don’t know much about history
One of the things I have always wanted to do is visit Dealey Plaza and the infamous Texas School Book Depository, so when my parents mentioned they would be in town for my 40th birthday and asked what I’d like to do that day, it just seemed a good time. After all, they are of the generation that remembers exactly where they were on the day President Kennedy was killed. Who better to explore this period of history with me?
We planned the whole day around the Sixth Floor Museum, knowing full well that we (and especially my dad) would read every single word on every single display in the exhibit. So our day began mid-morning, just after the commuter crowd, with the train ride into Dallas, and that itself was a fun treat for my mom. She had never ridden the rail before, and she was especially impressed with how much easier and more comfortable it is than driving into downtown. Immediately she decided this was the only way to travel for a day trip!
Rather than head to the museum for just an hour or so in the morning, we chose to beat the lunch crowds at Sonny Bryan’s. I never dreamed my first choice for birthday lunch would be a barbecue place! It must be all the country music I’ve been listening to this year. But if you’re having barbecue, you just can’t go wrong with Sonny Bryan’s, and we absolutely had our fill, then strolled a couple blocks to our primary destination. It’s funny… after watching those infamous films of November 22, 1963, I was surprised to not realize we’d reached Dealey Plaza until it was pointed out to me. I guess I always thought there would be some grand revelation of place, like a giant neon arrow in the sky pointing down at the street. Instead, I saw the overpass ahead of us and walked almost to the end of the block before it really hit me. Even then I asked my parents if this was the place. It’s just so… ordinary. And that’s a little sad in itself.
As expected, we spent all afternoon in the permanent exhibit on the sixth floor, my dad and I reading practically every word and watching every video. In between, we listened to the guided audio tour through giant puffy 70s-style headphones that make you feel ridiculous until you notice all the other people around you look equally absurd. [With regard to the audio tour, it’s the way to go if you have little interest in reading and reading and reading, but there’s nothing on the audio that isn’t printed on the various panels throughout the exhibit. But, it’s included in the price of admission, so we figured, “why not?”]
My interest in President Kennedy has always been a simple curiosity in the Kennedy clan. I am one of those who considers them American royalty, although I do not revere any of the individual members in any way. But the Kennedys are such an enduring icon that I was truly interested in learning as much as I could from this exhibit. It’s not simply a recording of that tragic day, as you might expect, but rather the story of John F. Kennedy’s political career. Upon entering the exhibit you are met with only the briefest introduction to the man’s early life before the story turns toward his 1960 campaign. From there it’s a point-by-point retelling of the most significant (and sometimes just joyous) events in his presidency. I learned more about President Kennedy in one afternoon than I’ve learned in my lifetime, and that kind of made me sad for the education I never received in school. Each and every major moment in the man’s final years is addressed in the museum, and I was absolutely mesmerized to learn that he was responsible for the creation of so many programs that exist even today. I think I was most surprised to learn that the Peace Corps was created during his administration. And I once again realized just how much I do not know about my own country’s history.
Of course, this memorial only exists because the President was killed on this very corner, so 65% of the exhibit floor addresses the horrible events of that day. There are the expected images from the infamous Zapruder film, as well as television and radio broadcasts announcing the assassination. But there are also some unexpected additions, like the original teletype page that transcribes one reporter’s attempt to verify the reports of shots fired while “yelling” at every other reporter to “GET OFF!” the wire. The various reports reveal just how urgent were those moments in time. Still, plenty of the display conveys the global heartache over the President’s death. A short film presents footage of the funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery, including images I had never seen of Jacqueline, young Caroline and other members of the Kennedy family. Watching these few minutes allowed me to experience the feelings that so many around the world experienced on that day. I couldn’t help but feel the gravity of the events, the sheer emptiness that must have accompanied the loss of a figure so beloved of the people.
There were little moments of surprise and even joy as I moved through the exhibit, not the least of which was finding the name of my great-uncle on a wall chronicling the timeline of events over that weekend. My dad’s uncle is Preston Smith, former Governor of Texas, and in 1963, while serving as Lt. Governor, he was to participate in a dinner honoring the President and First Lady on their final Texas stop in Austin. Although the President died before reaching that city, the evening’s program still exists and was included in the timeline. Seeing my Uncle Preston’s name on that one piece of paper filled me with the same pride I have every single time I can mention his governorship. And in the most unexpected way I felt a connection to President Kennedy that hadn’t existed before.
By the time I reached the portion of the exhibit detailing the Warren Commission (and what seemed like every single piece of investigative documentation) I was ready to move on. Although the photos and films are still riveting that chronicle the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald and his murder by Jack Ruby, it was the succeeding investigation that finally began to bore me. I suppose I’ve just heard all I want to hear about conspiracy, alternate theories and the like. Sadly, this is the history of JFK that I know all too well, not the legacy of the man himself. There is one interesting video that outlines the bulk of the investigative actions, and that’s all I really wanted to see. As these are at the end of the exhibit, I chose to bypass most of it in favor of watching one final film in which citizens of Dallas recall the impact of the President’s life and legacy on their own lives. It was a much more fitting way to close all that I read and felt throughout the afternoon.
I thought visiting the Sixth Floor might be a somber experience, but I was pleased to feel the magnitude over the emotions. Peering into the corner that now recreates the scene of that day — the boxes stacked for a rifle perch, the open window looking out on Elm Street — you can’t help but imagine yourself in that spot. You can’t help but think about the police officers who discovered it. And looking out those same windows onto that same street, you can’t help but envision the motorcade turning the corner and pulling up below you. Eerie, yes. And yet moving, as well. At the opposite corner of the room, the final stage of the exhibit, you look upon the staircase that Oswald used for his exit, and you read about the rifle found there. My mind couldn’t even comprehend the events, so astounding and implausible they seemed. The history in this place is palpable. The importance of it is felt from beginning to end.
Rather than exit immediately, we chose to breeze through a special exhibit on the seventh floor that featured the news photography of Bob Jackson, the journalist who snapped that infamous photo of Jack Ruby shooting Oswald. More than just a retelling of the November 22 events, this exhibit chronicles Jackson’s career and emphasizes the work that brought him acclaim throughout Dallas and then the world. Many of his photos were familiar images from the pages of history, and his work is a beautiful archive of our nation’s struggle for equality, understanding and peaceful coexistence. Jackson’s recollection of his part in President Kennedy’s story is just one piece of a truly fascinating career.
Leaving the Book Depository, despite the setting sun, I was determined to walk around the plaza and shoot as many photos as possible before we boarded the train for home. This extra stroll allowed the three of us an opportunity to discuss what we had been reading all day, what my parents remembered from their own lives, what history they already knew. Looking down Elm Street, looking across to the grassy knoll, I couldn’t shake the weight of history. While I had barely noticed it upon our arrival, I was overwhelmed by that city block as we departed. Knowing what happened there, hearing people share their memories, listening to recordings and watching videos while peering out the windows onto the very ground of which they spoke… I felt history. And I won’t soon forget.