A Ride for Mrs. Oswald
On November 22, 1963, I was a police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I worked the late shift, but I rushed to the office as soon as I heard that President Kennedy had been shot, and I started answering the phones. The first call I took was from the mother of the alleged assassin. She asked me for a lift to Dallas. Guess what I said?
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In 1963 I was the night police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the newspaper in the town where I grew up. I was 26 years old, made $115 a week, and worked the late shift: six o’clock in the evening to two-thirty in the morning. I hung out with cops, emergency-room nurses, barmaids, and other creatures of the night. Like most young reporters who covered crime, I considered myself a superb investigator, more cop than journalist. I wore a snap-brim hat, hoping I’d be mistaken for a detective, and when someone made that mistake, I never corrected him. The stories I covered were an endless series of car wrecks and murders, the hours were awful, and the pay was low, even by Texas-newspaper standards. I thought it was about the best job anyone could ever have.
But when I heard that President Kennedy was coming to Fort Worth, I wasn’t entirely happy about it. In those days presidents didn’t travel nearly as much as they do now, so it was big news for my hometown but bad news for me. The political reporters would handle Kennedy, and they would not need any help from me. For a reporter, there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of a big story that someone else is covering. I was more than a little irritated.
Kennedy and his entourage flew into Fort Worth late on a Thursday evening, and assignment or no, once we had put the paper to bed early Friday morning, I hustled over to the Press Club, which was open late to accommodate the traveling White House press corps. The party was well under way when I got there, around two in the morning, and for me this was as good as it got. There I was, chatting up reporters I had known only by their byline: Merriman Smith of United Press International, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, and a dozen more.
Kennedy had come to Texas to mend some fences in the Democratic party and to raise money for the 1964 campaign. After a speech in Houston, he had flown to Fort Worth to spend the night and attend a chamber of commerce breakfast before taking a ten-minute flight to Dallas for a parade and a luncheon speech. The tour was to end with a huge fundraising dinner in Austin. Governor John Connally had convinced Kennedy that only in Austin, the state capital, could you get people from the rest of the state to come to a fundraiser. People from Houston wouldn't go to San Antonio for a fundraiser, Connally told Kennedy, and people from Fort Worth damn sure wouldn't go to Dallas. He was right about that. When Amon Carter was running the Star-Telegram, he made a point of taking a sack lunch when he had business in Dallas, claiming he did not care for the city's restaurants. Dallas repaid the courtesy when Fort Worth renamed an airport between the two cities Amon G. Carter Field. Dallas residents declined to use the airport, in large part because of the name, and it eventually failed.
The visiting reporters at the Press Club had no interest in our airports, of course. What they wanted to know about was a local after-hours joint called the Cellar. The Cellar had no liquor license, but if you were a friend of the owner, a former stock-car racer named Pat Kirkwood, the drink of choice, grapefruit juice spiked with grain alcohol, was on the house. It was not the drinks, however, but the fact that the Cellar's waitresses wore only underwear that had given the place some notoriety, and the notoriety had apparently spread as far as Washington. Phil Record, the Star-Telegram's night city editor, and I were appointed to guide our visitors there. It must have been quite an evening: I remember that we stayed long enough for some of the Easterners to see their first Fort Worth sunrise. A group of off-duty Secret Service agents had joined us, and in months to come there would be congressional hearings into whether the experience had left them as alert as they should have been in Dallas.
Having no assignment that day, I could afford to sleep late, which was my normal practice. My father had died when I was in college, so I still lived at my mother's house, helping her make a home for my brother, Tom, and my sister, Sharon. Tom had been ten when Dad died and Sharon fifteen, but by the time Kennedy came to Texas, Tom was in high school, and it was he who shook me awake, shouting, "Kennedy has been shot! You'd better get to work!" Tom had been allowed to miss school that day, and he and Mother had driven into town early to see the president as he emerged from the breakfast. As Kennedy walked out of the Hotel Texas and toward his car, Tom was one of the last people in Fort Worth to shake his hand.
I dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed my black felt hat, and roared off in my Triumph. As I parked in the lot near the Star-Telegram office, the radio confirmed the worst: The president was dead. It was as if someone had hit me with a hammer. At once I was stunned, hurt, and embarrassed—stunned because such violence was unthinkable in those days, hurt and embarrassed because it had happened in my home state. Why did something like this have to happen, and why did it have to happen in Texas?
As I made my way inside the Star-Telegram building, lines of people two and three across were already surrounding it. The Kennedy assassination would be the first story that the entire nation would watch together on television, and because of it, television would soon replace newspapers as the way most Americans got their news. But when Kennedy was shot, people still really didn't believe the news unless they saw it written down in black and white, so hundreds waited outside the Star-Telegram for the special editions that rolled off the presses. "The truth was, we couldn't print them fast enough," one of our editors said later. "People would stand in line to buy one edition, then go to the back of the line to buy a copy of the next one."
