The Man Who Saw Too Much
Hugh Aynesworth can’t escape what he witnessed in 1963.
“Oswald caught a city bus here,” Hugh Aynesworth is telling his visitor as the two of them cross Griffin Street on their way down Elm. “He only rode it a few blocks and then got tied up in the traffic jam around Dealey Plaza.”
“I wonder why he took a bus back toward the School Book Depository?” the visitor asks. “It seems he would want to go the other way.”
“Yeah, it does,” Aynesworth says, as the two proceed down Elm, jostled by the pre-Christmas crowds on their way to Sangers and Neimans and Brooks Brothers. It is a bitterly cold day, but Aynesworth seems oblivious to it. “But,” he adds, with a soft smile, “That‘s what he did. He got off the bus here”—the two cross the corner of Elm and Lamar—“and ran over to the Greyhound Bus Station, where he caught a cab.”
Aynesworth should know. He broke the story of Oswald’s escape route, just as he has continued to break new ground in the assassination for twelve years. But the visitor can’t quite dispel the irrationality of it all: a man shoots the President of the United States, escapes by some miracle from a building surrounded by police, makes his way up Elm Street, and then catches a bus headed back toward the scene of his crime? A little implausible. The visitor is gripped by a vague, growing doubt, the first stages of the incurable disease called conspiracy fever, a disease which infects the 80 per cent of the American people who do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed John Kennedy on his own. The best cure for conspiracy fever is Hugh Aynesworth.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Aynesworth says, as they pause at a red light. Aynesworth’s voice is soft, so soft the visitor can barely hear it above the wind. Since Aynesworth is standing to his right, the visitor has full view of the six-inch scar that runs from below Aynesworth’s ear across his neck to his jaw. It is a large and very sinister scar, and it seems distinctly out of place on Aynesworth’s boyish face. “You’re thinking that a man who had just killed a president wouldn’t do that, aren’t you?”
“Well, uh, yes, I was,” says the visitor.
“I didn’t believe it either. But that’s what he did. He came rushing up Elm here, and the bus was the first place he could melt into a crowd. No one would look for the man who had killed the President on a bus. Assassins don’t jump on buses. Oswald, however, didn’t know how to drive. He had only three choices. One, someone could drive him away. That didn’t check out.” The two pass John Neely Bryan’s cabin, the first structure in Dallas, directly opposite Philip Johnson’s starkly simple memorial to Kennedy. “The other choices were a bus or a cab. He took the first of those two alternatives that came along. That happened to be a bus, which took him right back to Dealey Plaza. So he jumped off and caught a cab. It may sound strange, but it’s what happened.”
The two pass the John F. Kennedy museum, where the visitor had earlier watched a film about the assassination and bought a John F. Kennedy memorial plate. Then they are in Dealey Plaza. It doesn’t look the way one imagines it. Like the Alamo, Gettysburg, Ford’s Theater, and Appomattox, Dealey Plaza seems smaller, more ordinary, than it should. There is no inherent sense that history happened here. The buildings are small and close together; the streets narrow and choked with real cars, most headed for the Stemmons Freeway, the same direction the motorcade took twelve years before. The monuments seems too small, too ordinary, to carry such significance. The Depository is short and squatty; the infamous grassy knoll only a tiny rise; the triple underpass just that; and the picket fence rickety and flimsy. Someone standing where Kennedy was shot could throw a grapefruit and hit any of them.
The visitor is shivering. It is so cold that there are no other tourists on the plaza. Aynesworth is talking again, in his calm, even voice, not quite looking the visitor in the eye (he seldom does), reciting his personal catechism, so familiar as to be as normal as good morning, as much a part of his life as his family tree. He points out all the landmarks, discusses each in the context of the Warren Commission Report and subsequent conspiracy theories. There was where Abraham Zapruder was standing, watching through his Bell & Howell movie camera; there was where James Jarman and Harold Norman were watching the parade from the window below Oswald; there’s where Lee Bowers was watching from his tower in the switch yard; there’s where S.M. Holland was standing atop the overpass; there’s where James Tague was nicked by a fragment, and there—There!—was where the President’s limousine was when Oswald fired the first shot. And there, just across the street from the Depository, in front of the County Records Building, was where a young aviation and space reporter named Hugh Aynesworth was waiting to catch a glimpse of the President of the United States. In the next three days that young reporter would personally witness not only the assassination, but also the capture of Oswald and the murder of Oswald by Jack Ruby. No other man saw so much. No other man carries such a personal burden. Hugh Aynesworth is living history, the personal imprint of what the rest of us carry in our imagination, of what the world has seen only through words and pictures. Hugh Aynesworth was there. He saw it all. Over the years, he has tried to forget it, to escape it. He can’t.
