The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Kill Shot
Air Force One landed at Love Field on what began as a gray and cold November day. By mid-morning it was springlike, skies shining bright and blue. The presidential limousine’s Plexiglas bubble-top had been removed prior to the start of the ticker tape parade. Mrs. Kennedy wore a raspberry-pink suit with navy blue collar, pink hat and white gloves. The President dressed in a dark suit. Confetti, crowds and cheers were everywhere.
Abraham Zapruder, the owner of Jennifer Juniors, a Dallas woman’s clothing company, was a home movie hobbyist who filmed the assassination of JFK. On November 22, 1963, two months before I was born, Zapruder went on air with Jay Watson, the program director of WFAA, an ABC news channel affiliate:
I was shooting as the President was coming down from Houston Street making his turn. I heard a shot, and he slumped to the side. Then I heard another shot or two, I couldn’t say it was one or two, and I saw his head practically open up, all blood and everything, and I kept on shooting. That’s about all, I’m just sick, I can’t—
Zapruder couldn’t finish his sentence.
Watson finished it for him: I think that pretty well expresses the entire feelings of the whole world. He mentioned they’d get the film processed as soon as possible.
WFAA segued to footage narrated by Watson: This is a picture of the hearse leaving Parkland hospital with Kennedy’s body. The screen image then pivoted to the Texas School Book Depository with the sixth floor window placed in its crosshairs.
That’s where the gun was allegedly fired.
Zapruder responded to Watson: I must have been in the line of fire.
He was one of five hundred witnesses to Kennedy’s assassination. Zapruder’s Bell & Howell Director Series Zoomatic camera became the fortress of the most famous home movie ever shot. The undeveloped film captured 26.6 seconds of the motorcade carrying President Kennedy. Frame 313, out of 486, shows the fatal shot.
Abraham, wearing a dark fedora that day, couldn’t have known the assassination would lodge into his nightmares. At the Warren Commission hearings and the Clay Shaw trial, he was forced to view the home movie footage over and over again. Night terrors beleaguered Zapruder: Over and over—every night—I wake up and see this.
1964, a month prior to the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, a different home movie shot. Infant toss. Up-down. Plummeting. I’m ten months of age—picking up speed.
An endless plunge.
The commanding face blurred and chalked over.
Racing heart, breathing short and shallow. Descending. Stay alert. Identify the baby hurler.
My tender underarm a springboard latch. The catapulter’s face erased. I scream, a baby’s scream. I scream and scream.
Distressed coos are ignored as my eyes widen and plead with the hurler. I become a hummingbird in a state of torpor, descending into hibernation, suspending thoughts and shutting down to survive. Guidelines to navigate the gnarled fear rooting into my muscles and bones are nonexistent. Flung into the air as an infant—sky-blue-eyed, copper-gold tufted darlingness, the size of two under-inflated footballs aligned point to point—then descent as an object, stripped of safety and forever falling in a downward spiral.
Soaring skyward felt less hostile than the turbulent tailspin.
Anchored into my toddler mind was an image that grew like a tumor—airborne up-down moments launched when thumbs pressed deep into the front of my armpits.
Over and over—every night—I wake up and see this.
Forever falling—left plummeting—my history not told to me by anyone—unprocessed film stored in the vault of my unconscious consciousness. Disturbing details deposited deep in my body’s memory. A looping, lucid nightmare—up, then down.
For years the infant toss nightmare left me screaming in my sleep before shuddering me awake. My blonde older sister, who I shared a bed with, had to cope with my thrashing and mumbled yells. She tolerated my sleeping diagonally on the bed because I believed that would break the bad dream curse. When roused from terror, I’d taken impulsive swings at her foot or outstretched hand that was used to wake me. My sister, three years older, the smothering mothering kind, never teased me. She tried to console me by expressing concern about what caused me to tremble.
“Leave me alone,” I would growl. She’d turn onto her side, her back left to serve as a wall between us.
My eyes adjusted to the limited lighting in our bedroom as I stared up at the ceiling and departed the nightmare where I’d felt helpless. It was too hard to stay in the darkness.
