I have stood in the 3-acre site once known as the “Gateway to the City.” It’s smaller than what you’d imagine it to be, and little has changed since 1963 – minus the protruding skyline and grown trees. It’s as pretty as a picture but almost overshadowed by the fact that it’s the location of a grisly murder scene.
This is Dealey Plaza: The site where 36th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was assassinated 40 years ago this Nov. 22.
Dallas has historically preserved the area, having dedicated it as a national historic landmark only in 1993, on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. There is a “blink and you miss it” plaque on the ground adjacent to where the fatal shooting took place, but there are no enormous shrines or statues of Kennedy. They’ve kept it simple and sweet.
Looming ominously in the background is a brick building on the corner. Now the Dallas County Administration Building, it is more famously referred to by its former name, the Texas Schoolbook Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the fatal shots. It’s missing the large Hertz Rent-A-Car billboard and clock from on top of the roof, and there’s now a special entrance in the back to reach the sixth floor, which houses a museum, but it is instantly recognizable.
While I was in Dallas on newspaper business, I wanted more than anything to take a step back into an era in which my parents were mere schoolchildren, and newspapers were flanked with stories of the modern-day Camelot, The Kennedys.
Most everyone has his or her own theory on the assassination or the possible conspiracy behind it. So much had happened in such a short span of time: the President was killed, a police officer was murdered and a defecter to the Soviet Union was arrested in connection to both deaths and was then murdered by a mobster before any answers had surfaced. Perhaps “Who shot the president?” will remain one of the greatest mysteries of all time.
I have probably seen the Zapruder film a million-and-one times. Kennedy brushes his hair to the side. He’s smiling and waving until he abruptly halts. He and his limo-mates are obscured from view as they pass behind a highway sign. He then reappears holding his neck; he’s hurt and wife, Jackie, seated next to him, leans over to see what’s wrong. Just as she does so, mere inches away, the fatal shot is fired and Kennedy falls backwards and into her side.
As Jim Garrison would say, Kennedy fell “back and to the left.”
“And back and to the left.”
Before arriving in Dallas, I found myself agreeing more with the conspiracy theory that Oswald did not fire that last shot. After standing on the sixth floor of the former book depository, I found myself agreeing even more. While the “sniper’s corner” is blocked off in a glass-enclosed area, you can stand two windows down to get a similar viewpoint. The angle is awkward and it’s hard to believe that three shots from that window would have created the damage done to Kennedy and then-Texas Gov. George Connelly.
Actually standing there, and in the middle of Elm Street down below, changes your perspective on things. People tend to take history for granted unless they’ve experienced it firsthand or revisited the site themselves. How many people have flocked to where the World Trade Centers once stood?
Standing in Dealey Plaza made me think. I thought about life; I thought about death. I thought about fear, and about government and I couldn’t stop wondering, “Why here?”
Despite the triple underpass and the train tracks and the noise of a big city, Dealey remains trapped in silence. It’s perfectly quiet and serene and hard to imagine the immense controversy that would spawn from what happened at that very site.
After 40 years, the area has changed very little. There are parts of Dallas that seem frozen in time; it’s still 1963 there. And with 1963 remains the mystery, Who Killed JFK? The Warren Commission said Oswald did. Director Oliver Stone says it was a group governmental conspiracy. I say, I don’t think we’ll ever know.
Since my Dallas trip, I have researched and read until my eyes crossed and I was nodding off on my keyboard. I am almost convinced of some things and almost completely unconvinced of others. All of the “answers” I’ve found have only led more questions.
As the character David Ferrie says in Stone’s film, JFK: “It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.”