A pained expression came over Hugh Aynesworth’s face as he spoke into his office telephone, “Oh no, he’s not going to go on the air with that, is he?”
He flicked an ash into an ashtray thoughtfully provided by a bail bondsman and started leafing through the stacks and stacks of clippings and documents beneath which, one suspected, there lay a desk.
“But didn’t you tell him Mark Lane has been passing that story around for ten years?”
Aynesworth continued to search through his desk while he held the retriever cradled with his shoulder.
“No, she’s Oswald’s landlady. Remember, she told the Commission she saw him get on a bus the day of the assassination. A year or so later she was saying she saw Oswald get into a Dallas police car—car 107. But he can’t go on the air with that, Jesus Christ.”
At the desk facing Aynesworth, Bob Dudney looked up from his work of clipping articles from Time, which he then proceeded to file meticulously in his top desk drawer. In the small office at the Dallas Times Herald are five wastebaskets, two more than three feet tall, each perpetually filled with the wreckage of clipped newspapers and magazines. The name Nadeane Walker is on the door.
“Why not? Well, no particular reason, except the Dallas Police Department didn’t even have a car number 107 in 1963.”
“Another hot assassination scoop,” Dudney said, and started to clip that day’s Times Herald.
“So he’s going with it anyway,” Aynesworth shook his head and smiled, half rueful, half resigned, into the receiver. “Damn it, how long am I going to have to keep doing this?” He set the receiver down, and he and Dudney began talking about their plans to meet an informer—an ex-con, mob hit man—Dudney had cultivated. The informer claimed to know where Hoffa’s body was. They were getting ready to fly to New Jersey and had only a few hours to get their strategy together. Since the affair could be dangerous, the call about a television newsman’s discovering a piece of very old assassination news had not been a welcome interruption. During a six-hour period, in fact, four calls—from Toronto, New Orleans, New York, and Dallas—had come into Aynesworth about the assassination.
Most of the calls Aynesworth gets (four a day was somewhat below average) are from reporters who, like the TV newsman Aynesworth had just been talking about, believe they have stumbled on the story of the century. As they recount their finds Aynesworth invariably listens patiently, then takes the story apart. “Well, that would be a good story—except the only way you can get to that manhole is through a nine-inch pipe—you know how big that is?” Or “Yes, that does sound interesting. However, if you check his job application you’ll find it’s dated October 1963 instead of November.” Or “You’re right about that. She did say the shots were over her right shoulder. But she was mixed up. The story was changed in the second edition. Nothing sinister about it. She just got back to her desk and was emotionally crushed and confused.” Or “Oh him! He’s one of Garrison’s people—a crazy. He says he took Oswald into the woods, tied him to a tree, stripped him naked, and worshipped him. I’ve got that on tape.” Or “Sure, he says he saw Oswald and Ruby together in the YMCA. They were both supposed to be homosexuals, right? Well, I asked him which leg Ruby had the shark bite scar on, and he said, ’The right one.’ Ruby didn’t have any scars, much less from a shark.”
The rest of the calls are from people with information about the assassination. The problem with them is sorting out the crazies, or the flakes, as Aynesworth and Dudney call them. “People will say anything,” says Aynesworth. “I’ve had people camp out on my doorstep trying to get me to believe they were involved. Five or six of them claimed they helped do it. I check ’em all out; you can’t get mad at ’em, really—they just want to be somebody.”
Here is a segment of one such Aynesworth “checking out” this of a man calling himself Julius Caesar, who was to be seen in New Orleans, wearing a toga, during the trial of Clay Shaw.
Aynesworth: “You know, if what you say is true, you could be the most important witness in history.”
Julius Caesar: “Yes, I know [giggle].”
Here is another:
Caller: “Some people think I’m crazy or stupid.”
Caller: “I knew Robert Goddard. I also knew, oh what’s his name? Paul Robeson.”
Aynesworth: “You did?”
Caller: “Yes, he was my father.”
Occasionally the calls are not so bizarre, but even then they take on an eerie quality. This is the Ayensworth portion of one segment of a call initiated by Aynesworth to a non-crazy, bona fide source:
“People have been talking a lot lately. The thrust is that you have all these Mafia and mob connections.” Pause.
“Ever hear of Freddie the Weasel?” Pause.
“So you’ve got no connection to organized crime?” Pause.
