Friday, March 11, 2011

Dealey Plaza

by Earl Staggs

I was in an office at the B&O Railroad in Baltimore waiting for a coworker to return from lunch so I could go. He came back early and stood just inside the door with a strange expression. After a minute of silence during which everyone’s attention turned to him, he announced, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” Friday, November 22, 1963.

It never occurred to me that all these years later, I’d be living in Fort Worth, an hour from Dealey Plaza in Dallas where it happened. I’ve been there three times, and each time is like the first. I’m immediately overcome with a feeling of awe that I’m at the spot where one of the most significant events in history took place.

Dealey Plaza is a pie-shaped park area near downtown Dallas, no larger than half a block wide at the top end along Houston Street. Elm and Main Streets slope gently downward from Houston. Elm bends toward Main and merges into it at the bottom end of the Plaza to form one street which goes under a railroad trestle. There’s a grassy area between the two streets and another one on the right of Elm. That one goes uphill at an angle of about forty-five degrees and is known as “The Grassy Knoll.” The entire area is smaller than you might imagine, less than the length of a football field from Houston Street to the trestle.

There are no huge signs identifying the site, no tour guides to show you around. The City of Dallas decided long ago not to overtly advertise it as a tourist attraction. Halfway down Elm Street is a faded white “X” no more than a foot square embedded in the gray roadway which approximates the point at which the fatal bullet (or bullets) struck the President.

If you stand on the sidewalk near the “X” and look back over your left shoulder, you see a seven-story red brick building at the corner of Elm and Houston. The corner window on the sixth floor is the one from which Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired. The building was known as The Texas School Book Depository then. It has since been renamed The Dallas County School Board Administration Building. The entire sixth floor is a museum whose name does not mention Kennedy or Oswald. It is designated simply “The Sixth Floor Museum.”

As you approach the building, a huckster hands you a tabloid newspaper detailing the assassination. “Look it over for free,” he says, “and if you want to take it with you, it’s five dollars.”

Once inside the museum, there are pictures, films, and displays chronicling the events of that day and those leading up to it. The ominous corner window, called “The Sniper’s Perch,” is sealed off in glass, but you can stand at the window next to it and look down at the “X” in the street, a distance less than fifty yards.

One of the interesting exhibits is a man’s light-colored suit. If you recall the news footage of Jack Ruby shouldering his way through a gaggle of news reporters and cops with a gun in his hand, you may remember Oswald was handcuffed to a large man wearing that suit. That police officer donated the suit to the museum a few years ago.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I have when I go to Dealey Plaza. I feel a chill down my back and I stand transfixed, taking it all in. My imagination kicks in and I picture the scene on that day.

Onlookers lining both sides of Elm Street to get a glimpse of their President and the First Lady. They’re filled with excitement, pushing closer to the street to get the best view, smiling and waiting, anticipating what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The motorcade turns off Houston onto Elm and coasts toward them. Halfway down the street, a shot echoes across the Plaza. Another shot. One more. People run, duck, fall to the ground in panic and shock. The First Lady climbs onto the trunk of the limo, a Secret Service agent jumps on to protect her. People look and point in all directions, unsure where the shots came from. A man named Zapruder has the presence of mind to keep his 8mm movie camera trained on the limo. The motorcade speeds up and disappears under the railroad trestle. A scant few seconds engraved in history.

Standing there, letting my imagination play out the scene, I almost feel as if I was there that day. I had the same experience and feelings when I visited Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor.

We’ll never know for sure why Ruby shot Oswald. More significantly, we’ll never know for sure if Oswald acted alone. Despite all the investigations, analyses, and expert opinions, conspiracy theories still exist. Strong arguments can be made on either side of the issue. For my money, the truth could go either way, or lie somewhere in the middle. What took place in Dealey Plaza that day in 1963 is an indelible and irrepressible enigma, a mystery forever unsolved.

Here’s one more thing for anyone interested. In writing this, I became curious about Oswald’s widow. On November 22, 1996, the 33rd anniversary of the assassination, Marina Oswald Porter appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show. Marina revealed that she eventually came to some startling conclusions, and she offers proof to substantiate her conclusions that:

. . .her husband did NOT shoot Kennedy
. . .Oswald was not only a patsy, but an FBI informant
. . .there WAS a conspiracy covered up by the government via the Warren Commission.

Very interesting. You’ll find a complete transcript of what Marina said here:

To end this on a lighter note, there’s a line I love from “Shooter,” a film made from the Stephen Hunter novel POINT OF IMPACT starring Mark Wahlberg as former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger. Swagger visits an elderly gun expert, and the conversation turns to famous guns and shootings, eventually getting around to the JFK assassination.

