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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Did Oswald Kill JFK Alone or as Part of a Conspiracy?

A recent poll shows that 59% of Americans believe that multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy in 1963, while only 24% think he acted alone.  As we approach the 50th anniversary of that terrible event, let’s revisit the issue.

On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a student at the University of Maryland, with a Spanish exam scheduled for 3 p.m. that afternoon.  I was studying for the exam when my dorm room door burst open a little after 2 p.m. with the news that the president had been shot!  It’s hard, all these decades later, to recreate that moment and the shocking blow it dealt.  John Kennedy was a young and vibrant man, truly something new in the White House, and a symbol of hope for a world that needed it when the atom bomb was ticking towards doomsday on a relentless pace.  That JFK had been shot was just impossible!  Like most people on the planet I raced to a TV set and then sat stunned as the events of that day, including the president’s death, were revealed.  My Spanish exam, of course, was cancelled.  On that following Sunday I was sitting watching the same dorm TV when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin, as he was being transferred from one jail cell to another.  This One!-Two! punch was both devastating and surreal.  Things don’t happen this bizarrely in real life!

In the months, years, and decades that followed there have been much speculation, hearings, books, commissions, interviews, etc., about the events of that day, and the still unanswered question fifty years later is whether Oswald acted alone or was part of a bigger conspiracy.  At the time I asked my father what he thought and he replied, “Cui bono?”, a Latin phrase meaning “who benefits?”  In crimes the police always look first at the person with the most to gain, and in Dad’s opinion in 1963 that was Vice President Lyndon Johnson, a previously important man who’d become a joke when relegated to the vice presidency, but who was now the most powerful man in the world.  And, after all, the murder took place in Texas, LBJ’s kingdom.  Subsequent historical treatments have not pointed in Johnson’s direction, and there are no serious conspiracies theorists with Johnson as the mastermind behind the curtain.

Johnson almost immediately appointed the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination thoroughly, and a lot of money and time was poured into that Commission’s work.  The final report came down in favor of stating that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and that no other persons were involved in any way.  To reach this conclusion the Commission came up with its “single bullet theory” which explained the three gunshots that were heard at the scene of the crime.  It was clear that the first shot missed entirely, and that the next two shots both struck President Kennedy.  But Texas Governor John Connolly was also shot in the melee, so didn’t that indicate there was a fourth shot from some direction?  No, said the Commission.  The first shot that struck Kennedy went through his body and then also went through Connolly’s before ending up on the floor in the front of the car.  Could a single bullet do that?  The Commission said yes, but lots of conspiracists disagree and have hundreds of theories (another gunman on the grassy knoll off to the side of the vehicle, for example), so this issue is at the heart of the debate.

The assassination was filmed by an amateur photographer standing on a wall near the presidential car as it passed, and the resulting Zapruder film has been analyzed over and over.  In 1978 the House Select Committee on Assassinations investigated the whole matter once again, and was on the verge of concluding that the Warren Commission got it right 25 years earlier when it decided Oswald acted alone, but then at the last minute admitted the evidence of a recording made by an open police microphone present at the scene, and decided that it demonstrated that there was a third shot before the final one, leading to a total of four shots.  Thus there must have been another gunman, since Oswald did not have time to lay down four shots.  That got the whole thing going again.  There was a conspiracy, by golly, but no one could be sure who was behind it: the Cubans, the Mafia, the Russians, and other possible culprits. 

Readers of this blog know that my chief focus is on getting things right, and I’ve often said I would change any opinion I have on receiving credible evidence it is wrong.  I’ve read book after book on the Kennedy Assassination (including the huge Warren Commission Report, which I still own), watched the events unfold live, sat through debates on the possibilities, and viewed many documentaries and presentations on who killed JFK.  As incredible as it seemed early on, the evidence is now overwhelming: Oswald did do it alone.  There was no conspiracy.

