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Oswald: A brother's burden
Through 34 years of stress, Robert Oswald has stood steadfastly by his family name in the shadow of that infamous day in Dallas.
WICHITA FALLS, Texas -- At night, when it falls dark and quiet in the house and a tired Robert Oswald finds himself alone, the dream still sometimes finds him.
He sees himself alongside his younger brother, Lee, in a grim room with only a desk and a note pad. He hears himself ordering the smaller man to sit down and write an explanation for why he killed John F. Kennedy. Amazingly, Lee obeys. He sits at the desk, writing, writing, writing furiously, while big brother paces.
Finally, the enigma finishes. He stands and, as Robert tells it, "He's about to hand me this paper when he says, 'Just a minute.' He looks at his writing on the paper, then tears it all up and throws it away. And he looks at me and says, 'I don't know why.' And I think it will always be that he doesn't know why. I think that's the truth of it."
A third of a century after the 35th U.S. president's assassination in Dallas, some things do not change. When a puzzled grandchild asks Robert Oswald whether he has any brothers or sisters, the house falls funereally hushed, holding its breath with the occupants. When the leaves begin falling, he and his wife, Vada, monitor ever more closely their visiting grandchildren's television viewing, just as they did their own children's. They keep ears open for any program with a reference to Oswald, or Lee, or Lee Harvey.
Autumn is the season for new TV documentaries and books about Robert's dead brother, the time for revamped conspiracy theories and for strangers' bizarre phone calls. He braces himself for the exploiters and crackpots who will want a piece of him. November is hard.
As with his own children during that first November in 1963, 63-year-old Robert Oswald does not talk to his grandchildren about either the assassination or their great-uncle Lee. To do so, he reasons, would only cause them confusion and worry. He believes his brother killed President Kennedy, alone and irrationally. Just the same, it hurts terribly to say so.
"You can either light a situation or defuse it, and we chose a long time ago to [defuse] it," he says. "Why put all of that on kids?"
If a man is not the reputed presidential assassin, but the surviving brother who must live with the name, how do he and his family do it when the name is Oswald?
In the aftermath of Nov. 22, 1963, Robert Oswald could have avoided the question, along with many worries, merely by changing his name at age 29. It was something that a variety of people, including a Secret Service agent, urged him to do -- because the name Oswald swiftly had become like that of John Wilkes Booth a century earlier in the rage it triggered.
But while Oswalds unrelated to the family were reportedly becoming Smiths and Joneses all over Texas and elsewhere in America, Robert Oswald never considered the possibility of a name change.
His name was his father's and grandfather's, after all. The Oswald family tree dated back to colonial times. He'd learned as a child that he was a fifth or sixth cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee, which explained why he had been named Robert Edward Lee Oswald Jr., and his little brother Lee Harvey Oswald. To change his name would have amounted to a betrayal of his heritage, he believed.
He snaps his fingers loudly. "I mean I didn't think about changing it for that long, OK?" he says, the "OK" for emphasis.
This is the former Marine's way when he's intense, his deep blue eyes flashing behind glasses, and then, like a furnace burner going from ON to OFF, the eyes dim and cool. His fingers rake his sparse gray hair, his tensed shoulders settle back into his chair. He grins companionably. By nature, he is affable, soft-spoken, gentle, a chronic laugher, utterly without pretense.
When a stranger calls the house, skeptically asking whether the casual-sounding man on the other end of the phone with the twang part-Texan and part-Cajun could possibly be Robert Oswald, the Robert Oswald, the brother of Lee Oswald, the object of the chase chuckles by reflex. He says in the cheery, peppy voice of the brick salesman he was, "Hi. You got him. That's me."
STEELED FOR HARD TIMES
Two weeks after the assassination, he made himself return to his job as a sales coordinator for a brick company in Denton, 30 miles outside of Dallas. He would neither run nor deny he was an Oswald. Neither he nor his family was guilty of anything, he kept telling those closest to him. A childhood spent in and out of orphanages had prepared him for hard times and steeled his belief in, among other things, his ability to get along with people and survive the worst of circumstances.
Away from the brick lot, however, uncertainty gripped him. During the weekend after John F. Kennedy's murder, President Lyndon B. Johnson had ordered the Secret Service to provide the Oswald family around-the-clock protection at their home in Denton. A couple of weeks later, believing the Oswalds to be safe, the Service bid them goodbye. The family was alone.
