Friday, September 10, 2021

Lee Harvey Oswald and me: A strange obsession of a lifetime

In the room where Lee Harvey Oswald slept, I tried to commune with his spirit.
(CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald lingers in the deep corners of my mind—tormenting me, mocking me, smirking at me like a madman.

As a teen growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, I pored over everything about my tormentor and JFK's assassination—Life, Time, Look and other magazines, newsletters and scores of books. TV documentaries, too. In 1975, I watched as the horrific Zapruder film was shown to the American public for the first time, on the late-night show "Good Night America," hosted by some guy named Geraldo Rivera. Then I bought a bootleg copy of the film of Kennedy's murder to study it for myself. In our basement, I watched, aghast, when Frame 313—the gruesome head-shot impact frame—melted from the heat from my family's ancient 8-millimeter projector. 

A Life magazine, a tattered assassination book, and a 
bootleg copy of the Abraham Zapruder film—
the stuff that occupied my time long ago.
Full of fury, I called into a local radio talk show to argue with U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter about his "Single-Bullet Theory." Eager to test my interrogation skills, I purchased a Dallas phone book to dial up assassination witnesses. 

I thought of "The Smirker" in the snowy woods in northwestern Pennsylvania  while peering through the scope of my dad's deer rifle and in my high school Russian class as I struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet. I studied the language, naturally, because he spoke it, too.

To uncover the "truth" about the "The Crime of the Century," I even dreamed of joining the CIA. 

As a 25-year-old, I took a job in sports at The Dallas Morning News, in part, because of you-know-who. In Dallas, I often visited Dealey Plaza after the paper was put to bed and downtown bars closed. Full of beer and bluster, I stood behind the infamous (and rickety) picket fence on the grassy knoll and then on the "X" on Elm Street that supposedly marks the spot of the president's limo when he suffered his fatal head wound. When director Oliver Stone filmed the motorcade scene in Dealey Plaza for his awful "JFK," I watched from the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository, near the sniper's nest. 

The Smirker's nest.

A historical marker at 10th and Patton streets near 
where Dallas police officerJ.D. Tippit was murdered
by Lee Harvey Oswald.
When I met Marina, my tormentor's  Russian-born wife, I handed the 60ish woman photos of her family from 1963. (Don't ask.) Before we were married, I took Mrs. B to an assassination conference, attended by a mishmash of oddballs, buffs, and academics; and, years later, our 9-year-old daughter in tow, met a prominent conspiracy author at another gathering of the crazies. When I told him he was the sole reason for my attendance, the man loudly said, "No shit!" I smiled and laughed, nervously.

In the strip of ground across from the grassy knoll, I got an autograph from "The Lady in Red," assassination witness Jean Hill. The tattered card with her signature remained in my wallet for years. In Dallas' West End, I met a man so obsessed with the assassination that he became a postman in the Oak Cliff neighborhood where The Smirker killed Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit. While delivering mail there, he aimed to quiz witnesses to the crime.

I understood his obsession because it was mine, too.

The 'morgue,' a visit to his grave, and a new haunt


Holding left-wing literature and a rifle, Lee Harvey Oswald stands in the backyard
of his apartment on West Neely Street  in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas; Right, the same site today.

In the Oak Cliff section of Dallas, I stood outside the grungy apartments where my tormentor once lived with Marina, as well as at the University Park mansion where The Smirker squeezed off a rifle shot at former U.S. Army major general Edwin Walker in March 1963. The bleak corner of 10th and Patton, where he killed the Dallas cop, became an assassination destination, too. 

This "X" on Elm Street marks the approximate
location of JFK's limo when he received his fatal wound.
At The Dallas Morning News' "morgue," where the newspaper stored photos and other treasure, I examined images of his near-lifeless body on a stretcher after strip club owner Jack Ruby pumped a .38-caliber bullet from a Colt Cobra revolver into his gut in the basement of Dallas Police HQ. At The News, I even worked on the same area on the second floor where Ruby placed ads for his clubs the morning of the assassination. 

At Shannon Rose Hill Park in Fort Worth, I stared at The Smirker's gravestone—the Spanish-speaking workers there weren't supposed to tell me where he lay, so they used hand signals to direct me to his plot when the bosses weren't watching. Perhaps he weighed on their minds, too.