“How long, thirty minutes after the shooting?”
In Aynesworth’s hands the telephone becomes a prop for one of the longest playing performances any journalist has ever had. Since 1963 Aynesworth has been—largely without fanfare—one of the most respected authorities on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. What transformed Hugh Aynesworth from an aviation and space reporter into the investigative reporter who has broken almost every major assassination story, the reporter who stuck out his neck to defend Clay Shaw against New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, the man who refuses to capitalize on the assassination by writing a conspiracy book because, simply, he doesn’t believe there was one, what transformed Aynesworth was the personal, firsthand experience of history. He saw it happen. That experience is a unique burden. Like much of history itself, it came about almost by chance.
At 11:30 a.m. on November 22, 1963, Hugh Aynesworth was sitting next to Jack Ruby in the Dallas Morning News cafeteria. Ruby finished his meal and went upstairs to the advertising office to place an ad for his club. Aynesworth remembers thinking, “There goes that son of a bitch Ruby, trying to get his name in the paper again.” Since there was no pressing story on his aviation and space beat that day, Aynesworth decided to take a long lunch hour and watch the President’s parade through Dallas. Aynesworth figured the best chance to see the President was from in front of the County Records Building. From there he could watch the motorcade come down Elm and go under the triple underpass at Dealey Plaza. It was a good vantage point, and it was also the closest one to the News.
Aynesworth had just returned from New Mexico, where he had watched test firings of the Pershing missile. Space was a good beat to be on in those days, and Aynesworth was interested in it. Although he was only 32, he had been in journalism since he was 16, and full time since he dropped out of Salem College in West Virginia after one semester. At 23 he was managing editor of a paper in Fort Smith, Arkansas. At 26 he had been at the Dallas Times Herald doing business writing. In 1959 UPI hired him for their bureau in Denver, an assignment which was to be fairly uneventful, with the exception of one night when a man broke down Aynesworth’s apartment door and stabbed him in the throat. Bleeding, about to faint, Aynesworth fought off his attacker, wrapped a towel around his neck, and tried to drive himself to the hospital. Snow was falling heavily, Aynesworth was getting weak from loss of blood, and he ran out of gas. Luckily some of his neighbors had heard the commotion and followed him. As he was being patched up with 33 stitches, his only thought was that he had to get down to the UPI bureau because it was his turn to open the office. That may sound corny, but Aynesworth is that sort of newspaperman. Not long after that he interviewed—with a bandage around his neck—for a job at the News, which he got. Some friends of Aynesworth believe that the assailant may have been trying to kill a DA who had the apartment before Aynesworth. Others speculate—given Aynesworth’s reputation as something of a rake before he was married—that the attacker was a jealous husband. Aynesworth has never seen him before, but suspects that the Teamsters may have sent him, since UPI was nosing around some shady Teamster business dealings.
The scar is an important part of Aynesworth’s presence. It makes him look like a cross between Andy Hardy and Al Capone; his boyish, open face inspires trust, and the scar underlines the trust with a touch of fear. This is a man, the scar announces, who has been close to death, death in the most sinister way: this is a man who almost had his throat slit. Such a man is taken seriously, even when his voice is always soft and his manner never threatening. Aynesworth never touches the scar, refers to it, or otherwise acknowledges it is there. It speaks for itself.
Aynesworth was standing in front of the County Records Building, across the street from the School Book Depository, when the motorcade came down Elm. The President waved. Nellie Connally leaned forward, said something. Then a shot, the President clutched at his throat, the agonizingly slow motion of the car, another shot, then another, and the President’s head exploded. In an instant, the President’s car was gone, speeding under the triple underpass. For twenty minutes Aynesworth was part of the shifting panic of Dealey Plaza: people screamed, police were everywhere, a motorcycle sped up the grassy knoll, people pointed, confusion. Ayneswoth found himself in front of the Depository building. In about five minutes the police had it sealed off and had begun to search it. From his days on the police beat Aynesworth had learned to stay close to a police radio. There was a three-wheeled motorcycle in front of the Depository, and Ayneswoth stood next to it, listening to the steady flow of voice traffic over it, the disembodied voices, in sheer desperation, trying to discover what had happened, what everyone was doing, what to do.
