Monday, November 10, 2008

My Dealey Plaza Experience: "Who Shot JFK?" - Ask Ron

In my earlier post about coming to Dallas, I mentioned feeling an inspiring opportunity being in this city the day after the election and being so close by to Dealey Plaza. Everybody knows the history around this place, but how many of us have actually been there? I just had to do it. I won't go into rant mode about how modern technology is great at connecting people virtually, but it's rapidly destroying the importance of the physical world. Maybe that's the germ for another blog - I'm game - anybody out there want to sponsor it?

Back to JFK. For a variety of reasons, I haven't been able to prepare this post until now, but if you're even remotely interested in JFK and American politics, I think you'll find the wait worthwhile. Otherwise, you'll be bored to tears, and I suggest you move on to something else or go back to watching Family Guy now.

I'll preface this post by saying I'm not a JFK history buff, but having grown up in the Boston area, and being old enough to remember 'where I was when JFK was shot', the lore holds a pretty central place in my mind. We all know how historic Barack's victory was, and I can't possibly be the only one out there making these instant and profound connections to JFK. However, I sure felt that way during my pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza early Thursday morning. During my travels to get there, two things really struck me.

First, nobody seemed to know where Dealey Plaza was! Armed with a simple street map, I took the light rail train 3 stops from my hotel to the West End stop. That's the old part of town, and while walking in the general direction of Dealey Plaza, I couldn't help doing the Jay Walking/Rick Mercer man-in-the-street interview. I asked a handful of people where Dealey Plaza was - and we couldn't have been more than 3 blocks from it - and not one person had a clue what I was talking about. Wow. It's like asking a New Yorker where Ground Zero is - you're not going to get too many blank stares on that one. I'm not even at Dealey Plaza, and I'm in trouble already!

Second, I thought I would see some signs of life or evidence that others had the same idea as me, and realize what a special time this would be to visit Dealey Plaza. Nada. Granted, this is a Republican state, but still, this was a pretty historic moment. Maybe people's sense of history isn't what it used to be. Tell you what, though - here's a small aside. For all the bravado and outlaw nature of Texas culture, I couldn't get over the fact that nobody jaywalks. Even at intersections where there was no traffic, people waited obediently until the light turned green to cross. Huh? This never happens in places like New York or Boston.

The other interesting thing is that their light rail service works on the honor system. You buy your ticket from a machine at the platform, and simply board any car. Nobody ever checked my ticket going either way. Very civil and very impressive. Of course, I'm sure half the people riding on the train own guns, and I guess that's part of what makes America so interesting, right? Enough preamble - let's get to the pilgrimage.

First stop - the JFK Memorial - designed by Philip Johnson, this is a very reflective experience that makes you feel the emptiness and collective sense of loss from his assassination. The memorial is a cenotaph - an open tomb - to show how his spirit has never left us.

My camera doesn't have enough depth of field to convey the experience, but it's pretty neat. The cenotaph is surrounded by 4 open walls that appear to float; it's very heaven-like I guess. It's quite an effect, and my photos don't do it much justice. As pristine as this memorial is, it was in maintenance mode - another bad omen - so there was a lot of scrubbing and sanding going on. Ugh. I guess they weren't expecting anybody, so there goes my theory about this being a natural attraction to visit after the election. Looks like I'll have to come back another time to get the intended effect of tranquility.

This juxtaposition below came to me out of the blue, and the image links Obama to JFK in ways words can't express. In the background on the face of the cenotaph is "John Fitzgerald Kennedy" - which you really can't read here - and the foreground is my USA Today. The effect is more dramatic if you view a bigger version of the photo, but hey, this is a blog, not a photo gallery (but if you want to see a bigger version, let me know). Yet another point to support my tech rant earlier!

If I'm Obama, and wanted to invoke the spirit of JFK and reinvigorate it for today, can you think of a more inspirational spot to stage a speech from? Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio?...

Ok, so here we are - the corner of Elm and Houston - the Book Depository Building (now a museum for what happened here) - Ground Zero - and...Ron.

I can be a very in-the-moment kind of guy, and this was one of those times. As I looked every bit the gawking rube, Ron came up to me and asked if I wanted to buy a pamphlet that recounted the whole event. After declining, he offered to give me a personal tour - 'I work for tips'. How could I say no? Let's just say he could sure use the money, and he turned out to be an incredible source of knowledge about what went on when JFK came to town. Either he spins some truly Texas-league yarns, or he's just one of these treasures who has seen it all but nobody pays any attention to. Except maybe me!

