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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 19… in which John Kennedy is murdered

Picking up from Part 18, in which Robert and Jim returned.

November 22, 1963

At 8:00 we were all up. Our pre-ordered breakfast arrived shortly after, and we all ate in silence, running through our scripts and asking ourselves what-if questions. By 9:00 we had wheeled the food cart back into the hall and were making our last bathroom stops and loading our file cases and backpacks.

At 9:20 we all sat on the couches and waited in silence for 9:30, our scripted start. I think I must have looked more nervous and my friends more excited… playful, actually. They wanted to solve the mystery.

At 9:30 precisely (we had a clock sitting immediately next to us), we all looked at each other and stood.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s do our jobs,” feeling a little like Bill Belichick. But before we’d taken one full step I added, “Let’s find out what really happened.”

I’ve long believed that seeing the goal was more important, even in games, than being some version of a guided missile. We are thinking, adaptive, goal-seeking beings.

Robert rode the elevator down, while Jim and I walked down a stairway to the side exit and from there headed to the County Records building, looking very much like businessmen.

Jim leaned toward me discretely as we crossed a street.

“If we have to hide from someone… a watchman or whatever… just stand behind me from his or her perspective. Try to calm yourself and think about something very different and far away.”

I said, “I will, Jim,” and picked out a good and very distracting memory in advance. I’d think about that if the moment came.

“But can you tell me how that works?”

“I suppose so,” he said, “though I don’t think you’re ready to do it. Maybe if you were in a better atmosphere.”

“I don’t care so much about that,” I said. “Right now I’m mostly curious as to how such a thing can be done.”

“It has to do with induced expectations.”

Then he let that sink into me.

“You mean like how electrical circuits induce currents into one another?”

“I do,” he said.

“Okay, then, let me try to lay this out.”

He waited.

“Humans are sensitive to the expectations of others, even though they often don’t recognize it. Yes?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Then what you’re doing is somehow transmitting to the watchman what you expect him to expect. Does that make sense?”

“Yes. I send my expectations toward him… that I expect him to fill the visual space I take up with the scene that’s behind me… a scene he can easily recreate.”

“You expect him to use his imagination… you induce him to fill in the scenery behind you, as if you weren’t there.”

“That’s right. But… and this is crucial to success with this… I send that expectation as a concept, not as words.”

“Why?”

“Because words attach to the conscious, analytical mind. But if I send a concept, it attaches to his subconscious mind, bypassing analysis.”

I’m sure I was nodding my head as if I agreed, but I was mainly trying to absorb it.

“It’s not the nicest thing to do, you understand… we see it as an assault. But the damage is small and it’s necessary in cases like this.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That makes some sense now.”

He smiled and then our minds went back to our scripts and the complex field of play before us.

* * * * *

By 10:15 we were in our office on the eighth floor, with excellent angles on our targets.

By 10:25 we had cleaned the office’s two windows both inside and out. (We had brought paper towels wet with window cleaner.) There would be no problem filming and photographing without opening the windows, which could have drawn attention.

For the next hour and a half, we assembled our tripods, tested our equipment, tested disassembling and reassembling it, then tested our lenses and fields of view. We were ready, with a little more than 30 minutes to go.

We could hear the crowds gathering, though mostly outside our field of view. The place where Kennedy was shot (or was about to be) was at the far end of the route, heading out of town; it was not a place where the crowds wanted to be.

We made pencil marks on the floor and pulled our tripods back from the windows, just in case the security people were checking them out. We sat on the floor with our backs against the wall; Jim closer to the door than me, in case a security guard showed up.

* * * * *

Robert was dressed as a workman, in coveralls. He walked through the early birds along the parade route, then through Dealey Plaza with a coffee cup in one hand and a muffin in the other. And all along the way he was carefully picking up impressions from the people he passed.

After an hour or so he sat in a coffee shop to give his senses a break. Normally he would have preferred a secluded spot, but the excitement of so many people in such a concentration made it easy to let himself be swept away as if by an entertainment.

Forty minutes before the assassination, he wandered back out, slid through the crowd and made his way back to Dealey Plaza, which had a much thinner crowd. It was there that he sensed violent intentions.

Robert still had plenty of time, and so he sat on the grassy knoll for a few minutes to clarify the impulses he was feeling. Then walked to the south, eventually doubling back on the overpass. He ended up behind the grassy knoll and the parking lot adjacent to it. One thing he was sure about was that the violence-intentioned men also intended on escaping through the rail yard just past the parking lot.

Being that there was no elevated place to stand (save the overpass, which would have left him fully exposed), he climbed a tree. He did a version of the “don’t see me” trick and found a nice, elevated spot from which to shoot his photos.

* * * * *

As I say, the Kennedy assassination had been an intermittent entertainment to me. Over the years I’ve heard a large number of interviews from witnesses, and more or less all of them noted how fast it all happened. And they were entirely correct. Even knowing precisely where and when JFK was going to be shot, it was still shockingly quick.

At 12:25, Jim seemed to feel something, peeked out the window, slid back down and said, “Paul, get your camera ready and take a quick look at the Book Depository.”

