JFK Death Trip

Grave_of_Lee_Harvey_OswaldFor anyone wishing to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK by tracing the last steps of the fallen president, Dallas- Ft. Worth makes it easy. For a region that did all it could to hide the horrors that happened there, almost every landmark etched into American historical memory still exists.

Not only Dealey Plaza and the former Texas Book Depository, that impossibly easy vantage point, but also the hotel where JFK stayed the night before (with the art in his suite from his overnight stay the subject of a current art museum exhibit). There’s every house where Oswald lived, the Texas Theater where he was nabbed and the Muncipal Police station where he was taken (and shot by Jack Ruby).

Take a wayward trip to a corner of Ft. Worth and there’s Oswald’s grave, stark and blank on a windswept hill.

And yet there’s little named after Kennedy 50 years after this city was inexorably tied to him; the statue at Dealey plaza is of a dude named Dealey. Locals refused to change the name of the plaza that continues to draw tourists and conspiracy buffs. The X in the middle of the street denoting where shots landed is a macabre touch. Some tourists dodge traffic to get their pictures taken there, as if it were the zebra stripe at Abbey Road.

For all of its significance in the national consciousness, Dealey Plaza was only designated a national historic site in 1993.

The former Texas Hotel in Ft. Worth, now a Hilton, didn’t mark its history as the last  place JFK stayed until last year, when they placed a statue of JFK that they found in Sante Fe in the center of a plaza they built across the street. Now, they trade on that history.

A picture of the president and first lady exiting the hotel (with its movie-like marquee) is on the landing of every floor — and in every room’s bathroom, with a caption that notes his stay and his departure in the motorcade the next morning, “taking with it the final moments of a more innocent America.”

It’s easy to drive from one city to the other — they’re about 13 miles away — but Kennedy flew, in part to create an entrance at Dallas’ Love Field.

A bus I was on commemorating the doomed motorcade route found much of the landscape sort of the same — commercial buildings, the occasional park. The turn toward Dealey Plaza seemed an odd jog, but probably the best way to get to the highway that would lead them to their luncheon site.

Local businessmen raised funds to tear down Dealey, because it represented such a dark day in Dallas. But the city kept it open, turning it into county offices on the main floors, and allowing something called the Sixth Floor Museum to open on the floor that was Oswald’s perch. It’s odd to see boxes lined up along the windows as they were in 1963, but most macabre of all is to look out the window to the street, with your eyes inevitably on the same sight-line as that on Oswald’s rifle. Creepy, and quite close by.

There’s surprisingly little of actual historical import in there — Jack Ruby’s hat, the white suit of detective Jim Leavelle, but only a copy of the gun (Ford’s Theatre, by contrast, has Booth’s tiny derringer).

Out in the neighborhood where Oswald was captured, his rooming house has a commercial sign from its owners offering tours by appointment. Next to the house were some of the largest and most garish Halloween decorations I’ve seen. Together with the Oswald house, it’s a surreal display of eeriness.

The Texas Theater where Oswald ducked in after shooting the policeman is not only still there, it’s where there was a screening of “Killing Kennedy” was held, proving that swirling feel of history within history: watching a movie depicting  Oswald in the very same theater half a century earlier. That was the same sense at the Hilton Fort Worth – sitting in a ballroom watching a documentary about JFK’s last day, which began with a breakfast in the same ballroom.

Stranger still was sitting at dinner next to Gov. John Connelly’s old press aide, who was sitting next to the guy who drove Oswald to his last day of work.

The head veritably spins. Back and to the left.

One thing missing from the array of historical sites of the JFK assassination on this 50th anniversary in Dallas is the nightclub Jack Ruby ran. Is there nobody crass enough to open a new 60s style burlesque bar called the Carousel to close this gap?

Our bus crawled through tiny streets in Ft. Worth, where Marina Oswald was staying with the kids and Oswald had hid his gun (despite objections of the Quaker lady who lived there). People were moving out of Ruth Paine’s house that morning for whatever reason. Were they avoiding tourists? Did they even know of their modest home’s legacy?

Not far was Oswald’s gravesite. He had been buried the same day as JFK, with far less fanfare. Newsmen had to be recruited to be pallbearers. It was very odd to take a picture of Will Rothlaar, the actor who plays Oswald in “Killing Kennedy,” crouching near the grave of his subject. Stranger still was a wreath that was already lying there when we got there, the red ink of its message blurring in the morning rain, something about “great people who die before their time.”

There was a feeling of Dallas hate still lingering in the underbelly. Indeed, I kept thinking of what kind of reception Obama would get in an open motorcade today (though he did travel there this month) from the state that considered modern day secession.

Perhaps things were still ramping up, but I didn’t see much about the anniversary in Dallas. The monument to the president not far from Dealey Plaza, an inert Lego box that was probably the worst thing ever designed by Philip Johnson, had no visitors when I stopped in. The dense block seemed to represent the blocking out the city had done since then.

There are a few things I learned from all the JFK coverage this month on TV, which I have been mostly keeping up with.

One was that the reason Jackie crawled out on the trunk of her limo after the shooting was to receive bits of her husband’s brains.

Another was that a grave placed next to Oswald’s at the Shannon Rose Hill Memorial Burial Park with the same dimensions that has the odd name Nick Beef is actually an art project of a New York man named Patric Abedin, who bought the plot in 1975 and had the marker installed in 1997.

A third is that the white limousine that carried the Kennedys from Ft. Worth to its airport was briefly in something called the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum in St. Augustine, Fla., which closed in 1998.

The bus driver contracted to show us all the pertinent Kennedy points was told to stay away from conspiracy theories, but he could scarcely change his habits – 90 percent of his tours are from conspiracy groups. By the time we pulled up to Dealey Plaza, he was pulling out a pile of Zapruder frames and reeling off their names as if we were scholars (when he kept saying Z-106 I kept thinking he was referring to a Dallas radio station, home of 18 jams in a row).

At the plaza was a kind of homegrown craziness — more than one card table displays of conspiracy tomes or DVDs and explanations from the people manning the booths. At the same time,there were tourists and historians – yes that was David McCullouch walking around the plaza that afternoon (He’ll give an address there on the anniversary).

There’s something compelling about all the artifacts from that indelible day, and 50 years later we’re still trying to find a way to deal with them all.

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