“This picture was taken by a man who was standing by the intersection of Houston and Elm Streets,” says Ernest Brandt, pointing to a grainy photo of Dealy Plaza.
“You see, he’s aimed toward Kennedy right here, and Mrs. Kennedy right here (pointing, respectively, to blurry images of the President and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy). Back there, you can see Mr. Zapruder with his secretary (points to a couple near the top of the image). He’s the man who took the famous movies of the assassination, you know.
“And do you see the man in the dark hat right there?” Brandt points to a blurred, fedora-topped figure positioned remarkably close to the Kennedys’ convertible. “That’s me,” he says.
With that, he draws a well-worn black hat from a plastic memorabilia-filled bag.
“This is the very same hat I wore on assassination day.”
On Nov. 22, 1963, a 37-year-old Brandt was lunching near Downtown with a business associate. Brandt says he mentioned that Kennedy would be routing through Dallas in about half an hour. The associate said he’d like to see the motorcade.
“If he hadn’t been interested, I wouldn’t have gone. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel strongly about it either way.”
In order to avoid the dense crowd, Brandt and his acquaintance decided to post-up at Dealey Plaza, the last block of Kennedy’s route, where the crowd had thinned.
“There was only a single row of spectators along the plaza near the Stemmons Freeway underpass,” Brandt says.
“We arrived at 12:20 p.m. and had a spot right up front … as the president’s motorcade turned onto Elm Street, a woman in a blue dress nudged me and said, ‘This would be the perfect day to rob a bank in the suburbs’ — she was, of course, referring to all the police in town being occupied with the President’s visit. That was just a few seconds before the first shots were fired.”
John F. Kennedy was shot at 12:30 p.m., just 15 feet from where Brandt, his associate and the lady in the blue dress stood.
“At first I thought it was one of the police motorcycles backfiring … but then there was another shot. I don’t mind telling you, I got scared. My heart started pounding … I ran behind this little tree, and I looked around to see what was happening … the driver had slowed, didn’t stop, but brake lights went on for a second, and then he hit the accelerator and black smoke poured out of the exhaust and, vroom, he was gone through the triple underpass.”
Since witnessing the Kennedy assassination, Brandt has spent decades researching and discussing the events of the day. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, including “48 Hours” with Dan Rather in 1995. He has recounted his eyewitness account, ad infinitum, to students, conspiracy theorists (“There were three shots,” he says. “I try to convince the conspiracy people that there is no conspiracy.”) and tourists — he volunteered as a tour guide at the Sixth Floor Museum for three years, and he taught a series of JFK classes at the University of Texas.
Others who have studied the assassination say that, with eyewitnesses to the killing dwindling as the years pass, people who remember are a significant source of understanding such a traumatic event in history.
“I’m not sure how many eyewitnesses of the shooting are still alive today, but I know their numbers are getting fewer and fewer. After all, it occurred 46 years ago,” says Darwin Payne, a former reporter who covered the assassination for the Dallas Times Herald. Now a professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Payne has written history books that include details about the JFK assassination.
“This is one of the most historic and most devastating single events of the American 20th century,” says Payne. “Certainly we owe it to history to have the accounts of all who were there and witnessed the shooting. Every little detail we have helps us to understand more about this tragic event.”
Brandt is more than happy to share the details he remembers with anyone who wants to listen. In fact, every Nov. 22, you can find him standing in that spot at Dealey Plaza, near the tree behind which he hid that life-altering day. He’s the guy in the old dress hat.
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