Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Fate of Kings

While driving home today, I noticed the American and Texas flags flying at half mast. Why? I wondered. Could it be for the Crocodile Hunter? No, of course not. Then I remembered Nellie Connally. Yes, that was it. Nellie Connally, the former First Lady of Texas, died here in Austin the other day, and today she was buried beside her husband, Gov. John Connally, in the Texas State Cemetery.

Mrs. Connally was the last surviving passenger in the limousine that carried President John F. Kennedy through the streets of Dallas in 1963. It was she who uttered the last words JFK ever heard in this world: “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”

Unfortunate words, unfortunate timing.

Mrs. Connally is widely credited with saving her husband’s life. After he was shot, she pushed him to the floor and applied pressure to his chest wound, thus preventing a more serious loss of blood.

If Vice President Lyndon Johnson had had it his way, the Connallys would not have been in the limousine that day. Johnson expected that his bitter political enemy, Senator Ralph Yarborough, would ride with the Kennedys. But upon arrival at Love Field in Dallas, he learned that Yarborough would be riding with him, while his long-time friend and protégé, John Connally, would ride in the Kennedy car.

Johnson was furious. He protested, but to no avail. In the end, Yarborough rode with Johnson. For the duration of the motorcade, Johnson sat slumped in his seat, grimly staring ahead, not waving at the people on the street. Then, according to Yarborough, as they approached Dealey Plaza, Johnson suddenly sprang into movement. He ducked down behind the seat before the first shot was fired.

I have always suspected that Yarborough was meant to be shot along with Kennedy. Kill two troublesome birds with one stone, so to speak. But the last-minute seating change saved Yarborough's life. And nearly got Connally killed.

In other words, one of the shooters may have been given instructions to shoot the man seated in front of Kennedy. But, there being no time to inform the shooter of the seating change, the shooter fired, surprising the hell out of Connally who famously cried, “Oh my God, they’re going to kill us all!”

I used to see Ralph Yarborough in the 80s when I lived in central Austin. He lived nearby and frequented the same Kentucky Fried Chicken as I did. He walked with a cane, but he walked straight and was well dressed and dignified, the very picture of a Southern gentleman. Whenever I saw him, I would think, “There goes the man who almost died with Kennedy.”

And I met John Connally a couple of years after the assassination. It was at a Texas Press Association banquet in Nacogdoches. After the banquet, my father took me over to meet him. He was tall and handsome, and silver-haired; he looked straight down at me from that great height, smiled, shook my hand, and said in a booming voice, “Hi, Mack!"

I saw him again 20 years later. My daughter and I went to downtown Austin to watch the Sesquicentennial parade, and there were John and Nellie Connally riding in a convertible, smiling and waving. I wondered if it made them nervous to engage in that activity.

Well, John and Nellie now lie in the Texas State Cemetery. And Jack and Jackie now lie in Arlington Cemetery. Which brings to mind the time I visited their graves …

It was eight years ago. I was attending the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. One day I decided to take a break from sitting at a table all day signing comics and ride the subway into Washington, D.C., to sightsee.

It was my second time in D.C. The first time had been a few years earlier when I accompanied my first wife on a business trip there. This was right after Admiral Boorda’s “suicide.” Flags were flying at half-mast all over the city.

But, on this second visit to D.C., I was divorced and unencumbered by a wife, therefore was free to see whatever I wanted and take as long as I pleased. I spent hours in the Smithsonian’s American History museum, visited an art museum I forget the name of, gawked at the bullet mark on the White House recently left by a Brazilian “tourist," saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, hung out in front of the Lincoln Memorial talking to a Vietnam vet who was manning a booth dedicated to the vets, then decided to spend the last two or three hours remaining of the afternoon by walking across the Potomac bridge and visiting Arlington Cemetery.

Lord, was that a long walk. And hot. I began to doubt the wisdom of doing this on foot. But I persevered.

Arlington Cemetery was crowded with tourists; the atmosphere was festive, unlike any cemetery I had ever seen before. In the visitor center, I learned that Arlington is much too big to see on foot. Instead, it is advisible to tour the cemetery by tram cars that make regular stops at various points of interest. However, the first point of interest—and the most popular—is only a short walk from the visitor center, so there is no need to take the tram. This is the burial place of the Kennedys. All you have to do is follow the signs, and/or the crowd.

The crowd was talkative on the way up the hill, but as we got closer to the graves a hush fell. I heard a mother whisper to her little girl: “This is where President Kennedy is buried.” And the girl replied in a tiny, awed voice, “President Kennedy is buried here?”

Twenty or more people stood around the graves of Jack and Jackie Kennedy. No one spoke; there was only the soft click-and-whir of cameras, as we took pictures of the gravestones and the Eternal Flame.

I read the gravestones over and over. Those names, those famous names, names we first read in newspapers, magazines, books, now on gravestones lit by the hot September Washington sun; these larger-than-life people dead now, bones frail and crumbling to dust, the book forever closed on their earthly lives.

And a short walk away, Bobby Kennedy’s grave, less assuming than his brother’s: a simple white headstone like most of those in the cemetery, just another soldier among many, ordinary till you got closer and read the name.

And later on the tour, in another part of the cemetery, the grave of Audie Murphy, war hero and movie star, also with a simple white headstone, in the midst of other such headstones—those who were mythic in life, and those who lived their lives more humbly, all sleeping the same sleep, in the same forgetful earth.

The fate of kings, and the fate of paupers, the same …