About 1:15 p.m., 45 minutes after Kennedy was shot, a report came over the radio that a policeman had been shot in Oak Cliff. Aynesworth turned to fellow reporter Jim Ewell, told him to watch the Depository, and climbed in a WFAA mobile unit to follow the police out to Oak Cliff. After thrashing about through an old furniture store and a library trying to find Officer Tippit’s killer, the small posse converged on the Texas Theater, which was playing War is Hell; out front several Dallas police were preparing to enter. When they did, Aynesworth was with them. From the movie soundtrack came machine guns, grenades, the sounds of battle. As the police and Ayensworth gingerly went down the aisle, a thin man leaped up, pointed a pistol at the belly of Officer Nick McDonald and pulled the trigger. The gun clicked, failed to go off. After a brief struggle, the police held in their hands Lee Harvey Oswald, who shouted, “I protest this police brutality!”
Two days later Aynesworth’s wife suggested they go down to the police station to watch Oswald moved to the county jail. Aynesworth, who had been working night and day trying to piece together Oswald’s escape route, at first didn’t want to go. He was tired; there was no time for idle sight-seeing. His wife, however, prevailed, and both were in the basement when Jack Ruby lunged forward and fired that one shot into Oswald’s stomach.
Those are the events, the moments that keep bobbing to the top of Hugh Aynesworth’s memory. Like a home movie, the frames stop, reverse, and run again. No matter what Aynesworth would be doing, and he was doing some very interesting things—unearthing Mafia stories, unmasking a Navy deserter who was head of the Dallas crime commission, following Ross Perot around the world trying to get into Hanoi, negotiating with African rebels for the release of American hostages—those images would always be there, like some palimpsest beneath the canvas of his life. For some time after Kennedy was shot, however, Aynesworth worked only on the assassination story. After a few days, there was no other reporter in the world who could touch him on it.
Aynesworth’s list of “firsts” on the assassination beat is long and impressive, and it begins with breaking the story of how the assassination escaped from the scene. Aynesworth and Larry Grove from the Morning News (Grove wrote the “Letter to Caroline” which Ruby claimed upset him so much he shot Oswald) painstakingly reconstructed the route, resorting to every trick out of The Front Page and a few of their own. It wasn’t easy; the FBI had told witnesses not to discuss what they had seen with anyone. The break came when Aynesworth and Grove decided Oswald had to have taken a taxi after he got off the bus at the corner of Lamar and Elm. Grove and Aynesworth started taking cabs, endless cabs. They’d pile in, give some destination, and then begin loudly discussing “Old What’s his name, the guy who gave a ride to that little SOB who shot the President.”
If the cab driver didn’t rise to the bait, they’d pull him over, pay him, and hail another cab. Grove says they rode in enough cabs to drive to Mongolia. Eventually one driver looked over his shoulder and said, “Oh, you mean Louie.” “Yeah, that’s right, Louie. By the way, where’s old Louie now?” “Aw, he’s probably over at the Greyhound station in the line.” So, over to the Greyhound station, and, after some smooth persuading of Louie, the escape route was nailed down. For the next year the wires fairly hummed with Aynesworth stories. After the big one on the escape route came the first major interview with Marina, the story of Marina persuading Lee not to assassinate Richard Nixon (a threat she had not told to the Warren Commission), and then, perhaps the biggest of all, the publication of the Oswald diaries, a scoop which caused the outraged Warren Commission to have the FBI investigate just how Aynesworth had come up with them. They never found out, and Aynesworth, true to his principles, still isn’t talking.
Aynesworth and his visitor have sought some refuge from the cold in Dealy Plaza in the nearby County Records Building. A man named Hugh McDonald had just published a book, with immense fanfare (including full-page ads in the New York Times), claiming to have “the final solution to the assassination of JFK.” McDonald describes in adventurous detail his quest after a mystery man he calls Saul, a man one of McDonald’s old colleagues in the CIA (now deceased) had told him had been the real assassination. Oswald had been set up as a decoy to fire near the President as a patriotic act—to inspire better Secret Service protection in the future. After some intermediate contact with an espionage group intent on unearthing a Russian germ warfare center in the Aral Sea (where the Russians, according to McDonald, had plotted and carried out the recent epidemics of Hong Kong flu), McDonald finds his man. This professional assassin supposedly shot Kennedy from second floor of the very building Aynesworth and his visitor are in. Aynesworth is never one to waste an opportunity, so the two of them head for the second floor, where they poke around trying to get to the windows.
