Below is something I wrote back in 2003 and even though I don't write much fiction these days, it is something I am very proud of and on this 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I thought it a good time to share it.
I hope you like it...
(Witness to History)
© 2003 Steve Olenski
My name is Zachary Michael O’Neill. When I was fifteen years old, I witnessed something that forever changed my life. It is something I have kept secret to myself until now. I knew one day the time would come for me to reveal what I have kept hidden all these years.
I do not know why it remained locked within my soul until now. Perhaps it was his passing away. I know many people will be skeptical — some will be cynical. I know many people will simply dismiss this as mere folklore or the aimless and pointless ramblings of a misguided youth. Others will look upon me as nothing more than a spotlight-seeking, attention-grabbing, media hound for what I will reveal will reverberate throughout every classroom, every boardroom, every dorm room, and every hall of justice. It will be discussed around every water cooler in the free world and debated via every news-related source under the sun.
Surely upon reading my story the entertainment television shows and their mindless drivel contemporaries — that unfortunately have now become the main source of news for many Americans, will see fit to bestow the title of cause celeb upon me. But that is perfectly acceptable with me. I have come to grips with the fact that my story and subsequent ramifications it will cause therein is something I cannot control and unfortunately will be forced to deal with.
My story begins in September 1962. I was an only child living with my widowed father in South Philadelphia. When I was eight, my mother, while crossing a street, was struck by two cars simultaneously sandwiching her between two automobiles that were traveling at a very high rate of speed. Her legs, from the knee down, were literally ripped from her body. She was rushed to the hospital, but never regained consciousness.
The drivers of each vehicle were both found to be legally drunk at the time of the accident and naturally walked away from the accident virtually unscathed and never once saw the inside of a jail cell.
A few months later my father lost his job at the Pendergast Tool & Die Company. After that he bounced from job to job, not staying in any particular one for any length of time. His chosen profession was construction.
One day he got a call from an old Army buddy named Lee about a potential job in New Orleans. He told my father it was all but a done deal and that if my father would be willing to relocate, the job was his and would pay him $20,000 a year.
It did not take long for my father to decide what to do next.
Without any real family to speak of and since he never really got along with his in-laws, off we went to The Big Easy.
Needless to say, I was quite apprehensive and distraught about this drastic of a move. I would be leaving all of my friends. I would be starting a new school. I would be starting a new life.
We arrived in New Orleans on Friday, September 21st, 1962. The reason I know the date is I wrote it down. While I didn’t know why at the time, I decided to keep a daily journal beginning with my very first day in my new home.
I thought the summers in Philadelphia were rough with the heat and ridiculous humidity, but compared to the summers in Naw’lens, as the locals refer to it — it was a proverbial walk in the park.
And you wanna talk bugs? I saw things that either crawled, flew or both that could have had TWA printed on their sides.
If that weren’t bad enough the locals would invariably wind up eating many of these same creatures.
My father and I both started our new careers on Monday, September 24th, 1962 — he at the Tobias Construction Company and me at Lafayette Middle School.
Within a few weeks, I made some acquaintances, nothing special and began to settle in to my new surroundings.
My father and I developed a routine of getting up in the morning, having breakfast together, then him driving me to school on his way to work. Most days he would also pick me up at school. On days he was tied up at work, I simply walked the two miles from the school to our house.
Dad found this great little house to rent. It was a one-floor ranch style house, with a big back yard and a garage. I had my own room, which when you’re a teenager and puberty and the corresponding hormones are hurtling themselves in your direction at warp speed and your hormones are in overdrive, is indeed a beautiful thing.
Occasionally his old Army buddy Lee would come by and have a beer with Dad and the two of them would reminisce about their days together in the military. They would always go in the garage to drink and talk. I never thought much of it; only that they were trying to be quiet as I went to bed.
Lee was a small, balding man, not very gregarious toward me. He wasn’t mean or anything, he just didn’t say much to me. A quick ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ was pretty much the extent of our conversations.
