Friday, June 4, 2010

Oswald gave Cab 36 its checkered past

by AVI SELK / The Dallas Morning News

The Checker cab sits where it has for the last 30 years – surrounded by shinier models in an old metal barn.

Dust covers its dashboard and rust dots its roof. Its radio hangs silent beside a frozen odometer. The fare meter reads blank red.

It's been decades since Cab 36 had a fare and months since its last visitor. When the taxi is auctioned with the rest of the defunct Pate Museum of Transportation collection Saturday, it is estimated to fetch perhaps $30,000.

That's a pittance compared to the six-figure estimates for the Aston Martin Mark II Tourer or the 1935 Silver Arrow on the other side of the barn.

To look at this broken-down taxi, few would believe that reporters once clambered into its front seat and a presidential commission pored over its day log – that Cab 36 was once known far and wide as Lee Harvey Oswald's getaway car.

On Nov. 22, 1963, sirens were already screaming across downtown Dallas when William Wayne Whaley parked his cab at the Greyhound station to get a pack of cigarettes.

A taxi driver for 37 years, Whaley knew how to read a fare. He could spot the drunks and the deadbeats on first sight. He knew who would be a chatter and who would try to ride all day without paying a dime.

That afternoon, he saw a fare walking down Lamar Street whom he took to be a wino.

The man got into Cab 36 and sat down next to Whaley. He was dressed in a shirt with a soiled collar and three open buttons. Whaley thought perhaps he'd slept in his clothes.

The driver didn't know that minutes earlier, Oswald had gotten off a bus two blocks north. He had hoped it would take him out of downtown but instead had gotten snarled in traffic near Dealey Plaza.

A few minutes before that, of course, Oswald had perched in a building overlooking that same plaza and shot President John F. Kennedy in the head.

Before Whaley could pull out of the station, an old woman came up to the car and stuck her head through Oswald's window.

"Driver, will you call me a cab down here?" she asked.

Oswald opened his door and offered to let the woman have his. She wouldn't let him – and so Whaley, Oswald and Cab 36 rolled out of the station and into history.

Whaley hit nothing but green lights as he zigzagged out of downtown. He could time a traffic signal as well as he could mark a fare.

As he turned onto the Houston Street Viaduct and toward Oak Cliff, he began to notice the police cars.

"I wonder what the hell is the uproar," he said.

Oswald didn't reply, and Whaley didn't try to make conversation again. Maybe this fare was the quiet type, he thought. Or maybe he had something else on his mind.

To this day, no one is sure why Oswald rode a few blocks past his rooming house on Beckley Avenue before getting out of the cab and heading straight back to it. Whaley watched him walk away. He would see him again the next day in a police lineup.

For the most part, the taxi driver had sized up his fare correctly: Oswald tipped him a nickel on 95 cents.

Whaley became a minor celebrity in the assassination's aftermath, repeating his tale in clipped Texas drawl to reporters and investigators alike.

His spotlight had mostly passed by the winter of 1965, when he was killed in a head-on collision on the Hampton Road Viaduct.

Cab 36 outlasted both assassin and driver before it finally broke down. Checker Motors Corp. donated it to the museum in 1979, with an authentication letter that accompanies the car. It sat on display until the museum shut its doors last year amid dwindling visitors.

Little is known about the taxi's travels after it dropped Oswald off. Its odometer rolled over at least once in those 16 years. And presumably it picked up countless other fares – but none so infamous as the silent stranger.

Source: The Dallas Morning News

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