Dallas visit was like stepping back in history

Published 12:37 pm Thursday, December 8, 2011

I was in Mrs. Gross’s class in the fourth grade when we got the news. The administration let most of the kids out for recess soon after that. In a memory I don’t understand, almost all of the kids seemed to be celebrating the death on the playground. Such was the mood and mindset in the Deep South at that time.

President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, while riding in a motorcade with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Governor and Mrs. John Connally of Texas. The shot was supposedly fired by a gunman from the corner window in the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Captured on an 8-mm file shot by amateur Frank Zapruder, the assassination is the first defining memory of my life. Everyone my age or older remembers where they were and what they were doing at that precise moment.

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Years of investigation about whether it was some sort of conspiracy or whether there was more than a lone gunman kept the issue before the public for a long time after Kennedy’s death. Even today, many people aren’t convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the 35th president of the United States after only 1,000 days in office.

Mary Lou and I attended a wedding in Dallas this past weekend. Our tight schedule only allowed time to visit one place of interest. We chose to go to what is now known as the Sixth Floor Museum, so named because the rest of the building is a working office building owned by the county.

We asked the concierge at the hotel for directions. In one of those twists of fate that makes life interesting, we found out that he was the last person to shake Kennedy’s hand before he was killed.

As a junior in high school he had gone to the parade route, to see the president pass by, with his best friend, who happened to be the son of the police chief. Just as the motorcade came to a stop before making a turn, the police chief let his son and the concierge under the rope.

The boys were speechless as they shook the president’s hand. He told us that all he could think of was that they shared the same last name. “My name is Kennedy, too,” our new friend exclaimed. The President shook his hand and replied, “Well, hello Mr. Kennedy.” Minutes later, he was fatally shot.

I have been fortunate to meet several members of President Kennedy’s family over the years, including his daughter, Caroline, and his brother, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. I have also met a couple of his sisters.

I have been to his resting place at Arlington National Cemetery and to his Presidential Library in Boston. Nowhere, did I feel the weight of history so much as standing at the window in an old warehouse storing schoolbooks for use by the children of Texas.

Oswald had only worked at the Depository for five weeks. He built a wall on the sixth floor from boxes of books so he wouldn’t be seen by anyone who happened to come into the room at the wrong time. A makeshift chair, made by stacking other boxes, gave him a place to sit while he waited. The window gave a clear and open view to the parade route, directly below the window and within easy range of an expert marksman.

The space in the corner had been kept and restored exactly as it was on that fateful day. The museum was full of exhibits, films and memorabilia. Part of the display was about the lead-up to his election and part of it was about his legacy. Mostly, it talked in frank language about the events of that day which changed the world.

The museum acknowledged the conspiracy theories that still remain, from a plot by the Cubans in retaliation for the Bay of Pigs incident to a plot by the Russians related to the Cold War.

Film of the reaction around the world illustrated that despite the issues related to civil rights in the south, Kennedy was regarded the champion of democracy around the world. He was young and charismatic and America felt the best was yet to be.

As you may know, Lee Harvey Oswald met his own fate just days later, after he was shot at point-blank range by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner, in the basement of the county jail.

Despite all the books, articles and studies about the assassination, just for a moment I could feel what it must have been like for Oswald. He was all alone, smoking cigarettes, with his rifle and high powered scope, waiting to kill the president of the United States from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository.

Nothing more and nothing less, the museum let the actions speak for themselves. It is well worth your time, on your next visit to Dallas.

Dan Ponder can be reached at dan@donalsonvillenews.com.