Then he stopped coming around. I remember asking my Dad what happened to Lee and why he doesn’t come by anymore.
When I would ask him, my father would quickly change the subject, and I quickly realized it was better to not even bring it up.
Our first Christmas in Naw’lens was, um different. The year before, we awoke on Christmas Day in Philadelphia to thirteen inches of snow.
We awoke on Christmas Day in Naw’lens to a temperature of seventy-five degrees and rain.
“I’m dreaming of a wet and balmy Christmas” just doesn’t cut it. But we made the best of it.
The next year we got to experience our first Mardi Gras. All I will say about that is I think I had a great time. I honestly cannot remember. I would tell you what I wrote in my journal, but the page for that day is blank.
It would turn out to be my one and only Mardi Gras in Naw’lens.
When school ended in early June of 1963, I was anxious to hang out with my friends. There were three of us, all the same age with all the same inexperience and collective wetness behind our ears. We were all eager to explore everything The Big Easy had to offer to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds.
As it would turn out, I would get to hang with my friends a lot more than I had planned on.
So when the ’63 school year ended, I assumed the same curfew would be enacted. I was actually hoping to extend it slightly, perhaps to 10:00PM.
As it would turn out, I got a lot more than I bargained for.
The very first night I was home without the ‘tomorrow’s a school night’ edict hanging over my head, my father informed me I could stay out ‘as long as you want.’
He went a step further and told me not to come home before Midnight.
Why was he telling me this? Why was he allowing his fifteen-year-old son to not only stay out as long as he wanted, but not to return until at least Midnight?
I didn’t know and I didn’t care. All I knew was I was given a free pass and I was not about to question why?
Now, I was not a bad kid or anything. But tell me: What would you have done in my situation?
For the first few weeks of the summer of ’63, I was having a great time. Getting home around 1:00PM each night with not a care in the world.
Granted staying out until such a late hour did cause a cramp in my journal keeping, but I did manage to stay on top of it by writing about my day the following morning(s). On most nights my father would already be asleep when I got home. By the time I got up the following morning, he was already gone, on his way to work.
One night however, things would change.
I believe it was a Thursday. I was out with my friends as per the norm when I suddenly started to feel ill.
Was it something I ate? Perhaps. There are only so many bags of potato chips a person can eat before ones’ innards begin to rebel.
Was it something I drank? Before you start to think that my friends and I were consuming mass amounts of alcoholic-type beverages, think again. Yes, we did occasionally get our hands on some beer or wine, but for
Perhaps it was the combination of the chips and cola that was causing my insides to erupt. I didn’t know and frankly I didn’t care.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to crawl into my bed. I didn’t even notice what time it was. All I knew was I wanted to be home, now.
A block from my house, I noticed the light on in the garage. Then it hit me.
It’s too early. Sure enough I looked at my watch and it read 10:30.
What do I do?
I have to go home. It’s that simple. I know my father told me not to come before Midnight. But this was my father after all and I, his son, was sick. Surely he would understand.
As I approached my house, I could see through the garage window that there were quite a few people inside. They were making quite a bit of noise. No music was playing or anything like that, but rather loud discussions or better still, arguments.
As quietly as I could, I made my way into the house and to my room. My plan was to be as silent as I could until Midnight. It would not be easy.
My silence lasted all of two minutes.
The lava that was the contents of my stomach was beginning to rise to the surface. Eruption was imminent. There was no way I could wait until Midnight. My mind was willing but the intestinal storm inside me was not.
I exited the bathroom after emptying my insides to find my father waiting for me just outside the door. He was not happy.
“What the hell are you doing home?!” he bellowed.
Although I tried to explain the circumstances behind my being home earlier than the pre-determined time, my father had absolutely no compassion.
“I will let it slide this one time” he stated matter-of-factly. “But don’t ever let it happen again.”