Let the tour begin, and of course that means the fabled Grassy Knoll. Nothing much happening here, and if you've seen earlier photos or JFK documentaries, it seems virtually unchanged since the sixties. So peaceful - so...deserted.

Thanks Ron. Gee, he sure is a good sport.

Mise-en-scene. November 22, 1963. See that 'X' on the road? That marks the spot where JFK was shot. The Grassy Knoll is on the left, and the motorcade would have come toward me. Building on the left is the Book Depository. More on that and the building beside it in a moment.

In case you're wondering, yes, I walked out into the middle of the road to take this picture. It's like 9am - rush hour, right? Not a car to be seen - it was like being on a movie set. Doesn't anybody care about this any more?

The official story is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and did the shooting from a 6th story window in the Book Depository - circled in black. Well, that's a pretty good vantage point. However, Ron explained that the building next door had an even better line of sight and I've circled the window area in yellow where he explained that other shots were fired from. By whom? Well, that's another story, but he believes that's where many of the fatal shots came from. The plot thickens.

Let's shift locations to get a bit deeper into the mystery. This picket fence - the Stockade Fence - is at the top of the Grassy Knoll, and Ron took me around the back to have a look. Notice all the missing slats. That's from souvenir hunters; but the joke's on them, as Ron explained that the original fence was replaced in 2000.

Lots of graffiti all around, but how about this one? There is no shortage of cynics out there, and the only conspiracy theory that rivals JFK is 9/11. You'd think the people who look after Dealey Plaza would clean this up - or maybe they want it there for shock value.

Not many people buy the lone gunman theory, but if you were looking for the ideal spot to make sure you hit your target, wouldn't it be right here? That's Ron's story and I know he's not alone. It's perfect. In between two leafy trees and behind a fence - nobody would see you. Presuming you had a clear line to the street without endangering onlookers, a slow moving motorcade coming towards you - not going away - would be a pretty easy target - which I've noted with a circle around the 'X' spot.

The 'Manhole Theory'. Am not going to get into the details, but Ron pretty quickly refuted it. He had many other very interesting theories and angles that were far more plausible: the Umbrella Man, the Tague wounding, why the motorcade slowed down, the Zapruder film, LBJ's motives, etc. - but that's another conversation.

While you're still looking at this picture, I can't help but see it as a symbol of the U.S. right now - going down the drain and decay all around - it's hard to see, but there's an empty beer can and a crushed up Marlboro package. Obama sure has his work cut out and is going to need all the help he can get channelling JFK's mojo.

Another perspective taken from a spot most people wouldn't normally get to. The road - Elm Street - slopes down at this point and goes under the bridge upon which I'm standing. Ron took me up here to show another spot where a gunman might have considered shooting from. Train tracks cross the bridge and if a train came by while the motorcade was there, the sound of the shots would have been muffled. While this provides a great sightline for a shooter, it's too public and there's really no place to escape. Besides, the Secret Service and police no doubt would have staked this space out for themselves.

Here's another juxtaposition I couldn't resist. This city worker was blowing leaves off the sidewalk onto the road, exactly over the 'X' spot. He didn't think anything of it and I'm sure most people around here are pretty blase about Dealey Plaza. All I could see in this was turning over a new leaf and the changing winds of history ushering in a new era of hope - for the U.S., for the world, and especially for African Americans. I'm just happy he was so obliging!

Plaque at the base of the Grassy Knoll across from the 'X'. Very interesting language here: 'this site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America'. How generic can you get? No mention of JFK at all, and I know Ron has some views on this. It's pretty clear to me this is still a very touchy subject and Washington isn't ready yet to totally come clean. An apologist would say - no - this plaque is about Dealey Plaza, not JFK.

As I learned that day, this is where Dallas was founded, but somehow, I don't think this city is of such 'national significance' to warrant this level of recognition. America sure is filled with contradictions. Oh, interesting aside - I'm a big fan of urban history and there's always a good story behind major cities that are landlocked. Turns out to be pretty simple for Dallas - they settled there because it was safe - hardly any Indians around. Ok....

Believe it or not, this excursion barely took an hour, but I sure learned a lot. As I left the West End, I saw these ads for some local BBQ and seafood restaurants. Boy, did these look good, but at 10am it was a bit on the early side. Next time I'm back I know where I'm going for dinner.

This post is a bit out of the norm for me, but I hope you enjoyed it. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and like Ron, I work for tips too, so let me know if you want to hear more. :-))

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Laura Slater said...

