DALLAS — Here we are, standing by the window, craning our necks. A Korean couple in matching red sweatshirts, a middle-age woman with curly hair the color of breakfast cereal. A college student, with long blue shorts and a sweatshirt that reaches his thighs.
We are all wearing headphones, attached to portable cassette recorders, listening to a tour guide voice say, “Look out the window now, and you will see Dealey Plaza. This is the where the presidential motorcade turned . . .”
We look. The window is paned and curved at the top, and through it, you can see the street, the grassy knoll, people, cars, everything. Were you selling this window as part of a living space you might say: “Look at the view. Isn’t it good and clear?”
A good clear shot. That is what we are thinking. One of the tourists leans into the pane, squinting, looking down, as if taking a bead on his imaginary rifle. He is not alone. We are all holding imaginary rifles. I have never fired a gun in my life. But, at this moment, I, too, have a ghostly weapon on my shoulder, finger on the trigger. I am Lee Harvey Oswald, and so are we all.
The sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository has been turned into this, a tour, a museum, a shrine to an assassination, and every day, hundreds, maybe thousands of people take the elevator up, walk through the wooden-floored exhibit, read the panels, watch the videos, and work their way toward the window. Always they are heading toward the window.
It changed the world, that window. Boxes of schoolbooks are still stacked nearby, as they were that day. You are shown where Oswald ate his lunch, where he hid the rifle, where he hung his clipboard with the unfinished work orders.
A shrine to an assassination. I look at the Korean couple, pointing at the window, and the college kid, who is again taking a bead, wondering, no doubt, how someone can change the world from such an ordinary pane of glass. Feeling the tug of history
There are places on Earth where geography is overwhelmed by history, where the past seems to come up from the ground, like steam from a sidewalk grate. The footbridge over the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor is like this. When you stand there, you do not notice the beach or the weather. You are drawn to the smokestacks that poke up through the water, and you can still hear the screams of the ship that died beneath you.
The sixth floor in Dallas is another place like that. Only here, you needn’t use so much imagination. Small TV screens replay the footage from Nov. 22, 1963, Walter Cronkite removing his glasses, choking up, as he told us President Kennedy was dead. The original AP wire transmission, sent nine minutes after the shots were fired, beginning, “Pres. Kennedy was shot . .
.” and then an internal message from an angry copy editor, “Will . . . you
. . . please . . . stay . . . off . . . this . . . line . . . until . . . this
. . . transmission . . . is finished . . .”
There is footage of Oswald being led off in handcuffs, telling a reporter,
“I didn’t shoot anybody.” And footage of Oswald being murdered at point-blank range by Jack Ruby.
There are panels and displays and glass cases and brochures and all of it leads you, inevitably, to the window, out of which, you can see Elm Street and Commerce Street and the grassy knoll and the highways.
And you can see 1963. People are drawn to see it
We were in grade school that day, when the teachers began to cry and the principal told us something terrible had happened. They rolled in a black-and-white TV set and we watched for a few minutes and then we were dismissed.
I remember thinking “Why are we leaving? What have we done? Even if something bad happened to the president, why do we have to go home?”
Only later in life did I see the answer: We were being sent home to grieve.
Those were different times. We almost never collectively grieve anymore. Tragedy is too common, our soft spots too diverse.
Which is why, perhaps, we are drawn to places like this. Even 30 years after the bullets, people come to Dallas to see where their lives took a turn. They dab their eyes with handkerchiefs, and sign messages in a guest book. One visitor wrote, “Will they ever find the bastard who really did it?” Another wrote, “The day never dies.”
The day never dies. Only we do. This weekend, President Bill Clinton is in Dallas, and today, he takes a motorcade to a basketball arena just blocks from Dealey Plaza. You wonder if he’ll bother to look up, to see the faces on the sixth floor of this lonesome brick building. His fellow Americans, old and young, gazing tearfully out the window and still hearing the bullets fly.