The Oswald Caper


It was a sunny but not Texas-hot afternoon in late spring 2005. We were just past bluebonnet time, but the Indian paintbrushes and primroses were still out in full glory along the highways and secondary roads of north Texas. My partner and technical advisor, former Ventura County prosecutor Carolyn Ward, rode shotgun as we headed west from Arlington along Lancaster Avenue, the old east-west toll turnpike that was made obsolete by the construction of I-30. We pulled into the Rose Hill Memorial Park in east Fort Worth. Our mission was to locate the grave of the most infamous assassin of the twentieth century, Lee Harvey Oswald. Tradition had it that following his own violent death at the hands of Jack Ruby in late November 1963, Oswald had been hastily and unceremoniously buried in these bucolic surroundings.

We parked at the office building, which also held the funeral chapel. A service had just ended, and people were filing out to their cars. We strolled up to the dame at the reception area and I asked her for help in locating a particular burial. She said, "Certainly, Sir. May I have the name of the deceased?"

"Nick Beef," I replied. She wrote it down in a spiral notebook, without hesitation, without looking up, and without asking if she was spelling it correctly. I thought this odd, since men are not often named after cuts of meat. With the possible exception of "Chuck." In that hushed, solemn manner of speech they teach you at funeral director school, the lady politely asked us to wait, and disappeared quietly into the main office.

Carolyn and I milled about the vestibule, trying to exude an air of reverence but more likely looking supremely world-weary. In an office to the side we saw an enormous ornate bird cage which held two live white doves. Carolyn remarked that she had never seen doves caged. It made her sad. I asked myself what the hell these people were going to do with those birds. Maybe they were kept as pets. I wondered whether the funeral home had a permit to keep these filthy winged rats, and whether staff had been vaccinated against encephalitis.

After a curiously long wait--perhaps three minutes--the lady emerged from the office shaking her head in what clearly was fake puzzlement. "I'm afraid we don't have anybody registered under that name," she said softly.

"Listen, sister," I replied sharply, tamping an Old Gold on my the crystal of my Benrus and firing it up with a match, the acrid smell of sulfur instantly permeating the vestibule. "Cut the crap. I know Nick Beef is here--I read all about it on a swell website." The tone of my voice turned ominous. I leaned in and fixed her with a withering look. I flashed my university ID card, which never fails to make subjects break out into a cold sweat. "I'm Dr. Petruso. I'm a professor of archaeology. I'm in the knowledge business, and I will not be denied. And do you know who my partner is?", I asked, tipping my head toward Carolyn. "With one phone call she could shut this joint down in a minute. Permanently."

"Sir, I'm afraid smoking isn't allowed in this facility," the lady averred rather officiously.

Ignoring this cheeky admonition, I pressed on without missing a beat. "Let's cut to the chase, lady: Tell us where Lee Harvey Oswald is planted."

She stiffened, and a glacial smile appeared instantly on her face. "I'm afraid we cannot divulge that information, sir, at the family's request," she said. "It's a matter of privacy."

I glared at her for a good long while. I took a deep drag on my cigarette, and blew the smoke directly into her face. "So that's the way it's gonna be, eh, sister?", I growled. "Have it your way," I said with a sigh, tipping my fedora back and wiping my brow with a yellowed, fraying handkerchief. "We'll find it ourselves. And you ain't seen the last of us." With one last withering scowl, I dropped my cigarette on the carpet and ground it out with my size twelve. Carolyn and I spun on our heels and headed back to the parking lot.

We sat in the car for a minute, contemplating our next move. Carolyn withdrew a flask from her oversized purse and took a long pull off some less-than-five-star rye whiskey, if you catch my drift. "That lying factotum," she hissed. "I've half a mind to go back in there and work her over but good." I suggested that that might be counterproductive. Besides, it felt mighty good to be out of the office on such a glorious day. A little walk among the tombs might be just what the doctor ordered.

Rose Hill is a beautiful place, great for strolling and contemplation. Pines, cedars, and especially live oaks pepper the several hundred rolling acres of the burial ground. The only sound to be heard, except for the wind whistling through the trees, was the irritating hum of the groundskeepers' weed-whackers revving at half a dozen places around the property. Carolyn and I drove randomly into the center of the cemetery, got out of the car, and walked slowly among the headstones in search of our quarry.

