A day with death in Dallas

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[Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series about travel destinations from Madison County easily made in a day. Future installments will include fun family trips, educational opportunities and state landmarks.]

A little more than two-hour drive up Interstate 45 – depending on stops at the Collin Street Bakery or active speed traps in Ferris – a wealth of must-see history about one of the more tragic events in U.S. history remains eerily accessible for the morbidly curious and curiously morbid alike.

Dallas features a number of historic sites relating to our 35th President, John F. Kennedy. And his murder 56 years ago, an America wound that has never fully healed.

While more than half a century has passed, the locations herein still contain a sinister sense of meaning. But all of them culminate at the west edge of town with what has become one of the world’s most infamous intersection.

Until a breezy November afternoon in 1963, Dealey Plaza simply marked the beginning of Dallas. It still serves as the city’s gateway from the west and converges Main, Elm and Commerce Streets, which ultimately pass beneath a railroad bridge known as the “Triple Underpass” to locals.

But today, Dealey Plaza marks the end of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In fact, it literally marks it with a splotchy white ‘X’ on Elm Street.

Kennedy, 46, was shot twice in the back seat of ‘X-100,’ a Secret Service code name for the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible he would occupy in his final moments.

Congress concluded in the 1970s that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president, but keep wary of voicing this near the conspiracy theorists who circle the tourists of Dealey Plaza like vultures, hoping to inform anyone who will listen about a massive coverup.

Perhaps they will tell you it was the Soviet Union, the mafia or the FBI who is truly responsible for JFK’s demise. Perhaps they should stop bothering visitors.

The President was hit first through the neck, which caused him to raise his hands in a choking gesture. The famous Zapruder Film, the only reliable footage from the tragedy, depicts First Lady Jackie Kennedy turn to her husband and lean slightly closer to him as he frantically deals with his wound.

Jackie probably had not even realized that her husband was shot in the neck before a second bullet obliterated the top of his head as she sat inches away. The 34-year-old First Lady was understandably in shock and is eerily shown trying to collect her husband’s skull fragments and brain matter as they slide down the vehicle’s backside. The film also shows the bravery of Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who leaped onto the Lincoln’s rear to protect the First Lady from danger as it frantically sped beneath the Triple Underpass in the direction of Parkland Hospital.

The Zapruder Film, especially the colorized edition, is not for the faint of heart.

Today, cars fly by on their way out of the city as if nothing happened. The only reminder on the street itself is a pair of white ‘X’s’ spaced apart on the declining road. The first marks where Kennedy was hit in the neck.

The second marks the kill shot.

It is difficult to talk yourself into running onto a busy street in a major city to take a selfie next to a marker that signifies the end of a man’s life. Especially if that man has become larger than life or, in Jack Kennedy’s case, always was.

Yet, many still do.

Standing on the sidewalk, it doesn’t take long to see some brave soul wait for a lull in traffic before sprinting to the second and more pronounced ‘X’ on the pavement.

Personally, it felt disrespectful to take a selfie at the location, but I did get close enough to stand in the exact spot. You have just enough time to realize the significance of the space you are occupying before the light changes up the road and it is time to get the heck out of the way.

Then you have the Dallas County Administration Building, formerly (and more commonly) known as the Texas School Book Depository. The seven-floor, Romanesque Revival structure looms over the Plaza in domineering fashion, resurrecting that sinister sense of dark history.

It was here that 24-year-old Marxist Oswald ‘allegedly’ fired three rounds from his Carcano Rifle at the President’s motorcade from a sixth-floor window at half past noon. Oswald, who spent time in the Marines before defecting to Russia and returning, had been working in the building for about a month at the time of the slaying. He was also alleged to have shot and killed Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippet while attempting to flee the scene.

Today, the building doubles as offices for Dallas County as well as a museum.

‘The Sixth Floor Museum’ is filled with exhibits and photographs from Nov. 22, 1963, as well as Kennedy’s life and career. Some of the most notable artifacts include a suit and top hat that belonged to Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, a Kennedy supporter who robbed the world of closure by murdering Oswald while he was in custody before he could stand trial, as well as Oswald’s wedding ring, which was made in the Soviet Union. They have also built a makeshift shooter’s nest to resemble Oswald’s, which is protected by a shield of glass.

While the exhibits are detailed and informative, you cannot help but wish you were standing in a cluttered warehouse room with stacked cardboard boxes containing schoolbooks, as it would have appeared 56 years ago. For a better sense of the floor’s size, head upstairs to the seventh floor. The museum has expanded to contain temporary Kennedy-related exhibits up above, but it is much emptier and feels more like a warehouse should.

Perhaps no single word is more important than ‘allegedly’ when dealing with the Kennedy assassination. Because of the unhinged actions of Ruby, the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination have only amplified through the decades.

There are countless Americans who believe Oswald either did not act alone or was framed for the crime entirely while the real assassin perhaps shot from the famed ‘grassy knoll,’ which runs adjacent to Elm Street.

My opinion is less fantastical and can be explained with a quote from novelist Norman Mailer:

“It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small, lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng and his security. If such a nonentity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.”

Many Americans, particularly Baby Boomers, have never come to terms with the conclusion because of the event’s catastrophic randomness. Kennedy was as adored as he was despised and signified a period of hope for many in a turbulent nation changing on a dime. Those who were never able to completely move past that afternoon have spent their lives searching for a greater meaning in such an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy.

Dealey Plaza is the main course of Kennedy-related activities in Dallas, but history buffs may be interested in a number of smaller locations as well.

214 West Neely Street, which is a 10-minute drive from Dealey Plaza, represents part of a duplex that Oswald used to occupy with his wife Marina and their daughter, June.

It was here that the most notable picture of Oswald was captured. In the 1962 photograph, he can be seen holding a Soviet newspaper along with the rifle he would later use to kill Kennedy. The backyard where the photo was taken appears exactly as it did in the early 60s.

The property is currently for sale and I do not condone trespassing, but one can enter the backyard unimpeded. Just saying.

One can also visit the home of Ruth Paine, a friend of Marina’s who allowed her to stay in her home when she was fed up with Oswald’s sporadic and anti-establishment antics. The couple did, however, reconcile before the 22nd and Oswald stored his rifle in the home’s garage, unbeknownst to Marina or Paine. Today, the home serves as a museum.

Finally, if one is so inclined, they can take a trip to Fort Worth to see the final resting place of Oswald. His stone is located at Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Park, the only cemetery in the area that would accept the assassin’s remains.

Don’t bother asking cemetery workers for the location, though. They don’t give out directions. Nor will they do so for the gravesite next to it with a stone labeled “Nick Beef,” the nom de blague of an artist who allegedly bought the plot so tourists could ask officials instead for that grave’s location.

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