It is past 5 p.m., but Aynesworth very politely persuades the lone secretary remaining to show them the judges’ offices that command the only four windows on the second floor. As Aynesworth and his visitor look out one of those windows, it is immediately obvious that the oak trees and the retaining wall in front of the building would have effectively blocked any view of Kennedy’s limousine. No one could have shot Kennedy from there, not even soemone resourceful enough to take over a judge’s office. Aynesworth thanks the secretary; he is smooth, affable, unthreatening. People tell him things they would not tell other people. The visitor is convinced McDonald is a nut. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” Aynesworth cautions, “the next flake you listen to may have the truth. You have to check them all out. I never believe anything anyone tells me, but I always check them out. If my own mother called I would check her out.”
When Big Jim Garrison of New Orleans decided he had the solution to the assassination, Hugh Aynesworth was working for Newsweek in the Houston bureau. There he put together the nuts and bolts of journalism, the wrap-ups, the endless files that had to be assembled on whether go-go dancers had caught on and what college students thought about sex. Aynesworth had cooled on the assassination. The first debunkings of the Warren Commission report had come out, and he had debunked them, but the spark had gone. He would never be rid of the assassination, but with the Newsweek job, out of Dallas at last, he was hoping that the cup had finally passed from him, that he could get on with other things. He didn’t want, above all, to be typecast. Garrison changed all that.
“I had just started with Newsweek back in 1967, and Jim Garrison called and invited me over to New Orleans to compare notes. He started showing me all this stuff from all the kooks I knew back in ’63 and ’64, plus some new, obviously kooky stuff. I kept saying, ‘No, that’s not the way it was. I was there.’ He’d put his head back and fix me that General Walker stare and say, ‘You don’t understand.’ Then he’d run off and shout some chess move into the phone. After he’d done that a couple of times, I asked him what was going on. ’That’s the code!’ he said. ‘The Feebies’—that’s what he called the FBI—‘will never break it.’ I was beginning to understand. Then he suddenly looked up and said he had to take his kids out to play, because he only had an hour before noon. So I asked him why couldn’t the kids play after noon. My kids do it all the time. ‘There’s a torpedo from Miami after me,’ Garrison said with that General Walker stare again. ‘Everybody knows they sleep ’til noon.’ Oh, yeah. He was something. He was planning to arrest Bobby Kennedy if he came to New Orleans. He was paranoid as hell, but he was no fool.”
“Hugh took Garrison as a personal affront,” says Phillip Carter, the man Aynesworth was to succeed as head of the Houston bureau. “The knowledge that Aynesworth was out there, that he had the witness list, that he knew the truth, was a terrible deterrent to Garrison. Hugh was his nemesis. I don’t know what Garrison would have got away with if Hugh hadn’t been there.” Garrison became Aynesworth’s crusade. And what a crusade it was. Jim Garrison’s New Orleans was a circus, “American grotesque” as one writer called it. A respected society bachelor, Clay Shaw, was accused of plotting to kill the President. Shaw was a perfect choice: he was vulnerable, being a homosexual, and he was prominent enough to make news. Garrison also rounded up a bizarre lot of accomplices, including, for example, one David Ferrie, an alleged CIA pilot who had no hair on his body, and so drew on his eyebrows with eyebrow pencil. Garrison’s witnesses ranged from other homosexuals to junkies, convicted felons, that sort of thing. No one knew what Garrison was going to do next. Once he came out with an elaborate code which was supposed to prove that a post office box in Oswald’s diary could be converted to the same post office box used by Clay Shaw, which, ah ha! could then be converted into Jack Ruby’s phone number. Garrison’s basic theory, although there were innumerable variations, was that the President had been killed to keep the country from drifting into an economic depression. If Kennedy had followed through on his plan to withdraw troops from Viet Nam, then defense contractors would have been unable to sell arms. Therefore, so the Garrison version goes, they got the CIA and the FBI to arrange the murder.
Garrison lined up witnesses who claimed they saw Oswald, Ruby, and Shaw in a hotel bathroom, on a New Orleans waterfront, in Jack Ruby’s club, you name it, sometimes with Ruby, sometimes with Officer Tippit, sometimes with FBI agents. One such witness, Perry Russo, the star of Garrison’s preliminary hearings, was asked during the trial why he waited for more than three years to come forward with his story. Russo replied that he was “tied up with my school work and baseball and everything.”
Aynesworth checked and rechecked the witnesses’ stories. He has tape after tape of conversations with each witness, conversations where he brings out their story, detail by detail, and then starts taking it apart, gently but firmly. One has to hear the tapes to get the full weight of the lunacy behind them, to grasp the sheer preposterousness of almost every claim. New Orleans became a giant chessboard; as soon as Aynesworth had found the witness and shown the holes in his story, Garrison would find another witness. There was a never ending supply, almost none who had come forward after the assassination, almost all of whom could alter and embellish their stories to fit whatever Garrison needed.
