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The Man Who Saw Too Much
by William Broyles
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.
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