Now that 35 years have passed, Robert Block can occasionally chuckle when recalling the short Orange County tour of duty of 19-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald.
Block was only 29 himself when, as a Marine Corps captain, he supervised the young Oswald and about 35 to 40 other enlistees as part of Air Control Squadron Nine at the Tustin air base. After more than a year on duty in the Far East, Oswald arrived back in Orange County late in 1958 and stayed until the following September, when he made up a story about needing a dependency discharge to take care of his mother.
Block said he was surprised later to discover that Oswald lied about the reason for wanting a discharge and that he had moved to Russia almost immediately afterward.
"It was just that, being a Marine, you think that, 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,' " Block said. "You're a very patriotic person, and for him to essentially lie that he had a hardship at home to get out of the Marine Corps and then to appear in Moscow . . . I was quite surprised."
That all happened in the fall of 1959.
Four years later, on that November afternoon in 1963, Oswald would write himself into the history books as the accused assassin of John F. Kennedy. It was his Marxist leanings that the public heard most about, and it was Oswald's left-leaning tendencies that Block remembers, some of which bordered on the near-comic.
Block, who retired from the Marines in 1966 and now owns an insurance agency in Garden Grove, said the FBI interviewed him three days after President Kennedy's assassination but that he hasn't been interviewed since. He said he has a clear memory of Oswald, although his Tustin performance was only adequate and not marked by any particular trouble.
"I can recall one time when we had a locker inspection. It was a surprise, you might even call it a search. Those were pulled quite frequently. When we opened his locker, we found copies of the Daily Worker (a communist newspaper) in there. Everybody was kind of surprised, and yet it was blown over because at the time the Marine Corps was trying to indoctrinate Marines as to what communism was and who their adversary was. They were actually holding classes on communism."
Oswald used that rationale when confronted with the newspapers, although his barracks mates already had been teasing him about his Marxist sympathies.
Several examples of that have reappeared in a new book entitled "Case Closed." Written by Gerald Posner, the book focuses on Oswald and Jack Ruby and concludes that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy and that Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald.
Block, now 64, chuckled as I read passages from the book in which Oswald's fellow enlistees joked about his communist leanings. One Tustin air base acquaintance said Oswald often answered with "da" and "nyet," used red pieces when playing chess to represent the Red Army and greeted fellow Marines with "Hello, comrade."
Block said he hadn't heard some of those stories, but he laughed when recalling that Oswald was often called "Oswaldskovich" by other Marines.
"Oswald was an introvert," Block said. "He would never have won any popularity contests and I think he had one or two close associates and that was only because he lived close to them" in the barracks.
Block was in a barber's chair when he heard about the assassination. "Shortly thereafter they said they had captured the alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, and I damn near fell out of the chair," Block said.
Block went back to his unit headquarters. "Everybody was talking about Oswald. Everybody's first thought was, 'No way,' " Block said. "It was a disbelief that he would have been able to accomplish something like that and even further disbelief when the mechanics of it were broadcast. I don't care what kind of rifle he had. I don't think it would have been within his capability."
Oswald's marksmanship has been a key part of the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. His Marine rating was "sharpshooter," and while that is the middle range of three levels of expertise, Block said, "Really, you see a sharpshooter badge on a Marine--I'd be ashamed to have it on my chest."
Many argue the fatal shots were well within Oswald's capabilities, but Block disagrees. "You've got a moving target there, and when you're talking about hitting somebody in the head from that distance and that angle, it just boggles my mind that he would even have that capability. I don't know where he could have practiced, whether in the woods or remote areas or in Russia, but you've got to come up with some pretty good marksmanship to carry off something like that."
The issue, however, has not haunted Block over the years.
"I can recall many times when this would come up about President Kennedy, at social events or whatever, and I would mention that I knew Oswald. People would say, 'What? You really did?' I said, yeah, I was his officer-in-charge for about a year."
It seemed to Block that people wanted to talk to him about Oswald, as if that would put them closer to the historic event.
"I don't tell people about Oswald unless it's brought up, unless they talk about the assassination and blame Oswald," he says. "Then I say, 'Hey, I don't think Oswald did it.' They ask why I think that, and I say, 'Well, because, because and because.' Then they're in doubt. Immediately I place them in doubt that he had the ability to do it."
\o7 Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.\f7