It’s a cliché to say no one alive at the time will ever forget where they were 50 years ago, today, when they heard that John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. But all clichés have a nugget of truth to them. It was on this day, a half century ago, that I had what I call my “Forrest Gump Moment.” You remember in the movie he was always having encounters with famous people: LBJ, Nixon, etc.
I was stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital in November of 1963. A couple of months earlier I’d been hit by a car one dark and rainy night while walking down a sidewalk behind the hospital and, in addition to a moderate concussion, both of my legs had been broken. The morning of November 22nd I’d just had a “walker” cast put on my left leg and was returning to my job in medical records when we heard the news that the President had been shot. Naturally, everyone was stunned. The day dragged on in a fog of disbelief.
His body was going to be brought to the hospital for an autopsy. In the evening, while everyone in our barracks was sitting in the T. V. room watching the news, an officer came in and told us to put on our dress blue uniforms. We were going to be an honor guard for the arrival of the President’s body.
I need to tell you how Bethesda was set up at the time. The hospital sits quite a ways back from the main road, Pennsylvania Avenue. A long, horseshoe shaped drive runs up from the highway to the main tower building. At that time a golf course surrounded the medical center. One fairway stretched across the front of the building between the horseshoe. A helipad, where the President’s body was supposed to arrive, sat at the end of the fairway.
Anyway, I tried to wiggle out of the assignment, pointing out that I’d just had a plaster cast put on my leg and it was still wet and not set up. Didn’t matter to the officer one bit and so I put on my blues and limped out to the helipad as ordered.
Hundreds of people started gathering on the fairway in front of the hospital and television and film crews were setting up their equipment around the helipad where we stood on the perimeter. Some of the newsmen approached several of us asking where we were from. They all got semi-orgasmic when I said I was from Cape Cod, but I refused to be interviewed.
It was all too surreal. The crowd swelled from hundreds to thousands and it was eerily quiet. For a while. We stood around the helipad for several hours waiting for the helicopter bearing the President to arrive. Meanwhile, the silence would be shattered every time a vehicle would depart the hospital and make its way down the horseshoe drive to the main road. People would scream, “It’s Jacquie,” “It’s Bobby,” “It’s Lyndon,” and they would surge, en mass, towards whichever side of the drive the vehicle was travelling on.
From time to time, a few of us would be relieved from standing at the helipad to give us a rest. We’d return to the barracks and watch the news coverage which had little to do with the reality of what was going on outside. Eventually a helicopter did touch down, a casket was removed, placed in an ambulance and taken around to the back of the hospital where the morgue is located. Now, here’s a little-known fact that was related to me. The casket was EMPTY. It was a diversion. The president’s body was taken off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base, transferred to a bakery truck and smuggled into the hospital through a back entrance in order to thwart any mischief that might be planned. It was, after all, a day when paranoia was called for.
Around ten o’clock that night an officer came into the T.V. room, pointed to several of us saying, “You, you, you and you, come with me.” I was one of those he pointed at. By then the lower part of my cast was in tatters so there was no sense trying to protest.
We walked around to the back of the hospital. The others in the group were stationed around the perimeter of the area and ordered to keep anyone from entering. I was placed at a door that opened on to a long hallway leading to the morgue. I was told not to let anyone IN through the door, but I was to open it for anyone coming OUT and salute them as the left.
About a half hour slid slowly by as I stood at the door in the dim light of a single bulb overhead and a ray of light coming through the door’s small window when I finally saw movement in the corridor. As the group approached the I opened the door, as instructed, and saluted. Jacquie Kennedy, still wearing her pink dress, Robert and Ted Kennedy and several serious-looking men, most likely Secret Service agents, came through the door, walked down the three or four steps going down to ground level and got into a black limousine that was just pulling up to the steps. In those few moments, on an evening of a day the world will never forget, Jacquie Kennedy passed less than an arm’s distance away from me as I held the door open for her. My “Forrest Gump Moment.”