I had never seen my father so enraged. I was, for the first time in my life, afraid of my father. I was afraid he would actually physically hurt me. After a pause that seemed to last forever, he threw daggers at me with his eyes, then left to return to the garage.
I went right into my room and closed the door behind me.
I cracked my window to let in some much-needed fresh air, and just as I did I could hear voices. Although I could not see anyone due to the way the house was situated in relation to the garage, I could clearly hear the conversations.
The first voice I heard was that of an Hispanic man. He was speaking Spanish so I could not understand what he was saying. I could however tell from his tone, that he was serious, that he was trying to make a point as his voice kept rising over others.
I then heard a familiar voice, that of my fathers’, but he too was speaking Spanish.
‘Since when does my Dad speak Spanish?‘
I then heard another familiar voice, that of Lee — Dad’s old Army buddy that hadn’t been around in quite some time.
Lee too, was not speaking English. But he was not speaking Spanish, either. I did not recognize what language it was at the time. I would come to learn later that it was Russian.
There were others in the garage but the three doing the most talking were my dad, Lee and the Hispanic man. There was some English being spoken, but in my near-catatonic state, I was not able to decipher or remember much. The only thing I would recall the next day was my father saying, in English:
“No, I still say it’s got to be October. It makes the most sense. St. Louis in October.” My father was quite adamant in his tone.
The next day I awoke expecting another tongue-lashing but instead found my father cooking breakfast, acting as if nothing had ever happened.
But I never forgot what I overheard that night.
September came and it was back to school and the 9:00PM curfew was reinstated. As soon as the school year began, the meetings in the garage ended. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is exactly the time of year that Lee stopped coming around the year before.
Given what had transpired during the summer, I thought or assumed that our daily routine of dad driving me to school and picking me up would cease. I guess I figured he might be mad at me still, even though he never yelled at me again.
But once again, my father surprised me and on my first day of school in September of ’63, there he was — ready to take me to school.
Even though things had returned to some sense of normalcy, I still not could get out of my mind what I heard my father say or what exactly it meant. As I said earlier, my father was adamant, almost defiant in his stance.
When October rolled in, I nervously, or better still, anxiously waited for my father to tell me he was going to St. Louis. Why? I didn’t know, really. I just expected him to tell me this at some point.
But that never happened.
In the early morning of Wednesday, November 13th, I was suddenly awakened by the sound of the phone ringing. It was 2:00AM.
Thought: Why is that whenever the phone rings in the middle of the night, it’s more than likely
But I digress.
Since his room was right next to mine, I could hear my father speaking to someone on the other end. He spoke in Spanish and English.
Unlike the last time I overheard a conversation my father had in which he spoke Spanish, I was completely in control of my faculties and wasn’t faced with the urge to visit the porcelain god every two minutes.
And while he tried to keep his voice down, he raised it a few octaves during the course of the conversation thereby allowing me to clearly hear what he was saying.
It was during the higher-volume portions of the call that I was able to make out my father saying the words, verbatim:
‘Ft. Worth. Dallas. Houston. November.’
The next morning I remember asking my father who had called so early in the morning.
Hesitating at first, he said it was Lee.
“What did he want?” I inquired.
“Nothing, just needed to talk to me about something,” my father replied.
With that, the subject was closed and off to work and school my father and I went, respectively.
I could not concentrate all day. My father was into something, but I didn’t know what. I could just feel it. I could not escape this overriding feeling. I could not come out and ask him for fear of angering him. I needed to know. I guess I would just have to wait until something happened that was out of the ordinary and that hopefully would shed some light.
It would not be a very long wait.
The next Thursday, November 21st, my father picked me up at school and announced that he had to go to Dallas later than night. He explained to me that he was asked to go to Dallas by his boss to help on a construction site. He told me he would only be gone one night and would be back late Friday evening.
We arrived back at our house, my father went to his room, packed a large suitcase and left. It was that quick. It was that abrupt. He was gone.
