Manatee man, woman saw Kennedy in Texas the final 24 hours of his life

vmannix@bradenton.comNovember 17, 2013 

MANATEE

Images of the official entourage move across the large-screen TV while Philip "Flip" Jameson quietly studies the National Geographic documentary in his Oneco home.

The 67-year-old Vietnam veteran has already seen it many times, yet he remains transfixed by the scene.

The date was Thursday, Nov. 21, 1963.

The time, 3:10 p.m. CST.

"It's so hard to believe it's been 50 years," Jameson says.

A man in a dark blue suit emerged from the crowd, donned a headset and peered into the small window of a low-pressure altitude chamber at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

The man was President John F. Kennedy.

On the other side of the window was Jameson, then a 17-year-old airman taking part in a lengthy experiment to benefit future astronauts.

"My heart stopped," the Clearwater native recalls. "He filled the window and for a few seconds I didn't fully realize it -- this is President Kennedy."

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, virtually every American old enough remembers that day.

Yet Jameson is among the very few who can say they were among the last people Kennedy spoke to personally the day before the president was killed.

National Geographic flew Jameson to San Antonio last July to film "JFK: The Final Hours," and the experience hit home.

"Seeing that video, it makes me cry," he said.

During Jameson's career as an audio engineer, he met more musicians, rock stars and entertainers than he can count. Their autographed photos line his den.

None left a lasting impression like the chance meeting with Kennedy.

"He called me by my name. He called me 'Flip,'" Jameson said. "He was Camelot, leader of the free world. He was doing what was right for the country, a good guy who kept us out of a nuclear war."

Kennedy had been at the base to dedicate the Brooks Aerospace Medical Center, the first of several stops on a five-day Texas fundraising and fence-mending trip that was supposed to take him to Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin.

After the dedication, the president learned about the altitude chamber experiment and wanted to see it and meet the volunteers. Jameson and three others had already spent 2 1/2 weeks of a 42-day stretch in the chamber. Scientists were studying the effects of pure oxygen on the occupants of a simulated space cabin at 27,000 feet.

"We knew Kennedy was coming to Brooks, so they sent us new gowns on the possibility he may come see us," Jameson said. "Next thing we heard, 'He's here!'"

The president's company included Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Nellie and Gov. John Connally, the Secret Service detail, White House officials and Air Force brass.

The conversation was cordial, and Kennedy seemed genuinely interested in the men.

"He asked how we were doing? What our plans are? What did our families think? Did we know how important this was?" Jameson recalled. "When he asked how we were benefitting from this, I said, 'We get to meet you!'

"The other three were starstruck. I wasn't. I talked to him mostly. He was great, absolutely great. As nice as he could be."

When Clint Hill -- the Secret Service agent who would climb aboard the presidential limo after the shooting -- told the president they were running late, Kennedy told Hill it's OK and kept on talking.

Among the things the president said, what Jameson remembers the most, were the famous words Kennedy referenced from his 1961 inauguration.

"He said, 'You're a perfect model of -- ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what can you do for your country?'" Jameson said. "We'd heard it before, but for him to say it then was inspiring."

The visit lasted 25 minutes.

When Kennedy left, little did Jameson know it would be the last time he'd see the president alive. The next day, while his companions slept, he was watching a lunchtime gameshow on a TV that had been pushed up to the same window Kennedy had used.

"Then they interrupted with a bulletin saying Kennedy had been shot," Jameson said. "I was stunned. I woke the others and told them. We waited and when they announced he had died, all four of us started crying."

That feeling of loss has never left.

"It still stays with me," Jameson said. "It's in the back of my mind all the time. We saw him and 21 hours later he was dead."

******

Mary Million remembers the excitement and the anticipation at work that Friday morning in Dallas.

The route President Kennedy's motorcade was following would take them along Turtle Creek Boulevard, right by the insurance company where she was a 20-year-old secretary.

"We were ecstatic we were being let out," said the 70-year-old grandmother, now living at Peridia Golf & Country Club. "I had never seen a president in person."

The daughter of a Navy officer, Million had grown up at the Panama Canal and moved to Dallas with a girlfriend a couple of years earlier.

Her workplace was not far from downtown, about a 10-minute drive to Dealey Plaza.

"We were all on a hill when the president went by and we were not that far from him, maybe 20 yards," she said. "We saw him plain as day. He and Jackie were waving. Everybody was happy to see him."

Yet Million noticed something that bothered her and others.

"When he went by I thought to myself, 'Where's his bubble, that protective top?' I thought they'd have it on," she said. "It was a nice day, but everybody was concerned because it was so wide open. You never know what some wacko was going to do."

Tragically, Million, America and the world found out minutes later.

"No sooner had we gone back into the building and somebody shouted, 'THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT! THE PRESIDENT HAS BEEN SHOT!'" she said. "I was in a state of shock. They sent us home because everybody was crying and they weren't going to get any work out of us."

Glued to the TV for days, Million remembers Dallas mourning for weeks.

"We just cried until we were cried out," she said. "To have the president shot. What country were we living in?"

Or what kind of city?

Because of growing anti-Kennedy sentiment and right-wing extremism in Dallas in the early 1960s, it had become known as "The City of Hate."

"That was unfair," Million said. "Kennedy was well-liked whether he was a Democrat or a Republican."

She married and left Dallas for San Francisco in 1966, but she remembers, especially approaching the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination.

"Every time I think of Dallas or watch the Cowboys, it brings me back," Million said. "I see the scene, I think about him being shot and I'm so sorry. I thought he would've gone on to be a fine president."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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