One night, after visiting friends in Fort Worth, Oswald was driving his wife and two children back home to Denton when he saw the flashing lights of a police car in his rear-view mirror. He stepped out of his vehicle to be confronted by a towering state trooper, who informed him he had a defective headlight. License and registration, please. The trooper inspected his license, then glanced down at him. "Robert, are you Lee's brother?"
He felt unmasked. So here it was. Welcome to the future. Hello to his new life as leper, maybe. The big trooper kept looking him over. "We're like two peas in a pot," Lee once had told Robert in his mangled syntax, part of a letter from the Soviet Union in which Lee recounted how he'd described their physical resemblance to his curious new Russian wife, Marina.
The observation was at least half true. While Robert was slightly taller at 5 feet 10 inches, and had a far more robust build than his slight brother, their faces had a similarly long shape. Their blue eyes took on a hooded, almost sleepy quality when sad or pensive. Looking at one of them as a young man would always remind a stranger of the other. The trooper scrutinized him. Robert braced himself. The cop said, "Robert, I want you to know something. My wife and I have prayed for your family."
In retelling the story 34 years later, Bob Oswald's voice quavers. His jaw line trembles violently. He is a tough Marine veteran of Korea, a man unaccustomed to displays of emotion around strangers. His blue eyes bat and keep batting now, and he looks up at the ceiling a little helplessly, as if stunned by this reaction from himself, perhaps mortified. He excuses himself to walk out of his den and stand ramrod-straight in the kitchen, drinking a glass of tap water, flicking at his eyes, looking off with the mile-long stare he sometimes gets.
Just as abruptly as he left it, he returns to the den and sits back down.
"Copacetic," he says crisply. This means, let's go. This means he is OK and can resume talking. This means, among other things, that life since 1963 has been a regular exercise in keeping things copacetic.
"None of us really knew what was going to happen back then," he says. "I'd already thought of alternate landing places for us [to live]. ... But, not long after the [assassination], we had so many kind letters from strangers and friends. ... You learn so much about the decency of people. We had phone calls from friends and neighbors and strangers asking us if we needed anything, people saying they were thinking of us. For the first time ever in my life, I felt strength from other people. It was almost overwhelming."
WICHITA FALLS REFUGE
In the summer of 1964, Acme Brick Co. transferred him to Wichita Falls in dusty north Texas -- not to get an Oswald out of the Denton-Dallas area, believes Bob Oswald -- but simply because Wichita Falls needed a sales coordinator. Regardless of the motive, the move placed the family in an area that has largely respected their privacy for more than three decades and let them live as ordinary people unburdened by stigma.
"They'd come to the Little League games back in the early days, and they were very reserved," recalls longtime friend Helen Seyler. "They just quietly tried to be a part of the community. I think people respected them for that. ... The nice thing is, they let you live your life in these parts. People know plenty from personal experience about families having black sheep sometimes. They know you can't hold that against someone."
Still, if kindness predominated, snubs and cruelty lurked close. "I guess it happens to us because this thing never goes away completely," observes Robert Oswald's 40-year-old daughter, Cathy.
To this day, Cathy remains leery, bracing herself at parties for the awkward moment or odd comment that might come her way when people learn she's an Oswald. Among the members of her family, she bears the most visible scars. She still can recall the moment 26 years ago at Rider High School when her ninth-grade history teacher, a brash young instructor who doubled as an athletic coach, unexpectedly asked her a question: "Oswald, are you related to Lee Harvey Oswald?"
Her classmates wheeled. Stunned, she could not make her lips move. Instinct accounted for what happened next. She picked up her books and started walking hurriedly for the door.
The teacher turned belligerent: "Oswald, I asked you a question."
Just before she reached the door, the teacher said it: "Cathy Oswald, I better get you out of my class before you assassinate me."
"It knocked the air right out of me," she remembers.
She sobbed in the bathroom. She became accustomed to crying out of sight from crowds. During her freshman year at the local college, as a nominee for queen of a big football game, she stood with her sash on a stage alongside other contestants, awaiting a banal pageant question about hobbies or goals like all the other girls were getting. The master of ceremonies asked instead, "How does it feel to be Lee Harvey Oswald's niece?"
"I guess she's not going to respond," the host quipped.