Inside the city room it was bedlam. When the flash that Kennedy had been shot had hit the wires, an editor had dispatched so many reporters to Dallas that there was no one left on the city desk to answer the phones, and they were all ringing. Nonetheless, one of the editors told me to get to the police station. A man carrying a load of dynamite in his car had been arrested leaving Dallas County and was being taken to the Fort Worth jail. He was the best suspect so far in the Kennedy shooting.
I managed to get to the station just as he was being brought down the back stairs. Early in my police reporting days, I learned a trick from the cops: People will sometimes blurt out the truth if they are surprised by a question. So I jumped in front of the handcuffed suspect, who was between two detectives, and shouted, "You son of a bitch, why did you do it?"
"Well, I didn't," he said, as the cops hustled him into the lockup.
In a matter of hours, it would become clear that the poor man had done nothing and knew no more about the assassination than the rest of us. He had stopped for gas at a service station between Dallas and Fort Worth and mentioned to the attendant what he had heard on the radio, that the president had been shot. The attendant hadn't heard about it and called the cops, figuring that the only person who could have known about the shooting was the one who had done it. When the police stopped the man's car and found the trunk loaded with dynamite, it was enough for them too. As the afternoon wore on, it was determined that the man was exactly who he said he was: a demolition contractor en route to a construction job. Had the incident happened today, it would have triggered lawsuits against the city and the police and at least the threat of one against me, but the police apologized and the man went on his way.
When I got back to the city room, the confusion was even worse. By now, a dozen Star-Telegram reporters were on the scene in Dallas, but when they called in, there was no one on the city desk to take down their stories. I hadn't even removed my hat when I settled behind a typewriter and picked up one of the phones. A woman's voice asked if we could spare anyone to give her a ride to Dallas.
"Lady," I said, "this is not a taxi service, and besides, the president has been shot."
"I know," she said. "They think my son is the one who shot him." It was the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and she had heard on the radio that her son had been arrested.
"Where do you live?" I blurted out. "I'll be right over to get you."
Why Marguerite Oswald called the Star-Telegram that day remains a mystery, though she had a few connections to the paper. She had lived a vagabond life during most of Oswald's childhood, but she had eventually settled in Fort Worth, and when her son defected to the Soviet Union, Star-Telegram reporters had interviewed her. As recently as two weeks before the assassination, she had been working as a governess in the home of Star-Telegram founder Amon Carter's son. (The Carters, who had no idea she was the mother of a defector, had discharged her because their children thought she was "mean.")
I knew none of that as I began to think about how I was going to get her to Dallas. Somehow, taking her there in a convertible sports car just didn't seem quite right, so I went to Bill Foster, the paper's automotive editor. For years, local car dealers had furnished the auto editor with a new car every week or so and free gas. It was offered and accepted with the understanding that the editor would "road test" the car and write up the results in his Sunday column. When Bill told me he was driving a Cadillac sedan that week, I said, "Come on. I'll explain as we go, and you're gonna like it."
We found Mrs. Oswald standing on the lawn of a small home on Fort Worth's west side. She was a short, round-faced woman wearing enormous black horn-rimmed glasses and a white nurse's uniform. She carried a small blue travel bag. I got into the back seat with her, and Bill drove. She was distraught but in an odd way. I would later come to believe that she was deranged, but for most of the trip she seemed less concerned with the death of the president or her son's role in it than with herself. She railed that his Russian-born wife would get sympathy while no one would "remember the mother" and that she would probably starve. I chalked it up to understandable emotional overload, and I couldn't bring myself to use her self-serving remarks in the story I filed later that day. I probably should have. She would later be so brazen as to tell a reporter for Life magazine, "Mama wants money," a plea she repeated over the years. As she had predicted, the world showed her little sympathy, and she supported herself in the end by selling Oswald's clothing to souvenir hunters.
The drive to Dallas took about an hour, and when we reached the police station, Bill let us out and said he would join us after he had parked the car. Hundreds of reporters had converged on the station, most of them in a hallway where the detectives' offices were located. Wearing the Dick Tracy hat, it was easy for me to pass for a plainclothesman. There was a uniformed cop behind a counter in one of the offices, so I approached him and said, "I'm the one who brought Oswald's mother over from Fort Worth. Is there someplace she can stay where she won't be bothered by all these reporters?"
The officer guided us to a small space that seemed to be some kind of interrogation room and said, "How about this?" I thanked him, settled Mrs. Oswald in, and went into the hallway to see if I could help our guys. By then there were seventeen of us on the scene, but the problem was finding phones to call in what we had found out. Other reporters were having to walk several blocks. I began to gather up what our team had collected and call it in from the room the police had given me. Never once did anyone ask who I was. Later Oswald's wife, Marina, was brought to the police station, and an officer asked me if we would mind her sharing the room. I told them I saw no problem. The only difficulty for me was that she seemed to speak no English, only Russian.
