You are looking at what is perhaps one of the most famous – and infamous – buildings in the world. It’s the Texas School Book Depository, overlooking Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. For the better part of a decade, it was a physical representation of the mark of Cain on the city. It wasn’t until the one-two punch of Tom Landry and J.R. Ewing broke the automatic association of the word “Dallas” with the tragedy that happened one November afternoon in Dealey Plaza.
I re-visited The Sixth Floor Museum there today, and took my newly-minted teenage daughter with me to share the experience. If you are at all familiar with American culture, American history, and the American Presidency, you can’t help but know the story by heart – a famously young, handsome President and his stylish, cultured wife.
A lone gunman. The grassy knoll. Dealey Plaza. The Triple Underpass. The Texas Theatre. Lee Harvey Oswald. Jack Ruby. The Warren Commission. These are words and phrases that stir powerful emotions, even close to 50 years after the fact. Today was the first chance I had to experience the museum since I went from a know-nothing to experienced gun owner. And it was an eye-opening experience.
I was all of six years old in November of 1963. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, a mere three hours away by car from Big D. My family visited there regularly. I had cousins there, and of course, Six Flags Over Texas was a huge draw. On our way from Dallas to Six Flags on the D/FW Turnpike, we’d pass by a place in then-rural Grand Prairie called Lion Country Safari.
It was the kind of place where you’re in the cage (or car, as it were) and all the animals were allowed to run (relatively) free. Lions, tigers, giraffes, monkeys – they’d all saunter up to the car, with you safely ensconced within. So you’ll understand that, as I sat at my desk in Mrs. McClelland’s first grade class at St. Mark’s Day School, why I was a bit confused upon hearing the news that President Kennedy had been shot.
My first thought was that he’d been on a hunting safari at Lion Country, and been injured by a hunting rifle. Hey – I was six. Not long after that first announcement came the second one, telling us that he’d died.
Time passed. Investigations happened. Some wounds healed. Some never did. I grew up, and for a time, moved to Dallas. Eventually, the city came to terms with that terrible legacy, and realized that the best way to deal with the scars and pain was to build a museum that would become both an educational experience for visitors, and a way to respect and honor the memory of a President, cut down by an assassin’s bullet.
They put a lot of work into this museum. It is no rubber-necker’s maudlin freak show. The information is factual. It’s presented in a very tasteful way. Preaching and myth-making is kept to a minimum. Most people treat the experience as you would if you were visiting a library, or even more accurately, a religious shrine. The tone is respectful. Reverent. Careful. If you have the opportunity to visit Dallas, it is an experience that is well worth your time.
So I mentioned I’d visited not long after the museum opened in 1989. The exhibits haven’t changed much, if memory serves. The guided tours have gone from cassette to digital – that’s about it. But my eyes have been opened through my conversion to “gun guy” and I went seeking some answers. Unfortunately (as is so often the case) I ended up with few answers, and even more questions.
I grew up in a conservative household. My family was no fan of the Kennedys. My father was an old Navy man, and he was appoplectic over the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis screw-ups. He was a letter-writer, and he was NOT amused, and let the President know it. (For a half-dozen years thereafter, his tax returns were flagged for audit EVERY YEAR. If they found anything, it was that he’d overpaid.)
On my first visit in ’89, I was what I’d now consider to be marginally anti-gun. I wasn’t in favor of a gun ban, I just felt like being armed was an invitation to making any bad situation worse. I was young. And ignorant. I remember thinking how, even though my family did not support Kennedy, how they mourned his loss. I remember the palpable feel of pain in almost everybody.
This time in the museum, it was different. I still felt the emotions, but I was much more interested in the ballistics, trajectories, weapons, et cetera. And of course, the central issue to the case: Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?
You can watch the Zapruder film, re-enactments, and that wretched Oliver Stone film all you like, and you’ll find that nothing is anywhere close to standing at a window on the sixth floor, next to the sniper’s perch, and gazing down on Dealey Plaza. There are even “X”s that mark the position of the limousine when the two kill shots struck the President. In 89, I saw this through the eyes of a non-shooter, dealing with memories of the event as a six-year-old. Today, I saw the same scene and thought about the assassination in more clinical terms.
Do I believe Oswald shot the President? Yeah. Mostly. Do I believe he acted alone? Nope. Not a chance. Now I’ve read and seen much of what has been written by the many conspiracy theorists. I’ve always thought that stuff to be way too far-out for me to swallow. And I realize and acknowledge that it’s possible for someone to shoot a bolt-action rifle and get off three shots in the time that they occurred. But…
Here’s the part I don’t get. As the limo headed straight for him, they might as well have been in an abattoir. Oswald could have shot the President with the car coming at him, straight on, and had a much easier shot, not to mention, the limo would have been trapped. No trees to deal with, either. But no one fired a shot at the President, until they turned the corner.
If I wanted to assassinate someone, you’d be hard pressed to find a better setup than Dealey Plaza. A limo that had to slow to make a more-than 90º turn. And places for two other snipers perches that would allow for a classic triangulation. With two more shooters, you have a kill zone that would have been fatal, beyond any doubt. So were there more shooters?
I don’t know. I’ve NEVER believed in that “magic bullet” B.S. – there’s just no way for me to have enough willing suspension of disbelief to think that a bullet could pass through Kennedy, hit Governor Connely in the chest AND wrist, and end up, unscathed, on a stretcher. But if you believe that the magic bullet is just so much stagecraft, where did it come from? You’d have to have a fairly large conspiracy to plant a bullet of the right calibre that soon after an assassination.
If you look at the “right” way to stage an assassination, the Kennedy assassination looks like amateur hour. Sure it’s possible for a shooter to get off three shots that quickly. Sure it’s possible that he could have done it alone. And sure it’s possible for bullets to do unpredictable things. But it just doesn’t seem reasonable. And that’s where I’m of two minds on the subject.
On one hand, I acknowledge that Oswald COULD have acted alone, and it COULD have happened the way the Warren Commission claimed. On the other hand, the idea of co-conspirators explains a lot. And is a lot more plausible. And the idea of the kill shot coming from behind just doesn’t make sense to me. Not with the back of Kennedy’s head showing a huge exit wound. And the fact that no Dallas-based autopsy was ever performed.
But does the Keystone Cops-like pandemonium following the shooting (not to mention the suspect getting himself killed in the basement of the police building) mean that Oswald couldn’t have acted alone? Nope. So what’s the truth? I don’t know.
This much I do know. The experience of a visit to the Sixth Floor museum is, for me, anyway, a moving experience. There’s more I will write of that day, but I want to find a bit more perspective. Suffice it to say for now that I have a lot more thinking to do on the entire topic. More details as events warrant.