Beatrice, Nebraska Nov. 1963
I had just turned twelve when I first saw a man die directly in front of me. I remember it well, too. Years later, I could definitely answer the question, “Do you know where you were the day President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed?”
Oh, yeah. I could answer that question with certainty. I was standing in my tree fort overlooking the intersection of 8th and Elk Street in small town Beatrice, Nebraska. It was there that I witnessed the shooting that took place on the same day that President Kennedy got shot and killed. While President Kennedy was mortally wounded by what some would call the magic bullet, another Kennedy was mortally wounded there before me on the Elk Street intersection by another magic bullet. Because the first five bullets fired at him from point-blank range missed him completely. It was the sixth and final shot fired from a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson that took young Jonathan Kennedy’s life.
My best friend, Declan Connors and I were there in our tree fort having a heated argument about gum. In particular, what gum held it’s flavor the longest. I know the topic of our conversation doesn’t sound serious, but for two twelve-year-old boys who had skipped school for the first time there in our Mayberry-like community, a heated debate over gum seemed to be the most important subject in our small, sheltered world.
Tall and slender as a bean pole, Dec fluffed back his long, shaggy blond bangs and huffed, “But, look at the fun you get with Bazooka. Why, do you know how many bubbles you can can blow with just one chaw of that two-bit, pink squishy stuff? And you get a comic inside of every pack. You can’t get that with Juicy Fruit, Hawk!”
Hawk is what almost everyone in town had called me since I was little. My real name is Jessie Hawkins, but a long time ago, Dec’s dad tagged that nickname on me, and it had stuck. Hawk sort of fit me, having a lot of Irish in my family plus a sprinkling of Lakota, I guess an Indian nickname like Hawk was a good thing. Dec always said in the summer time my skin turned almost as dark as my black hair, and made me look like either an Indian or like one of the Gypsies who lived down in Blue Springs south of town.
I did some fluffing of my own scraggly black bangs and said, “Comics are a gimmick to get folks to buy bubble gum. You don’t need comics if you’re a serious gum chewer. Besides, don’t you feel a little more grown-up when you buy a pack of Juicy Fruit? I mean, penny gum like Bazooka is really kid’s stuff, ain’t it?”
Dec said, “Who says I want to feel all grown-up? Besides, how many old folks chew Bazooka? Ever seen an old fart trying to blow a bubble?”
Dec and I were just continuing our argument about gum when the next thing you know, Henry McGinn pulled to a slow stop at the Stop sign at the Elk Street intersection, half a block away from our high look-out position there in our tree fort.
Dec said, “Look, Hawk! If it ain’t King Henry and his Rolls Royce!”
Of course, Henry McGinn wasn’t a king, nor did he drive a Rolls Royce. But he sure acted like one ever since buying that brand spanking new Pontiac. I heard from his daughter, one of my fellow classmates, that Henry saved one out of every four paychecks he got teaching history at the town Middle school for a full year before he had enough saved to buy that car. Henry drove that black and white Pontiac like an old lady going to church on Sunday. He smiled and waved at everyone he happened to pass in his prized mobile. It was one of the Catlin brothers who coined the phrase, “Glory be, here comes the King slow-riding his coach down the bricks!”
And ever since then, everyone in town started calling Henry McGinn, King Henry.
Sitting there at the Stop sign, Henry looked like a Billy Goat with his shaggy goatee and his dark, collar-length hair, craning his long neck as if he were trying to see cars coming from the next county. Only when he was certain that no cars were coming for at least three blocks either way on Elk Street, did he remove his foot from the brake and proceed to place it gently on the accelerator.
And that’s when it happened. A young blond man in his mid-twenties came barreling up behind Henry in his junk heap of a Chevy. Dec swore later that the guy didn’t even brake or even try to steer out around Henry’s shiny new Pontiac in front of him. He simply threw his hands in the air like a man who knew it was too late. Then the blond guy’s old beat-up Chevy slammed into the back end of Henry’s brand new Pontiac with quite a bit devastating force, for he not only dented in Henry’s trunk, but sent his Pontiac flying out into the middle of Elk Street, where he proceeded through the intersection and came to a stop only after striking the elm tree just west of the Presbyterian church.
The blond driver climbed out of his Chevy, looking dazed and con-fused. Henry sat there in his wrecked Pontiac, staring straight ahead like a boxer who was punch-drunk from taking too many shots to the head. I was just switching my gaze to the young driver who was now standing beside his car, when Dec whispered, “Holy Moses!”
I stared down to the street in stunned amazement. Henry was now coming across Elk Street armed with a big, black pistol!
