The other day I was at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza — I’ve been getting around lately, it’s been a little crazy — and I listened to Bill and Gayle Newman and their two sons, Billy and Clayton, talk about what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. They were the closest bystanders to the Kennedy assassination other than the people in the limousine and the motorcycle cops. The two boys were just 4 and 2 at the time.
They had been standing on the north side of Elm Street, watching the approaching motorcade, when they heard the first shots. Firecrackers? Just as the limousine was passing in front of them, barely 15 feet away, the fatal shot struck Kennedy. You’ve seen the film, you know what happened, and I don’t need to get into the ghastly details here. The parents got down and covered their children, and remained there for a couple of minutes, shielding the boys in case more gunfire erupted.
A few minutes later they were brought to a local TV station, WFAA, and gave their first interviews, holding the boys in their laps, everyone stunned. They described what they saw. “It was awful,” Gayle Newman said. The Newmans have told their stories countless times in the 50 years since. They’ve been generous with assassination researchers, many of whom, they realize, have given up years of their lives, or decades, trying to get to the bottom of what happened that day.
The Newmans offer powerful eyewitness testimony, but it’s essentially what we already know and can already see with our own eyes via the Zapruder film, since Zapruder was right behind them. I’m struck by the element of chance: Of all the people in Dallas that day — and there were 150,000 who came out to see the glamorous Kennedys — it was the Newmans, and Zapruder, and Jean Hill and a smattering of other people (the Umbrella Man!), who just happened to be standing there when this historic event happened.
What I didn’t hear the Newmans say is that this was somehow fated to be. They don’t search for deeper meaning in how they wound up in that spot at that exact, awful moment. They have not tried to leverage their status as the closest civilian witnesses to portray themselves as particularly knowledgeable about why JFK was killed or who did it. They’re just ordinary people who happened to be there. They simply say what they saw.
So, question: Is there such a thing as fate? Or is that something we invent to impose meaning and order and some element of inevitability on events governed to an unsettling degree by random chance?