Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Caught in the Cross Hairs of History

A picture is worth a thousand words, the old saying goes.

And some pictures are worth a lot more than that. Some pictures are iconic. They are the images that come springing to mind when one thinks of an important event — like the 9/11 attacks or the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Or the JFK assassination.

As you may or may not know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. It's a big event here in Dallas. For months now, the Dallas Morning News website has been featuring a special link to an observance of the anniversary. A local commemoration is planned around the anniversary.

I expect, when the anniversary is only days or weeks away, many TV stations/networks will run retrospectives on the assassination and the Kennedy presidency. Schoolchildren may write essays on the Kennedy presidency and/or the assassination.

Since January alone, I've already seen part or all of Oliver Stone's "JFK" more times than I can count.

Some of the images from that event are iconic — shots of the Kennedy motorcade as it approaches the killing zone, shots of the Schoolbook Depository, the shot of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office on board Air Force One, shots from the day JFK was buried.

I've heard some people say that the photo of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, being gunned down in the basement of the Dallas city jail two days after the assassination by Dallas night club owner Jack Ruby is an iconic shot for them — and, to a certain extent, it is for me, too. A photo of that moment won a Pulitzer Prize.

I suppose the iconic part for me is the way the cop on the left is kind of pulling away at an angle, as if he wants to be sure he is out of range of the bullet — with his mouth contorted in that sort of semi–grimace.

The gun, of course, was aimed right at Oswald's belly and at close range. There was no conceivable way that the cop could have been shot. Must have been an instinctive thing — like when the folks in Dealey Plaza hit the deck when shots rang out. I suppose no one could be expected to process so much information that efficiently in a second or two.

Back in November, when the sacrifice of Officer J.D. Tippit on Nov. 22, 1963 was commemorated with a state historical marker, former Dallas homicide detective Jim Leavelle was there and said, when asked about his response to the shooting of Oswald, "You don't have time to let things go through your mind, you react. You do what you got to do. You don't stop to think."

That second or two has taken on a life of its own.

For 50 years, that second in Leavelle's life has been in the cross hairs of history. And today that moment brought the 92–year–old Leavelle more notoriety. Dallas' police chief gave him the Police Commendation Award and renamed the department's Detective of the Year Award in his honor.

"Police Commendation Award" must be something akin to a lifetime achievement award — because Leavelle has been retired since 1975. And I suppose this year was chosen to give it to him because it is the 50th anniversary of the assassination.

And not to be too indelicate about this, but Leavelle is 92 years old. There is certainly no guarantee that he will be around in six months when the actual anniversary comes up. If he is, I'm sure he will be among those who are recognized for the roles they played, however minor, on that day. Can't be that many of them left.

While I readily admit that the image of Leavelle at the moment that Oswald was fatally wounded is dramatic and memorable and will always summarize the shock and confusion of that time in American history, I have to feel Leavelle's role in the assassination was minor.

He was the first to interview Oswald in custody and may have been the last to speak to him — at least when he was conscious. As they were making their way down to the basement and their rendezvous with history, Leavelle said, "Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they're as good a shot as you are."

Oswald replied, "Nobody's going to shoot at me."

But, of course, someone did.

Other than that, other than being handcuffed to Oswald when he was mortally wounded, I know of no other accomplishments in Leavelle's career as a detective. I'm sure he had some in a quarter of a century of service. Most people have accomplishments in their lives.

But few have the photographs to prove it.

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