Sunday, March 9, 2014

Walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963

DALLAS, TEXAS – When I arrived at my room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas this past February for the annual BBYO International Convention, the first thing I did (which has been customary with me every time I enter a hotel room that I plan to stay at for the first time), I always check out the view from the window of my room.

This time, the view was -- to say the least -- quite historical. It practically overlooked Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. These two sites’ notoriety are well known and are forever associated with one of the most jarring tragedies not only in modern U.S. history, but also modern history in general: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

A couple of days later, I had a couple of hours of free time, so I decided to walk the short distance between the hotel and Dealey Plaza and take a few pictures. If I was in awe that my hotel room overlooked this historical sight, the feeling increased tenfold as I made my way towards the area. Although Elm Street is still a busy thoroughfare in downtown Dallas with a steady stream of automobile traffic going through the street, the area between the Texas School Book Depository building and the overpass near the Stemmons Freeway also sees a steady stream of tourists, who treat it as a historic shrine to the six seconds when a country lost its innocence. I couldn’t help but get a very hushed feeling, as I looked up at the book depository building and saw the sixth floor perch where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the shots from his rifle, or stand on the Grassy Knoll (pictured above), or practically stand on the spot where Abraham Zapruder filmed the most notorious home movie in history, and gaze upon the “X” in the middle of Elm Street that marked where the fatal third bullet hit Kennedy (pictured below left), without having the black and white footage of the tragedy play in my head. Indeed, I was walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963. I have read my share of books about JFK and the assassination, and have seen the Zapruder film and the countless hours of black and white footage of the on-the-spot news coverage (including Walter Cronkite's moment when he choked up after officially announcing Kennedy's death), but when you see it up close and personal in living colour right in front of your face, the impact is still there as if you were actually standing along the motorcade route during that fateful Friday at 12:30 p.m.
The following Sunday morning, I was fortunate enough to be one of the group of selected BBYO adult staffers to escort a group of BBYO teens to the Dealey Plaza area as part of a day-long activity where many of the teens had the chance to do a little sight seeing at several of Dallas’ best known landmarks. Our group had the chance to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which now occupies the old Texas School Book Depository building. Since its dedication 25 years ago, the museum attracts 350,000 curious visitors every year, who want to personally experience up close and personal not only the assassination of JFK, but also the historical legacy of his brief 1,000-day presidency.

Unfortunately, photography any kind is not permitted on the sixth floor of the museum, where the permanent exhibition is displayed; however, it is allowed outside the building and on the seventh floor, where visitors can take a picture of the assassin’s view of Dealey Plaza … only one floor up from Oswald’s box-laden perch, which is encased in Lucite. Each visitor is given a complimentary audio guide; narrated by veteran Dallas radio reporter Pierce Allman (who was one of the first journalists to report about the assassination of JFK from inside the book depository), the audio guide is an effective, informative tool that directs the visitor through the permanent exhibition in order to get the full story of JFK, his presidency, the era that ushered in the “New Frontier”, the tense atmosphere in Dallas before the assassination, as well as the assassination itself and its controversial aftermath. Besides Allman’s excellent narration, the audio guide also gives plenty of eyewitness testimonies of people who were involved in the Kennedy administration, as well as those who witnessed the tragedy when Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.
But perhaps what makes the permanent exhibition so compelling to visit is the vast collection of artifacts that are on display that play a silent witness to the Kennedy assassination. There’s a copy of the home movie camera that Abraham Zapruder used to film the assassination (the actual camera is stored in the National Archives in Washington); the first wire copy bulletin to report the shooting; one of the actual table settings from the Trade Mart luncheon that Kennedy was supposed to attend that afternoon; the $12.78 Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle that was used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy (which is displayed on the exact spot where it was discovered by Dallas police Lieutenant J.C. Day); the actual suit, Stetson hat and pair of handcuffs worn by Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby (Leavelle was part of the notorious Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of the shooting; he was on the left side of the photo); and the expansive model mock-up of Dealey Plaza that was used extensively by the Warren Commission during its 1964 investigation of the assassination (pictured above is the original enamelled metal sign of the Texas School Book Depository that was above the Elm Street entrance of the building).

Of course, one’s fascination with JFK and the assassination gets ratcheted up a few levels after visiting the exhibition on the sixth floor. And the excellent gift shop/bookstore located on the museum’s street level helps foster that interest even further. It sells an excellent selection of books and publications that deal with Kennedy’s life, presidency and legacy (including such best selling titles as Arthur Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days”, Theodore Sorenson’s 1965 biography “Kennedy” and JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage”). There’s also a wide selection of books that deal primarily with the assassination, the conspiracy theories and about the museum itself (I chose its excellent illustrated guide book and the story behind the making of the Sixth Floor Museum called “Assassination and Commemoration”, which will be the subject of a future Book Banter review). There are also complete reproductions of several American newspapers from November 23, 1963, and the usual assortment of souvenirs and collectables relating to JFK (including a full-scale reproduction of his famous rocking chair, which can be purchased for about $400).

Also, here is a something to take note of when you visit Dealey Plaza. Throughout the area, there are several roaming vendors who are willing to give you a quick lesson on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. And if you’re convinced (or not), they sell copies of a privately-published illustrated historical journal ($5 each) that expands upon those theories, as well as a companion DVD. Being the tourist (and history buff) that I am, I decided to purchase the journal, which I added to my JFK library.

Visiting the Dealy Plaza area and the Sixth Floor Museum is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience which is almost like walking on historical hallowed ground. As you immerse yourself in this nationally recognized historical landmark, you get a mixed feeling of awe and sadness at how this somewhat tranquil part of Dallas set the stage for the turmoil that was to mark the rest of the 60s which forever burned in the conscience of the Baby Boomer generation and subsequent generations around the world. And it all happened with only three shots in six seconds on a sunny Friday afternoon in late November of 1963.

For more information about the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, go to their website at