Oswald posing with the gun in a photo taken by his wife.
The best book to demonstrate this is Gerald Posner’s 1993 “Case Closed,” which explores in details all the possibilities and convinces any reader with an open mind that Oswald was the sole assassin.  Everything fell into this insignificant man’s lap at the perfect moment in history when he could perform an act he could never have planned.  The presidential route went right by the building in which he worked, Oswald was a former sharpshooter for the U.S. military and a practiced assassin (on April 13th of that same year he’d narrowly missed when he tried to kill General Edwin Walker at his Dallas home), and he had the weapons at hand with which to do the job.  It was blind luck that gave him his place in history, but, as one of the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Assassins,” sings, “First prize often goes to rank beginners.”

In 2003, researcher Dale Myer’s computer animation of the Zapruder film demonstrated that the single bullet theory is true.  The first bullet did go through both bodies, and it came from the Texas Depository window where Lee Harvey Oswald was seen shooting by many witnesses.  So did the next bullet (which struck Kennedy in the back of his head), sent on its lethal journey from the same exact spot.  There were no bullet wounds from any other direction.  See  The open police microphone turned out to be nothing at all.  For the details of its demise see:

Pure chance also put Jack Ruby in the middle of this perfect storm.  Ruby, a loud, untrustworthy, passionate man, easy to lose his temper, was the owner of a Dallas nightclub, and a friend to a number of Dallas policemen.  On the Sunday he shot Oswald he’d been told (as many people had—there was quite a crowd at the scene) of the time and place for the move of Oswald to a new location, but Ruby got busy that morning and missed the appointed time.  Instead he stopped to send a telegram to wire money to help out one of the women who worked at his club, after which he moseyed down to police headquarters to see what was up (expecting that Oswald had already been moved), and when Oswald was unexpectedly whisked by him, pulled out the gun he usually carried and shot him.  No one has ever tied Ruby to a conspiracy, and, indeed, all those who knew Ruby said that he couldn’t keep a secret for five minutes and only an idiot would count on him to cover up anything or participate in a major complicated plan.

What’s hard about finally concluding that Oswald was the sole assassin, and that Ruby was just some hack who shot him on the spur of the moment, is that it’s all so ordinary, so purposeless, so lacking in the significance that major historical events ought to have.  These tiny little men, with tiny little plans or no plans, changed the world, and that’s not right, damn it! 

But as I’ve droned on before on this blog, coincidences do happen, uncomfortable as it is to appreciate them, and it’s a simplistic view of the world to insist that everything has to have meaning.  See “Related Posts” below. 

Two final thoughts.

The conclusion that Oswald acted alone fits all the facts and explains everything in a way that none of the other theories, some of them fantastical in the extreme, do, and therefore is probably correct under the reasoning of Occam’s Razor.  William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) is remembered as an influential medieval philosopher, with his popular fame as a great logician resting chiefly on the maxim attributed to him and known as Ockham's razor. The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses either by "shaving away" unnecessary assumptions or cutting apart two similar conclusions. In its basic form the maxim is that “the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct.”

But the most compelling reason for concluding that Oswald acted alone is that conspiracies can’t be hidden indefinitely.  If Kennedy’s death had been carefully planned and executed, the conspirators would have successfully pulled off a masterpiece of a history-altering event and then gotten away with it completely, leaving no provable evidence of what happened.  But people who know secrets this big and juicy eventually tell them to someone (a loved one, a psychiatrist, a drunken buddy at a bar, or a priest on a death bed).  Here were are, fifty years later, and no one’s ever said anything.  That’s, frankly, impossible.  A secret this huge and known to a number of people would have long ago surfaced.  The fact that it has not is the biggest piece of evidence that—like it or not—Oswald was a loner, and all the important details of Kennedy’s tragic death are on public view already.

JFK's Grave

Related Posts:
“Superstitions,” March 21, 2010
 “I Don’t Do Science,” July 2, 2010
“I Don’t Believe in Coincidences,” February 28, 2013 
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

On Mother’s Day: A Story About My Mother and WWII

Lenore Kunkel Whaley
Both of my parents are dead now, but on Mother’s Day I got to thinking about the following story having much to do with their lifelong romance.