To catch my breath, I turned my attention to the symmetrical pinprick holes in our bedroom ceiling tiles. Light spilled in from the center of the home-sewn curtains that were too small for the windows and left a slight gap in the middle. Moonlight, shimmering stars, and the winter’s reflective snowdrifts illuminated and calmed the room. Silence separated real from imagined.
In my family, survival skills weren’t optional. On any given night my parents could get into a heated row that quickly escalated into violence. Police cars pulling into our crushed gravel driveway would provide stopgap relief. Officers told Jack, my father, known as “Jackass” behind his back, to quiet it down. “Why don’t you go for a drive” was not a suggestion; it was an official warning. The words lingered long enough for my Dad to understand that he needed to turn around and start searching for his car keys.
If Dad answered the door when the cops came it meant he’d hit my mother and we were all frightened. It was always verbal before physical, starting with her egging him on and ignoring his watch it air-punch warnings. Sometimes he forgave her baited invective: Jaaa-ack—hurled to smack as Jackass. A slap was to bring her to her senses, a shove to gain her cooperation. Then he’d get carried away. Throughout the fight he’d scream: “Enough, Tish.” Her name was Margaret but everyone called her Tish. “Enough, Tish.”
Why couldn’t she shut up?
Zapruder’s nightmare depicts a booth in Times Square hyping: See the President’s head explode! This doesn’t stop Zapruder from selling his film to LIFE Magazine for $125,000, including television and movie rights. A cottage industry of books, articles, memoirs, TV shows, documentaries, films, and blogs are stirred into motion.
At the Warren Commission, Zapruder testifies:
I saw the President lean over and grab himself like this (holding his left chest area) … for a moment I thought it was, you know, like you say, “Oh, he got me,” when you hear a shot. You’ve heard these expressions. And then I saw—I don’t believe the President is going to make jokes like this, but before I could organize my mind—
Before I could organize my mind—his kindred phrasing triggers my memory. Both of our home movies wrestle with an unthinkable reality of tormenting images. The remembered is hoped as misremembered. Laughter and daily yoga manage my disquiet.
Zapruder, an emotional man and a gifted pianist, wept during his testimonies. The assassin’s gunfire began in frames 160/161. Frame 313, the most studied image in history—a spray of pink mist goes three to four feet into the air and a piece of flying skull (the Harper fragment) soars before vanishing from view in frame 337. Zapruder relived the assassination every time he opened or closed his eyes. He never looked through a camera lens again.
Alexandra Zapruder is asked what her grandfather thought about the film. “I think he hated the film. I think he wished he’d never taken it. I think it was really devastating for him.” In another interview she talked about the difficulty of being associated with something so complicated, something that brought so much pain to so many people. And, was subjected to repeated showings.
The infant slingshot launch might have not weighted my life if so much tragedy hadn’t followed in the wake of my skyward catapult. Instead it became my focus and the forensics to untangle the things from which I was made. As a dream detective entering into my black and white nightmare, I search for the catapultor’s identity. A featureless face emerges. A loosened tie around a collared shirt is spotted as I go up and evermore down. My sister’s foot kicks me awake as I scream into my pillow. There are nights she doesn’t ask if I’m okay. She turns over and goes back to sleep.
In the distilled moment between nightmare and lying still, I splice together fragments of footage. Flittering frames release details of recognizable surroundings: a Black Forest cuckoo clock with weighted metal pinecones hung on a beautiful, varnished, tongue and groove Canadian redwood wall. Carved leaves surround the clock’s miniature chalet where a rooster lives and waits to cuckoo, not crow. Up and down goes the thin black cable chained pinecones in synch with the rhythm of the sideways swinging wooden leaf behind them. Background music accompanies the timekeeping complexity fashioned with various elements of weights, pendulum and a cuckoo sound.
