Countdown to Eternity: JFK’s Last Good Day Spent in San Antonio

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Don Mathis HeadshotThe day before he died, Pres. John F. Kennedy visited Brooks Air Force Base (AFB), now Brooks City-Base, to get a firsthand look at developments in aerospace medicine, Air Force Historian Rudy Purificato told  his audience Saturday at the Central Library auditorium.

Purificato is an Air Force historian assigned to the U.S. Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph AFB. He previously served for 16 years at Brooks AFB and was the last base historian there before it closed in 2011. He has done extensive research on the Air Force’s contributions to aviation science and aerospace medicine.

Rudy Purificato, U.S. Air Force historian

Rudy Purificato, U.S. Air Force historian

“I call my presentation ‘Countdown to Eternity’ because of the space race,” Purificato said.

Kennedy had a personal interest in space exploration and wanted to be sure NASA could catch up on research the Air Force had already advanced. The Air Force had studied the effects of altitude, weightlessness, and diet long before NASA was founded in 1958, he said.

Kennedy spoke with four teenaged airmen from Lackland AFB who were the subjects of research.

“These trainees were sequestered for a month in an oxygen chamber at Brooks,” Purificato said. “It was very dangerous but the airmen were all smiles to meet the president through the chamber window.”

Purificato recalled meeting with one of the airmen, Phillip Jameson, during his research, “He said he remembered the president’s words from his inaugural address, ‘Ask what you can do for your country.’ He was proud to serve his country and thrilled to meet the president.”

JFK talks with Randolph AFB crewmembers during his visit to Brooks AFB. Photo courtesy of Brooks City-Base.

Pres. Kennedy talks with crew members training in an oxygen chamber beyond a window during his visit to Brooks AFB. Photo courtesy of Brooks City-Base.

Medical research was moved from Randolph AFB to Brooks in the late 1950s, so Kennedy’s last official act as president was to dedicate the School of Aerospace Medicine.

As Purificato said, many advances in space research happened in San Antonio. “Monkeys trained right here at Brooks,” he recalled.

“Kennedy visited Brooks Air Force Base to dedicate four new buildings,” He was running for re-election in 1964, so his visit would have helped that, he said.  There were, however, other reasons for Pres. Kennedy’s visit.

“Texas was a one-party state in those days,” Purificato said. “But there was a schism.”

Governor John Connally represented the conservative side and Senator Ralph Yarborough the liberal. One of the aims of Kennedy’s trip was to bring Democrats together.

“Though they are seated on opposite ends of the podium, they shared the same stage,” Purificato said.

Kennedy also gave his famous ‘cap over the wall’ speech at Brooks.

“It was the only time he gave that speech,” Purificato said. Kennedy added the imagery from the Irish poet, Frank O’Connor, “but local officers George Schafer (later, Surgeon General of the Air Force) and John Pickering (radiation scientist) wrote the technical portions of his speech.”

An excerpt from his speech at Brooks Air Force Base:

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them.

This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against. With the vital help of this Aerospace Medical Center, with the help of all those who labor in the space endeavor, with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed-and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.

[Click here to read the text of Kennedy’s speech.]

Purificato wrote and produced the first Air Force mini-series documentary ever made on the 90-plus year history of Brooks AFB and presented the DVD set entitled, “The Story of Brooks,” to Librarian Matt De Waelsche on Saturday. The documentary took more than five years to produce and was edited by former PBS producer Bill Celaya. The Public Library will show “The Story of Brooks” in its entirety on Dec. 14.

U.S. Air Force Historian Rudy Purificato and Librarian Matt De Waelsche at the Central Library auditorium. Photo by Don Mathis.

U.S. Air Force Historian Rudy Purificato and Librarian Matt De Waelsche at the Central Library auditorium. Photo by Don Mathis.

A clip of episode six, “The Space Age,” was shown to the lecture attendees. It featured rare color film of Pres. Kennedy at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Division at Brooks.

“The segment also featured JFK and Jackie visiting the space cabin experiment where four airmen were sequestered,” Purificato said. “NASA doesn’t have some of this footage … reels of film were found in a display case so this documentary contains original material, never before seen.”

Some of the film was shot by the Aerospace Medicine television production department and used by National Geographic Channel producer-director Robert Erickson for his two-hour documentary on Pres. Kennedy’s final day. “JFK: The Final Hours”, aired Nov. 8 on the National Geographic Channel.

Visitors had an opportunity Saturday to offer their memories of Kennedy in Texas. One woman said she lived in Dallas in 1963 and related Kennedy’s quote, “We’re going into nut country.”

Purificato confirmed that perception. “UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was roughed up in Dallas a month previously,” he said.

Jerry Madrigal remembered watching Kennedy cruising the streets of San Antonio in his Lincoln convertible. “Teachers at all the Catholic schools encouraged their students to view the parade,” he said. “I was with St. Teresa’s Academy at Presa Street and Military Drive.”

Pres. Kennedy arrives at Brooks AFB. Photo courtesy Brooks City-Base.

Pres. Kennedy arrives at Brooks AFB. Photo courtesy Brooks City-Base.

Purificato has studied many aspects of Kennedy’s life and death. He said he believed there was more than one shooter until a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

“One cannot look at the assassination spot from the sixth floor,” he said, “but you can from the floor above. You can see that it was an easy shot. I was a marksman in the military and I believe Oswald alone killed Kennedy.”

Purificato also spoke of the lectern used by Kennedy for his speech at Brooks AFB.

“It was built by the Aerospace team at Brooks and was given to the Witte Museum,” he said. San Antonio has had several exhibits related to Kennedy’s visit.

Stinson Field, the second oldest general aviation airport in continuous operation in the U.S., has an exhibit in honor of Pres. Kennedy’s visit to San Antonio. The Mission Branch Library will have an exhibit in March 2014.

On Nov. 21, Brooks City-Base will celebrate the memory of Pres. Kennedy. The public is invited to a 50th anniversary remembrance featuring remarks by Julian Castro, Nelson Wolff, and other dignitaries.

JFK Anniversary Invitation

 

Don Mathis served as president of the Texoma Poetry Society in 2011 (a Sherman member of the Poetry Society of Texas). And in 2010, ‘Dionysus Don’ was crowned champion of the McKinney Poetry Slam. Don is very involved in the poetry community in Bexar County. He is a founding member of the San Antonio Poetry Fair and participates regularly with Sun Poets and La Taza writers’ group. His poetry has been published in anthologies, periodicals and has appeared on local TV and national radio. He currently works for St. Philip’s College.

 

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A JFK Remembrance: Air Force One and a Fort Sam Houston Flyover

Brooks City-Base: Where History Greets the Future

From Kelly to Port SA: San Antonio’s Base Conversion A Generational Endeavor

The Alamo and its Plaza: If history were truly honored

Something Monday: Brackenridge Park, Home to a City’s Oft-Forgotten History

Port San Antonio: A Place for Building Futures on the Southside

The Mission Reach: Bringing Life and Pride Back to the Southside

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There are 3 comments

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  1. Susan Salzman

    Great article, Don. Kennedy and his wife, having just lost an infant in August, were also interested in how aerospace medical research could have applications for the care of the general public as well, especially in oxygen mixes for newborns. Mr. Purificato is to be highly commended for his efforts to save so many items of historical value and to find the witnesses to this historic visit for interviews.

  2. Rick Canfield via Facebook

    It was an easy shot, but he gets shot from two angles. The last time I was at the grassy knoll, a guide pointed out the drainage ditch below, which came up at an access point by the railroad tracks on the upper bridge. There might’ve been a shooter up here as well he stated. A witness noticed someone running away from up there.


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