For his efforts, Garrison vowed to get Aynesworth. Clumsy attempts were made to have him jailed for suborning witnesses, to have him set up with hookers, to have him arrested for obtaining Garrison’s witness list, to have him followed. Aynesworth worked freely and openly with Shaw’s attorneys. Some of his colleagues at Newsweek worried that he was getting too involved, that he was overstepping the traditional neutrality of the journalist. Aynesworth became so passionately committed that he gave vent to episodes of fiery anger, the sort of outbursts he feels sheepish about today, but which his closest friends say are still beneath his calm, controlled exterior. At one stage during the trial, for example, Aynesworth blocked the courtroom exits in a teeth-clenched standoff with a pro-Garrison lawyer, complete with Aynesworth grabbing the man by his lapels and making reasonably explicit threats. “I was younger then,” is how Aynesworth explains it. “I took it all way too personally.” Philip Carter, Aynesworth’s boss when the Shaw trial began, has some doubts whether he should have allowed Aynesworth to get so involved; but then he thinks a bit, remembers what New Orleans was like, and changes his mind. “If we had to do it over again, I guess, now that I think about it, we’d do it the same way.” Irvin Dymond, Shaw’s attorney, says that Aynesworth’s help was “crucial.” “If there is a jewel in the crown of heaven for Hugh,” says Larry Grove, his old partner at the News, “then he should get it for what he did for poor Clay Shaw.”
“I don’t know,” Aynesworth tells the visitor, as they sit perched in the “assassination room,” a spare bedroom in his apartment crammed with files, books, photographs, piles of papers, and boxes. “I’m still not sure if I went too far on the Shaw thing. But if I hadn’t come along and helped him, they would have had nobody. They had no money for investigations, they new nothing about Dallas.” Aynesworth has his coat off, his tie undone, and is leaning back in his chair looking down over the early evidence of a prize pot belly. He is clearly tired. “I wasn’t being a newsman, I guess. You know, absolutely impartial. But it was an extreme situation; no one who wasn’t there could believe what a circus it was. There are times when even a newsman has to be a human being.”
Aynesworth pauses, squints through the cigarette smoke, curling up into his eyes. “Things just aren’t supposed to be that way. You’re brought up in America to believe people like Garrison don’t run wild, that innocent people like Shaw shouldn’t suffer. I’m not political, I just believe some of those things they taught us in civics class. I’m a patriot, I guess. I still get goose bumps when I hear ’The Star Spangled Banner.’”
The assassination room is better than a grandmother’s attic. There are innumerable photographs, most from 1963, all suggesting a world that is no more, a world where people wore crew cuts and narrow ties and drove cars with fins. There are letters from Garrison (“Anything derogatory said about me is false”); Marina Oswald’s sexual confessions; copies of the Oswald diary; affidavits from the Warren Commission; autopsy reports; a bizarre photograph of Oswald laid out on the autopsy slab; countless artifacts of the assassination; a plaque proclaiming Hugh Aynesworth an honary citizen of Lubbock. There is only one desk light on the room, and in its shadows Aynesworth’s face does not look so young, and his apartment, empty of the wife he no longer lives with and the children he now sees only on weekends, seems a lonely and inhospitable place, like a dusty old museum. “I should clean this place up, but I keep telling myself I’m going to move again. A big singles complex like this is no place for me to bring my kids on the weekends.” Another pause. More silence. “You know, what’s so great about kids that age, what really gets to you, is when you see something of yourself in them.”
The visitor wonders if Aynesworth ever pokes around in the room alone, or whether it is only the visitor’s curiosity that has him pouring through file after file, trying to find a document of special interest. As Aynesworth is searching through each drawer, he begins a long, complex tale involving Garrison, gunrunners, hotel clerks, people with names like Dago Garner and Cedric Von Rolleston. The casual precision of detail in the story, which lasts for almost 45 minutes, is staggering.
“How do you remember all these names?” the awed visitor asks.
“I don’t know,” Aynesworth replies, abandoning the search through his files. “Sometimes I remember their names when I forget my own.”
What had really struck the visitor was the expenditure of time, of this man’s life, that such a story must have invovled: hours, days of waiting, camping on doorsteps, running down leads, staying up late to catch a man on the graveyard shift, hopping on airplanes, smoking thousands of cigarettes and drinking thousands of cups of coffee.
