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Oswald’s chilling final hours before killing Kennedy: speaking Russian, playing with his daughter, sleeping in

Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected assassin of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, holds up his manacled hands at police headquarters in Dallas, where he is held for questioning, on Nov. 22, 1963.  (AP)

This post has been updated.

November 21, 1963. Dallas. Dusk.

Ruth Paine, a quiet Quaker, returned home from the grocery store. On her front lawn, there was her tenant Marina Oswald, playing with her daughter Junie. And there was Marina’s volatile, semi-estranged husband, Lee.

Wait, Lee?

“I was surprised to see him,” Paine would say later.

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Paine got out of the car and spoke to the Oswalds in Russian.

Lee — Lee Oswald, middle name Harvey — learned the language in the Soviet Union, where he had moved after his service in the U.S. Marines. (He wasn’t so great at speaking it, though. One of the thousands of documents released Thursday in connection with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is a memo about a wiretap that refers to his “terrible hardly recognizable Russian.”)

In Russia, Oswald met Marina, who was now living with Paine, teaching her Russian. Oswald, 24, an odd and boorish man, stayed downtown in a rooming house. He came by only on the weekends.

It was Thursday.

“I had no advance notice,” Paine said later, “and he had never before come without asking whether he could.”

Oswald was a headache. The FBI had visited Paine’s house twice to ask about him, apparently nervous about his meetings with known communists. His marriage to Marina was troubled. The couple would fight, then make up. Fight, then makeup. Oswald showed up, Paine thought, on a makeup mission. He was on his best behavior, even helping her with the groceries. On their way in, she turned to him and said in Russian, “Our president is coming to town.”

Da,” he said. Yes.

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The day before Oswald shot Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, there was a certain calmness about him. He didn’t argue with Marina, who had just given birth to their second child. He was more playful than he had ever been with Junie, trying to catch butterflies and falling oak wings out in the yard.

“That evening as the twilight deepened, it was still warm enough in Texas in November to fool around outside,” Norman Mailer wrote in “Oswald’s Tale,” his 800-page biography of the assassin. “One can have a sense of final moments — the last time we catch oak wings together.”

Everyone sat down for dinner.

“The conversation at supper was so ordinary that no one remembers it,” wrote Priscilla Johnson McMillan, in her book “Marina and Lee.” In fact, Paine “had the impression that relations between the young Oswalds were ‘cordial,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘warm’ — like a couple making up after a small spat.”

Of course, nobody in the kitchen knew what Oswald had planned for the next day. But Marina certainly knew what her husband was capable of. She knew Oswald kept a rifle rolled up in a blanket in Paine’s garage. And she knew who and what her husband despised. Earlier that year, in March, Oswald had tried — unsuccessfully — to kill Edwin Walker, a retired Army general and anti-communist.

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During the Warren Commission hearings, Marina was asked how she knew of the failed attack. “That evening we went out,” Marina testified. “It got to be about 10 or 10:30, he wasn’t home yet, and I began to be worried.” She looked around the house and found a note from him that began, “If I’m arrested …”

Lee Harvey Oswald just missed an Army general in an attempted assassination months before JFK was killed. James Swanson, author of "End of Days" explains. (Video: The Washington Post)

He also left her a pile of cash.

“I couldn’t understand at all what can he be arrested for,” Marina testified. “When he came back, I asked him what had happened. He was very pale. I don’t remember the exact time, but it was very late. And he told me not to ask him any questions. He only told me that he had shot at General Walker.”

Now, months later, after putting Junie to bed he asked Marina if he could help her wash the dinner dishes — again, out of character. In recounting the scene, Mailer wrote, “Oswald has reached that zone of serenity that some men attain before combat, when anxiety is deep enough to feel like quiet exaltation: You are finally going into an action that will be equal in dimension to the importance of your life.”

In passing, Oswald told Marina he wouldn’t be back that weekend. He would stay downtown, where he had a new job at the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza.

Marina asked why. “It’s too often,” he answered. “I was here today.” She kept doing the dishes, thinking nothing of it. He went to the garage for a while, then to bed — early. McMillan wrote:

Lee was lying on his stomach with his eyes closed when she crept into bed. Marina still had pregnancy privileges; that is, she was allowed to sleep with her feet on whatever part of his anatomy they came to rest. About three in the morning, she thinks, she put a foot on his leg. Lee was not asleep and suddenly, with a sort of wordless vehemence, he lifted his leg, shoved her foot hard, then pulled his leg away. “My, he’s in a mean mood,” Marina thought.

Oswald woke up late. He told Marina there was money on the dresser. Without her noticing, he slipped off his wedding ring and left it in a cup. He did not kiss her goodbye. Marina went back to sleep. Kennedy’s plane landed at Love Field a couple of hours later.

By then, Oswald was at the Book Depository but not for work. Marina and her landlord kept the TV on, dipping in and out of the coverage of Kennedy’s visit. Around 12:30 p.m., the first bulletin came in: The president had been shot. Thomas Mallon, in his book “Mrs. Paine’s Garage,” recounted the strange calmness — and then terror — in the home Marina shared with the Quaker:

Even now, entering the limbo hour that Kennedy lay in Parkland Hospital, the maternal workday went on. Marina stepped into the backyard to hang laundry. (Paine) soon joined her there with further news from the television: The shots fired at the motorcade were not thought to have come from the Texas School Book Depository. Lee, presumably, would have quite a story to tell when he arrived back here tonight.

Marina quietly slipped away from the garden. She went to the garage.

“She checked to see that the blanket roll remained where she’d noticed it a few weeks ago,” Mallon wrote. “To her relief, the bundle appeared to be in the same place and condition.”

Marina and Paine sat down in front of the TV. When word came that Kennedy was dead, Paine began to cry. Marina did not. “Despite her trip to the garage,” Mallon wrote, she “had not shed all fears that her violent, assassination-prone husband might yet prove involved with this catastrophe.”

Then police began pounding on the front door.

They were looking for Oswald. They didn’t have a warrant. They appeared highly agitated and serious. They asked whether Oswald owned a gun. Paine said no. She translated the question to Marina, who said yes. Paine was aghast. “No mention had yet been made of John Kennedy,” Mallon wrote, but Paine “now understood what this was really about.”

Marina pointed to the blanket roll. An officer picked it up. It instantly folded. There was nothing inside to keep it straight.

The rifle wasn’t there.

“That was when I had this feeling,” Paine told Mallon. ” ‘My God, it could have been Lee.’ That he came out last night, that the gun had been there …”

Two days later, Oswald was shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby on live television at Dallas police headquarters. The assassin had been assassinated.

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