Dealey Plaza, 1963
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When I was growing up I was always intrigued by conspiracy theory. In that way I probably take after my father the most. In saying the words “conspiracy theory,” the first example that often comes to mind is the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza. Well, that and the story of Roswell.
Somehow I never considered visiting Dealey Plaza, the site of the JFK assassination, until my parents came to visit us in Dallas. When we realized that we would already be within half a mile of it, the decision was made without a second thought.
I’m not sure how many times I have heard the story of where my dad was on November 22, 1963, but from the way he tells it you can imagine that it’s a common memory for everyone alive in 1963. To compare it with my own life, it’s the kind of story that I’ll tell my children and grandchildren when we talk about September 11, 2001.
And then there are the movies about the assassination. Each of them has a different perspective about how the events happened and who was involved with what. Of course, all information has been filtered through a number of government channels over the past five decades.
There are still sealed government records, you know.
Our adventure began in the parking lot, the one that costs $3 per parking space. As we stuffed our dollar bills into the machine my mom pointed out the free parking lot next door. We crossed the railroad tracks and walked toward the corner of Elm and Main street. From there, we were surrounded by history. The building to our right was the old book repository from which Lee Harvey Oswald made his sniper post. His sixth-floor vantage point has since been converted into a museum. It overlooked Dealey Plaza.
The first thing I noticed, having seen the footage from 1963, was that the trees are much bigger now, and Dealey Plaza itself much smaller. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine that Oswald would have even had a clear shot. But things change, even though the city has kept a lot of the original aesthetics intact. My dad saw it another way — able to look past the trees he pointed out that the shot would have been easy for Oswald, a trained marksman.
After rounding the corner the Grassy Knoll was up ahead. For lack of a better adjective, it was surreal. It’s not every day that I walk where a President was assassinated.
The Grassy Knoll has itself become synonymous with “conspiracy theory.” It’s the place where, if you believe the theories around the assassination of JFK, the second gunman stood to fire the shot at the car. And, according to at least one eyewitness, the broken fence behind the Grassy Knoll was the opening two strangers used to enter the scene during the time of the shooting.
I’m not entirely sure if the same boards were missing from the fence today as in 1963, but either way the impression is haunting. If you stop, even just for a second, you can picture two or three suspicious men waiting to step through the same broken fence and onto the Grassy Knoll.
We couldn’t be exactly sure where the shot hit President Kennedy. We had our suspicions, and I still think they were very good guesses, but it’s just impossible to tell. I risked a little bit of life and limb to step into the street and take a photograph upward, toward the window where Oswald would have been perched.
Directly behind me, from the road, was the underpass that the President’s car entered to escape the scene. The underpass is also important because one or more eye-witnesses had been standing against its railing, able to see the scene from a different perspective.
According to some records, a stray bullet managed to take a chunk of the concrete out of the underpass. Curiously enough, if that’s true, it was never entered into the case records.
But I walk a fine line of crossing my story with the historical and not-so-historical accounts.
We stepped across the street to the monument that the city of Dallas had constructed in 1993. It struck me that in the small plaque, there wasn’t even a mention of why the location had been named historical… Nevertheless, the larger monument told the story as recorded by the Warren Commission.
It’s strange to me that the location seems to have a split personality. One that fully acknowledges the events and another that wants to disregard them. It took until 1993 to acknowledge the location as being historically important… It was almost as if at that point the people who had anything to do with the events, good or bad, had stopped caring and another generation decided for themselves that it was something important to remember.
That’s purely opinion, by the way. I don’t think that the city actively ignored the significance of Dealey Plaza. To say that might be the biggest conspiracy theory of it all… but it did strike me as peculiar nevertheless. To finish out our visit we stepped into the gift shop. Lining the walls were items that attempted to convey the sentiments and emotions of the assassination itself. Looking at them brought a strange mix of feelings. Part of me was astonished as if looking back in time through the headlines of the newspapers and the titles of the books. The other part of me was saddened by photos of John Fitzgerald and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, the happy couple stepping off the plane at Love Field, just before the parade… juxtaposed against photos of their life before the White House and their young family.
As we left the building, and Dealey Plaza behind, turned the corner, crossed the railroad tracks and returned to the parking lot a different set of feelings set in. I’m sure it was different for my parents who could remember the sixties, but for me, stepping outside that few small city blocks was like breaking through a wall in time.
Now back in what seemed like 2010, the air was different, lighter maybe. But I couldn’t help leaving a little more patriotic than when I arrived. Before my brief walk to the Grassy Knoll my favorite quote from JFK was “I’m a jelly doughnut.“ (As it turns out, the whole “Ich bin ein Berliner” thing was an urban legend anyway.) Now, after seeing the place where his life was taken and the sacrifice a President makes, I begin to understand the honesty and wisdom in the quote:
“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”