Sunday, January 9, 2011

Writer's Toolkit: "The Kennedy Detail"

I recently watched a show on The Discovery Channel called "The Kennedy Detail."  It featured interviews with several members of the Secret Service team who were assigned to the Kennedy family during JFK's presidency. Three of the men who were interviewed were in Dallas on the day the president was shot. One of them was the agent who rode to the hospital sprawled across the trunk of the limo.

In light of the massive security around the president today, the security (or lack thereof) for President Kennedy was almost shocking. 1963 doesn't seem so long ago in the big scheme of things, but the Secret Service was either so naive or so arrogant that it had an almost unconscionably small detail of body guards protecting the president of the United States. The didn't even carry walkie-talkies, and I think such a thing existed at the time. You'd think the organization with responsibility for protecting the Chief Executive would have the latest and greatest technology. All these guys had was sunglasses to prevent people from being able to tell exactly what they were looking at and sidearms in case by some miracle they saw immanent danger in time to shoot.

They were underpaid and dangerously overworked. The same few agents were protecting Mrs. Kennedy, President Johnson and his family and all the dignitaries who attended the funeral. They had been through the worst trauma a body guard can experience: having the person you're protecting blown to bits in front of your eyes. What is more, they had all been on duty for days without hardly any sleep. How effective would they have been if a crisis had erupted at the funeral, given their emotional state and sleep deprivation?

They may have been few and ill-equipped but these men were consummate professionals. That was obvious in the way they described their jobs and their lives. They were also people who lived close to the Kennedy family, and obviously liked or at least respected them. Professionals, yes. But, they all choked up when recalling the day of the assassination itself. Even after 47 years, discussing the events brought those emotions to the surface, and some of them had a very hard time talking about it. I found myself weeping along with them. That was a traumatic event for all Americans. It still scars those of us who remember it. I never thought about it before, but perhaps outside of the Kennedy family, the members of that Secret Service detail (and their own families) may have been scarred more than anybody.

Interestingly, they showed the second greatest emotion when talking about the conspiracy theories. They were clearly angry and resentful of the cockamamie theories that pointed to them as the killers. One of them was still visibly upset at the murder of Oswald, because it meant that we would never know the truth of how or why Oswald killed Kennedy. They all seemed adamant that Oswald was the lone shooter. They were too professional to speculate on why. Decades later they were still pissed that his death meant the mystery could not be solved.

They were emotional, but they remained professional and tried to be as objective as possible. I was impressed and intrigued by their dignity and reserve. They were simple men who had been charged with a massive responsibility.  Through no fault of their own, they were unable to thwart disaster.  That loomed like a terrible specter over all of their lives.

I found myself thinking that guys like that would make really good characters in a story. Hmmm. Maybe an idea in there somewhere.

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