When I was 19 I was surprised one day when my mother told me a story about her marriage to Dad (which occurred on December 13, 1941).  It was a story I’d not heard before, and I marvel at it still.  To the best I can remember it, it goes like this:

In the spring of 1941, my father, Robert Whaley, abandoned his senior year of college at Indiana University to join the Army Air Corp (which became the United States Air Force by the end of World War II).  Like many young men who were joining the services he knew that war was near and that Germany and Japan had to be defeated.  IU, motivated by the same patriotic urge, gave all such seniors their degrees anyway.  Dad was sent to Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, where he received training as a pilot.  In the meantime he was writing letters back to his finance, Lenore Kunkel, with whom he’d fallen in love while they were in high school together in Jasper, Indiana, a small town in the southern part of the state. 

Mom was one of nine children in a very Catholic family, and she’d only been outside of Indiana once in her life when her uncle took her on a business trip to Detroit.  She was in no way sophisticated, and at 23 she was as confused as everyone by the complicated talk of war breaking out.  Dad sent her the money for a train ticket from Indiana to San Antonio so that she could meet him there and get married before he was sent off to his first duty assignment.  In the first week of December, 1941, her father drove her to the train station, she bought the ticket, and with great foreboding, she boarded the train.

The train was packed with military men reporting for duty to various spots and women doing just what she was doing, racing to get married in strange locations.  But for a young woman who was on her own for the first time in her life, she was terrified by the whole experience.  Was this the right thing to do?  Cast off everything she knew and risk her future in a time of war with a new husband who was jumping into the thick of it?  What would she do in Texas, of all places?  What if her beloved Bobby was suddenly sent off to some foreign land—then what would become of her?  A devout Catholic, she did not use birth control, and she might easily be pregnant and soon.

She told all of these fears to a young sailor she met on the train, and he thought her whole story about meeting Dad when she was the head cheerleader and he President of the Class in high school, and their subsequent romance, was great stuff and very romantic.  She agreed with that, but romance wouldn’t solve all the problems and worries that were bedeviling her.  She began to be convinced that this trip was a big mistake, and that she should wait until Dad came back from the war before marrying him.

At Dallas the train stopped and she got off.  She’d decided to get a ticket back to Indiana and return to the safety of her true home.  But the young sailor saw her at the ticket window and asked her what she was doing.  When she told him, he took her by the arm and led her away from the ticket window.  “Look,” he told her, “you’ve forgotten something.” “What?” she asked, defiant.  “You’ve forgotten that at the end of this journey is a man who loves you more than anything in the world, and it will certainly break his heart if you don’t get arrive in San Antonio tonight.”  That made her burst into tears, and, sobbing, she and the sailor reboarded the train.

Things happened fast after that.  Dad met her in San Antonio by sweeping her off her feet in delight on seeing her again after months of being apart, the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor the next day (which led to a declaration of war), and they were married on December 13th at the base chapel on Randolph Air Force Base (where, by coincidence, Dad would end his military career 27 years later when he retired from the Air Force).  Below is the only picture of the two of them taken on the day of their marriage, a marriage that lasted until Dad died in Texas in 1980. 

As an Air Force wife, my mother became a world traveler.  She lived all over the globe, routinely moved from place to place without worrying about it, and swore she’d never live in Jasper, Indiana, again.  That proved to be wrong (she died there in 1985), but she lived an incredibly fulfilling life with a wonderful man.  And even late in life she was still grateful to that young sailor.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Related Posts:
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
"Goodbye to St. Paddy's Day," March 2, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“Dad and the Cop Killer,” July 19, 2010
“No Pennies In My Pocket,” July 30, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
“The Death of Robert Whaley,” September 7, 2010
"My Missing Grandmother," December 26, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011
"The Mack Problem: Saving My Parents' Marriage," August 10, 2011

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Amusing Pictures of Cats and Other Animals

We’ll start with cat pictures, of course, since I’m living with two cats (Barney and Mama) who play a large part in each of my days.  (Most of these are from the wonderful site: “I Can Has Cheezburger” which you can find at









[Click to enlarge]

Now let’s move on to other animals.


