What Might Have Been

A glimpse of history lasts a lifetime.


If my father had not been such a nimble driver—if there had been a different outcome to my family’s head-on meeting with a certain shiny limousine on the streets of Washington, D.C., back in May of 1963—you would have already heard a different version of this story. Oliver Stone and the conspiracy scholars would have long ago elevated it to “second-gunman” or “silver bullet” status: “Remember the CIA agent who tried to run him down!” But it wasn’t like that at all.


My father was a career intelligence officer who started with the Office of Strategic Services in Ceylon during World War II. After the war, when the OSS became the Central Intelligence Agency, Dad stayed on at headquarters in McLean, Virginia, for 33 years. He and my mother raised four children in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and on the night in question—Wednesday, May 29, 1963—all six of us were on our way to the weekly testimony meeting at a Christian Science church in Washington, D.C.


As always, Dad was at the wheel of our 1962 Ford Falcon station wagon, and followed our usual route up the George Washington Parkway, under the low-flying jets landing at National Airport, and across the Potomac River on the 14th Street Bridge. We skirted the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, and drove up 17th Street, with the Washington Monument spiking into the sky on our right, and an upside down image of the Lincoln Memorial shimmering in the Reflecting Pool off to our left.


I was seated directly behind my father and looking over his shoulder as we neared the White House. It was about quarter-till-eight, and with daylight savings and the lengthening days there was still plenty of light out. Traffic was thin—the streets seemed unusually deserted.


Something else unusual drew the silent attention of all of us in the car. Directly ahead, right in the middle of 17th Street, a policeman was casually waving us forward. I was nearly twelve years old, and we’d been making this trip into Washington twice a week for as long as I could remember, but never before had we seen a policeman stationed here. The officer was signaling us to keep coming, so Dad kept his speed steady—right at the speed limit where he always kept it.


And that’s when a limousine with a brilliant black gloss, and apparently driven by someone accustomed to having a path cleared for him, lurched from the side entrance of the White House—zipping in from our right—and was suddenly in the intersection just a few feet in front of us, collision obviously unavoidable.


Dad stomped the brakes and everyone—no seat belts in 1963—pitched forward. I braced with both hands against the front seat, and thought: “My first accident!” But the crash didn’t happen. Somehow Dad stopped the car about a quarter-inch short of broadsiding the limousine. Perhaps the other driver had veered slightly at the last instant—whatever the case it seemed miraculous that we hadn’t rammed him.


As we sat in the intersection, the limousine driver slowed, looped into the intersection to give himself room to maneuver, and then a left turn around us so that he was headed back down 17th Street in the direction from which we had just come. As it rolled past us, the limousine’s tires were about a foot from the far side of the double-yellow line, and our tires were about a foot from the near side.


The Newsham family watched slack-jawed as two staggeringly handsome adult faces appeared at the limousine’s side window. John and Jackie Kennedy were smiling broadly, even laughing, waving silent apologies for their own driver and their thanks to ours. I was seated on the car’s left side, with my window rolled down, the prime spot. The limousine’s rolled-up windows were tinted but not blacked out, and, in the slow motion moment that followed, I looked right into the eyes of the President and First Lady from no more than five feet away. In two separate strobes, I felt the jolt of each of their gazes connecting with mine. And then they were gone.


We read in the paper the next day that it was John’s birthday and they were headed to a party at the estate of the family matriarch, Rose Kennedy, out in the Virginia countryside. In November came the unbelievable news from Dallas. Days later, on our way home from church on a Sunday afternoon, Dad stopped and parked the car just a few blocks from the White House. We joined an enormous but absolutely silent crowd, and had just arrived when we heard the staccato sound of horses’ hooves striking pavement—the only audible sound. Dad snatched me up and perched me on his shoulders.


I’d never seen a crowd so big or so dense—in every direction the streets were thronged from storefront to storefront. It was late November, chilly, and the trees had dropped their leaves, but their limbs were covered with people who had climbed up, desperate for a look. And then, over the tops of the thousands of heads and hats in front of me, I saw the flag-draped casket sweep into view, loaded onto a wagon pulled by a string of regal horses moving at a trot. Clippetty-cloppety-cloppety-cloppety—still the only audible sound. The hair stood up on my arms then, as it does now. And then the horses were gone, and Jack Kennedy was gone, having touched not just one twelve-year old boy and his family, but having touched all of us, and leaving us to sort out just what had happened and to wonder about just what might have been.


Brad Newsham is a San Francisco cab driver and author of two round-the-world travel memoirs—All the Right Places and Take Me With You. On September 11, 2002, he founded Backpack Nation, an organization whose aim is to dispatch globe-roaming ambassadors to act as agents of peace in the world. For more information or to contact Brad, go to www.backpacknation.org or www.bradnewsham.com.

2015-12-04T08:58:39-07:00