Tom Smith and his older brother skipped school with their parents' permission to get a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy during his fateful visit to Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Fifty years later, Smith has vivid memories of that sun-splashed Friday.
I wanted to see history, said Smith, 64. I wanted to see the president. I had liked President Kennedy since his inauguration.
As it turned out, Smith saw Kennedy less than five minutes before he was shot to death while riding in a motorcade through downtown Dallas.
It was like something was burned in your memory, Smith said. It's tough for me to talk about the personal feelings I had and the sadness and disappointment. But I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Smith, who has lived in San Antonio since 1995, was a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Comstock Junior High School in Dallas on the day Kennedy died.
While Smith didn't witness the assassination, he remains haunted by his memories of seeing the young president and the first lady only minutes before tragedy struck.
The last five minutes of his life, he was adored, Smith said. He was exalted. He was like an historic king.
Smith was so troubled by how quickly joy had turned to horror that he felt compelled to buy a sympathy card on the day after the assassination and express his condolences to Mrs. Kennedy.
Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick included Smith's card in her 2010 book Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.
I was pleased. I was honored, Smith said, referring to how he felt when Fitzpatrick contacted him to get permission to use his card in her book. History had just connected the dots.
'I saw the president ... He was smiling'
Smith was standing on the curb near the corner of Irving and Main streets in downtown Dallas when Kennedy's limousine rolled by.
As the car traveled west on Main, about five blocks before it turned right on Houston, Smith snapped a black-and-white photo of Mrs. Kennedy. But Smith's blurry snapshot missed badly, capturing all of the people in the car except the first lady.
I saw pink, Smith said, referring to the color of the outfit Mrs. Kennedy was wearing that day. Just the brightest pink that you'd ever see. The hat and the dress. I saw the president. I saw his teeth. He was smiling. There was a din of noise, but it was happy noise. I didn't hear any jeering, any hoot calls.
Smith was on the south side of Main to the left of the limousine, putting him on the side of Mrs. Kennedy, who was seated in the left rear of the vehicle.
I thought I was going to be on the president's side, but it was flip-flopped, Smith said.
Smith's older brother, Jimmy, and a friend, both juniors at Dallas Spruce High School, stood on the sidewalk to Kennedy's right and saluted the president as he passed by. They were in the National Defense Cadet Corps, a forerunner to the ROTC, and dressed in their Army-like uniforms.
When you live something in history, you taste it and you smell it, Tom Smith said. I remember the green and the blue and that recent rain. I remember that day, the chemistry of that day.
After the motorcade passed, the Smith brothers and Jimmy's friend walked back to the lot where the friend had parked his car. Then the bright afternoon turned dark.
We began to hear sirens, police sirens, Tom said. The motorcade was gone. Why would they do that? We started feeling a little weird, and then a fellow in a convertible came driving up Main Street saying, 'The president's been shot.' We said, 'What?' Then he said, 'President Kennedy's been shot. And then he drove on past.
I said, 'Let's go to the car.' At that point, we started running to the car. Thirty seconds later, we all piled in and I reached over and turned the radio on to my station, which was KLIF. And they were broadcasting that the president's been shot. Three shots have been fired at the motorcade.
Smith said that neither he, his brother, nor his brother's friend, heard even an echo of the shots that rang out up the street as the president traveled on Elm Street.
Writing to Mrs. Kennedy: 'I know the grief you bear'
The Smith brothers were back home by12:45 p.m. and got to see CBS anchor Walter Cronkite announce Kennedy's death live on TV.
He took his glasses off, Tom said. His voice cracked, and the next 12 hours I was right there, in front of the TV.
Smith recalled watching Air Force One return to Andrews Air Force Base from Dallas on the night of the assassination.
When they brought the casket out and there was Jackie Kennedy in her gray dress, which I knew was pink, and there were splotches on it, which I knew were red, 'I saw you.' I made that connection.
I knew I was part of it, but I didn't want to be a passive part of it. But there's nothing I can do. Then I thought of the sympathy card.
Smith went to the grocery store with his mother on the day after the assassination and bought the sympathy card for the president's young widow. When Smith got home, he went to his room and penned his thoughts.
I know the grief you bear, Smith wrote. I bear that same grief. I am a Dallasite. I hope to see you again. I saw Mr. Kennedy yesterday. I'll never see him again.
I'm very disturbed because I saw him a mere 2 minutes before that fatal shot was fired. I couldn't believe it when I heard it on the radio 5 minutes later. I felt like I was in a daze.
To Dallas, time has halted, Smith wrote. Everyone is shocked and disturbed. My prayers to you.
Smith closed his letter with A Prayerful and Disturbed Dallasite, and signed off as Tommy Smith. He wrote his age underneath his signature.
I wanted her to know I was 14, that I wasn't one of those grown-ups she should be afraid of, Smith said.
Smith mailed the card later that Saturday.
Memories of a tragic day in Dallas
About two weeks later, I got a little black-edged card that said 'Mrs. Kennedy is thankful for your condolences,' Smith said. About a 1x3 card in an envelope that said 'The White House.' When that came in our mailbox, which was just outside the front door, I thought, 'My word.'
Smith was among more than a million people from around the world who wrote to Mrs. Kennedy in the months after the assassination.
I never sent cards, Smith said. I believe that was the first card I ever sent anybody, except to my mother.
Smith, an environmental scientist, recorded an oral history on his memories of Nov. 22, 1963, for the Sixth Floor Museum, formerly the Texas School Book Depository, in Dallas. The Warren Commission concluded Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally from that building.
I didn't cry until Ellen pulled me back into the oral history, Smith said. It was private, personal. I was handling it OK. And then the boyhood comes back.
It is 50 years later, but Tommy Smith still feels the pain.