The view from Dealey Plaza
We are in Mrs. Schultz’s seventh grade math class, the period right before lunch. Less than a week away, Thanksgiving beckons with promises of days off. Whatever concentration remains that morning evaporates when our teacher is called unexpectedly away. Through a thick haze of 50 years I recall a distraught Alma Schultz reentering the room to tell us President Kennedy has been shot and killed. It is Nov. 22, 1963 and I am 12-years old.
Together, with a friend, we jump on our bikes and race to our homes during lunch break. When I walk in the house both my parents are in the kitchen talking quietly, well aware of what has happened. Usually guarded, my mother’s tears and the pain on my father’s face is evidence of what we have lost. In the next room, the television, barely warm, carries the news. Walter Cronkite is on, walking the battlements surrounding our wounded nation, parceling information as best he can through tears of his own.
We keep the television on for the next four days.
Like Rosary beads, the iconic images play across the tiny black and white screen for the very first time. We watch as wife and daughter kneel at the president’s coffin in the Capitol Rotunda. Leaning forward, Jackie’s lips graze the flag in silent remembrance. During the funeral procession a caparisoned horse reels wildly against his handler. In the background, the incessant roll of the drum corps echoes sharp against the granite buildings. As the caisson passes the first family, my mother chokes back tears as John-John salutes his father. We later learn today is his third birthday. In the concluding hours of a long afternoon we see the President laid to rest at Arlington. His widow and brothers lean over to light the eternal flame in a final farewell.
I am alone Sunday morning watching a live broadcast as Jack Ruby jams a pistol hard against Lee Oswald’s stomach and pulls the trigger.
Today, I am standing in the heart of Dallas, Texas, one month shy of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I have now visited the hallowed ground of the nation’s three national shrines: Pearl Harbor, Ground Zero, and now, Dealey Plaza. For me, this spot of park and avenue carries the most significance, the weight of that singular moment always present, never lifted.
As I look across the all too familiar landscape, I am struck by how small it really is; from the hard left turn at the base of the Book Depository, through the downhill curve quickly swallowed by the triple underpass. It’s a trick of the camera lens I soon discover that doubles the distances, if not more. In reality, the Grassy Knoll is not much more in size than a large backyard. The picket fence providing cover for the elusive second gunman, but a few steps from the street, a distance easily covered in a few seconds.
The conspiracy theorists are scattered throughout the venue, hawking the same tabloid, preying on tourists, espousing their own hypothesis while believing in nothing. My eye falls to two crosses painted on the street, each representing a bullet that found its mark. Frequently, someone will dash out to one of the Xs to have their picture taken. It’s not without risk. When the light changes, a stampede of cars comes barreling down. The whole thing strikes me as macabre but strangely American. Watching, I wonder if anyone has joined Kennedy in the hereafter through sheer act of stupidity.
On the first day my wife and I visit the Sixth Floor Museum, formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository. We slip on audio tour earphones, our guides for the history leading to, and on, that fateful day. From kiosk to kiosk we navigate across the expanse, the heavy beams overhead painted in thick functional gray. We listen, learn, and remember about Kennedy’s election, the Bay of Pigs, the Missiles of October, and finally, the trip to Dallas meant to finance a reelection but ending with her pink Chanel splashed in violent red.
All the while I am aware as we approach that one small corner that truly matters. We round a bend and there it is, purposeful and unrepentant, forever the deep national scar at our fingertips. They’ve built a cell of thick plexiglass to preserve the historical integrity. The wood floor inside is different, unfinished, rough. The wall of cardboard boxes stacked around is not original but a great effort has been made to replicate their exact look and position. A few feet away the next window is unencumbered, the view from it is but a degree different from Oswald’s. Beneath me, Elm Street slips under the same oak trees. With a scope it’s an easy shot — fish in a barrel — and I shake my head at all the silliness stirred by the hucksters below and beyond.
The next day I return and hop on one of the tour buses. We retrace Oswald’s last few days: the taxi ride to his rooming house, the neighborhood where Tippit was gunned down, and the movie theater where Oswald sought refuge as the police closed in. Moving back downtown we pause at the garage entrance where Jack Ruby slipped through to add to the madness. Surprisingly, very little has changed, all the neighborhoods and venues appear nearly as they did that November. It’s as if the nation steadfastly refuses to accept what has happened and allow the moment to pass.
I’ve no doubt something was wrenched from us that day; everyone with the memory feels it in their bones. At the very least we were pushed from the road we were traveling — that future denied. The tragedy lies in that we are walled off forever from the knowing if something more has been stolen from us. Perhaps that is what has sparked 50 years of still unsubstantiated speculation.
Lee Harvey Oswald was not a native son of this city, or state, arriving barely a year before. Nonetheless, he still hung a miller’s stone of guilt round the neck of Dallas. In spite of the stain, the city fathers did right and refused to bulldoze the Book Depository. To their lasting credit they have chosen to embrace that moment, and within a dignified setting they have archived those earlier years of Camelot and the tragic days when the walls were breached.
This 50th anniversary will be my last salute to the fallen President. Time enough to shed one last tear and allow him to slip from living memory to chronicled history. Perhaps it’s our blessing that the 75th anniversary will raise but a hint of recognition on the twenty second day of November, nested unceremoniously between the once heralded Armistice Day and our national day of thanksgiving.