Next into view come the shadowy tracings of a barrel-chested person. Chubby hands not meant to play the piano. White, buttoned down shirt, opened at the collar, morning-pressed no longer. Non-ribbed v-neck t-shirt peeking out. Off to the side spiraling cigarette smoke wafting upwards as I continue to piece together the place where I’d been tossed. Another detail surfaces—on top of a tall cabinet storage unit sits a pair of hand crafted German beer mugs with attached pewter lids.
I’ve been the teeth that hook the sprocket holes that run along the top and bottom of 35 mm film to advance to the next frame on the camera’s winder. Right there. Shooting the tragic moment. The shot in my head I want removed—frame 313.
For fifty years, Alexandra and her family have been besieged because of the Zapruder film. She remarks:
Not only were people not ready for the assassination of the President. People weren’t ready for the film. For the existence of something like this—there was no precedent for it—that violence in a visual form. Don’t forget it was a home movie. It’s something that people do forget. It was a home movie. It wasn’t AP or a professional reporter. It wasn’t the White House press core. It was just a guy with his own camera and sort of how that made its journey into the world.
The news media was in its infancy. It had recently expanded broadcasts from fifteen minutes to a half hour. Kennedy’s assassination changed lives and reporting forever. The commodification of footage shot by an amateur was also new territory. Zapruder negotiated with LIFE Magazine for them to refrain from printing frame 313.
In the movie Parkland, Paul Giamatti plays Zapruder, the grieving clothing pattern maker. During a key scene, he asks Richard Stolley, LIFE’s managing editor: When the President is um—when he’s—
Stolley: The kill shot.
Zapruder: Yeah. You will publish those frames? Cause I think you will agree some things the world does not need to see.
Stolley: Normally yes—but in this case missing frames could lead to false speculations.
Zapruder: That is none of my business. I don’t care about all that. I’m talking about the man’s dignity—a dignified man you understand—that’s a very undignified end for a very dignified man.
There are missing frames in my home movie. I question how I could remember anything from back then. Missing frames can lead to false speculations. When did I know what I don’t really know? I know some things and not others. That makes things I do remember suspect.
The accuracy of details that surface for me is the source of my tension. Repetitive thinking related to an event, intrusive memories, and chronic fear are indications of trauma. Identifying the baby hurler is to remove fear, make it go away. To know the person assumes resolution. Yet, Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone assassin, former Marine and better-than-average marksman, debunks that notion. Zapruder and his black and white home movie shown zillions of times retains its power to decimate the mind. Knowing who pulled the trigger didn’t stop his nightmares.
Mom knew my father’s vulnerability. Her punches were not so much her words but rather her callous inflections that led to, “Enough, Tish.” She’d take it up a notch by under her breath saying, “Stupid,” as she passed the pasty Hungry Jack mashed potatoes.
Dad heading to the liquor cabinet to pull out his Chivas Regal silenced the dinner table. Walter Cronkite’s voice blared through the room as my father turned up the TV volume on the way back to his chair at the opposite end of the dinner table from my mother. For the rest of the meal they appeared to be listening to the news as their anger stewed. And that’s the way it was until much later in the evening. The tipping point was our mother’s flesh being struck. The impulse face slap, the thud of her body slammed against a wall, or sensing that she was cornered and in the range of a chokehold terrified me.
At twenty-one, I sat with my mother as she settled into her throne at the dining room table. Dad had filed for divorce. Earlier that month he cut off our electric, refused to pay a bill for my ophthalmologist, and told me he dearly loves me. I stopped talking to him, standing by my mother, choosing her over him because—I did. It wasn’t that I loved her more, or him less. I’m not sure love is even what I felt for them. She needed me to care for her. He was going to be okay.
“You’ve come a long way, baby,” rifted in my head as I stared at her pack of Virginia Slims.
“I was so afraid he wasn’t going to catch you.” Mother’s singsong voice was too casual as she validated the accuracy of my memory. She lit her cigarette, took a long drag and breathed out. A marshmallow-hued fume drifted upward toward the tongue and groove redwood ceiling. My eyes traced the trail of spiraling smoke exposing another truth. Dad wasn’t a lone gunman. I should have felt something other than the need to stay calm.
Image credit: feature image.