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Taking Aim at the President
The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford
By Geri Spieler
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Geri Spieler
All rights reserved.
THE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARED
In the days immediately following Sara Jane Moore's attempt to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford on September 22, 1975, the press scrambled to find any information at all about this woman who had appeared out of nowhere. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times ran front page stories the next day, describing her as stemming from an impoverished neighborhood in Charleston, West Virginia. The accounts also repeated Sara Jane's claim, told to one of the police officers detaining her, that she was descended from a West Virginia oil and timber baron. Neither description was accurate. In fact, the only correct information about her early background in either account was the identity of her home state, West Virginia, where she was born Sara Jane Kahn, the second daughter of Olaf and Ruth Kahn, on February 15, 1930.
At a glance the Kahns presented a picture-perfect image of a twentieth-century middle-class American family: three brothers, two sisters, and their parents lived in the hilltop house at the north edge of Charleston, West Virginia, nestled in the lush Appalachian Mountains and overlooking the Kanawha River. The neighbors immediately to the south of the Kahn house were set on ten acres and had six milk cows; they used part of their land for pasture, and part was planted with corn, beans, tomatoes, and several acres of green onions. Several other small farms were also nearby. The semi-rural neighborhood, a community of several hundred homes, had a smalltown feel, and it was built around family and the local schools. Neighbors were close by and they often observed birthdays and holidays at home with family and friends. It was a perfect neighborhood for children. The five Kahn children had plenty of room to run and play.
Home was a two-story log structure with covered porches running the length of the house, set on five sloping acres. A thicket of woods reached right up to the back of the house. In the long daylight hours of the summer season and on weekends well into the fall, the Kahn family would tend their vegetable garden. Ruth canned tomatoes, as well as applesauce, peaches, and pears. Eggs gathered from their chickens, and sometimes the chickens themselves, fed the family; the Kahns also sold chickens and eggs as a supplemental source of income. The house had two stone fireplaces, one in the living room and one in the parlor. Although each fireplace was sixty inches long and thirty inches deep, Olaf—mindful of the hard times of the 1930s—built a gas heater into each fireplace, knowing the family would get more economical and efficient heat that way.
Olaf Kahn had grown up on a small rural farm in Flatbrookville, in eastern New Jersey, where his parents had moved after emigrating from Germany just before the turn of the century. He became a U.S. marine in 1917 after graduating from high school and served in France during World War I. Like his future wife, Ruth, Olaf was an accomplished violinist, until he injured his right hand in the service. His hand healed, but his days as a violinist were over. Following his injury, the Marines sent Olaf to Charleston, West Virginia, as part of a group sent to help clean up a chlorine spill. While serving on that detail, Olaf began to interact with engineers at the DuPont plant, and he was quickly recognized for his contributions to their work.
He settled in Charleston when he was mustered out of the service, and was immediately hired to work as a mechanical engineer by DuPont. Olaf would eventually become superintendent at the Belle plant site, eight miles east of Charleston on the Kanawha River. A trim six feet tall with sandy hair, high cheekbones, and a pleasant face, Olaf earned an annual salary of $10,000, a very respectable income during the Great Depression.
Ruth Moore Kahn was ten years younger than her husband. She stood about five feet two inches tall and had curly red hair. Ruth was a violinist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and music was one of the special bonds that she and Olaf shared. She was just twenty years old and newly married when her first daughter, Ruth Ann, was born. Sara Jane arrived three years later. Olaf II came along in 1932 and was nicknamed Skippy early on. Another son, Paul, was born in 1935, but survived for only five days before succumbing to lung congestion and other developmental disabilities. Ruth became pregnant again just over a year later, and son Dana joined the family in 1937. Charles, the youngest, was born in 1941.
Ruth Kahn was more vivacious than the solid and dependable Olaf, but she too was a hard worker, forever cleaning and picking up after the kids; she kept the Kahn home white-glove clean. She dressed her daughters in the latest fashions, from their Shirley Temple hairdos to their patent leather shoes. She was an expert seamstress, and made many of their dresses herself without commercial patterns—right down to impeccably smocked bodices. A former neighbor said Ruth Kahn could "smock a dress like nobody's business" for her own or a neighbor's daughter, and she knew at least eight different smocking stitches.
"She was known as the neighborhood mom," recalled Bob Turkelson, a neighbor of Sara Jane's, in a personal interview. "Ruth was the person to go to if you had a problem, no matter who you were."
Bob shared a story about a time he came home from school to find his mother was not at home and the family doctor was waiting for him. The doctor took ten-year-old Bob by the hand and walked him up the street to the Kahn's house. When they went inside, Bob saw his mother collapsed in the arms of Ruth Kahn, crying. Bob's older brother had died in an automobile accident.
