Although I did not realize it at the time, those four chilling and chaotic days in November 1963 would change not only much of the world but my own life forever.
As a young reporter with The Associated Press, I found President John F. Kennedy’s Fort Worth visit personally very exciting, even though my assigned role was relatively minor. I would merely assist two of our top writers, Jack Bell and Frank Cormier, who were traveling with the president.
Actually, my unofficial duties kicked off Thursday night after the president, first lady Jacqueline and their entourage flew into Carswell Air Force Base and headed downtown to check into the old Hotel Texas, now the Hilton.
Back then in Texas, mixed drinks could be served only in private clubs and never past midnight. So we opened the old Press Club for the presidential party and journalists and assured them it would remain open as long as they wanted.
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I rendezvoused with Jack Bell at the hotel, and we dropped by Cornell’s room to invite him to join us at the Press Club. He pondered the offer for a few moments, then said with a sigh:
“No, I think not. I’ve got a feeling tomorrow’s going to be a hell of a day.”
We did keep the Press Club open until around 3 a.m., when two of my colleagues at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram guided hard-core partiers to an infamous all-night club called the Cellar. The Cellar was renowned for its sexy waitresses and their off and on aversion to clothes. The guides were Bob Schieffer, now a CBS News legend, and the late Phil Record, who would become legendary in his own right as a writer and editor at the Star-Telegram and a beloved journalism instructor at TCU.
What’s more, the Cellar revelry would surface as an investigative target itself because the party included Secret Service agents who would be guarding the president the next day in Fort Worth and Dallas.
I reluctantly skipped the Cellar adventure because of the Friday morning schedule.
It was a day that began with a brief appearance by JFK in a misty rain on the hotel parking lot, which was followed by his speech at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in the hotel. For me at least, the most memorable moment of the breakfast was the dramatic late appearance by Jackie Kennedy.
She looked glamorous, stunning and even regal. I didn’t learn until years later that her tardy arrival in the ballroom was part of a staged scheme — that she had been lurking in the kitchen awaiting her grand entry.
After the breakfast, my wife, Sondra, and I drove out to Carswell and joined a crowd of some 5,000 on hand to see the presidential party board Air Force One for the short hop to Dallas. I phoned the AP office in Big D with the brief “wheels up” bulletin that the plane had taken off and its estimated arrival time at Dallas Love Field.
It would be the last such departure bulletin for the JFK presidency.
After battling through the air base traffic, my wife dropped me off at the Star-Telegram. As I approached my office there I passed by the news desk and quipped, “Well, guys, we got him out of town safely.”
I was seated at my desk a short time later when the newspaper copyboy tore a news report off the AP wire machine and screamed:
“The president’s been shot!”
Dead or alive?
With the Dallas bureau phone lines jammed, and without my own car, I squeezed in with several Star-Telegram reporters and photographers who were headed to Parkland Hospital. We monitored radio reports on the way over but learned only that the gunshot wounds were serious.
Abandoning our car in the traffic snarl two blocks from Parkland, we raced to the hospital not knowing if Kennedy was still alive or dead. Moments after we entered, we spotted a group of nurses stumbling down a hallway and crying hysterically.
And suddenly we knew. A presidential aide had just announced that Kennedy died at 1 p.m.
Once again, I assisted our traveling reporters with the main story, but then remained at Parkland even after the president’s body was removed to monitor the intermittent medical reports on Gov. John Connally. The Texas governor was seriously wounded in the attack but would recover fully — at least physically.
I spent Friday and Saturday working in Dallas, then caught a ride back to Fort Worth on Sunday morning to freshen up and change clothes. My pending assignment was to hustle back and relieve AP staffer Peggy Simpson, who was covering Lee Harvey Oswald’s transfer that morning from the city to the county jail.
I had showered and shaved and was slipping into clean clothes when my wife, glued to the television set, suddenly screamed: “Oswald’s been shot!”
Peggy Simpson was standing only a few feet from Oswald in the basement of police headquarters when nightclub owner Jack Ruby lunged through the crowd of cops and journalists and gunned down the alleged assassin.
Back in the bureau that afternoon, I was manning the phones when we received a flurry of calls from AP members who had received an AP wirephoto snapped by Jack Beers of the Dallas Morning News a moment before the fatal shooting.
“A Pulitzer Prize winner,” most of the callers declared.
I can’t say for certain how long it was before a new flood of calls poured in about a second wirephoto of the shooting, this one taken by Bob Jackson of the Dallas Times-Herald. Bob caught the exact moment the shot was fired and struck Oswald, a photo which would in fact win the coveted Pulitzer.
I did write a story that night about the Oswald slaying, and we later got a tip that he would be buried the very next day, Monday, Nov. 25, at Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth. Oswald had spent part of his childhood in Cowtown, and his mother, Marguerite Oswald, still lived there.
The afore-mentioned Bob Schieffer would become a genuine historical figure because, in response to a phone call to the Star-Telegram, he had driven Mama Oswald to Dallas after her son was arrested Nov. 22 as the prime suspect in the assassination.
Bureau Chief Bob Johnson sent me home the night after Oswald was killed with instructions to cover the funeral the next day.
I did so, but, unlike Schieffer, I was destined to become not an historical figure but a minor historical footnote.
And a reluctant and rather stupid one at that.
