Day 5: Dallas
On November 4th, 2009, at 12:14 PM in Dallas, Texas, it was approximately 74-degrees Fahrenheit, with only a slight 2 mph wind coming from the Southwest. It was a warm day.
That same day in that same city, I stood shivering on the corner of Elm and Houston.
Almost 46 years ago, about 15-feet away from where I stood, John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States of America, was shot twice. The second shot fatally wounded him. He was pronounced dead 36 minutes after the second shot.
The assassination of JFK has become a well-known and oft-told tale in our society. The short version, according to the Warren Commission: Lee Harvey Oswald fired three bullets from the sixth floor of the Dallas Book Depository on November 23, 1963. Here's a photo of the window in question, second from the top:
Two of the three bullets fired by Oswald, according to the Warren Commission, struck President Kennedy on the following stretch of road. The "X" marks on the road are where the bullets hit the President.
These are not new details. But what was new to me was the noticeable change in atmosphere that occurs once you approach Dealey plaza, the site of the assassination. None of the pictures or Oliver Stone's "JFK" or even the Zapruder film can properly convey the weight of this place. When you approach the area, your blood chills. Now, "blood chilling" is, of course, a cliche. But there is no other way to describe the sensation. The weather is warm but you cannot stop shaking. The atmosphere is too cold, and the weight of history is too heavy in this place. Oddly enough, although there is noise and people bustling around, there is a weird sense of quiet to the place, too. "It's warm, but it's cold. It's loud but it's quiet"...I know that these contradictions must sound like the melodramatic spinnings of a novice wordsmith eager to show off his verbal acumen to whoever will listen. But that's not the point. The point is that an important man was publicly murdered in cold blood almost 46 years ago and I don't have the words to tell you about it. The atmosphere in Dealey plaza is unquiet. In spite of all other sensations, you will feel cold, and you won't hear any of the background noise. There is an omnipresent and uneasy feeling of discontent and malaise. But a strange fascination keeps you investigating the area.
The 6th Floor Museum allows you to walk the same hallways as the killer Lee Harvey Oswald. They've kept the corner window intact and as historically accurate as possible. The museum itself is a delight- charging $13.50, just so they can give you a 50-cent piece in change (which I thought was a perfect detail). The amount of information is staggering, and enough for any history junkie to get his or her fill. Acoustical analysis of the shot, FBI models, newspaper clippings prior to the Texas visit, quotes from Kennedy himself tragically foreshadowing his impending demise, and even a clipping from the Associated Press' newswire, which urges all local news sources to "Stay off stay off [sic]", as every reporter in the US must have been trying to send a message to his local editor.
This tour could have easily taken me hours. That's when I saw a picture that I couldn't help but stare at: a photograph of President Lyndon Johnson being sworn into office. To his left, the freshly-widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, looking suddenly much older than any of us remembered. Creases formed deeply around her eyes, and the heavy grief of the new, horrid memory tugged at the lower corners of her mouth, challenging the grace that everyone knew and expected from her. I don't know if she held it together. I only had the one picture to go by.
It was beautiful and tragic. I had to leave.
I had only been there for 20 minutes.