Ruth loved her family and worked hard to turn the holidays into festive occasions, not only for her own children, but for the neighbors' kids, too. At Halloween she carved pumpkins and set up an elaborate horror house designed to scare and delight the children—complete with spooky noises, cobwebs, and peeled grapes as eyes for the blindfolded guests to touch. She was famous in the neighborhood for baking birthday cakes with buttercream frosting. This was unusual during the Depression because of the scarcity of many food items, but somehow Ruth Kahn always had plenty of butter, milk, eggs, and sugar for a birthday cake. Neighbors and friends of the Kahn children never missed one of their birthday parties.
Ruth's earnings from the symphony orchestra and the chicken-and-egg money supplemented Olaf 's salary. All of the children took music and dance lessons; every family member played at least one instrument. Ruth Ann, a bright girl who grew into a tall young woman with an ethereal look, played the flute. Sara Jane played the violin, although she frequently complained about the drudgery of practicing. Often, the family would gather with their instruments, accompanied by Olaf at the old upright piano.
Mornings in the Kahn household were hectic as adults and kids poured out of the four upstairs bedrooms. In the afternoons, one or two of the kids were always at Ruth's kitchen table, doing homework or snacking before chores. In the evenings, the family would gather for dinner, and Olaf demanded that the children behave during the meal. After dinner, the kids cleared the table and then worked on homework or practiced their instruments. As Ruth fussed in the kitchen, Olaf would remove his suit jacket and settle into his upholstered easy chair in the living room. The radio console played classical music softly in the background, and a lit cigarette dangled between his long fingers as he read the Charleston Daily Mail. Skip told me that he rarely saw his father dressed in anything but a three-piece suit.
"Every morning, at breakfast and at dinner, my father was dressed properly in one of his three-piece suits, his shirts perfectly starched," Skip said. He recalled that the only times his father did not wear a suit were the rare occasions when he went out in the field to sow corn.
A closer look at this idyllic picture of the Kahn family reveals some cracks. Ruth was a solid neighborhood mom, but she was also a perfectionist; she was rarely satisfied with her children's efforts. She held herself and her children to very high standards; when Ruth Ann or Sara Jane finished a chore, Ruth would inspect their work. More often than not, she'd declare the job not good enough and redo it herself.
Olaf, too, had very strict limits and a cutting tongue that could slice through his children's self-confidence. His after-dinner ritual, for example, was not to be interrupted for any reason. In the rare instance when a child actually summoned the courage to walk into the living room to ask a question about a homework assignment, Olaf's response was cold. Raising his eyebrows, he would fix one eye on the child and stare through the curling smoke of his cigarette. In a firm, flat monotone, he would say, "If I told you, you wouldn't understand anyway." Most of the children never made that mistake twice, son Skip said. Olaf was an old-fashioned patriarch who kept his personal struggles to himself.
Further examination of the Kahn family would also reveal that at least one member of the family did not seem to fit in. Early photos of Sara Jane show a slight girl with shoulder-length brown hair, sad blue eyes, and a delicate but impenetrable air. In the midst of her family, Sara Jane stood just outside the circle of brothers and sisters. Ruth Ann, two years older, was formidable in her religious devotion. She found her escape immediately after college by marrying a minister and never moving back home. The three boys, Skip, Dana, and Charles, formed a boisterous familial bond as teenagers. High school sports defined the relationships among the boys both at home and with their many friends. In their routine there was no room for sisters.
Sara Jane excelled academically. She was bright and curious, a straight "A" student (she even skipped a grade in elementary school), an accomplished violinist, a ballet student, an excellent seamstress like her mother, and a talented actor and artist. Yet something was clearly amiss, and most people who came into contact with her sensed it. One of Sara Jane's junior high school teachers delicately described her as "a little odd." The oddity was her lack of connectedness with her teachers and other students. She isolated herself from them and found escape and satisfaction in acting class, submerging herself in different roles. A ballet-school classmate recalled that at age thirteen, "She was always making up something bizarre. She would come in and tell the craziest stories about her family being descendents of royalty."
Neighbors from Woodward Drive and her classmates from Stonewall Jackson High remember Sara Jane as "aloof" but "intense," "unfriendly" but "looking for the limelight"—and, always, "a little odd." Adults in the neighborhood tried hard to make sure the other children did not exclude her. "Be nice to Sara Jane, even though she seems hard to get to know," her Girl Scout troop leader instructed the other girls more than once. But it didn't help, a troop member said. "Even if you were nice to her, she never reciprocated. She never tried to really be a part of anything, even when we tried to bring her in. She never had any friends."
