Monday, November 25, 2013

Wordcraft -- Writing to exorcise the memories of death

Five Days in November

by Clint Hill, with Lisa McCubbin


Watching my adopted hometown of Dallas struggle with memories still painful fifty years later, I’ve marveled at how deeply President John F. Kennedy’s assassination still resonates. As I watched dissenters behind the public face of last Friday’s commemoration, I marveled at how even people too young to have personal memories of those awful events of November 1963 can feel so passionate about them, can insist that this or that potential culprit, even if now long dead, should be called to account for the crime. But from a choice of readings from several authors this week on the subject of the assassination, I chose the simplest--that of a man who was there, telling only what he saw and heard.

“I have come to realize that the grief I’ve held inside for half a century is shared by nearly everyone who was alive at that time,” former Secret Service agent Clint Hill writes in Five Days in November, his account of the assassination and its immediate aftermath. “It has been a reluctant journey, but now, despite how painful it is, still, to relive those days, I understand that my memories are important to history.”

This is Hill’s second book about his years in the Kennedy White House, written in collaboration with journalist Lisa McCubbin. Last year the unlikely looking pair rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with the story of another unlikely pairing--Hill as official guard for then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy and Me.

Last Saturday, Hill told his story to an overflow crowd at HalfPrice Books on Dallas’ Northwest Highway.

“Kennedy told us (the Secret Service) ‘the people need to know there’s nothing between me and them. During this campaign year, the agent shouldn’t be hovering over me unless absolutely necessary,’” Hill told his audience.

As part of this policy of openness, the presidential limousine was left without a top during
motorcades except in bad weather or if winds were high enough to muss Mrs. Kennedy’s hair. Never again would that car travel so conspicuously unshielded as on that fatally fair day.

Hill was standing on the running board of the car behind the one the Kennedys were in when he heard the first shot. (His later testimony of only hearing two shots has helped keep conspiracy theorists busy, but Hill himself attributed his failure to hear the second shot to the noise of a police motorcycle immediately beside him during the motorcade.)

At the first shot, Hill leaped down from the car where he rode and ran toward the Kennedys’ car, hoping to shield them. The actions famously caught on film by bystander Abraham Zapruder show Mrs. Kennedy crawling out of seat onto the car’s trunk. But not to assist Hill in his climb onto the speeding car. Instead, in shock, she attempts to gather the fragments of her husband’s shattered head.

“I turned my hand, thumb down (to the car behind me), and then I screamed to the driver, get to the hospital!” Hill said, recounting the aftermath of the shots fired as the limousine carrying the Kennedys, then Texas governor John Connally and his wife neared the end of its tour through downtown Dallas.

Hanging to the car’s trunk, Hill shielded the Kennedys as the limousine raced toward nearby Parkland Hospital at speeds so great Hill’s sunglasses were blown off his face. Once at Parkland, the Connallys were removed first from the car, but Mrs. Kennedy sat for second afterward silent and shocked, holding her husband’s head in her lap as secret service agents attempted to remove Kennedy.

With the understanding drawn from his years of working with Mrs. Kennedy, Hill realized why she was unable to let go. “She didn’t want anyone to see him like that,” Hill said. “So I took off my suit coat and lifted it up over him.”

And so, for the next days, Hill’s book follows Mrs. Kennedy through the return to Washington, D.C., the state funeral, the burial. “On November 22, 1963, three shots were fired in Dallas and the world stopped for four days. It was the end of the age of innocence.”

For more information about the book collaborations of Hill and McCubbin, see

(Next Monday -- independent bookstores live in Dallas.)

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