About an hour after he left, I made a decision. I made a decision that would change my life forever.
I decided I needed to go to Dallas. Why? I had no idea. All I knew was I needed to go to Dallas. My father was going to Dallas and he was up to something. I had no idea what. I just knew I had to go.
Scraping every last penny I could find, I rounded up what I hoped was enough money to purchase a round trip bus ticket to Dallas.
I went to the bus station as soon as I awoke the next morning.
Fortunately for me, I did in fact have enough money to purchase the ticket and I was on the 8:10AM bus to Dallas. Sitting on the bus, it hit me.
‘Why didn’t I think of this sooner?’
‘Why did my father need to take such a large suitcase with him if he was only going one night? He could’ve easily fit one day’s worth of clothes in a smaller bag.’
Now, my curiosity as well my heart was racing. Upon arriving in Dallas other thoughts came across my mind.
‘How in the world am I going to find my father?’
‘Why didn’t I ask him the name of the construction site he would be working at?’
‘I could’ve just told him I needed to know in case I had to reach him in an emergency.’
‘Why am I just thinking of this now?!’
Walking through the bus station, I felt this overwhelming sense of electricity around me. There was a buzz among the patrons that day. It was clearly discernible.
“Come on, we gotta hurry up,” said one woman hurriedly to her husband.
“What time is he getting here?” asked a man of another as they stood in line to buy a newspaper.
I had to find out what was going on. I went up to a little old man who stood patiently waiting to shine shoes. He was easily in his sixties, perhaps even older. He wore a kind face so I felt comfortable approaching him.
“Excuse me, sir. Can you please tell me what everyone is so excited about?”
“Are you kidding me? You really don’t know?”
“No, I really don’t. I just got off a bus from New Orleans.”
“The President’s coming to town today! He’s gonna be here in the afternoon and he’s gonna ride through the streets so everyone can see him and wave to him!”
“The President?” I asked just to confirm.
“Yeah, John Fitzgerald Kennedy himself, right here in Dallas.”
“Where will he be?”
“Well, I don’t know ‘zactly, but I’m heading over to Dealey Plaza cause that’s one place I know he’s gonna be passin’ through.”
I slowly ambled away from the man and began to walk away and head toward an exit door to begin the search for my father.
“Hey, you wanna come wit’ me?” a voice cried out.
I turned in the direction of the voice and it was the same little old man.
Thinking to myself that I didn’t really have any idea of where to start to look for my father and this may be a once in a lifetime chance to see the President of the United States in person…
“Sure. I’ll go with you.”
Why I decided to go anywhere with a total stranger was beyond me, but off we went.
About halfway into the twenty-minute car ride over to the Plaza, a strange, yet unmistakable sensation came over me. I had never felt these feelings of unnerving anxiety combined with maddening anticipation before in my life and frankly never have since.
As we approached our destination, we could see that there were hundreds, if not thousands of people already there, lining the streets surrounding the Plaza awaiting their chance for a glimpse of the President.
The old man, whose name I never did get, nor he mine — parked his car as close to the Plaza as possible, which was about three city blocks away.
We walked the three blocks and stopped at the corner of Elm and Houston Streets. The electricity in the air was absolutely palpable. I got chills standing on that street corner. It seemed as if the whole city came out to see the President. And I had completely forgotten about looking for my father. It was the furthest thing from my mind.
I said goodbye to my newfound friend, thanked him for the ride and off I went.
I didn’t get very far until the crowd was in a complete frenzy. I asked someone what was happening and they told me that someone had spotted the President’s motorcade and that it would soon be here.
So I stopped right where I was and decided this would be my vantage point to see the President of the United States as he passed by.
What would transpire over the next several minutes would change my life forever.
I spotted the President’s motorcade across Elm and across the Plaza. It seemed to be moving in slow motion; it was travelling very slowly.