The gas station where Oswald tossed his jacket after
killing Dallas cop J.D. Tippit at 10th and Patton.
Still a curious journalist, I recently stopped by old assassination-related haunts in Dallas for the first time in ages—The Smirker's now-decrepit West Neely Street apartment, site of the infamous backyard photos; 10th & Patton; the gas station on Jefferson, where he tossed his jacket after killing Tippit; the Texas Theatre, where he was captured; and grimy Dealey Plaza, where contemptible tourists smile for selfies on that Elm Street "X." 

I also visited a new haunt: the Oak Cliff rooming house where The Smirker, then estranged from Marina, lived for six weeks leading up to 11/22/63. For 30 bucks, Pat Hall—granddaughter of the house's 1963 owner, Gladys Johnson—will show you around and tell you stories. It's her home now.

So, what would I find in the last residence of my tormentor's life? How would I feel communing one more time with the spirit of LHO?

The rooming house at 1026 North Beckley


Pat Hall, granddaugther of the 1963 owner of the rooming house where Oswald lived
for six weeks in the fall of 1963. Oswald watched TV and read newspapers in this room, she told me.

Red, white and blue bunting hangs from the porch at 1026 North Beckley, an 89-year-old, one-story brick house with a major 1963 vibe. The place seems small from the outside, but back then it included 18 rooms—six in the basement. Grandma Johnson rented rooms to single men—a large room cost 18 bucks a week, 12 for a mid-size. A tiny room cost the The Smirker, a thrifty man with little means of support, 8 bucks a week. 

The Dallas rooming house where Oswald lived in the
fall of 1963. You can go inside ... for 30 bucks.
In the corner of the musty living room stands an ancient Silverstone television, just like the one there on that day. Like a scene from The Twilight Zone, it plays newscasts from Nov. 22, 1963. (Uncle Walter Cronkite, we sure miss you.) Above the television now sit more than a dozen assassination books, each signed by the author. 

In the living room, The Smirker watched the 10 o'clock evening news and read Grandma Johnson's newspapers—she usually purchased four, the two Dallas dailies, one from Fort Worth, and another from New York.  

On a coffee table rest original assassination newspapers, pieces torn off some by disrespectful souvenir hunters. On a wall hangs a framed photo of Hall's father, Harlon, who bears a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley. Steps away are photos of Hall's brothers, Hal and Mike. On a small table sits a framed copy of the president's "memorial certificate," an autopsy report for those into the macabre. "Shot by a high powered rifle," it says about JFK. 

So damn surreal.

Near the doorway and a sign for the rooming house Facebook page, generous visitors can stuff donations into the slot of a wooden box. 

A copy of the president's "memorial certificate." 
Business for Hall fluctuates from two or three appointments a week to two a day.  Other visitors come with guides from three area tour companies, who give Hall a cut of their profit to supplement the 69-year-old's Social Security and to pay for work on a house that needs TLC. On the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013, Hall did 42 tours by herself. Capitalism can be a beautiful thing.

Visitors come from all over—Australia, Russia, "several African countries and all of Europe," says Hall. Hell, even California.

As we sit on the couch—the same one The Smirker plopped down on in 1963—I wince as Hall talks about him. "We knew him as a sweet, kind compassionate man who loved children," says Hall, who was 11 in '63. She and her family called him "Mr. Lee"—he registered in the rooming house under a pseudonym, "O.H. Lee."

In the small front yard, Hall says, "Mr. Lee" played with Hal, 10 in 1963, and Mike, then 6. Both the boys are long gone now. "Grandma didn’t want them playing in the driveway because she was afraid they’d throw the ball and hit a window. It was perfectly fine to play in the front yard and roll the ball into the street," the lifelong Oak Cliff resident tells me, chuckling. 

The Texas Theatre, where Lee Harvey Oswald was
arrested by Dallas Police on Nov. 22, 1963.
On the day of the assassination, Hall was in school at James Bowie Elementary. A TV was stationed in the hallway that Friday so teachers could watch coverage of the president's visit. After Kennedy was shot, Hall sensed the mood change dramatically. Then the principal announced the president's death on the speaker system.

