JFK in 2008

JFK in 2008 by Richard Davis   The seven-story Dallas County Administrative Building at 411 Elm Street is filled with employees, files and office equipment. So it may seem strange that each year about 325,000 tourists from around the world pay good money to visit. Formerly known as the Dallas Schoolbook Depository, a wall plaque near the entrance announces its historical importance. On November 22, 1963, from a sixth floor window, a 26-year-old order clerk, with a few pounds of pressure from his pointer finger, rocked the foundations of an entire nation and destroyed its innocence. The sixth floor is now a museum, not for him, but for the man he shot and killed, President John F. Kennedy. And this year the number of visitors to the museum will increase to 325,001.  

I pay the $13.50 admission, and get my headphones for the audio tour. Walking to the elevator, I pass the souvenir shop crowded with pricy JFK mugs, t-shirts, post cards and books.  

The prettified freight elevator ponderously rises to the sixth floor and the door slides open. I step into a clean, well-lit exhibit area, filled with nearly 400 photographs, documentary films, and artifacts on Kennedy’s life, death and legacy.      

I snake my way through the exhibits, moving slowly, trying to balance my concentration between the recorded tour playing in my head and the words and pictures on the walls. If that’s not enough of a distraction, there also seems to be an unspoken time limit at each spot. If exceeded, the visitor behind me feels obligated  to invade my personal space.  

On one of the walls, a photo catches my eye. It’s a large black and white image of the president as he waves from his Lincoln convertible. To his left and right, Secret Service agents huff and puff as they walk-jog along side. The photo reminds me of an earlier conversation I had with Kirk, a retired Dallas city police officer. He told me the Secret Service agents were out of breath because they had partied late the night before at Cellars, a local strip club.  

The photo adds certain strength to Kirk’s words. But then again, the two agencies have not been the best of friends since the assassination. That’s when a scuffle broke out as the police tried to prevent the Secret Service from illegally removing Kennedy’s body before an autopsy could be performed. Those actions fueled a number of conspiracy theories that continue to flourish and morph today.          

The tour continues. Words and photos take me through Kennedy’s triumphs and challenges, leading me to the place where it happened and the main reason I came: The corner of the building where Oswald, in nine seconds, changed the world. It was here that investigators eventually found a rifle, three spent shells, and a few boxes with Oswald’s fingerprints. At the time of the discovery, Oswald had already walked out the front door, released by the first police entering the building. The assassin’s getaway vehicle: a Dallas city public bus.  

Oswald had escaped the scene of the most notorious crime of the century. Ironically, he was later caught, not by well-trained government agents, but by a ticket-taker for trying to get into a movie without buying a ticket.  

The corner of the museum is now protected from floor to ceiling by thick Plexiglas. Visitors tend to bunch up here, quietly awed by the staged scene beyond the clear plastic. Near the window, a few vintage cardboard boxes recreate the "sniper’s nest." We’re all slow to move on, knowing that nothing else in the museum will compare to being this close to where Oswald pulled the trigger.      

Later, outside, I walk up the infamous "grassy knoll." From the top, I look down towards the street and notice that where Kennedy was shot, someone has painted an "X". More "earwitnesses" reported gunshots from here than from the Depository. The grassy knoll is so famous that it has become a slang term meaning something suspicious.  

The US government, in its efforts to quell any controversy, managed to only muddy the waters even more. In 1964, The Warren Commission announced that Oswald had acted alone. Then, in 1979, the House Assassinations Committee found that Kennedy was "probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy." A few years later, the conclusion was reversed again in yet another government report, which repudiated earlier acoustic evidence.  

As for the citizens of Dallas, most seem comfortable with their accidental place in history. "It’s like our Golden Gate Bridge," says Chris, a local business owner. "It’s strange to be known for an assassination, and it isn’t something we’re proud of. But we don’t mind sharing little facts and secrets with tourists. In that way, I think everyone in Dallas is a historian."          

And while events can be meticulously recorded to protect and preserve the historical record, time still manages to dilute their significance and emotional power. And the Kennedy assassination is not immune. Those who didn’t live through that November day, have a cooler, less emotional perspective. For some, it’s become nothing more than pop culture.  

At Lee Harvey’s, a small bar behind a local Dallas police station, Gen-X’ers are drinking, playing pool and listening to music. One thing they’re not doing is pondering the bar’s namesake. "A lot of people expect to see JFK paraphernalia in here, so they’re sometimes disappointed," says Jackie (yes, that’s her real name), a young, bright-eyed employee of the bar. "The owner named it Lee Harvey’s just to get attention, I think. It’s a name people remember."  

For more information on the Sixth Floor Museum, visit their Web Site at www.jfk.org. Lee Harvey’s has no historical significance, but it does have good food. Visit them on the Web at www.leeharveys.com.