Friday, November 22, 2013

Four Days In 1963

Four days in 1963 saw a young, vibrant president arrive in Texas on a whirlwind trip to establish his hopes for a second term, that president assassinated in his prime, Americans across the country grapple with the terrible news out of Dallas as live television came of age, the swearing in of a new president, the murder of a young Dallas policeman as he approached the president's assassin, the arrest of the president's assassin, the televised murder of the assassin himself, the funeral and burial of the slain president and a transition of power unlike any other in sixty-two years. Four days in 1963 left a mark on the soul of America that fifty years later is nearly indescribable despite thousands of attempts to do so.

I cannot contribute to the many memories of that day in Dallas, an event that happened twenty-two years before my birth. I cannot contribute to the analysis of what Kennedy meant to the broader twentieth century. There are great historians like Robert Dallek, Richard Reeves and Robert Caro for this. What I can offer is my own reflections on what it feels like in Dealey Plaza and how the fiftieth anniversary is seen through the eyes of a young historian raised on the stories of Camelot, the Kennedy myth and the legacy of our thirty-fifth president.

When you walk into Dealey Plaza in Dallas for the first time, you are overwhelmed by the intimacy of the location. Your stomach rises to your throat. It is surreal, sad. You realize quickly that had you been there on November 22, 1963, you would have had an intimate view of one of the darkest moments in American history. There is hardly a spot in that small plaza that would not have given you a view to the horrifying shot that ended the life of a president. Had you been there on November 22, 1963, Dealey Plaza would have looked much the same. The trees are taller, the structures built by the Works Progress Administration older and the people there for entirely different reasons. Dealey Plaza remains the same because every day in that small West End Dallas location is November 22, 1963.

It is a deafeningly silent place, Dealey Plaza. There is a reverent consideration only interrupted by the men hawking their theories and despicable merchandise. It is the living reminder of a long gone man and the promise he offered his country. It is the reminder that innocence is neither definite nor abiding.

Americans converge on Dealey Plaza seeking closure, searching for answers, pleading for the return of something ripped from us that day, and yet, in the early morning hours before the sun has risen over the streets or as dusk settles on the plaza where our president lost his life, we continue to mourn a loss, the cost of which cannot be quantified or explained to our liking. On the brightest of days, Dealey Plaza remains a terribly dark place.

Tourists, skeptics, and historians alike visit Dealey Plaza every year. They wander through looking and pointing, speculating and paying their respects. His body may not have been laid to rest there, but his legacy lingers.

In the middle of Dealey Plaza stands a flag pole, a flag that must have flown at half-staff after the President of the United States was killed there. The flag pole seems a symbol of something more--no longer only death, but hope and the future. Each day going forward that flag would rise and the country would move forward. Each day after November 22, 1963, the sun came up, the flag went up and the country was pushed forward.

There are few places within the intimate confines of the plaza that don't allow a view of the sixth floor window of the former Texas School Book Depository. The tourists who flock to this place stare up at that window in wonder and horror. Most, in a non-conspiratorial manner, wonder how the leader of the free world could be struck down so quickly from shots fired from that very window. It's a museum now, the Texas School Book Depository. It's neither morbid nor an attempt to feed conspiracy. It's a memorial to Kennedy's legacy.

It is a gorgeous place, Dealey Plaza. Kept green and welcoming for the thousands who visit every year. Standing in that space, it is impossible to appreciate any of the visual niceties because the intimacy of the space, the darkness that looms there is unavoidable. The reality of seeing a man's head explode is inescapable. What the people in that plaza saw that day is stomach-churning as you stand there and realize how much they all must have seen. Knowing what we do now about PTSD, it's hard to imagine anyone that witnessed the final shot that day, whether it be the Secret Service agents there to protect the president or even the children there with their parents to see the president, not struggling for the rest of their lives with that image. Zapruder's film does not do justice to the horror of those terrible seconds as the motorcade turned onto Elm Street.

Along the motorcade route in that intimate space lied a painted 'X' on the pavement marking the place where the limousine was when the fatal shot occurred. Inevitably, there were older tourists staring at that 'X' and shedding tears for a moment in time that was truly the end of their innocence. There will be disinterested kids who can't comprehend the weight of what happened in that place. And there were those who looked at that 'X' and couldn't fathom how white paint on dark pavement can affect them so deeply. Fortunately, the city of Dallas decided this year to pave over the 'X'.

Before I visited Dealey Plaza for the first time, I read Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Standing on the ground, looking up from that 'X' at the Texas School Book Depository and seeing the vultures all around the plaza selling their propaganda to gullible tourists, I thought about what Posner wrote:
"The search for a darker truth than the lone assassin seems unquenchable. The desire to find a conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination will continue to be answered for years by more 'confessions,' witnesses who change their testimony to recall disturbing events, the appearance of papers of dubious authenticity, and by writers and researchers who present cases of guilt by association supported by rumor and innuendo. But for those seeking the truth, the facts are incontrovertible. They can be tested against credible testimony, documents, and the latest scientific advances. Chasing shadows on the grassy knoll will never substitute for real history. Lee Harvey Oswald, driven by his own impenetrable furies, was the only assassin at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. To say otherwise, in light of the overwhelming evidence, is to absolve a man with blood on his hands, and to mock the President he killed."  
 I, like so many Americans and a majority of my generation, wonder about what happened that day in Dallas. I don't necessarily agree with the conclusion of men like Posner and Bugliosi. But what's lost too often in the curiosity and skepticism is the truth. The truth being the tragedy of that day, the loss for our country and what John F. Kennedy represented for not only Americans, but citizens of the world.

A few short blocks from the very place John F. Kennedy was taken down by a sniper's bullet stands a memorial to him. It is a prodigous white concrete structure designed, presumably, to resemble an open tomb. Inside the four walls stands a granite slab with the slain leader's name inscribed on both sides. It feels a betrayal in design to the man, both the reality of who he was and the myth that has grown since his death fifty years ago. A betrayal in the very city that betrayed him and has grappled with their role and place in such a dark piece of history.

With Kennedy died so much that day in Dallas. The hopes of a nation rested on the shoulders of that man riding through downtown Dallas, waving at the crowds who came to greet him. With Kennedy died a hope for peace; a hope for civil rights; a hope for a peaceful and decisive end to the war in Vietnam; and as his widow would shape the story, so died Camelot.

I don't know if Vietnam would have ended sooner. I don't know if Kennedy and Khrushchev would have found a way to end the Cold War. But I do know we still would have landed on the moon. We still would have seen the passage of civil rights legislation. We still would have the Peace Corps and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We have these things because the legacy of Kennedy allowed for them to be carried forward. We may not know what would have happened had he lived, but we know what did happen. A thousand days in office seems so few, yet so much we have today depended on those thousand days. We survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world never experiencing nuclear war. We agreed to the first test ban treaty. Universities in the south were integrated.
It has been fifty years since Lee Harvey Oswald infamously killed the leader of the free world. It has been fifty years since America said goodbye to its innocence. It has been fifty years since families across the country sat around their television sets as their young president's body was returned to the nation's capital to lie in state and to be laid to rest. Fifty years and those black and white images still capture our hearts as if we were all there in that moment when Walter Cronkite choked up as he read the flash "apparently official" about the death of the president. 

Four days in 1963 remain, fifty years later, four of the longest, darkest days in our history.


John T. Richards Jr. said...

Nice work Tara.
Regards, John

Tara A. Rowe said...

Thanks, John.