June 16, 2012
The Kennedys on November 22, 1963. Photo: Reuters
A Dallas museum gives Katrina Lobley fresh insight into the assassination of John F. Kennedy almost 50 years ago.
No one is allowed to sidle up to that window at Dallas's Sixth Floor Museum. The corner window of the former Texas School Book Depository - perhaps the most notorious window in the world - sits behind protective glass walls. This is where Lee Harvey Oswald - well, allegedly, as a plaque outside reminds us - propped a rifle on book cartons in 1963 to take aim at President John F. Kennedy. As he squeezed off his shots, thus changing the course of American history, he also sparked intrigue and mystery that linger to this day.
Stacks of cartons are piled within the enclosure, recreating the sniper's nest that shielded Oswald on November 22 as he waited for Kennedy's motorcade to pass below on Elm Street. Kennedy's midnight-blue Lincoln slowed to execute a tight turn from North Houston - then a two-way street - into Elm. At 12.30pm, as the presidential limousine motored along the middle lane towards a railway triple underpass, the sniper opened fire.
Experts generally agree - although some people think Oswald wasn't the only gunman - that his first bullet missed. The second travelled through Kennedy's body, striking Texas governor John Connally, who was in the same car. The third was the gruesome shot to Kennedy's head.
Today, two white crosses painted on Elm, in front of the grassy knoll where some witnesses thought the shots came from, mark where Kennedy was struck. From the window next to the sixth-floor glass enclosure it's possible to see those chilling crosses on the road, although growth on the trees threatens to obscure one.
Photography isn't allowed inside the museum but there's a good view of tourists dashing across busy Elm Street to take their snaps of the grassy knoll and the window; there are also a few hustlers hanging about who make a living selling assassination-related souvenirs.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, yet fascination with the crime's minutiae shows no sign of abating. On average, more than 325,000 people a year ride the lift to the sixth floor. We visit on a Wednesday just before lunch; the place is so packed, we sometimes wait to read the information boards (even though a good proportion skip reading in favour of listening to the free audio tour narrated by Pierce Allman, the first reporter to broadcast from the depository after the shooting).
The museum is Dallas's singularly most compelling attraction - even though it chronicles the city's darkest hour. It cleverly provides context for those unfamiliar with the mood of the US in the early 1960s.
Kennedy's progressive stance on issues such as racial equality meant there was good reason for his security detail to feel nervous about the visit to Dallas. At that time the city was most conservative of the five Texan pitstops Kennedy planned to visit in the lead-up to his 1964 re-election campaign. Before the visit, one potentially problematic Dallas resident was investigated; however, that person wasn't Oswald.
The displays include images from the 26-second movie shot by Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder - his 486 precious frames of Kodachrome are how the world knows what the assassination looked like. Yet the most poignant image for me is the one showing Jackie Kennedy on board Air Force One only hours after her husband's death, standing in her blood-spattered pink boucle suit beside Lyndon B. Johnson as he takes the oath of office. Three months earlier, Kennedy's prematurely born son, Patrick, had died. The trip to Texas was one of her first public outings since that tragedy. It's impossible to comprehend how the 34-year-old managed to stand there at all.
Oswald's death two days later - nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot him at point-blank range, live on national television - pretty much guaranteed an unending stream of conjecture as to what really happened to Kennedy.
Polls show almost 80 per cent of Americans still believe his death was the result of a conspiracy, and the museum dedicates a section to exploring these theories.
Near the sixth-floor exit, past another glassed area where Oswald stashed his bolt-action rifle before fleeing his workplace, are "memory books" where visitors recall where they were and how they felt on hearing the news in 1963. One man tells how his mother, a supporter of Nixon whom Kennedy had defeated in the 1960 presidential election, ran to his school to tell his teacher; he and fellow students were promptly sent home for the day. It took the then seven-year-old years to comprehend why his mother, on the other side of the political fence, was crying.
Some messages - such as "To JFK - you were awesome!" - are cringe-worthy. More moving is the poignancy of a child's words. One little girl writes out in wobbly capital letters, "I feel sad". And that, really, says it all.
Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Qantas and the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Qantas has a fare to Dallas from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1780 low-season return including tax. Fly non-stop from Sydney to Dallas (15hr 10min); Melbourne passengers connect in Sydney. The return flight is via Brisbane (16hr 15min); see qantas.com. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Seeing there The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is open Monday, noon-6pm; Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm. Entry $US13.50 adult; see jfk.org.
The John F. Kennedy Memorial is one block east of Dealey Plaza, between Main and Commerce streets.
The five-star Omni Dallas Hotel, 555 South Lamar Street, is within walking distance of the museum and memorial. Rooms cost from $US111 a night, see omnidallashotel.com.