“I’m not sure,” Larry Grove had told the visitor earlier, “if a good reporter—a really good reporter—can ever have much of a family life. He’s always going to be missing his kid’s birthday because of a hot tip that won’t wait, or not turning up at his anniversary because that crucial last lead, that lead that will break the story, has to be run down.” Grove was not talking specifically about Aynesworth, but in that lonely apartment, so clearly untouched by female hands, the visitor could see how little solace were Aynesworth’s priceless files at 3 a.m.
“How have you kept your sanity?” the visitor asks.
“I’m not sure I have.”
For several minutes, Aynesworth and his visitor simply sit, silent, each in his own thoughts. Then a smile begins to cross Aynesworth’s face. “Look at this, he gestures with his hand, taking in the open, overflowing file drawers, the boxes of tape recordings with loose tape dangling out, the stacks of photographs, the piles of books, everything. ”Have you ever seen such junk? I ought to give it to a university, to some place where they could make sense of it, where somebody besides a tired old reporter could make use of it.” The visitor suggests to Aynesworth that he should use all the material to write a book, that no one has written his book, the calm, sober appraisal of all the evidence, the dissection of the many theories. “I keep meaning to do it,” Aynesworth says. “I’ve had it in mind since about a week after the assassination. I was offered a large contract, from a French publisher, but they wanted a conspiracy book, and I just couldn’t write what I knew to be a pile of shit. It was too bad. I was making $9,000 a year then. Now, maybe I’m just too lazy. What I really ought to do,” his eyes lighten up, “is turn Dudney loose on this. He’d have it all organized in a week. I’m not even sure what I’ve got here anymore.”
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have made investigative reporters famous; Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman will turn them into legends. A few weeks after Aynesworth came to the Times Herald in 1975, he and a young reporter named Bob Dudney teamed up to work on a story about the abuses in the narcotics division of the Department of Public Safety. They have been together ever since. Aynesworth and Dudney take double bylines, they share a small office apart from the rest of the reporters, and they work their own schedule, backed up by a unique sort of laissez-faire from their editors. As investigative reporters they are a breed apart. They must become accustomed to the editorial writer who walks up as they are waiting for the elevator and says, “You two been on vacation? Haven’t seen your bylines recently.”
Deromanticized, the investigative reporter has a life remarkably like that of a spy or a detective. The result may seem dramatic; the work leading up to it generally is not. The Hoffa story took days, weeks, of waiting, not to mention fruitless trips to Newark, New Jersey, hardly the garden spot of the western hemisphere, where the two spent days in a motel. The night before he was going to lead them to the body, their source bragged he knew about Hoffa, and happened to be in a mob bar when he did it. He hasn’t been seen since. That story—for all its travel, expense, and time—never made it into print.
Their biggest collaboration has also been a non-story. When CBS ran a widely praised series on assassination last fall, one of the most effective segments was the statement of a former FBI man that five days before Kennedy was killed, a message on the FBI teletype warned of an attempt to be made on the President’s life by a radical group in Dallas on November 22.
The ex-FBI man, William Walter, claimed to have a coy of that telex, which he said the FBI has suppressed. “He was so convincing,” Dudney says, with a note of wonder, Aynesworth listens to Dudney’s recounting with the sort of benign grin of an expert seeing an apprentice master the craft. “He’s a successful banker now, and has that trustworthy look bankers have. Very neat. Very straight. Very uncrazy. Hell, we wanted to believe him. Any reporter would kill to get that story. He had come to us first; we talked to him twenty times, did everything we could to get him to come up with the copy of the message. We even got with the FBI and set up a conference call where they guaranteed him immunity against the crime of having a classified document in his possession—if he would only come forward with it. He wouldn’t. We set up a lie-detector test, which he didn’t pass. We compared the language of the message to the standard FBI style—it didn’t match. We talked to everyone who might have had anything to do with FBI messages or with Walter—about 60 people. It took us weeks. We finally decided we just didn’t have it, that unless he could come up with the actual message then he was a phony. It was hard, really hard. It would have been so much easier just to throw it out—you know, say he claims to have it—and get the scoop. When we gave it to CBS we told them all this. We were amazed they went with it so seriously.”