Posted by: Laura Slater

Nice grassy knoll shot!! :)

Looks like you had a blast.

Kelley Mitchell said...

Posted by: Kelley Mitchell

What an incredible experience. Thanks for sharing it with us. I particularly liked the 'turning over a new leaf' juxtaposition.

Steven Dhuey said...

Posted by: Steven Dhuey

You wrote, "if you were looking for the ideal spot to make sure you hit your target, wouldn�t it be right here? That�s Ron�s story and I know he�s not alone. It�s perfect. In between two leafy trees and behind a fence � nobody would see you."

Well, it's not true that "nobody would see you". You no doubt saw the two-story railroad switch tower in the parking lot west of the Depository and north of the stockade fence. It had an unobstructed view of the back of that fence. Lee Bowers, the switchman who worked inside that tower, said nobody at all was behind the fence at the time the shots were fired:

Likewise, Abraham Zapruder, of the famous Zapruder film, and his secretary were standing on a four-foot pedestal just nine yards east of the five-foot fence. Their view:

Also, a uniformed Dallas police officer was stationed in the parking lot. Shortly after the shooting he told Dallas deputy sheriff W. W. Mabra, "I was stationed in the rail yards and had this entire area in view. Nobody came this way."

Anonymous said...

Posted by: Anonymous

Too bad you couldn't have found someone more objective to show you around Dealey Plaza. Ron is a drunkard who lost his job at the now defunct "Conspiracy Museum",and who is nothing but a conspiracy buff. To even things out, someone should have been there to show you the other side of the coin, so to speak.

Jon Arnold said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Thanks for the comments and details, Steven. I'm familiar with your sources and have since seen these references. I can take those at face value but it doesn't really change my thinking - especially since I've be re-reading Crossfire since doing this post. As mentioned, I'm not an expert on this topic, but there's no shortage of commentary saying there was activity in that area.

Jon Arnold said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Anonymous - glad I'm not the only one who knows Ron. I can tell he's quite the fixture, and while I agree with much of your commentary, I don't see what the other side of the coin is, unless you believe there was one gunman, which is just ridiculous. I'm not a journalist and nor am I a JFK expert - just sharing my impressions here, and this isn't about getting objective views. Besides, almost everything I heard from Ron is surprisingly consistent with what I've since been seeing online and in re-reading Crossfire.

Anonymous said...

Posted by: Anonymous


In speaking of the "other side of the coin", I was referring to those things that the conspiracy buffs don't tell you,and there is a lot that they don't mention. After having studied the case for many, many years, I decided to look into the "other side of the coin", and it taught me a great lesson. Don't allow one side to sway you one way or the other, to make up your mind for you. Be objective and examine every idea, instead of tossing them aside because it isn't not the popular thing to do. You will be surprised at what you discover.

Steven Dhuey said...

Posted by: Steven Dhuey

I hope you'll read Vincent Bugliosi's massive and excellent book "Reclaiming History". Meanwhile, may I add that the overwhelming majority (91.3%) of earwitnesses in Dealey Plaza said they heard three or fewer shots. The three Depository employees watching the motorcade from the floor below the sniper's nest all said they heard three shots fired from a few feet above their heads. And all three witnesses who were on the grassy knoll who gave an opinion about the direction of the shots said they came from the direction of the Depository.

Jon Arnold said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Anonymous - thanks for the follow up. I'm really just a casual fan, but there's no doubt this is pretty complex story. I appreciate the other side of the coin perspective.

Jon Arnold said...

Posted by: Jon Arnold

Thanks for the repeat visit, Steven. Reclaiming History sounds real interesting - will look into that. Your points are well taken and I'm sure you know more about this than me. I've been re-reading Crossfire, and it sure looks like there's evidence these to support gunfire from behind the fence. Also from the Records Building next to the Depository.

Michael said...

Posted by: Michael

Jon, nice blog. Brought back some cool memories for me. I was in Dallas back in 1991 on a business trip and knew I had to see where Kennedy was shot. There weren't many people around when I was there, too. It was kind of eery. Thanks for the pics and the blog!

Garry Rodgers said...

Posted by: Garry Rodgers

Jon, Thanks for the look at your blog & photos. I envy you having the experience to be at Dealy Plaza and actually seeing the scene with your own eyes. I found your blog from your wall post on the Facebook group "I believe there was a conspiracy to kill JFK". You are most welcome to join in the discussions. There are some very knowledgeable people involved, both CT and LN.