I caught the eye of a groundskeeper, and motioned for him to come closer. I asked him where we might find Oswald's grave. "Yo no hablo inglés," he replied, with what I could swear was a bemused smile. I then saw a young man riding a mower and approached him. He politely turned the engine off and listened attentively as I put the same question to him. "Oswald?", he asked, puzzled. "You know, the guy who shot President Kennedy," I said. "President Kennedy?," he asked, blankly. Lights on, nobody home. I was getting nowhere fast with this product of Fort Worth's public education system. As I returned to the rows of headstones, it occurred to me that the cemetery staff had even gotten to the groundskeepers. "My God," I thought. "It's a grand conspiracy of silence, perfectly of a piece with so many other aspects of the Kennedy assassination." I couldn't help but wonder whether Oliver Stone had ever gotten wind of this. Perhaps Carolyn could have the lot of them subpoenaed and make a case to a grand jury on a RICO charge. Or something.

Something the dame in the office had said was gnawing at me, and I finally figured out what it was. I pulled out my steno pad and made a note to myself: "Oswald family?" I wondered if his wife Marina might still be alive. Their two children? Perhaps even still living in Fort Worth?

After wandering aimlessly for an hour, we were getting nowhere fast, and decided to throw in the towel for the day. I didn't want to be out too late, since there was a championship middleweight fight in Atlantic City scheduled for this evening on HBO, and I wanted to make sure to arrive at the sports bar early enough to get a good seat.

The next day, after a big late-morning breakfast at the IHOP, we drove into Dallas. We took a spin through the Sixth Floor Museum, looking for visual clues to Oswald's burial place, but came up dry. Then we strolled down to the Grassy Knoll, where we were sucked into the monologue of one of the dozens of wingnuts who loiter about Dealey Plaza, hawking copies of their vanity-published exposés of JFK assassination conspiracies. This particular guy was good: he walked us over the Triple Underpass and we stared back at the Texas School Book Depository. One of the morons in the group asked him who he thought was responsible for the crime. "The Irish Mafia," he replied, hardly missing a beat.

I pulled a sawbuck out of my billfold and bought a copy of his full-color screed for future reference. Carolyn and I headed back to the car and got on the road for Fort Worth again.

It occurred to Carolyn as we dodged the street-racing maniacs on I-30 that we need not explore the entire cemetery; instead, we could narrow our reconaissance to the marginal areas, on the assumption that the cemetery director in 1963 would not likely have ceded prime real estate (i.e., central, high ground, treed) to the notorious killer. This suggestion made eminent sense to me. It was certainly enough that the proprietor had caved in to the local authorities in permitting Oswald to be buried there at all. So we resolved to systematically walk the cyclone fence line. just inside the property. We decided to start at the west side of the grounds and work our way north, then east, then south. We thought it unlikely that the grave would be on the south (Lancaster Avenue) side, but more probably back out of view, in order to hide the funeral from passersby on the turnpike. I had read that Oswald, owing to the fact that he was the most reviled person in the world in November '63, had had a quick funeral service officiated by a sky pilot from Dallas who reluctantly did it after two other ministers backed out. And since nobody halfway respectable could be found who was willing to carry the coffin, some reporters who were covering the burial were pressed into service as pallbearers.

An hour later we were back at Rose Hill. We parked the car on a slope, and I pulled the emergency brake full out (I've always loved that ratcheting sound that assures me that the car won't roll away in my absence). I jammed it into first, just to be sure. Carolyn and I spread out to walk the west edge of the grounds. Not five minutes later, another car pulled up carrying three old broads, one of whom got out and began walking in an area about 30 yards away, reading the tombstones. We suspected that she, too, was on a mission.

Carolyn was the first to spot the simple pink granite marker bearing only one word, OSWALD, in an austere, serif font--no first and middle name, no dates of birth and death. And only a foot and a half to the right was a headstone of about the same size bearing the inscription NICK BEEF.

Bingo.

Eventually the wizened crone made her way over to us. She sported a purple baseball cap with a "Handley" logo. She acknowledged that she too had been looking for Oswald's grave.

