CLEVELAND - His eyes are quiet as is his voice as he speaks matter-of-factly of the bullets that whizzed by him, striking President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on the day an assassin's bullets killed the nation's chief executive.
Paul Landis has replayed the story in his mind tens of thousands of times. He was with the president, as part of the Secret Service detail that trotted with the slow-moving limousine in which President Kennedy rode.
Landis, who now works as a security guard at the Western Reserve Historical Society, a museum dedicated to the history of Northeast Ohio, speaks without a hesitation in his voice as he tells the story of the assassination of an American president.
"I heard the gunshot," Landis said. "It came over my right shoulder." He was trotting next to the right rear of the follow-up car behind the president's Lincoln Continental limousine. Then quickly, there came a second shot.
Landis said he and the several other secret service agents immediately looked toward the direction of the rifleshot as each man positioned himself to protect Kennedy, who was riding in the backseat of a convertible with the top down.
"And when my eyes came back to the president again, it was a third shot and that was the one that hit him in the head," Landis said.
Nov. 22, 1963, had been cloudy earlier in the day, but by the time president and Mrs. Kennedy had seated themselves in their limousine, the sun had appeared. The president wanted the hardtop of the convertible removed so as to enable the crowds that had gathered along the Dallas parade route to better see him.
Kennedy was in Dallas to shore up Democrat support. In the motorcade with him were Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. The Johnsons were Texans. Noting the crowd that had welcomed the president, Mrs. Johnson had mentioned its size, telling Kennedy how much he was admire by her fellow Texans.
Also in the motorcade was Texas Gov. John Connally, who was also wounded by the gunman, who fired from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository building.
Landis said once the president was shot, there was bedlam. Those who lined the motorcade route dived to the ground, and Secret Service agents and police pulled their weapons, looking frantically for who was behind the gunshots.
The president grimaced, grabbing his neck, then slumped. Mrs. Kennedy, sitting next to her husband, climbed out her seat and crawled over the trunk of the car to retrieve a piece of his skull that had been shot away. Moving pictures from that day in Dallas show Mrs. Kennedy moving toward the trunk while Secret Service agent Clint Hill ran toward the presidential car.
"We got off the running boards (of the trailing car) and moved up to take a position by his car," Landis said. Photographs and films show his movements as Landis described them.
For more than 30 years, Landis, whose full head of white hair is combed neatly, much as it was during his service for the president, has lived in a Cleveland suburb, electing to say very little about his position as a member of what has become known as the Kennedy Detail. He said over the years, once people realize where he was the day the President was killed, conversations immediately turn to the assassination. He service began began during the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Few people in Cleveland have known of Landis' former position in the Kennedy White House Secret Service detail. Few people knew the quiet man guarding the museum's objects and artifacts of history actually guarded the President of the United States on a fateful day in history.
On the day of the interview, he was comfortable with talking of all aspects of the assassination. Remembering the scene at Dallas' Dealey Plaza, where to make a tight turn, the presidential limousine driver had to slow the big car to about 11 miles an hour. It was at that time, the shots sliced through the air.
Landis said within seconds after the gunshots, the limousine driver floored the accelerator of the big car, speeding to the nearest medical facility, Parkland Hospital. During the drive, Kennedy's wounded head was cradled in his wife's lap. At the hospital, Mrs. Kennedy had to be coaxed from the vehicle as she sat almost silently, staring into space.
Landis, who at the White House was usually assigned to guard Mrs. Kennedy and the two children, Caroline and John Jr., sat in a hospital hallway with the grieving First Lady, while doctors worked to keep the president alive.
"She just sat staring into space," Landis said, his eyes clear and focused as he remembered the scene. He told the story as if he were watching a film of that crime unroll in his brain.
He recalled the blood and tissue from her husband's wounds were evident over the First Lady's dress as trails of blood ran down her legs. It was the same dress she wore back to Washington hours later, electing to not change clothes.
"I want America to see," she would say, hours after later after the President's
body was removed from Dallas for the flight back to Washington, D.C. It was the day America changed. It was the day the nation, itself, was wounded.
Landis said with the death of President Kennedy, while other authorities were in search of the gunman, Secret Service agents on the Kennedy Detail were immediately shifted to protecting the new president, Lyndon Johnson. He said there was no time to grieve because no one knew the identity of those responsible for shooting the president.
It could have been a conspiracy to kill Vice President Johnson, too. It could have been a foreign country behind the assassination. In the early hours of the crime that shook America and much of the rest of the world, no one knew how deep was the crime or who might be involved.
When asked if there was psychological counseling for any of the Kennedy Detail, Landis answered in a soft voice. "No, that wasn't even thought of and heard of," he said, adding that he and other agents were in psychological pain.
The next year, 1964, Landis left the Secret Service, attributing his change to the assassination itself.
However, in 2010, fellow former agent Gerald Blaine penned a book on the Secret Service agents who were assigned to protect President Kennedy and his family. It was that book, "The Kennedy Detail," which prompted the White House agents to gather and share their stories with each other for the first time. They found their gathering therapeutic, where each man recounted how the assassination had impacted his life.
"Up until then, I never said much about the Secret Service or of working on the presidential detail in 1963," said Landis, as he recounted that time in his life. However, it was also Blaine's book that provided a therapy for Landis and his former colleagues. "That's the best thing that happened to me since the assassination."
The book also spawned a documentary, "The Kennedy Detail," produced by the Discovery Channel. In the documentary, the Secret Service members who were with President Kennedy when an assassin's bullets took his life are shown speaking with each other, sharing their stories, and finding support from their own group.
Landis said he was no longer haunted by the events of that day, which many sociologists said robbed America of its innocence. Landis, dressed in a blue sweater and checkered blue and white shirt, sat easily in one of the rooms of the museum. With his legs crossed, he spoke easily of the Kennedy Detail and of what he saw and heard that November day in Dallas.
Strangely, in one of the corners of the museum, which also houses a collection of vintage automobiles, is a Lincoln Continental car eerily reminiscent of the one the President was riding in when bullets struck him and wounded Gov. Connally.
In part of the interview with Landis, he stopped at the car and looked at it as he has no doubt done thousands of times in his security walk through the museum.
Of the man whom the U.S. government said killed Kennedy, Landis would say only that he believed Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. He said he was aware of conspiracy theories, but dismisses them.
Oswald, arrested later by Dallas police on the day of the assassination, was, hours later, murdered by a Dallas bar owner, Jack Ruby. Ruby, armed with a pistol, had walked into the Dallas police station and fired a bullet into Oswald as police paraded Oswald from one area to another so that news photographers could get pictures.
The murder of Oswald was broadcast on live television as the networks cameras were focused on the man who denied killing Kennedy, saying only he was "a patsy" for the assassination.
For Landis, memories of the assassination are never far away. Forty-eight years later, he said they surface at times. The day marked a turning point in his life and his career. The day marked a turning point in the life of the United States when the President of the United States was gunned down in front of a crowd of thousands of people as they applauded his visit to Dallas.
At the museum, Landis daily walks the quiet hallways where history is exhibited on its walls. However, Paul Landis is walking history, having been close to the President of the United States when bullets streaked through the sunlit air of Dallas, finding a gunman's mark .
It is a story which still rivets the attention of those old enough to remember that day in 1963 when a gunman killed President John F. Kennedy. It also holds the attention of millions more who have since followed the story, which still has the power to give birth to books, documentaries, movies, studies and conspiracy theories. In many ways, the assassination of President Kennedy wounded the entire country, including Paul Landis and his fellow Secret Service agents whose job it was to protect the life of the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States.
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