She put down her sash, grabbed her car keys and raced home. "It was the only time I saw my father that hurt and angry," she remembers, but it wasn't her only hurtful moment in the autumn of 1975. A blind date told her, at the end of an otherwise pleasant evening, that while she was sweet and pretty, "I can't handle it that you're an Oswald."
A year earlier, two taunting boys had told her younger brother, Robert, then a seventh-grader, that his uncle had killed a president. He rushed home, crying uncontrollably.
"He thought they were talking about another uncle, one of my brothers," Vada Oswald recalls. "He didn't really know anything about an Uncle Lee. Oh, he knew he had some kind of relative named Lee, but that's all. We'd never sat him down and talked to him about Lee. We just thought the less said, the better -- that the more we could keep him from it, the more it'd be lost."
LIMITS TO FORGETTING
There are limits to forgetting and losing anything, especially the past. But the middling city of Wichita Falls -- population: 97,000 -- seems as good a spot as any to make the attempt. It looks like a good place to get lost. It lies in an otherwise sparsely populated, generally barren section of north Texas close to the Oklahoma border. The area, called Texoma by its inhabitants, is a kind of cultural and geographic no-man's land.
It is exactly 126 miles from Bob Oswald's brown-brick house here on his quiet middle-class cul-de-sac to his younger brother's grave in their old boyhood metropolis of Fort Worth. It's 126 miles south along a big fat nothin', as some of the locals will tell you -- past the water-leaching mesquite trees and the sallow Texas cattle ranches flat and far as the eye can see, past the plains where a cold wind in November has nothing to block it except shivering man.
In about two hours, you leave the sameness and descend into a tattered, honky-tonk section of Fort Worth, which is when you're close. In the last mile and a half, you go past the tattoo bar, past the body-piercing parlor and the pawnshop, past the taverns, past the Peppermill Lounge and the Cowtown Inn. Then you turn into the cemetery's parking lot, walk up a hill dotted by swaying oaks and sun-burnt patches of grass, and you're there.
"OSWALD," the flat red gravestone reads. At 12 inches by 24 inches, it is the smallest type of marker in the 12 large gardens of Rose Hill Cemetery, difficult to locate, intended to be inconspicuous. Robert Oswald visits the spot unannounced and never with anyone except his wife. "I don't have to be there to be there, if you know what I mean," he says softly.
His two children, now adults, would gain nothing but pain, he thinks, by seeing the small piece of granite. That would hurt him all the more, because Robert carries enough pain for all of his family. Over the years, he has seldom discussed his torment even with his wife, unwilling to burden her. Instead, he'll sit up alone and think and dream his dream of Lee.
"He handles things by himself," says his close friend, Eddie Seyler, a retired budget officer at a local Air Force base. Not long after the Oswald family's 1964 arrival in Wichita Falls, the two men met when Seyler went to buy bricks. Helen Seyler later taught Robert Jr.'s kindergarten class.
The Oswald and Seyler families became close, and the two men began playing golf together in the mid-'60s. They'd ride in the same golf cart, swapping news and jokes. With time, Eddie dared to broach the assassination, asking Robert what he thought of some new theory being advanced by skeptics of the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.
"Eddie, it's nonsense, I think," Robert would say.
Seyler would press a little deeper.
"Eddie, I believe he was the only one involved."
The years flew by and the theories kept coming. The prosecutor in New Orleans, Jim Garrison, declared he had the real killers of John F. Kennedy in his sights, and a cottage industry of conspiracy books followed. Lee's body was exhumed after someone convinced his widow, Marina, that it was possible the body buried beneath the Oswald tombstone was not Lee's but a spy's. A group of university pathologists studied the corpse and concluded, "Nonsense."
At various points, Eddie Seyler wondered how his close friend was holding up. "You doing OK with this?" Seyler asked him once as they rolled along a golf course.
"Yeah, I'm handling it," Seyler recalls Oswald saying.
"You know, Bob, if you ever want to visit about it-- "
"I'm all right, Eddie. But thanks."
It was what Robert Oswald always said, more or less. Cathy Oswald remembers childhood moments when she had the urge to ask her parents, "Why don't you say something about it? Why don't you ask me something once about what I think about it?... But I have a lot of admiration for them. They wanted to protect us. ... My father had to be carrying a terrible burden. I'm amazed by how he stood up to it."
Photos / Part I / Part II / Part III
This article was published on Sunday, November 16, 1997
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