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Sunday, Nov. 24, 1963

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

I remember 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 it.

“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 Worth-Dallas area 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. Kennedy.

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. Kennedy’s Assassination.”

Dallas-area 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 Worth.

“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 Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Washington.”

In addition, 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.

Southwestern 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
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