The midday November 22, 1963, ringing phone awakened me from my post-night shift sleep.
The voice on the other end of the line was Jack Fallon, Dallas Bureau Chief for United Press International and my boss, who asked, "Curt, did you hear what happened?"
I said, "No, what happened?"
He said, "The president's been assassinated. I want you to meet the casket at the airport."
I said, "What?"
He said, "The president's been assassinated. I want you to meet the casket at the airport," and clicked off.
I still had sufficient disbelief to call the taped newswire of a local radio station before hauling my unshaven and unkempt body and only slightly composed mind to Love Field.
The rest of that day, that night and the whole of the next day were a blur of nonstop journalistic activity for me and hundreds of others that produced a huge body of information, some of which raised more questions than it answered.
Over dinner the evening of the 23rd, I and my friend and fellow UPI Dallas Bureau newsman, Terry McGarry, reviewed what had been reported, what was known and what major questions were outstanding.
What we didn't know was whether the assassination was the product of a conspiracy. What we did know (or thought we knew) was a sufficient amount about Lee Harvey Oswald that were there a conspiracy behind the assassination, he was too unstable a character to be allowed to continue living. We also posited that if Oswald were to be killed, it would likely happen the next day when it was publicly announced that Oswald would be moved from the Dallas police station to the county jail. So, the next morning McGarry went to the police station and I went to the county jail. History will record that McGarry was where Jack Ruby killed Oswald.
Most of the literature with respect to what actually happened when President Kennedy was killed has focused on bullets and their trajectory, what was and what was not learned from minute examination of the Zapruder film of the assassination as it happened, what was revealed, not revealed or destroyed in Kennedy's autopsy, whether Oswald was the lone gunman or whether there was another on the grassy knoll facing the motorcade and whether the history of Oswald's movements and connections -- in Russia, Mexico and other places -- offered any clue to his motivation.
But my doubts then and now about the Warren Commission's finding that Oswald was the lone gunman and that his deed was not part of a conspiracy reside in the actions, character and connections of Jack Ruby. One could deduce a conspiracy whether Oswald was found to be the lone gunman or whether there was another who shot from a different angle near the Texas School Book Depository. Jack Ruby makes it likely that a conspiracy existed.
Jack Ruby was a nightclub owner and operator in Dallas. He also had, according to many accounts, friends and associates who were directly involved with organized crime and he allegedly engaged in gun running for the mafia. He befriended many in the Dallas police department, one not noted for its probity, and, also according to reports, was essentially a liaison between organized crime and high levels of the police department aimed at ensuring that the interests of organized crime were not undermined by police activity. Ruby allegedly had conversations with organized crime figures the day before the assassination and in the day between the assassination and his murder of Oswald. Ruby was also seen on a number of occasions in the police station after the assassination and before he fired his fatal shot. On the day Ruby shot Oswald, the basement door of the police station was left unlocked and unguarded, allowing Ruby to enter, hide himself among the journalists awaiting Oswald's transfer and emerge to fire the shot.
None of this amounts to an iron-clad smoking gun on the issue of whether the assassination was a conspiracy. But it does argue that all the evidence compiled by the Warren Commission, law enforcement agencies and others be open to public scrutiny now after 50 years have elapsed since those fateful November 1963 days.
Whether or not it published the accurate account of the assassination, the Warren Commission's conclusions could be defended as necessary for its time. In the aftermath of the assassination, conspiracy theories abounded, including allaying blame on Russia, Cuba, the CIA, the FBI, Lyndon Johnson and the mafia. What was needed then was a calming of the waters and a barrier to precipitate action. But with a large majority of the nation continuing to doubt the Commission's findings, contributing to an ever-greater mistrust of the honesty of governmental leadership, it's time to open the books.
Being at the county jail and missing the action at the police station was not a total loss for me. I took it on myself to be UPI's Lee Harvey Oswald's biographer, spent a miserable Thanksgiving with his awful mother and produced the longest story ever to appear on UPI's main wire (the late Merriman Smith is credited with that honor, but I have the teletype proof of my claim). I also continued digging which earned me a transfer to UPI"s Cheyenne bureau, a transfer that might have saved my life (since there were too many coincidental deaths among those who pursued that story or could contribute information) and kept me from being among the clan of the assassination obsessed.
But the doubts remain for me, the majority of the nation and many in the Kennedy family. They deserve to be resolved.
Curtis Gans is director of the non-partisan Center for the Study of the American Electorate and was a UPI newsman in Dallas on November 22, 1963.