I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
— Phil Ochs
This weekend marks the 45th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Four and a half decades after the tragic event and no one really knows if the conspiracy theories are right or if Lee Harvey Oswald truly acted on his own.
Kennedy’s assassination is a benchmark event for most people alive then. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news, just as in later generations we remember where we were when we heard the other John, Mr. Lennon, had been shot dead. In Israel, where I live, we all recall the Saturday night when Yitzhak Rabin was hit.
They were all killed by angry young men. And Oswald was himself gunned down on November 24, 1963, just two days after JFK.
On April 7, 1964, a 26-year-old detective in the New Orleans Police Department skipped up the steps into the Old Civil Courts building in New Orleans and presented himself to the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy.
I’d always known my father had been acquainted with Oswald. They had not only grown up half a block away from each other, but had shared homerooms at school. Sitting alphabetically, my old man Fred sat in front of Oswald for years. O’Sullivan next to Oswald.
Sifting through my Dad’s papers I came upon a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy thanking my father for appearing before the commission. It wasn’t something he spoke of often — just a tidbit of information in a life that went on to greater adventures.
Not long ago, as I thumbed through the stacks at a used bookstore, I came upon the official Warren Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, a 726-page concentration of the report. I flipped it open and sure enough there was my old man’s name and testimony.
JFK’s assassination has always been clouded by conspiracy. I mean, how can one angry young man, a lone gunman kill the President of the United States traveling in a moving motorcade? My father always intimated that he believed there was more to the story and that plots to kill JFK and assassinated black rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. crossed paths in New Orleans.
There were a lot of mysteries in New Orleans in the 1960s and my father, as commander of intelligence at the New Orleans Police Department, had a ringside seat.
Dad’s ties to Oswald went beyond the classroom. While attending Warren Easton High School together, my father was active with the Civil Air Patrol and tried to get Lee, as he always referred to Oswald, to join the drill marching team.
“Oswald carried himself always erect, always gave the impression that he could be marching, that he may be marching, eyes straight ahead, head straight, shoulders back, so he impressed me as the sort of fellow that would really fit well on the drill team,” my father told the Warren Commission.
“He seemed like he could — well, he even gave the impression that he would make a pretty good leader if he ever got into the squadron.”
The commission questioned him over a possible “relationship” between Oswald and a man called David Ferrie, a known homosexual with dubious links to the mob.
“I am trying to get things straight in my mind,” my dad told the commission. “Of course, I have been trying to get it straight in my mind, just what I know and what I have heard. It gets kind of confusing when you read so much. Sometimes you remember things that you don’t really remember, you know.”
Gosh, my old man seemed so young and earnestly innocent back then.
Looking over the testimony 44 years after Kennedy was killed, I read how my father told the commission that Ferrie (who earlier had been charged with a “crime against nature with a juvenile”) had been arrested after the assassination in connection “with this Oswald situation.”
“Now you go ahead,” encouraged Mr. Wesley Liebeler, a member of the commission.
Frederick O’Sullivan told them how he and another detective shortly after the assassination had gone to the New Orleans Airport to examine Ferrie’s airplane.
“We wanted to check it to see if it was flyable, to see possibly whether he had been flying it lately, with the thought that he may have transported Oswald to Dallas. … We found the plane, but his plane was not in flyable condition. It had flat tires, instruments missing, needed a paint job. We also checked to see if he had rented an aircraft from any of the companies out there, and one company in particular said they wouldn’t rent him an airplane.”
An apparent dead end — even though New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison would later finger Ferrie, memorably portrayed by Joe Pesci in Oliver Stone’s JFK, as a prime suspect in the assassination and would haul him in for more questioning more than three years after the killing.
Garrison would talk of the JFK murder as a “homosexual thrill killing,” and later as a wider CIA /anti-Castro/military-industrial plot, asserting a major role for Ferrie in both; Ferrie was still denying all involvement when he died in February 1967.
Kennedy conspiracists kept returning to my father over the years, even into the 1980s.
When I close my eyes I can just make out my old man as a young cop. His hair cut in the traditional flat top. His soul still Irish Catholic before we threw away our Christmas tree, lit the big brass menorah, and took off for Zion.
My father voted for the Catholic Kennedy. JFK’s death wounded the hearts of so many men, catching them off guard and suddenly making them think of what they had done and what they could be.
My father was certainly one of those affected. You could hear in his testimony how shattered dad was.
“Well I have put quite a bit of thought on this ever since it all happened,” he told the commission, before concluding regretfully: “As much as I would like to help, I just can’t think of anything else [to add]. … There is nothing else I can think of.”
Standing before the Warren Commission then, I am sure that young man never fathomed his life would soon become one with a people settling accounts with Nebuchadnezzar, Titus and Hitler.
Growing up, I recall how my father used to say there was more to the JFK assassination than met the eye. He never elaborated and I was brought up not to prod. While we were close, he had his private side too and kept secrets better than anyone I have ever known. Once I stumbled upon a Lebanese driver’s license in his desk drawer with his photo and the mysterious foreign name. He shrugged it off, telling me it was for my own good I not know.
But just before he passed away, I summoned up the courage to ask him: “Who killed JFK?” As if he personally held the secret to the Holy Grail of America’s most puzzling enigma.
“Just Lee,” he said. “By himself.”