He would be passing by me from my left to my right. My heart was pumping extremely fast and I was sweating. The noise was deafening. It was as all just so exciting. I thought about my friends back home in New Orleans and how I couldn’t wait to tell them that I got to see the President! How I would explain being in Dallas was another story.
The motorcade turned the corner onto Elm and for the first time, I could make out the President’s face.
‘Wow, that’s really the President!’ I thought to myself.
Suddenly and without warning, the President threw his hands in the air. It just seemed out of place. You didn’t know why or what has happening, it just seemed odd. He wasn’t waving or anything, he just threw his arms up.
Almost instantaneously, someone yelled out that the President’s been shot. Not everyone heard this as most
Not thirty yards from where I was, a man stood with a rifle in his hands. He was in a shooting position. I distinctively remember thinking to myself, ‘Who is this and what is he doing?’ and ‘Why isn’t anyone stopping him?’
The entire area erupted in complete panic-mode. A man screams in pain and a woman shrieks like the wail of an air raid siren. Police whistles blow from every direction. People fall to the ground for safety. I however, did not. My focus was on the man with the rifle.
I started in his direction and saw that he now was carrying a bag over his shoulder, which presumably contained the rifle, which was now nowhere to be found. He was now walking away from where he had stood just minutes before. He was not running. He was walking and was doing so in a very calm manner. I got to within maybe twenty feet when I finally got my first, real good look at this man.
Webster tells us that the word “surreal” means having the intense irrational reality of a dream.
Intense irrational reality is the perfect way to describe what I was feeling throughout every fiber of my being as I confirmed that the man I just witnessed shooting at the President of the United States was in fact, my father. Or someone who bore an unbelievable and uncanny likeness to him.
Somehow I ended up on the ground as when I awoke from my surrealistic dream that is where I lay. Gathering what was left of my senses, I immediately got up to look for my father. I ran in the direction I last saw him, but he was not there.
I thought I spotted him near some train tracks. But it was not he. I thought I saw him amidst a crowd of people standing on the Plaza grass. Again, it was not he. I even thought I saw him when I made my way back to the bus station, several hours later. Again, a false alarm.
I didn’t want to leave, but I knew I had to. So back on the bus and back to New Orleans I headed. What awaited me there was anyone’s guess. On the ride home there were so many thoughts and scenarios running through my head.
‘Do I go to the Police?’ ‘Would they even believe me?’
‘Do I confront my father?’ ‘What do I say to him?’
I had a lot of thinking to do and spent the entire ride home planning my next move.
By the time I turned the corner and spotted my house for the first time since the incident, my decision had already been made.
I was going to confront my father. I felt I had no choice. I had to find out what he was doing in Dallas. The closer I got to my front door, the more I wanted to run away and hide. I opened the door and to my relief and amazement, my father was not home yet. It seems I had gotten home before him somehow.
Of course all this new found free time allowed me to start thinking of altering my plan. I literally went through a roller coaster of emotions and thoughts:
‘You know it might not have been my dad I saw.’
‘It is possible it was someone else.’
‘But if it wasn’t him, then what was he doing in Dallas?’
‘After all, I heard him mention Dallas specifically during that early-morning phone call.’
This game of emotional Ping-Pong went on for the next hour or so until…
The front door opened and there appeared my father, looking like he had just gone through a car wash without the car. Haggard. Disheveled. Unkempt. He walked right past me without so much of a greeting and went straight to his room, closed the door behind him and proceeded to sleep to until around 5:00PM the
Now, given the fact that the news about the President was everywhere on the radio and TV and that everyone was talking about it — and that my father had just returned from the very same city in which the President was shot, you would think he would at the very least want to talk about it.
I guess not.
I was in the kitchen when he awoke and came in to find me sitting at the table. He joined me at the table and asked me how things were in his absence. I lied and told him things were fine. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I decided to stick to my guns.
“Dad, can I ask you something?”
“What were you doing in Dallas?”