“The guys who killed Kennedy,” the old man says, “were buried in the desert three hours later. I still have the shovel.”



Jacqueline Seewald said...

Those of us who lived through the shocking assassination of J.F. Kennedy will never forget it. The conspiracy theories still abound because a detailed solution regarding the mysterious murder have never been satisfactory. Those of us who write mystery fiction are expected to tie up loose ends, but historical mysteries are a different matter entirely.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

If you do a Google search for "Dealey Plaza", and then click on "Maps" at the top of the page, you'll get the map of the area.
Zoom in on the marker labeled "Dealey Plaza Park", and if you are in the map view, click on the Satellite option. You'll then have a satellite image of the plaza.

In the image that's currently up, there is a small knot of people on the sidewalk just north of the marker. Zoom in and you'll see they are looking at the X.

Keep zooming in, and you'll switch to the Street View. You can drive down Elm street past and get a closer look at the X, and see the Book Repository while virtually standing where the Presidential limo would have brushed you aside as it sped away.

Yes, it is sobering, even on a computer a thousand miles away.

Kaye Barley said...

Earl - this was a terrific post, thank you.

I so very much respect the City of Dallas for keeping Dealey Plaza as they have and not turning it into the carnival some might have chosen.

I remember being in Mrs. Cusick's English class at the time of the shooting. I remember sitting in front of the TV with my dad and seeing Oswald shot.

It remains a sad, sobering era in our history.

Larry W. Chavis said...

I was only in sixth grade, but I remember as clearly as yesterday what I was doing that day when our teacher gave us the news.

Some years ago, I walked the ground at Dealey Plaza, and visited the Sixth Floor Museum. My experience was akin to yours, Earl, in the palpable reality I felt there. I saw the motorcade, heard the shots. It changed the way I think about the event.

And no, we'll never really know.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I've heard a number of theories about what really happened that day, the most shocking that several well-known people were involved in the planning. I remember having nightmares for months afterward because I was glued to the TV for days after the assasination. It was one of the darkest days of U.S. history.

Pat Browning said...

Earl, I remember that whole weekend as if it were yesterday. I think the man who said the guys who shot JFK were buried in the desert was probably closer to the truth than we will ever know.

I remember reading that someone said the secret had to be kept because the American people wouldn't be able to handle the truth. I think that may also be so.

Thanks for the post. Dallas was one of my favorite cities. I was always sorry such a terrible thing had to happen there.

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Lyne and I visited Dealy Plaza last year and had the same experience, Earl. When we move back Granbury this year, we will undoubtably find ourselves going back for another look. Those of us old enough to remember Kennedy's assasination will never forget the experience of visiting this ominous museum.

jrlindermuth said...

That took me back in time, Earl--as I'm sure it did a lot of others. I was a lowly sergeant with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Korea and was sleeping off a night of guard when my roommate woke me with the news.

Earl Staggs said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and leaving comments. This was one of those events tattooed into our hearts and minds. FDR came up with the phrase, "a day which will live in infamy." That certainly applies to what happened in Dealey Plaza.

Jacqueline - You're so right about historical mysteries. Writers are fortunate in that we can tie up loose ends. History doesn't have that luxury.

JEQ - Only a tech wizard like you could come up with a live satellite visit. I'll have to try it.

Kaye Darlin'! When you and Donald come to Texas, we'll go to Dealey Plaza.

Larry - That we'll never know is what makes history so intriguing - and arguable.

Jean - As they used to say on The X Files, "The truth is out there." If only we knew where.

Pat - You could be right about the truth being kept from us because we couldn't handle it. The same has been said about Roswell.

Mark - You're moving to Granbury? Terrific. That delightful town is only an hour from me. We'll get together.

John - It must have been doubly traumatic to receive the news while experiencing South Korea at the same time.

Kaye George said...

It's been a few years since I've been there, but when we live in Dallas, guests always wanted to see Dealey Plaza.

So there aren't people outside the door handing you fliers to get you to come to the museum that treats the whole thing as a conspiracy? It used to be a block or so away. Maybe it's gone now.

Earl Staggs said...

Kaye, I didn't know about that other museum. I suspect it's no longer there. Hmmm. Maybe those behind the conspiracy got rid of it.

Kaye George said...

I suspect a secret plot, Earl.

Earl Staggs said...

HehHehHeh, Kaye. Spoken like a true mystery writer.