I have often visited Dallas. I’ve been to weddings, parties, and on shopping excursions to that city to the North of my home. Each of my daughters even resided there for a time. Never once have I been inclined to explore a location in the Big D for which it is quite possibly the most famous, the site of President John Kennedy’s assassination. After well over fifty years of avoidance I finally decided this week that it was time for me to make a pilgrimage to that terrible place. Thus Mike and I reserved tickets this past Monday for the one o’clock tour of the old Texas School Book Depository.
I have to admit that my stomach clinched just a bit as we neared the familiar landmarks that I have seen countless times in grainy old black and white newsreels. I was stunned to see such a large crowd of people milling about the area. I had thought that after all of these years and particularly on a work day that we would have the run of the place. Instead there were individuals of all ages and nationalities standing in queues waiting to take the elevator to the sixth floor where one of the most emotional tragedies in our nation’s history unfolded back when I was just a young girl in high school.
After a short wait Mike and I received our transmitters for a self guided tour and took the elevator the the main exhibit floor. I immediately had an eerie feeling and silently wondered if I really wanted to be reminded once again of the evil that had taken place here on a beautiful November day back when our nation was still somewhat naive. I felt a bit claustrophobic jammed into the crush of people trying to gaze at the photographs and read the information.
The tour began innocently enough just as President Kennedy’s term of office had. The information told of his campaign and reminded all of us of the first ever televised debate between him and Richard Nixon. It outlined the inauguration and the media comparison of his tenure to Camelot. As I visited each section I was reminded of my own youth and the tremendous sense of excitement that I had felt when Kennedy was elected. It was a time before all of the ugliness began and it was indeed beautiful. Few of us thought to remember what happened to King Arthur in Camelot or to imagine that our young President’s fate might ultimately be similar.
My walk through history recalled the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. I thought of those air raid horns that sounded at noon every Friday and blared into the open windows of our classrooms. I remember drills when me and my classmates rolled into balls under our desks to practice our protective stances just in case there was ever a nuclear attack. I thought of the warning signals of danger that we all missed in the early sixties. We had little idea of the chaos that lay ahead.
I smiled at the posters regaling the race to space that President Kennedy declared would get us to the moon. I had believed with all of my heart that we would meet his goal. I lived in the very city where some of the world’s greatest minds toiled each day to make space exploration a reality. Many of them lived nearby. I felt a sense of pride that my neighbors had played a part in making this dream come true.
Ultimately the displays spoke of President Kennedy’s planned tour of Texas. Like someone watching a horror story unfold my sense of dread increased exponentially. I already knew what was coming. There was an irony to every photograph that showed the people of San Antonio and Houston and even Dallas greeting President Kennedy and his beautiful wife with warmth and enthusiasm. How I wished that I might scream and warn them to be very careful. Seeing them in that open convertible sent chills down my spine. I understood the approaching danger all too well.
Finally I was standing at the spot where Lee Harvey Oswald had built a hiding place out of boxes of books so that he might sit in the open sixth floor window waiting for the President’s motorcade to pass just below. I shuddered as I tried to imagine what vileness must have been going through his mind as he steadied his cheap mail order rifle. I looked below and saw that even an unremarkable marksman would have had a clear shot. It was like watching the whole incident unfold. How I wished that someone might have discovered him and foiled his plot. If only…
In my mind I saw the President’s car make its sharp left turn. John Kennedy was smiling. Jackie was so lovely in that pink suit. In only a few minutes they would arrive at a luncheon at the Trade Mart which was only a short distance away. He would give his speech and then they would retire to Vice President Johnson’s ranch for some rest and recreation. They would celebrate a successful trip and no doubt laugh to think that some had warned them that it would be dangerous to visit Dallas. The hordes of cheering people at Dealy Plaza decried the very idea that evil lurked nearby.
But then the crazed soul of Lee Harvey Oswald shot one, two, three times. The deed was done. Our President was mortally wounded. Chaos ensued. Instead of traveling to the Trade Mart the entourage sped to Parkland Hospital where shorty thereafter John Kennedy was declared dead.
I have often believed that this was the very moment when our country changed dramatically. I for one developed a protective shell of cynicism. This was one of the most difficult days of my entire life. Only the deaths of my father and later my mother struck me with more grief. As I stood at that window I felt those familiar pangs of long ago as if it were November again and I had just turned fifteen. The feelings evoked by the museum had long been buried in my psyche and they rushed to the surface of my mind with a vengeance.
I finished the tour in a state of sadness. Somehow it mattered little whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald had been part of a vast conspiracy. I didn’t need to know his reasons for doing what he did. I was simply angry that it ever happened. When I overheard a young man commenting the “What’s his name,” had struck from this perch I felt a sense of triumph that the assassin was nameless, a cipher who deserves no glory or even recognition for his despicable deed.
It took a time for me to recover my footing as we emerged from the museum. I fumbled around the gift shop and wondered why anyone would purchase a shirt emblazoned with a drawing of the building. Even more ghoulish were Christmas ornaments and a pair of earrings fashioned after the place of horror. I suppose that everyone is different but I can’t imagine wanting to have such reminders of one of the worst days in history. I quietly left the premises and sat in our car for a time just watching the people who had come to this place which had become a kind of shrine.
Later I stood near the spot where Abraham Zapruder had taken filmed the entire episode and glanced up at the fence along the infamous grassy knoll. I walked past the X on the road that marked the spot where the fatal wound most likely occurred. It was all too terribly familiar to me, burned into my brain. I could imagine the cheering crowd and the horror that they must have felt once they realized what had happened.
It had been a November day of long ago. Dallas would bear the scars of guilt for all time. We would be stripped of our innocence. The world would burn with the fires of change. None of us would ever be quite the same. The emotions that we felt then are just as raw today. I suspect that they will follow us all the way to our graves.