The other two old birds got out of their car and joined us. They launched into a long, detailed, boring discussion about the original location of the Oswald grave. After listening to this inane drivel for a few minutes, I thought my skull was going to implode. The youngest one (age 65, she proudly told us) swore that many years ago the stone had been set closer to the fence, near a tree. The purple-hat lady (who, as if to pull rank, volunteered that she was 84) pointed in the direction of where she recalled seeing it. The younger lady had heard the outlines of the Nick Beef story and was pleased when I confirmed it, according to my own vast research (as I noted earlier, I'm in the knowledge business). She thought the grave might have been moved away from the fence to discourage body snatchers, although why even the most perverse ghoul would want to steal the remains of this infamous perp wasn't immediately clear to me. I had read somewhere that Oswald had been disinterred in the early 1980s for DNA analysis. That might have been the occasion, I speculated, for the relocation of his grave. The purple-hat lady then wondered aloud whether Oswald is in fact under the stone that bears his name, again suggesting that this could be a way to discourage someone who might be planning mischief. She speculated that perhaps the body remains in an unmarked plot back toward the fence. I had to admit that the old dame might have something there. I admired her eagerness to transmit yet another conspiracy rumor.

I hauled my aged but still quite serviceable 2 x 2" Rolleiflex out of the trunk of my car, and took several B&W and color shots from a few different angles. Carolyn and I had racked up another Mark VII, but there was still a little piece of unfinished business that needed tending to.

As the old birds continued to argue about where the headstone had been 40 years ago, Carolyn and I bade them farewell and drove back to the cemetery office to confront the woman who had tried to put the kibosh on our progress the previous day. We found her at the same table, with same stupid spiral notebook in front of her.

We strolled up to the table. I leaned over, balancing my weight on my knuckles. "Remember us?", I asked, looming over her in my inimitable tough-guy intimidating fashion, unwilling to conceal the satisfied smirk on my mug. She stiffened, and the phony, supercilious smile returned. "I beg your pardon, Sir?", she replied, trying desperately but unsuccessfully to hide her discomfort.

"We found the stone, sister, despite your efforts to obstruct us. The jig is up. But one thing still puzzles me: I know you know the Nick Beef bit. So why'd ya lie to me yesterday?"

"I did not lie," she responded, a flash of barely suppressed anger in her eyes. "You asked me where Nick Beef is buried, and I told you truthfully that no Nick Beef is buried here. That stone marks a cenotaph."

Now Carolyn, like all crackerjack lawyers, is a person who knows her way around words; she uses them with great precision, often like blunt instruments. But this fancy verbal footwork was more than even she could bear. I tried to hold her back, but I wasn't fast enough. In a nanosecond, Carolyn was all over that woman like a cheap suit.

I've always said there's nothing more entertaining than a good catfight, and although I made a halfhearted effort to break it up, truth be told, I was enjoying the hell out of it. Within seconds, a rent-a-cop had materialized out of nowhere, and with great effort (and at some risk to his own health), along with two of the other cemetery staff, he succeeded in pulling the two gals apart. A few not-terribly-sincere words of apology from yours truly apparently decided them that it would not be worth their while to file assault charges (it's been my experience that there are few things people in the death business dread more than bad publicity). Within seconds, Carolyn and I had slipped out the door. We made briskly for my car--just in case they changed their minds.

I eased the old DeSoto back out onto Lancaster and headed east. I lit up an Old Gold and took a long pull on it. Carolyn--little the worse for wear--adjusted her fishnet stockings, straightened up her pillbox hat, and reapplied her scarlet lipstick using my rearview mirror. We drove in silence for a minute or two. I suspect we were both reflecting on the role her hair-trigger temper had played in her precipitous departure from the Ventura DA's office a few years earlier. But that's a story for another time.

Carolyn whipped out her flask again, and made a decidedly unladylike sound as she sucked on it. "Gimme a hit off that, baby," I said. I turned to look at her. The late afternoon sun was streaming in the rear window of the car, and Carolyn looked particularly fetching in the raking rays. I said, "Kid, you're beautiful when you're angry." She rolled her big brown eyes, snorted, punched me on the shoulder, and passed me the flask.

I was feeling fatigued, but happy. It had been a successful day, I thought, as we crossed the city limits into west Arlington, past a gaggle of aging strip malls, barbecue joints and pawn shops. The sun felt good on my shoulders. We shared a hearty laugh about our adventures in the cemetery. We resolved to hunt down the grave of Jack Ruby the following day.

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