While Aynesworth and Dudney complement each other well, personally they are a study in contrasts. Aynesworth, 44, parted with his crew cut with great reluctance, and now sports an expensive razor cut, which he occasionally still sets off with medium-loud sport coats and white shoes. He drives a white Mercury; before that he drove a white Continental. Dudney, 25, looks like an Anglo Geraldo Rivera: flared pants, beard, long hair. He drives a beat-up Volkswagon. Together they could pass for an insurance salesman and his college dropout son. Aynesworth is a man whose die is cast; Dudney is just on his way up. Aynesworth’s charm is contagious. Everyone on the paper seeks him out, from editors to cub reporters. Dudney, on the other hand, is something of a loner. There is a poignancy to it, this tale of a good young reporter and a good middle-aged reporter, working together. The age gap is not ignored; it is there, in fact, as a constant foil. Stories Aynesworth tells invariably happened when “Dudney here was in grade school.” Aynesworth, the old investigative reporter, the man who is supposed to know Dallas like the back of his hand, gets lost whenever he drives in the city: turns up one way streets, can’t find common landmarks, muddles through. Dudney’s stock comment is something like, “Well, Hugh, after you’ve lived here for a few years maybe you’ll learn your way around.”
They work well together. Aynesworth calls Dudney “one of the best reporters I’ve ever seen.” Dudney’s admiration for Aynesworth is obvious, even more obvious than the fact he is learning everything from Aynesworth he can. Each has his own strengths. Dudney is the organizer, Aynesworth the improviser. Aynesworth’s true genius comes through best on the telephone. Even on stories Dudney has been developing on his own he will sometimes brief Aynesworth so he can handle the tricky telephone interviews. “My technique,” Dudney says, “is to call someone up and say, ”Hello, I’m Bob Dudney from the Dallas Times Herald. Is it true you’re a Russian spy?’ Aynesworth would have the guy trying to recruit him as an agent before he got off the phone.“
Dudney has now been caught in the assassination vortex. One of their first collaborations was on the legwork and follow-up to Times Herald publisher Tom Johnson’s story about Oswald leaving a threatening note with the FBI and the subsequent FBI cover-up. Aynesworth has told Dudney all the assassination stories, played him the tapes, walked him through the Garrison artifacts in New Orleans, and now Dudney has his antennae up as well. If any new ground is broken on the assassination, it will most likely be by them. The trail, after Garrison’s thrashings about, is almost hopelessly muddled. It is still, however, well traveled. Besides McDonald’s Saul, there is now a theory of several Oswalds, based in large part on the discrepancies in Oswald’s height supposedly discovered from close examination of photographs and documents. Movie fans will remember a similar recent controversy over the height of Robert Redford. Gore Vidal has put forward the theory that E. Howard Hunt wrote the Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, and Arthur Bremer diaries. Another assassinations claims that Oswald was really Jack Ruby’s illegitimate son. And so on, stretching as far into the future as one might care to look. Like the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs and parapsychology, the Kennedy assassination seems to have tapped a growing reservoir of irrationality. Almost any theory about it will find some fervent believers.
”You know,” says Aynesworth, as he rummages through his desk in yet another unsuccessful search after some assassination document, “nothing would please me better than to find a conspiracy. The trouble is, in spite of it’s having some holes and having been put together too quickly, the Warren Commission Report still holds together better than any other story that’s come out. For twelve years now I’ve tried to disprove it. I’ve looked forward to each new piece of evidence, I’ve read all the books, talked to every one who ever claimed to know anything about it. On top of everything, Oswald was the kind of guy who would be easy to set up. All someone had to do was offer to be his friend—hell, no one ever had. He had a mother you wouldn’t believe, a wife who made fun of him, he’d ruined his life running off to Russia. If someone had befriended him, he would have done anything for ’em—maybe even kill a president. That’s a very plausible theory. So far, I’m still trying to find some plausible facts to go with it. When I do, I’ll be there with it, right on the front page. Until then, I can only believe he acted alone. Isn’t that reasonable?”
Aynesworth has another call. A reporter in Houston has heard that Oswald had a CIA agent number.
“The only thing wrong with that,” Aynesworth is saying into the phone, with infinite talmudic patience, “is that I made that number up myself. I read it off a telex one day when I was joking with a reporter looking for a hot assassination scoop. I made up an FBI number too, in case you come across it. By the time I discovered people were taking it seriously, it had become part of the basic theory.” Aynesworth listens to the receiver. “Well, keep trying. Maybe you’ll turn something up.”
Aynesworth and his visitor are back in Dealey Plaza for a last look. It is after sunset and the light is failing fast. Across the street a young man is pointing out the sights to his girl friend. They are bundled up close; then he frees one hand to point up toward the Depository building, clearly meaning to indicate the window from where Oswald fired his shots. Aynesworth glances at the tourists and says, almost without thinking, “He’s pointing at the wrong window.”
And he and his visitor, bent against the wind, head back up Elm, the same way Oswald had gone, twelve years before.