What Henry McGinn was doing driving around town armed with a gun was later speculated about during the investigation that followed. Three days prior to this chance accident at the intersection of Elk, some sinister man had followed Henry’s two young daughters home from the movie theater late at night. Henry had reported the incident to Sheriff Mac, and he’d told Mac that he’d actually locked his doors that night, an almost unheard of precaution in our small town. But evidently, Henry had felt his daughters were being stalked and the .38 Smith and Wesson was considered necessary to keep them safe. It just happened to be at hand when Henry literally snapped there on Friday, November 22, 1963.
Henry shoved his gun into the blond driver’s face and said, “Jon Kennedy, time to die!”
They both struggled over the pistol. Henry began pulling the trigger. One bullet took out the side mirror of Kennedy’s car. Another shattered the back window. Two more made hollow thunking sounds, plowing into the hood of Kennedy’s Chevy. Before the fifth shot was fired, Jon Kennedy almost managed to wrestle the pistol out of Henry’s grasp. But Jonathan’s struggle was fueled by terror, while Henry’s was fueled by rage. And rage beats terror any day. At least, that’s what Dec said later. He must have been right, too. Because at the end of the battle between Henry and Jon, it was Henry’s rage that won out.
Who knows where that fifth bullet flew? The sixth slug, though, that was the magic bullet. Because it not only burrowed a hole into Jon’s left shoulder, but it ricocheted off his collar bone, passed his lungs, struck his lowest rib, and shot back up and plowed a hole clean through his heart. Killing him instantly.
Dec and I knew it had been a magic bullet, because when we snooped through his dad’s files later, we were amazed when we read the coroner’s report. The path of that sixth bullet had been nothing short of a miracle. That’s what Dec said about it anyway. I told him it wasn’t right to call it a miracle when it resulted in Jon Kennedy’s death. But magic? Yes, that was something we both could agree upon when we snooped through those files and learned how that lead slug missed so many vital organs. And then, struck like lightning, taking Jonathan Kennedy out of his life, out of this world, and onto the beyond. As Jon Kennedy fell dead to the pavement, Henry McGinn walked back over to his car and sat down on the curb beside it. It was sad. There he was just minding his own business. Out driving his prized Pontiac. All jolly and happy. Then in an instant, his life changed.
The first one on the scene was Deputy Tyler Burke. Big, blond and mean, Ty was Sheriff Mac’s third in command. Ty Burke had once played football at the University of Nebraska as one of the famous Cornhuskers under the head coach Bob Devaney. Ty had been a great quarterback until a knee injury ended his career as a pro athlete, which resulted in him coming back to his hometown to issue tickets to speeders and to take keys away from drunks at the Blue Lady Lounge on Saturday nights.
Dec whispered, “I hate that guy. Ever since I had a run-in with him down at the rail yards. Ty caught me putting pennies on the tracks to smash flat, but I never did deserve what Ty did to me after that. He took it upon himself to punish me after I called him the name that insulted his mother. Ty made me chew on a bar of soap! It was wrong for him to take on the role of my own dad, and Ty knew it, too! Because after-wards he threatened me, saying if he ever told Sheriff Mac about the soap-chewing incident, Ty swore he’d tell Mac that he’d caught me stealing undergarments off young Carla Bennet’s clothesline!”
Which was so untrue. Dec ain’t above pulling a good prank once in awhile. But fooling around with a young lady’s underwear would have been embarrassing. Ty had him over a barrel. So Dec never did tell Sheriff Mac that Ty had a mean streak in him.
Ty pulled up in the street behind Jonathan Kennedy’s Chevy. He moved like the Tin Man on the Wizard of Oz, when he stepped out of his squad car, his eyes fixed on Jonathan sprawled dead in the street. Maybe it was the fact that Jonathan Kennedy was the first dead person he’d ever seen. Maybe it was because our town had never been witness to a murder in plain sight in the middle of a sunny afternoon.
Big Ty kneeled down beside Jonathan’s body to get a better look at the bloody bullet wound. He then said, “You reaped what you sowed, Jon Kennedy!”
It seemed odd that Ty would even know this stranger to our town. But Ty seemed angry with the dead guy and glad that he was dead.
Ty said, “What happened here, Henry?”
Henry just broke down and started bawling, carrying on like a kid who had been forgotten at Christmas. Ty went over and removed the gun from his hands, then pulled Henry to his feet and led him back over to his patrol car. He put a weeping Henry in the backseat and closed the door on him. Ty then did something peculiar and mysterious, because it really got our detective instincts kicking in and sent us on the adventure we embarked on later.
Ty walked directly up to Jon Kennedy’s Chevy, took the keys out of the ignition, and went deliberately to the trunk of the car. Dec and I stood on tiptoes to see because we had branches blocking our vision. These same clustered branches kept us hidden from the view of Ty as he took a good long look around to see if anyone was watching him.
When he seemed satisfied that no nosey neighbors had come outside yet to see what the commotion was, Ty unlocked the trunk. The second he lifted that trunk lid, Ty choked out in one long gasp, “Oh, Lord Jesus!”