only a couple of times when I saw my granddad excited in a way that
will be hard for many people to understand.
He had spent much of his career as a newspaperman, and decades after
last typing “30” at the bottom of a piece of copy on deadline, he
still felt an adrenaline rush when a big story broke.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963, I was sitting around the swimming pool
at a motel on South Padre Island, reading a copy of True, a long-since
defunct men’s adventure magazine. Granddad, portly but still in
pretty good shape for a man of 66, shot out of our motel room and
yelled: “Somebody just filled Oswald full of lead!”
Only in the ninth grade, and cool as I thought I was, I didn’t get
“What?” I asked.
“Somebody just shot Oswald!”
At the time,
I did not comprehend exactly how Granddad felt, but I do now. He
had been a reporter and editor in the Fort
from World War I through
the mid-1930s. As a staffer with the old Dallas Journal, then an
afternoon paper owned by the Dallas Morning News, he had become
casual friends with a rookie Dallas
cop, Will Fritz.
Now that officer was Capt. Will Fritz, the man heading up the biggest
homicide case in Texas history, the murder of President John F.
Granddad had been sitting in the motel room with his feet propped
up on the bed, watching live television coverage of the transfer
of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald from Dallas
police headquarters to the Dallas County Jail when a man in a dark
suit and snap-brim hat (common attire at the time, especially in
Big D) emerged from the crowd of spectators and capped Oswald. Millions,
including Granddad, heard the fatal shot and saw and heard Oswald’s
pained reaction to a .38 caliber slug in the gut.
Back then, televised news not only came to our TV sets in black
and white, live reports from the field were not common. Had TV cameras
not been set up to let the world watch Oswald’s transfer, everyone
would have had to wait for the 16 mm movie film to be processed
before they could have seen what happened.
That famous live shot from Dallas,
a landmark TV happening that stunned Texas,
the nation and the world might not have taken place if a bunch of
telephone men not pulled an all-nighter. Long forgotten, and probably
not even widely known at the time, is how close most of the world
came to missing that ugly piece of history, at least in real time.
Recently, cleaning out a box of old papers and booklets, I ran across
a copy of the Dec. 9, 1963 issue of Telephone Times, the in-house
newspaper for Southwestern Bell. At the time, and until the breakup
of the telephone monopoly in 1984, Southwestern Bell was the phone
company for most of Texas. The last
page of the four-page issue is taken up with a story headlined,
“Communications Network Relays Tragic Story of President John F.
employees of Southwestern Bell had been in crisis mode since the
fatal shots had been fired on Kennedy’s motorcade during the noon
hour on Friday, November 22. Actually, company installers, “telephone
men,” had been busy even before the President arrived at Love Field
aboard Air Force One after a short flight from Fort
“We had been working on telephone communications for the visit almost
two weeks,” said Jack Mullins, then Fort Worth sales and service
manager for Southwestern Bell. “The network of telephones specially
installed for the President’s short stay here connected every place
he would visit in Fort
Worth plus the lines to government switchboards in San
Dallas and Washington.”
the company had hooked up numerous “instruments,” as they were called,
for the press. Technicians activated public lines for media use
as well as dedicated lines to the company’s long distance switchboard.
The same had
been done in Dallas at
three locations – Love Field, the Trade Mart where Kennedy would
speak at noon on Friday and a suite of offices at the Sheraton Hotel,
the rented space that would be the Dallas
“White House” for a time.
The phone company
also installed a large, state-of-the-art mobile telephone in the
vehicle that would be carrying reporters in the motorcade through
downtown Dallas. It was
that “instrument” that carried the first word to the world that
shots had been fired at the President.
Bell Dallas sales manager Charles Walker drove the car. Next to
him sat UPI reporter Merriman Smith. Three other journalists filled
the back seat.
“When the first
shot sounded,” Walker told a Telephone Times writer, “I didn’t know
what it was. After the second and third…, I knew someone was shooting,
but I didn’t know at whom.”
In fact, when
Walker saw a woman bystander faint, he at first thought she had
been shot. But Smith, figuring the shots likely were fired at the
president, grabbed the radiophone and called the wire service’s
Dallas bureau to report shots fired at the Kennedy motorcade. As
Walker chased the presidential car to the hospital, Smith fought
the rival AP reporter for continued access to that mobile phone.
Soon, the telephone company frantically began setting up media phones
at Parkland Hospital. And off-duty switch board operators began
showing up voluntarily to help their overwhelmed colleagues as long
distance calls from Dallas
peaked at more than 70,000 back when calling LD was a big deal cost-wise.
Not surprisingly, it was the heaviest telephone traffic the city
had ever experienced to that point.
Saturday, requests for dedicated hard lines capable of transmitting
telephone calls as well as audio and video signals began pouring
into Southwestern Bell’s Dallas office. All three TV networks needed
lines at the Dallas police
station so they could broadcast Oswald’s transfer.
Phone company technicians worked all night to get the lines installed,
a 13-hour effort that ended only a few hours before the scheduled
transfer. At the last minute, Channel 11, then an independent station
serving Fort Worth
and Dallas, also asked
for a line at the police station.
The Southwestern Bell crew completed the final installation only
seven minutes before Capt. Fritz and other Dallas
detectives escorted Oswald off the elevator in the basement of the
police station and began walking him toward a waiting unmarked police
car. But before they got there, night club owner Jack Ruby “filled
Oswald full of lead.”
© Mike Cox
- December 4, 2014 column
More "Texas Tales' Columns
Related Topics: Columns
| Texas Towns | People
Order Books by Mike