I took off the lens cap, put it in my pocket as per the script, adjusted the focus and rolled over onto my knees.

Before I could blink, I made out two men on the sixth floor, one behind the easternmost window and another, larger man behind the window next to him. Seeing that they were conversing with each other, I took the time to zoom in.

The man in the eastern window was Lee Harvey Oswald. I pushed the disappointing implications of this out of my mind as best I could – in my heart I was rooting against the official story – and then I focused on the second man and recognized him as well. He was Malcolm Wallace, Lyndon Johnson’s personal fixer.

I took several photos and slid back down. I was sure they hadn’t seen me.

“This is a big deal,” I said to Jim, trying not to get excited.

“Great!” he said not too loudly. “Feel the elation for a few seconds.”

I did.

“Now, let it slide off and get back to your script.”

Again, I did, and it was easier than I expected.

Then we heard the crowd. I looked at my watch and it was 12:31 PM. The motorcade was close.

“Peek and see if the cars are in sight, Jim.”

He did and said, “Not yet.”

Again we waited.

Then he peeked up again.

“Let’s go,” he said. “The first car’s around the corner.”

Now, to be specific, what we were seeing was the motorcade turning onto Houston Street. That was the one block drive before they turned onto Elm… Elm being the street of the assassination.

Jim had his movie camera in position and turned on within 10 seconds. I had my tripod in position (it would help a lot for the long-range photos), but I hadn’t mounted the camera yet.

“Turn, focus and shoot, Paul. This is going to surprise you.”

And surprise me it did. I turned to see Lee Harvey Oswald in the so-called Sniper’s Nest, pointing a rifle at Houston Street, with Kennedy heading directly toward him. I took two clear photos.

“You’re getting all this, Jim?”

“Yes, and very well.”

“Good,” was all I said, realizing that this was the intended position for the assassination. Kennedy was directly in front of Oswald, moving straight toward him in a slow-moving, open car. Oswald had no obstructions and Kennedy had no way out. It was the perfect model of shooting fish in a barrel.

Except that Oswald didn’t shoot.

I could see Malcolm Wallace running up to him and speaking vehemently. And still Oswald didn’t shoot. In fact, he retracted the rifle.

Wallace, seemingly in a rage, picked up Oswald and tossed him away from the window.

I snapped photos of this but knew I was short on time. I hopped to my tripod and clamped my camera in place. I was glad I had practiced the maneuver so many times; otherwise, I might have had a problem.

I focused on the grassy knoll and took four good photos of everyone there and of the pergola area.

I pulled back from the camera for just a second and saw Kennedy on Elm Street, with people running toward him and yelling. I trained my camera on the stockade fence. I saw a man who looked very serious and determined, not happy like everyone else. He looked to the side at someone else. Quickly I zoomed out a little and took a shot of them both.

And then I heard the first shot. I zoomed in just in time to see the serious man pull up a rifle, lay it on the fence, and fire at Kennedy, possibly twice. I clicked nonstop until he pulled away from the fence, then widened my focus again and saw the other man acting like a bully while the serious man walked quickly away.

The bully, I think, had some type of badge or official credentials, and he directed people away from the area, including a few law enforcement types who’d heard at least the one shot and ran toward it. I took several good photos of him and then pulled back again, getting shots of everyone and everything in the area, as the limos sped off toward the hospital and the people stood, wandered or ran around in shock and wonderment.

“I still have five minutes of film left, Paul. Both men have left and I’m filming the front. When do you want to stop?”

“Are you getting everything down to the street?”

“Yes. Almost to the other side of the street.”

“Okay, then give me just a minute to review the area.” I went slowly, from end to end, seeing nothing that caught my attention and snapping wide photos, perhaps to find something in them later.

“Let’s get out of here, Jim. I don’t see anything worth further risk.”

We turned everything off, carefully repacked it all, and then Jim leaned against the door for a moment.

“I don’t feel anyone nearby,” he said.

And so we exited the room, walked down a floor and caught the elevator.

Once in the lobby, we matched the behavior of the other people there, moving agitatedly and asking, “Do we know for sure what happened?”

No one did, but several people assured the others that the president was shot and bleeding. We went out and moved with the crowd back toward the hotel.

The script called for me to take the bicycle to Oak Cliff and photograph the policeman’s shooting, but I gave that up long before we reached the hotel. For one thing, it would come off as odd behavior. But more importantly, we had incredibly good film and further risks would be foolish.

And so we went back to the room, started packing our things, and waited for Robert. Then I walked down to the desk and found the hotel manager, Randy Hartwine, whom I had come to know prior.

“Randy, is it true? Did they really kill the president?”

Being in the midst of the event, it really wasn’t acting on my part. It felt proper.

“I’m watching WFAA in my office, Mr. Rosenberg. The official word is that he’s still alive, but it looks very bad.”

I pulled him off to the side slightly.

“I think I’ll have to go back east. My people are going to be pretty upset by this. If I have to leave, you can go ahead and rent the room out.”

He nodded and was instantly accosted by other guests. I wandered away and found the bellman. I handed him a twenty and told him to have my car in front in half an hour.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

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