My tone must’ve spoken volumes because my father fired back at me.
“What? What’ya mean, what was I doing in Dallas? I was there on work, you know that.”
My dad sat up in his chair.
“Anything else? What the hell’s goin’ on? Why do I get the feeling I’m being interrogated?”
“Dad, I have something to tell you.”
“I was in Dallas yesterday, too.”
My father cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink.
“Okay, what the hell is going on? I want to know exactly what you’ve been doing since I left. And I want to know now.”
“After you left, I decided to follow you to Dallas.”
“What? … Why?!”
“Because there were just too many strange and unanswered things going on around here and something told me to go.”
“Yeah, like the people in the garage that night when I came home sick. They were speaking Spanish. You were speaking Spanish. I never knew you could speak Spanish.”
“Like that phone call in the middle of the night when I heard you say the words Dallas and November to the person on the other end. Then a week later you tell me you have to go to Dallas that same night.”
“I can’t explain it, Dad. I just got this feeling. That’s it.”
My father sat stone cold quiet for the next few minutes.
“What did you think I was up to in Dallas? What did you think you would find me doing in Dallas?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I really didn’t.”
“So you followed me to Dallas. I don’t even wanna know how you got to Dallas, but okay.”
“I took a bus.”
“Where’d you get the money for that? Never mind. Well obviously you weren’t able to find me cause I never saw you at the construction site I was working at.”
“Well Dad, that’s just it. I did see you.”
Here it comes, I thought to myself. Now I sat up in my chair.
“Dad I was there. I was there when the President got shot.”
“What?! How the hell did you get there?”
“It doesn’t matter. I was there.”
“Wow! That must’ve been something son. Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Did you get hurt?”
“After the chaos started Dad, I saw a man shooting a rifle at the President.”
“What?! Are you kidding me?”
“I got a real good look at him, too.”
“Really? So you can identify him?”
“Yes, I can.”
‘This is incredible. I cannot believe this. You realize you are witness to history? This is incredible! We have to call somebody.”
Now either my father was the greatest actor in the world or he really was not where I thought he was because he genuinely seemed and sounded completely taken aback and in total shock over what I had just told him.
“Dad, there’s one more thing.”
“More? Jeezus! What else?”
‘The man I saw shooting the President… kinda’ looked liked… you. Plus…right before you got up just now, they flashed a picture on the TV of the man they have accused in the shooting of the President. His name is Lee Harvey Oswald. And he looks exactly like your Army buddy Lee.”
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, I stood up and moved to the other side of the kitchen. My father remained seated.
Having just got this most recent news, coupled with what I already knew, my head was spinning and my emotions were in a free-fall.
“Dad, what the hell is goin’ on?”
I had never used bad language in front of my father before.
Over the next three and a-half-hours my father and I spoke, right there in the kitchen. He told me everything. He told me of being in Dallas. He told me that it was in fact the same Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of shooting the President of the United States that had been to our house.
He told me he didn’t tell me the truth for reasons of national security. That he was protecting me. He told me of the evil that was President Kennedy and that he needed to be stopped and that if they didn’t do it, someone else would.
And he apologized. A lot. And said he hoped I could one day forgive him.
I went to my room and literally shut myself off from the world. No TV. No radio. Nothing. I did not want to talk to anyone nor see anyone.
I was preparing for school on Monday when my dad told me that schools had been closed as a result of the President being shot.
I returned to my room and stayed there.
Two months later my father told me we were moving to Tennessee.
Neither one of us ever mentioned New Orleans, Dallas, JFK or anything remotely related to the incidents ever again.
I am forty-two years old now. Married with one son. Last week I said goodbye to my father. He passed away quite suddenly and unexpectedly.
The doctor told me it was a massive heart attack brought on by stress. He told me he was surprised because my father had always been the picture of health.
“It’s as if his heart just gave out,” the doctor said to me.
Guess you can only keep a secret for so long.
All images courtesy of Google Images