Around sundown, Oswald's mother asked Detective Captain Will Fritz if we could visit her son. Fritz agreed and let us into a holding room below the jail. The group included Oswald's wife, his mother, an FBI agent, and me. I couldn't believe it. Oswald was being brought down from his cell. Whatever he said, this would be the story of a lifetime: an exclusive interview with the man who had just been charged with killing the president.
We had been there only a few minutes when the FBI agent casually asked me, "And who are you with?"
I had watched veteran interrogators bluff their way with a suspect by answering a question with a question, and in my best imitation I sort of half snarled, "Well, who are you with?"
The agent seemed a little edgy now. "Are you a reporter?"
Now I was really pushing it: "Well, aren't you?"
It was at this point that I believe I received my first official death threat. The embarrassed agent said he would kill me if he ever saw me again. Or at least that seemed to be what he was saying. I was already leaving as he said it.
It was the biggest story I almost got. I went back to the corridor and blended in with the other reporters. For the next two days, I would just be part of the crowd.
I spent the following day at the crime scene. The nation was in shock, and nowhere was it more obvious than in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy had been shot. Hundreds of people seemed to wander aimlessly, occasionally talking to anyone who happened by. Some left flowers; some just stared. I talked to one man who had come to Dallas to see Kennedy but had seen only the motorcade racing toward Parkland Hospital. It was as if he had lost a friend. He could not understand how it could have happened. His grief became the heart of a story I filed for the Sunday paper, a story that began, "Today, I walked with a man named Gregory Pontes, and for a moment he seemed to speak for all America." I've written thousands of stories since that day, but I've never forgotten the lead to that one.
Oswald was still being held at the police station but was to be transferred to the county jail the next day to await trial. We began to scale back our coverage. Our photographers were sent home. One of our reporters would watch Oswald as he was brought out of the city jail and placed in a car for the trip to the county jail nearby. I was to watch him arrive there. It was a trip he would never make. As two detectives brought him to the loading dock on Sunday morning, Jack Ruby walked from the crowd of reporters and onlookers, stuck a small pistol in Oswald's side, and killed him.
How could it happen? I have been asked that question many times, and when I explain that it was a different time, the answer seldom seems to suffice. But those were the days before metal detectors, identification cards, and concrete barriers—all the security precautions that we have come to accept as a part of modern life, particularly since 9/11. We didn't shoot our presidents, we didn't know much about terrorists, and the only people who used bombs were gangsters. As long as they confined their killings to one another, we didn't really mind. In those days, if you looked as if you belonged, you could usually get in most places. I had walked into the Dallas police station and secured the use of an office on the strength of nothing more than a hat that made me look like a detective. Ruby had been a hanger-on at the police station. Because he had looked as if he belonged there, no one had questioned his presence.
For the reporters, Oswald's shooting meant it was time to go back to work. Our managing editor, Lorin McMullen, decided to put out a Sunday afternoon Extra, something that had never been done before. This was no simple task. When the paper had churned out those Extras the day Kennedy was shot, the presses were already rolling with a complete newspaper that only needed to be updated. McMullen was talking about starting from scratch: a complete newspaper, including want ads, that would be on the streets early Sunday afternoon. Somehow, he managed to do it. We were so proud of the accomplishment that when the first copies were trucked over from Fort Worth, I grabbed a bundle and sold them myself at Dealey Plaza. I guess I still owe the paper some money. I don't remember turning in my profits, but in truth, I gave away more papers than I sold.
It was a sweet scoop. Not only had we managed to get our papers to Dallas hours before the Dallas Morning News had printed its first edition of the Monday paper, but McMullen had also found a way around having no photo of the shooting. The Dallas paper had a graphic shot of Ruby just as he rammed the gun into Oswald's stomach and had moved it as a copyrighted photo on the Associated Press wire shortly after the event. McMullen grabbed it off the wire, blew it up, and spread it across the front page. Beneath the photo, in the tiny type used in baseball box scores, was the line "Copyright 1963, Dallas Morning News." We had beaten the Morning News with its own photo.
In the days that followed I realized the toll that long weekend had taken on me. I have heard of people who experienced traumatic events that left them so drained they were unable to feel pain, but for me the overpowering shock of trying to work during the chaos surrounding the assassination left me so exhausted mentally that for a while I somehow became immune to emotion.
Several nights later, back on the police beat, I was in the emergency room of Saint Joseph Hospital when the bodies of a family that had been fatally injured in a car wreck were wheeled by on gurneys. They had been beheaded when their car slammed into the rear of a truck loaded with metal pipes. A police reporter sees a lot, and injury and death were nothing new to me, but only after I had watched the bodies pass by did I realize that the sight had provoked no reaction at all.