22nd November 1963
Tim Holford-Smth remembers where he was on a fateful day
A week away from the fiftieth anniversary of the violent end of US President John F. Kennedy’s life in Dallas, we are currently in the middle of a snowstorm of media pieces commemorating the event – and indeed reheated airings of the various conspiracy theories that first began circulating within days of the event.
For an example, appearing on the website of The Guardian today, see HERE.
Earlier this week, there was an excellent pull-out section in The Times, carefully qualified at the top ‘based upon the findings of the Warren Commission’, which allowed the reader to refer himself to the conspiracy angle (or not) at his own volition.
Like anyone who was old enough in November 1963 to have been drawn in by the whole Kennedy ‘Camelot’ image, I can remember exactly the circumstances in which I learned of the news.
As a member of a group of pupils of one prep school who had walked 400 yards in a master-supervised ‘crocodile’ to witness a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at another, my mates and I had prepared for a wasted evening of extreme boredom.
I can recall virtually nothing of the trip, bar our fit of communal giggling that one of us inspired during the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears …’ speech [Act III, Scene 2], by miming taking off his ears and handing them to his nearest colleague.
As these things do when you are aged about ten or eleven, especially in circumstances where sombre silence is the order of the day, this gag soon induced hysteria whenever it was ‘repeated’ by any of us – as it frequently was – throughout the evening, including on the route-march home.
We arrived back in the school wing where the more senior boys were allowed to congregate in their free time as a privilege, suitably policed by the deputy headmaster from his day office situated at one end.
Within seconds we had been ushered into said den in order to join the throng of fellow pupils who were cramming in front of the tiny black and white television in the corner of the room, a source of eternal interest for being the only example to which we plebs were allowed access in term-time. [For some strange reason, its most popular offering was always ITV’s coverage of wrestling, commented on by Kent Walton, on Saturday afternoons – but that’s another story].
That evening it was already broadcasting the BBC’s ‘live’ reaction and commentary on development in the United States.
For our young minds, the assassination was a stunning, mind-changing, world event – and ironically, it was the second from America that we had been presented with in a little over twelve months.
The first hand had begun one morning during our Latin class, into which Mr Smith had walked and opened proceedings with the arresting sentence “I don’t know why I am here, indeed why you lot are here, today – we could all be dead by tea-time”, which was our low-key introduction to the news that the Cuban Missile Crisis had heated up several notches.
Earlier this week [Wednesday 13th November], quite by chance whilst indulging in some television channel-hopping, I joined the Channel Five documentary JFK’s Secret Killer: The Evidence about ten minutes in.
Though sceptical about ‘loopy’ documentaries, especially those on Channel Five, I was impressed by the thrust of the evidence and the linking theory that the fatal – and ‘difficult’ – third shot in Dallas … difficult because it stretches credibility that Lee Harvey Oswald could have fired off three shots in the time he was supposed to … was actually fired accidentally by a secret service agent travelling in the car behind the president’s. Factually, there was an agent in the car behind and he did have an assault rifle with him, with the safety catch on, as per protocol.
The theory then runs that – when the first and/or second shot rang out – said agent reacted as fast as he could, intending to deal with ‘whatever the crisis was’, up to and including an apparent attempt on the president’s life.
In an instant he flicked the safety catch ‘off’, intending to swing round and aim behind the cavalcade, from where the shooting was coming. But – either because the car he was in suddenly accelerated, or he just fumbled – in fact he inadvertently fired off a shot forwards as he was raising the rifle up to shoulder level … and blew the president’s brains out.
This morning I’m going to be strapping myself in for the anticipated wall-to-wall transmissions on the JFK assassination over the coming seven days.