Paradoxically, Sara Jane often demanded that she be the center of attention no matter how uncomfortable that might make others. One former neighbor remembered attending Sara Jane's thirteenth birthday party; Ruth had invited the neighborhood kids. They may not have been fond of Sara Jane, but the promise of one of Ruth's delicious cakes probably clinched the deal for most of them. When the kids arrived at the party, however, Sara Jane insisted that they all had to sit and listen to her perform a violin recital before the cake was served.
Sara Jane found a new way to capture the limelight at Charleston's Stonewall Jackson High School, where her studies began in 1944. She had joined Thespians, the drama club. Although she was still not sought after as a friend, she was respected as an actor and was considered intensely dedicated to the art. Early on, it was clear that Sara Jane was adept at role-playing. She auditioned for the lead in every new production and won roles in several plays, including Why the Chimes Rang and The Late Christopher Bean. As one of her classmates told me, "It seemed as though she was clearly headed for an acting career."
She also joined the Spanish club, where she soon acquired a reputation as a fluent Spanish speaker. According to a fellow Spanish club member, Sara Jane was "studying Spanish as though she were going to Spain."
Sara Jane did nothing at half speed. She prided herself in being an excellent student, and found no academic challenge too difficult or intimidating. She had such confidence in her intellect that she felt nothing she attempted was unachievable. Her school report on Ivanhoe was expertly prepared. She labored over the manuscript for hours, carefully hand-printing the text as through it were typeset and adding beautifully executed drawings. Her violin playing approached concert quality.
The centrally located Diamond Department Store, downtown at Capital and Washington Streets, was the social extension of several generations of Charleston students. They flowed into the store's coffee, Coke, and sandwich shop after school and on Saturdays to hang out. Young girls sat on high stools at the wide marble counter of the soda fountain, legs crossed demurely, giggling with their friends. Couples going steady snuggled close at the small round wire-legged tables, drinking from a single soda with two straws. On Friday and Saturday nights, boys slouched outside the front door while girls walked down the street with their friends, flirting and pretending to ignore them. It was an American ritual.
But Sara Jane was not to be found with the other teens at the Diamond. Her interactions were reserved for responding eagerly to teachers' questions. Instead of flirting with the boys or laughing with her girlfriends, she moved purposefully from class to class, a stack of books in her arms and a very serious expression on her face. Her arena for social acceptance was limited to clubs focused on a goal. If she could not compete socially, then she would compete academically. Sara, her brother Skip said, was very proud of her academic achievements.
Along with many teens, women, and men who were too old for the armed services, Sara Jane spent the final years of World War II as an active member of Charleston's Civil Air Patrol (CAP). The CAP, an organization that began as a volunteer force of civilian pilots in World War II patrolling the American coastline and bombing German U-boats, encouraged students to learn about aviation, weapons, and leadership in a military setting. One of the few girls in the CAP, Sara Jane excelled in the program. She was quick to learn the instruments when the group was taken on an orientation flight in a Cessna 310. She may also have had some initial familiarization with weapons. Sara Jane wore her uniform with pride.
Her family and friends assumed that Sara Jane was headed for some sort of conventional career—perhaps as an actress or a Spanish teacher or a musician. Perhaps, despite her social awkwardness, she would fall in love and start a family. Then, she began what would turn into a lifelong pattern: She disappeared.
One day in the fall of 1946, when Sara Jane was sixteen, she left home for school but never showed up. That evening she didn't return home. She hadn't left a note, and she hadn't mentioned to anyone that she was going anywhere. Her parents were frantic. Her schoolmates were questioned, along with teachers, drama tutors, and members of the Spanish club and of the CAP. No one knew of any school-related activities or of possible relationships that would have called her away.
Ruth and Olaf mounted a full search, but they could find no sign of their daughter. Finally, they reported her disappearance to the police. The police could find no trace of her. Three days later, just as suddenly as she had disappeared, Sara Jane returned. She looked exactly as she had when she left for school. Where had she been? She offered no explanation. She refused to talk to anyone about it. Ruth, thinking she might have been abducted and sexually assaulted, had her daughter examined by the family doctor, who reported no signs of "abuse." Sara Jane was not injured, did not appear traumatized, and apparently had not been kidnapped. Eventually, Ruth chose to explain her child's disappearance as "amnesia," and left it at that. Sara Jane remained silent.
Sara Jane resumed her life at school without a word of explanation. Then, in a sudden show of independence, Sara Jane announced that she would get a job so she could have her own money to do with as she pleased. Her brother Skip had a morning paper route, delivering the Charleston Daily Mail. Sara Jane secured the delivery job for the afternoon paper, the Charleston Gazette.
Excerpted from Taking Aim at the President by Geri Spieler. Copyright © 2009 Geri Spieler. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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