Opinion: A snapshot of 1963

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Commentary by Ward Degler

It was a chapter in my life. We could just call it the Navy. But it was more than that. It was Washington, D.C. in 1963. I was a junior officer in charge of a photo lab at the Naval Photographic Center.

The sign on the lab door said: Special Projects. But I knew it as the White House Photo Lab. It had a key code lock on the door, and the combination was changed every night.

As exciting as that sounds, most of the time nothing happened. Very few rolls of film got processed there that couldn’t have been run through the local drug store. I never got to the White House. I never met the president.

The lab was there in case it was needed – in case of a national emergency. Mostly, we processed film shot by the first lady: Vistas around the city, ceremonies at Arlington Cemetery, young John John’s birthday party. The toughest part of my job was remembering the key code for the door.

My boss was a lieutenant commander named Jerry Pulley. He had come up through the ranks as an enlisted man. He knew that 90 percent of my job was about as exciting as the reference section of a library. He also knew the remaining 10 percent could be explosive.

“When that happens, your job is to keep me out of trouble,” he counseled.  “And you’ve got a crew that will do the same for you.”

And so it went until a fateful day in November. In a matter of hours I was whisked off to the Pentagon with my crew of photographers. On the day of the president’s funeral we lined the street and photographed the crowd. Guys wearing sunglasses collected our film every half hour. An armed guard stood outside the Special Projects lab.

None of us slept much. We ate sandwiches handed to us by mess hall stewards. We processed hundreds of rolls of film. Most had at best one or two shots that were inspected by men in dark suits who never smiled, recorded and filed away in drawers marked Top Secret – drawers that probably have never been opened since.

I left the Navy some time later and returned to civilian pursuits. I recently learned that Cmdr. Pulley died several years ago. I’m sorry I never got to see him after leaving the photo center. But I’m sure he was pleased that during three volatile days in 1963, I did my job and kept him out of trouble.


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