In a few frames of Abraham Zapruder’s famous 8mm film capturing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one can make out a blurry image of a father, mother, and small child facing the president’s car after the shots have been fired. That child is Jeff Franzen, now 56, a real-estate executive living in Northern Virginia. Here is his account of being a young witness to that day. —Emily Yoffe
I grew up in Dallas, in a family of six kids, and I was the youngest. I was 6 years old and going to kindergarten was not standard in Dallas in those days, so while all my siblings were in school, I was still at home. It was my mother’s birthday and she wanted to go downtown to shop at Neiman Marcus. My parents knew the president was in town and my father, who was a homebuilder, knew all the routes, so he said he’d take us first to see the parade for the president, then we’d go shopping.
He decided to park near the end of the parade, at Dealey Plaza, right behind what’s come to be known as the grassy knoll.
Up the street from us was the Texas School Book Depository building. I had brought a ball and was playing with it as we waited for the president’s motorcade. (I lost the ball down the gutter. Later some conspiracy theorists claimed a secret gunman was possibly positioned there.) The crowds were further up the parade route and there were very few people around us.
As the president’s car started approaching, there was a wave of sound—I could hear louder and louder cheering from further up the route. As the car turned the far corner, people started walking and running down the hill to be where we were to see the motorcade for a second time. It was a crystal clear day and the sun was over our shoulder. Then the car came down the hill toward us and I heard the three pops. I assumed it was firecrackers—that made sense to me at a parade.
I was looking at the car with the president in it and—after the pops—I saw what I thought was confetti. It was the shot that caused the president’s head to explode. My Mom cried out, “Oh, my God.” So I’m watching, I hear the bangs, see what I think was confetti, hear my mom yelling, and I realized something was very wrong. Then the car slowed down and this guy was running up to it; it was the Secret Service agent. Mrs. Kennedy was climbing out the back of the car, the guy jumped on it and was hanging on as the driver punched it and the car took off.
Then it was bedlam, people running all around, motorcycle police like bees flying all over the place. One crashed his motorcycle right in front of us. My Dad, like JFK, had served in the South Pacific during World War II and had enough awareness of what was going on to grab my mother and me and put us on the ground with his body on top of both of us. I later learned we had been directly in the line of fire.
By that time, people up the parade route, where the car had already passed, began to realize something had happened, so it was becoming a big crowd. Shortly after that, we got out of there. I don’t remember it as being scary. My friends have asked me about that over the years, saying I must have been disturbed by what I saw. But I wasn’t. I didn’t understand—as a 6 year old, it just didn’t register.
Dad knew Dallas well, so he drove us to a business office where he did some work. He called the FBI, and they came over and questioned us. My dad always tells the story that one of the FBI agents asked me, “Did you see any people with guns?” I said, “Yes, I saw a lot of people with guns!” But what I meant was the police running all around. We didn’t see Oswald. When we finally got home, everyone was very sad, very quiet, like someone had died in our own house.
About two weeks later, my Mom and I were home and some FBI agents came to the house. They showed their badges, and she said they must want to talk about the Kennedy assassination. They seemed surprised she knew why they were there. She said we had been witnesses to the assassination. But it turns out they were there because my father’s name had turned up as a patron at one of Jack Ruby’s clubs. But hey, he was a Dallas homebuilder.