The Sixth Floor
By the time I saw Dealey Plaza in person, I’d seen it a thousand times on TV, in newspaper diagrams and in magazine pictures. This visit is the most moving I’ve had (other than to Berlin and concentration camps), in part because it was a surprise. It’s very, very small. I expected more. The momentous event that happened there demands more. Under the arc of the Texas sky, in a big city of five million, the historic plaza almost disappears. The global positioning system in my rental car directed me to a parking lot adjacent to the former Texas School Book Depository. It’s such a nondescript part of town and mundane parking lot that I don’t immediately realize that I’m parked a few paces from the top of the so-called Grassy Knoll, where “Badge Man” may have fired a shot at President Kennedy. “Badge Man” got his name from a reflection some people think they saw over a wooden fence in pictures of the rise of land above the street where the president was hit. I arrived a little before the Sixth Floor Museum opened, so I decided to walk around to see the historical setting. I stood staring at the exact spot where Kennedy was hit—the street, the triple overpass and the Grassy Knoll. I was on Houston Street, where the Kennedy motorcade slowed to turn right and then take a sharp left onto Elm Street, right in front of the Texas School Book Depository. I had to read a plaque commemorating the event to be sure that I was actually looking at the scene I’d looked at so many times before on TV. It was too small and ordinary. I was taken aback at the mundane convergence of urban roads without an apparent purpose. Houston Street forms the base of a triangle, bounded on the other two sides by Elm and Commerce Streets. The triple overpass crosses the apex of the triangle, and there’s a lawn in the middle. Kennedy’s motorcade had meandered through a net of narrow streets, slowing on each turn. The heavy limousine, with armor, extra seats and heavy-duty modifications, had to slow down even more than a regular car. The roads the limo took seem to go from no particular place to some other nondescript and unimportant place—a manifestation of urban zeal for pouring concrete and spreading asphalt.
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The concrete pillars—one of which gave amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder a slightly better vantage point—were part of a Works Progress Administration project. So the roads may indeed run from nowhere to nowhere, but they created much needed jobs at the time. Still on Houston Street at the base of this urban triangle, I was a few paces from the patch of grass in the middle of the Plaza on which a few dozen spectators watched the president get shot. Short strides took me to the grass where “Babushka Lady” stood taking film of the president’s car and thus also pictures of the Grassy Knoll in the background. This lady got her name from the kerchief she wore and was of great interest after the assassination, because no one could find her or her pictures. With little traffic on the make-work street, I strode across Elm at a leisurely pace. I probably stepped right on the spot where Secret Service Agent Clinton J. Hill jumped out of the car that followed Kennedy’s. By the time he had a hold of the presidential limousine, Mrs. Kennedy was on the trunk, in shock, perhaps trying to recover a large piece of her husband’s head. Agent Hill shoved her back into her seat and held on, shielding the couple from further shots which did not come and were not necessary. On the other side of the street, I strode up the Grassy Knoll, the same path a policeman took, gun drawn, after spectators, and perhaps he, thought a shot had been fired from its crest. That hill is too small. It’s really just a few steps to the top, taking about as much energy out of me as a staircase at home. It’s equally inconsequential. Is it possible that anything happened up here and that a fit policeman and countless eyewitnesses found nothing when they looked over the fence seconds after the event? Around the other side of this beaten-up five-foot wooden picket fence, I half expected to see the “three tramps” frozen in time, looking suspicious enough to get arrested and then released. But they’re not there, 44 years later. As I turn back from looking for the tramps and peer over the fence to where the president was shot, I realize that most boys past the age of eight could have hit his car with a softball. After these lessons in geometry and trajectory, I visited the actual building from which Oswald fired. The museum is both superfluous and mandatory. It’s all there—the background of the times, the need for a political trip to Texas, the countless uneaten meals at the Trademart where Kennedy was due next, the Warren Commission, the conspiracy theories, the pictures of Oswald leaning the wrong way with the wrong chin and the wrong shadow on his face. But we knew all that.
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What’s mandatory is to view the random assemblage of cardboard boxes on a ratty wooden floor beside a ratty bare warehouse wall from which Oswald fired his shots. It’s a bit of an awkward shot. I would have rested the rifle on my left thigh and the windowsill and had a pad to kneel on with my right knee. But Oswald sat on a box, perhaps to save his knee, and put his right foot on another box, allowing him to rest his left elbow on his left thigh. After operating the bolt of his mailorder Manlicher-Carcano, he must have fired with his right elbow parallel to the ground, or perhaps on his right thigh, to complete the steady platform from which he shot. This is also where Oswald had his last bag lunch as a free man and one of the last half-dozen or so meals he had in life. Minutes later, Kennedy was dead at Parkland Hospital. Days later, Oswald was dead at Parkland Hospital. Years later, Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer, was dead at Parkland Hospital. Then there are the astronomically high coincidences and preposterous anomalies of the case. The sloppy police work, the misfit defector to the Soviet Union who once had his picture taken in the same room with John Wayne, the acoustic experts finding a shot from the Grassy Knoll, the magic bullet that fell off a gurney at Parkland Hospital after doing quadruple duty in the limo that day, the Kennedy “wanted” posters, the Cubans, organized crime, the cheers in some Dallas schools when Kennedy’s death was announced, no autopsy at Parkland and a botched autopsy in Washington, missing witnesses, dead witnesses, missing frames of the Zapruder film and on and on it goes. Kennedy had asked Secretary of Defense McNamara to relieve General Walker of his command in Europe after the general had passed out inflammatory literature to his troops. The general became a highprofile John Birch Society member, handing out literature from his home in Dallas. While he was sitting at home doing his income taxes, somebody took a shot at the General—probably Oswald. Preposterous. Improbable. But it happened. If you’re going to assassinate someone, you need a dozen people— especially women. Just as in the movies, women kiss the bad guy on the park bench, to make it look like he’s not the suspect. Women hide weapons and assassins. Women with baby carriages are especially helpful in getting weapons to and from the site. You need a safe house for at least a couple of weeks. It is preposterous to think that in 44 years no picture, piece of evidence, death-bed confession or anything else has conclusively linked anyone else to the assassination.
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We cling to conspiracies in the hope that a life so grand, with such promise, was not ended in an idiotic place by an idiot. The contrast is too great. But in the end Kennedy’s Camelot White House was indeed ended after a bag lunch behind boxes of books. It’s all just too preposterous and too small.
THE SIXTH FLOOR