Blocks away, Hall's mother, Fay Puckett—who owned a photography studio on Jefferson Boulevard, across from the Texas Theatre—was horrified as she witnessed the arrest of "Mr. Lee" there. That's the man who played with my kids at Grandma’s rooming house! At home, Puckett unplugged the TV, refusing to turn it on until Sunday morning. 

Then Ruby murdered The Smirker that day. Pat, Hal, and Mike were watching. "My brothers went crazy," says Hall. 

“That’s Mr. Lee!" they cried. "Why did they shoot Mr. Lee?!”

The Room

Oswald lived in this room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. That's me with my foot on
 the bed—with permission of the rooming house owner, of course. The frame
is from Oswald's bed; the mattress does not date to 1963.

"Can I see The Room?" I ask politely, interrupting another of Hall's stories.

Steps from the living room, there it is, his room, no bigger than a large walk-in closet. It was Grandma Johnson's favorite-she put plants in here. After the assassination, "Mr. Lee" returned to this tiny space to grab his jacket and revolver. Law enforcement picked this room apart nearly 58 years ago.

Pat Hall shows a replica Eisenhower jacket like the one
Oswald wore on Nov. 22, 1963. He used the armoire in
which the jacket is stored.
To my right stands a small armoire, the very one The Smirker used. Inside it, wrapped in plastic, hangs an Eisenhower jacket like the one "Mr. Lee" dumped behind the gas station nearby on his mad scramble to the Texas Theatre. 

And then there's the bed. The frame dates to 1963, but the mattress does not because "that would be too creepy for me,” Hall says. The Smirker slept here. When "Mr. Lee" went to visit Marina in Irving, Hall says she did.

To show the size of the room, many visitors stretch their arms and touch opposite walls and takes pics. Hall shoots a photo using my iPhone of me doing just that, with my feet planted on The Smirker's bed in a spike-the-football moment for me.

Sadly, this might be as close as I'll ever get to communing with the spirit of my tormentor. The best I can probably do is wonder what he was thinking as he lay in this room in 1963.

Why doesn't Marina love me any more?

Do I really need curtain rods for this place?

The rooming house phone from 1963 remains.
Lee Harvey Oswald used it, Pat Hall told me.
Should I really kill Kennedy?

Will my fellow plotters pick me up and take me to Mexico like they told me? 

Should I call them on that phone steps from my bed?

Is it worth haunting John Banks the rest of his life?

Clearly sympathetic toward "Mr. Lee," Hall doesn't believe he was an assassin but concedes The Smirker may have been in on the plot to kill the president. "He could have been a CIA operative," she says.

And then Hall tells another story.

One day her brothers were wrestling in the front yard while "Mr. Lee" sat on the porch. Hal had a temper and could fly off the handle. The Smirker separated the brawlers. "Boys," he said, according to Hall, "let me tell you something: You gotta care for and love each other.”

There are no words—well, except these:

Curses to you, Lee Harvey Oswald.

"Hello? Is this hell? May I speak to Lee Harvey Oswald?" The phone I hold—and wallpaper
behind me in the rooming house—date to 1963. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.

6 comments:

  1. My father owned a printing business in downtown New Orleans. In late 1962 or early 1963, a young man dame into the office, wanting a print job on "Free Cuba" flyers. My father took one look at the material and threw him out. My father's place was one of several the young man visited that day. A few days after the assassination, the FBI descended. It turned out that the young man was Lee Harvey Oswald; my father never got his name. My mother grew up with some of the extended Oswald family in New Orleans; I went to junior high and high school with his nephew. And there was the famous (or infamous) probe by City Attorney Jim Garrison.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing this, Glynn. I have also visited some of Oswald's haunts in New Orleans. What a strange life he led, eh?

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  2. What a strange blog post! Everyone should read it.

    Oswald's biographies show clearly he was afflicted by malignant narcissism. Had he been born of privilege, he would have run a major corporation.

    JFK paid the price for this pathetic man's affliction. So did the USA.

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  3. Why did he have the photograph taken behind the house and what was the large print on the paper. He is obviously holding it up to be seen..

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  4. In the film, "Oswald's Ghost," they portray him as kissing his wife goodbye, and leaving her money and a wedding band on the chest of drawers before he went to the book building on the morning of Nov. 22. How can this be true if they were estranged and he was staying in the tiny room?

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    Replies
    1. That was out in Irving, Texas, where he stayed the night of Nov. 21, 1963.

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