"Because why?"


The amazing hand paintings of Guido Daniele:

And finally a photo that’s not amusing at all but stands mightily for the amazing love animals bring into our lives.

Related Posts:
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
“Bears,” February 23, 2010
"Mama, Biopsies, and My iPad," May 19, 2010
"Milking Cows," June 8, 2010
"Teaching English to Cats," August 6, 2010
"The Purring Heart," November 23, 2010
"The Dogs In My Life," April 18, 2011
“Dog Meat,” December 27, 2009
"My Parents and Dummy," May 13, 2011
"Two Cat Stories: Mama and Barney in the Wild," July 9, 2011

"Zoo Stories," August 30, 2011
“Mama Cat Saves My Life,” October 23, 2011
"Stepping on Cats," February 8, 2012
“Snowbirding, My iPhone 5, and the Coming Crazy Cat Trip,” December 5, 2012
“Barney and the Big Mammal Nightmare,” January 7, 2013 
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Words “Queer” and “Gay” in the 21st Century


PBS recently presented Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Carousel in a splendid new concert version “Live From Lincoln Center.”  In the first song two young female millworkers in 1873 are discussing love and one of them sings to the other “You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan— you’re quieter and deeper than a well.”  There’s nothing extraordinary about the use of the word “queer” here since in the context of the song and its time it simply means “strange.”  When I found myself the next day humming the melody I suddenly focused on the word “queer” in the first line and began to speculate on how the word has evolved since the advent of the gay movement, and wondered whether there is much use of the word outside of that context anymore. 

It seems a shame to so completely preempt an age-old meaning, so, in an attempt to rescue the word “queer” and restore it to its more traditional usage, I will sometimes use it as a verb.  For example, in my classroom I can be heard telling my law students, “If a settlement agreement is set to be signed on Friday, never postpone it until Monday if you can avoid it because all too often something will happen over the weekend to queer the deal.”  The students appear startled (they all know I’m gay), and then relax into the idea that “queer” is rightly used in this fashion.  But that’s as a verb.  Employing “queer” as an adjective is still appropriate solely in the limited setting in which it cannot possibly have a homosexual meaning, as in “She heard a queer noise from the basement.”  Only in those limited references does “queer” survives as a word having its original meaning.

“Gay” springs from the French “gai,” meaning “high-spirited,” which in turn was taken from the Old High German “gahi” where it meant ‘impetuous.” It first turned up in print as a reference to homosexuality in a 1933 dictionary of slang, reflecting an oral tradition that had been around at least since the 1920s, apparently originating in the United States and then moving to Great Britain.  In his 1929 operetta “Bitter Sweet” Noel Coward (himself a homosexual) used it in a song in which very fey men sing “As we are the reason for the 90s being gay, we all wear a green carnation” [see].

Noel Coward
While “queer” has so far survived as a word divorced from its homosexual connotation, it’s a different story for “gay.”  Though modern audiences will accept its old meaning in dated pieces [witness “I feel pretty, and witty, and gay” from West Side Story], no modern speaker or writer intending to convey the idea that someone is “happy” or “light hearted” would call him/her “gay.”  The word’s been swamped completely by historical developments.  Regret it though we might, “gay” can no longer be used to mean “happy.”  Never.  Nowhere.  If you try and use it that way your listener will get a confused message and unnecessary time and energy will be wasted trying to discern what is truly meant.  No one planning to be understood needs that kind of distraction. 

And—alas—people whose first or last name is “Gay” are in for a rough life.
Author Gay Talese and Wife
Related Posts:
“Picking Your Battles: The Meaning of Words,” July 3, 2011
“Pronouncing ‘2012’,” December 31, 2011
“How To Stop Saying ‘You Know’,” April 28, 2012
“Naming Your Baby? Some Mistakes to Avoid,” May 30, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013