23

We made sure to stop at the president’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery when we visited Washington, D.C. in 2014. I take comfort in seeing the eternal flame. Overall, it’s kind of an understated memorial, dignified rather than imposing.
I’d forgotten some of the details from the Warren Commission’s findings and there were a few things I hadn’t heard of before. I didn’t know, for example, that Lee Harvey Oswald tried to assassinate a former Army general in Dallas seven months before shooting the president.

The intended victim that time was former Maj. Gen. Edwin A Walker, a decorated World War II and Korean War combat veteran who’d become an extreme, outspoken right-winger, a John Birch Society member. He’d been forced to resign due to his controversial statements and actions. Among other things, Walker said former President Harry Truman and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt were commies.

On the night of April 10, 1963, Walker was seated at his desk when a bullet fired from outside his house zipped past his head. The Warren Commission concluded Oswald, an avowed Marxist, as they say, fired a shot at the general using the same mail-order Italian rifle with a scope he later used to kill JFK.

Look, anybody my age is eager to tell you, over and over, where we were and what we were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. When notable anniversaries come around, like this one — 60 years — we start drifting back and telling our stories again.

And the younger generations tend to shrug politely at our memories. We’re in danger of seeming quaint, I guess, like old-timers ranting about the Hindenburg blimp disaster, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping or Pearl Harbor. Younger people have 9/11, the Iraq War, Covid, trump and various mass shootings to mark their passage.

But we sit here, 60 years later, feeling certain that JFK’s assassination cracked America and we haven’t healed yet. The murders of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 extended the cracks in what we believed about ourselves. Sometimes I think we’re beyond repair.

That day, I was in sixth grade at Barrett School in the Hood River Valley, in Oregon. Barrett was one of the taller buildings in the county; built in 1910, three stories of brick with twin wooden stairwells that would have funneled smoke and flame and killed us all if a fire had ever spread, say, from the basement furnace room. It was probably a firetrap, and it’s long gone.

That’s a 1920 postcard photo of Barrett School, courtesy of the Hood River School District. Fourth, fifth and sixth graders attended Barrett. In 1963, sixth graders like me were in two classrooms on the top floor. My class was in the classroom on the upper left in the photo.

We were on the third floor of Barrett School when Lee Harvey Oswald aimed his bolt-action rifle at the presidential motorcade from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where he had worked for a month. He fired three shots in a time span ranging from 4.8 to slightly more than 7 seconds, according to the Warren Commission report. He hit the president twice.

The Warren Commission, headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, was appointed to investigate the JFK assassination. I’d forgotten that Gerald Ford — then a Michigan congressman and later president — was on the commission. So was Allen W. Dulles, the CIA director and a figure who appears in multiple conspiracy theories.

The commission’s 1964 report is available in the National Archives. I read quite a bit of it and recommend it. It’s fascinating and grim. It’s also well-written, clear and concise.

I was most taken by inclusion of the autopsy report, delivered in the clipped, detached language of the Navy medical examiners:

The body is that of a muscular, well-developed and well nourished adult Caucasian male measuring 72 1/2 inches and weighing approximately 170 pounds….The hair is reddish brown and abundant, the eyes are blue…

The president’s wounds were substantial. The first bullet hit him in the neck, exited his throat, clipped the knot of his tie and then hit Texas Gov. John Connally, who was riding in front of the president, in the side of his back under his right armpit. The bullet skipped through the governor’s chest, pierced his right wrist and hit his left thigh.

The second shot hit the president in the back of the head, leaving a grotesque and certainly fatal exit wound.

Clearly visible in the above described large skull defect and exuding from it is lacerated brain tissue which on close inspection proves to represent the major portion of the right cerebral hemisphere.

The doctors at Parkland Hospital in Dallas expanded the president’s throat exit wound to put in a trachea tube. The started IVs of blood and saline and administered oxygen. Cardiac arrest occurred and chest massage failed to restart the heart. He was pronounced dead an estimated 30 to 40 minutes after being shot.

The third shot apparently missed. Police found Oswald’s rifle and three cartridges in the school book depository building.

Oswald left the building, but he wasn’t done killing. About 45 minutes later, Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit was patrolling in the area and pulled up alongside a man walking in the same direction. The man matched the general description of the suspected shooter.

“He walked over to Tippit’s car, rested his arms on the door on the right-hand side of the car, and apparently exchanged words with Tippit through the window.,” the commission report says. “Tippit opened the door on the left side and started to walk around the front of his car. As he reached the front wheel on the driver’s side, the man on the sidewalk drew a revolver and fired several shots in rapid succession, hitting Tippit four times and killing him instantly.”

The patrolman was found lying on his revolver, which was out of its holster. I remembered Officer Tippit’s name, but I didn’t know how close he’d come to catching Oswald then and there. The cops eventually tracked Oswald to a movie theater and grabbed him as he pulled the revolver again.

Chesty Emerson, who was the Barrett School principal and taught the other sixth grade class, sent a girl across the hallway to summon our class to his room. I remember the girl he sent over was pale and looked stricken. I also remember, oddly, that her family ran a funeral home in town. Later, I wondered if Chesty sent her over because he figured she might somehow be accustomed to dealing with death. Probably not.

Chesty had a black and white TV in his office and had pulled it out for all of us to watch. My class found spots on the floor. Some of the girls wept quietly as the people on television told us the president was dead. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mrs. Gyland, my teacher, sag against the classroom doorway. Her hair was black and abundant. Chesty’s hair was not abundant.

Pres. Lyndon Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to address the conspiracy theories that dog the assassination to this day. The members concluded that Oswald acted alone, no other shooter was involved, Russia and Cuba didn’t have anything to do with it and neither did the CIA or FBI. The commission also concluded that Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who gut-shot Oswald, also acted on his own and had no relationship to Oswald or to any agents foreign or domestic.

Photographer Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News took the photo on the left. Bob Jackson of the Dallas Times-Herald took the more famous photo on the right a split second later, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The wording in the headline could be misleading. The FBI was “tipped” only in the sense that police agencies always used to get anonymous telephone tips, threats or even confessions when a big crime happened. I don’t know if that’s still the case, but it was when I covered cops and courts in my early newspaper years.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Jack Ruby’s original name was Rubenstein, and he was Jewish. He was a hard-ass who acted as his own bouncer at his clubs. “On about 15 occasions since 1950, he beat with his fists, pistol whipped, or blackjacked patrons who became unruly,” the commission report said. He did the same to people who opposed him in business dealings.

Cops grabbed and arrested Ruby immediately after he shot Oswald on live TV with his Colt .38 revolver.

“Under interrogation, (Ruby) denied that the killing of Oswald was in any way connected with a conspiracy involving the assassination of President Kennedy. He maintained that he had killed Oswald in a temporary fit of depression and rage over the President’s death.”

The commission report is clear and concise, and it looks like they worked hard to track down and investigate the many rumors and theories that sprang up. But hardly anyone believes the commission’s conclusions now, not totally.

I used to think the conspiracy buffs simply didn’t want to believe the case was as simple as it appeared on the surface. Lone gunman kills lone gunman, both of them angry, damaged people seeking fame or accomplishment.

I don’t know what I think now.

I’m proud my sixth grade teachers recognized the historical gravity of what had happened and decided not to shelter us from it. They decided we should know about it, and I’m grateful to them for it.

But each year this day leaves me feeling hollow. Sixty years have passed. My hair is white and not as abundant as it used to be.

 

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