Pressed into duty
When I arrived at Rose Hill that Monday, I discovered dozens of police, federal agents, writers and photographers but no mourners. In time, officers delivered the family members: mother Marguerite, Lee’s brother Robert, the widow Marina and her two daughters, June Lee, 2, and the infant Rachel.
Before their arrival, a rumor had spread among the reporters that the Oswald casket was actually empty or, if not, contained a body other than Oswald’s. Finally, to curb the controversy, former Police Chief Cato Hightower ordered the casket opened and confirmed that it contained the body of Oswald.
As the afternoon dragged on, it became obvious that with the absence of mourners there would be no one to carry the casket. Even the minister selected to conduct the service had failed to show. Shaking his head ever so slightly, Jerry Flemmons, the Star-Telegram’s ace reporter, turned to me and said solemnly, “Cochran, if we’re gonna write a story about the burial of Lee Harvey Oswald, we’re gonna have to bury the son-of-a-bitch ourselves.”
And sure enough, officials eventually turned to the media for pallbearers.
Since I was an AP writer, I was among the first asked to serve. And as a staunch Kennedy-crat, I not only said “No” but “Hell no.” A moment or two later, Preston McGraw of United Press International, my No. 1 competitor at the funeral, stepped forward and volunteered.
Not being a total idiot, I immediately withdrew my refusal and joined McGraw and other reporters as casket bearers. They included Flemmons and two other Star-Telegram writers, Jon McConal and Ed Horn.
Rev. Louis Saunders, secretary of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, volunteered (or agreed) to officiate, and noted that “We are not here to judge, only to commit for burial Lee Harvey Oswald.”
The ceremony itself was brief and simple.
The minister’s words disclaiming judgment were barely audible, mingled as they were with muffled sobs by Oswald’s mother and widow. Her eyes red and swollen, Marina stepped beside her husband’s body and, we were told, whispered: “My husband, my husband, my love I give you.”
At 4:28 p.m. on that gloomy November day, Oswald’s body, in its inexpensive wooden casket, was lowered into a grave on a slight rise dotted with dying grass.
Only a short time earlier, the nation’s slain president was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with tearful family members and millions of television viewers in America and around the world looking on.
After phoning in my Oswald story, I drove home, flopped down on the couch beside my wife and watched in semi-darkness televised reruns of the emotionally charged JFK funeral procession and burial.
And as everything sunk in about those four incredible days, I finally broke down and cried.
As I said at the beginning, the assassination changed my life. It did so to this extent: I had joined the AP after sportswriting stints at the Denton Record-Chronicle and the Abilene Reporter-News, and my goal was to succeed a legendary but aging Texas AP sports editor named Harold Ratliff.
But after being exposed to a story of such magnitude, and many of the world’s best writers during and after the Dallas saga, I wanted a different challenge.
I continued writing assassination-related stories that included the Jack Ruby trial, investigating and exposing some phony conspiracy theories, interviewing Marina, assembling JFK anniversary pieces and riding herd on Marguerite Oswald, which often seemed like a full-time job. I could dismiss Mama Oswald as insufferable but the best description comes from Hugh Aynesworth, the most knowledgeable assassination reporter and author of several JFK books.
In his latest, a new classic entitled Witness to History, Aynesworth confesses:
“Few people have ever so deeply annoyed me as did Marguerite Oswald. And of all the things I disliked about her, none irritated me more than her voice. It was strange — unique in my experience — a jarring combination of birdlike singsong, childish whine and predatory threat that invaded your head like a dental drill. She would not stop talking.”
Anytime a JFK-related story broke over the next two decades — she died in 1981 — I would have to contact her for comment. But she constantly called me anyway to complain about something or another connected to accusations against her son.
For example, when the Warren Commission concluded that not only was Oswald the assassin but also the “lone” assassin, she called raising all sorts of hell. “ I can break this whole thing apart,” she declared. “I’m going to make fools of them.”
Of course, she never did, but she never quit babbling. And though often at odds in life, she and Lee are inseparable in death. She was buried next to his grave at Rose Hill.
While I never lost my love of sports, I thrived on such compelling — if often tragic — episodes such as the JFK case, the University of Texas tower sniper, killer tornadoes, space shots and a variety of high-profile criminal cases and murder trials.
Chasing the news
After accepting a new and wondrous assignment as a roving Texas correspondent for the AP, I spent countless hours chasing around after offbeat stories and characters, none more so than the infamous con man Billie Sol Estes. The West Texas flimflam artist and his escapades were often mind-boggling — as was his conspiracy theory linking his one-time pal Lyndon Johnson to the JFK murder.
Ironically, Billie Sol and I became friends even after one of his buddies, “Crooked John,” attempted to kill an AP photographer and me as we pursued Estes in a high-speed chase through the Davis Mountains overlooking El Paso.
But that’s another story.
As a senior writer for the Star-Telegram after AP retirement, I noted that I’d been threatened by all manner of bozos, wackos and weirdos and that even Crooked John and I had become amiable.
Crook, as I called him, sent me gifts, including a pair of $8,000 opals. He was mightily angered when I returned them.
I suppose all that’s to be expected when you run with killers, crooks, con men, drunks, rapists, strippers, gamblers, bootleggers, whores, jocks, muggers, conspiracy buffs, politicians and lawyers.
And, yes, journalists.