The Day I Went to Dealey Plaza
The first time I saw the NOVA program on the assassination of President Kennedy, I spent a sleepless night calling for my mother every half hour or so, until my father came in and told me angrily that I was twelve years old and to go to sleep. The next day he apologized and said that my first experience with that story must have been rather harrowing. Which was certainly true; and it developed into an obsession with the assassination, President Kennedy, the Presidency in general, and the general mystique of U.S. political history, in ever widening rings, as if a huge stone had been hurled into the pond of my consciousness.
Even years later, leafing through a new book on the subject at the library would be enough to keep me awake that night, ruminating on medical photos, gatherings of evidence, and the infamous Abraham Zapruder film. For me, the jury was still out on whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, or was a patsy in some ominous anti-American conspiracy. He was certainly the perfect patsy, what with his connections to Russia and his blatant Communist sympathies. He was also the perfect sort of psychopath who would
act alone, if indeed he did. Oswald's leap into the limelight was only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, another shadowy piece of political brinkmanship. My parents were sixth-graders.
The Warren Commission's report makes up a thick paperback that I remember once checking out to a library patron via Interlibrary Loan; but I didn't read it, nor really did I seek too closely for information on the subject; Kennedy books, tangible tokens of my fixation, were as dangerous to stare at as the sun, like the object of a schoolgirl crush. So through the years, despite my obsession, I shared with most other people the ill-informed and uneasy sense that, for all the facts, for all the numerous pairs of eyes that witnessed the event, the American public is no further on in figuring out exactly what happened.
So a few years ago I went to Dallas to visit my best friend from college and her husband, and when she asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to go to the Sixth Floor Museum. So downtown we went, ready to pay our good money to trundle around the top of the Texas School Book Depository, where you can see a mural of the Zapruder film (I'm told) frame by frame. Unfortunately, there was a huge influx that day of college football fans, and the entrance to the museum was glutted with them. We turned back, and decided that a free tour of Dealey Plaza was enough.
Dealey Plaza, it turns out, is quite small. The School Book Depository, while tall, isn't hugely impressive, and the grassy knoll hardly enough to have a family picnic on. In the cinderblock grotto next to the curve of the road (on which cars streamed quickly in a quite ordinary fashion), there were some loud-voiced people with a table full of conspiracy literature, and a bunch of mooks like ourselves wandering about in the January sun. It didn't seem at all prepossessing enough to hold that big an assassination. Nevertheless it had the glamour of history on it, and thinking about it now I also recall that thing of Thomas Merton's about guilty bystanders, especially when I remember all the people swarming around like jackdaws wheeling around a spot of roadkill.
It seems that somehow, even with so many people around to look and point and talk about it all after the event -- somehow none of that is enough, and we still don't know who shot Kennedy, or why, or what effect it was meant to have: what roots are at the bottom of that stark tree. But it is
, in an exasperating way, enough to know that there are
facts, which by the grace or wrath of Fortune may or may not be traceable to their source. It is, in fact, rather like the Passion and Resurrection of Christ -- another stark event with many looking on, pointing and talking, jeering and weeping, laying blame like dominoes from one end of the country to the other. And still it is quite possible either to believe or not believe that it happened as the various Gospels said it did -- Gospels who, when it comes to the Resurrection in particular, gabble and retcon (I love that word from fandom), and mix everything up, you know, the way people do who saw something incredible. This heterogeneity of narrative can be ominous for people who suspect their creed is no safer from the vagaries of human error in transmission than other things, but oddly I find it comforting to observe how complicated Christianity is -- a truly human thing, complete with a sense of simultaneous redeemability and utter frustration. And because wholly human, also wholly taken up into God's story, which is a litany of music and danger, catastrophe and eucatastrophe.
I have heard, from various people who have been there, that a visit to Palestine -- the Holy Land -- gives one (even if they have formerly felt no connection with it, religious or otherwise) a sense of almost palpable resonance, as if one has arrived home in some strange way, to this land so drenched with histories of dispute and honor, blood and milk, honey and bitter herbs. And yet I can imagine how small a place it probably seems, especially to a Midwestern American used to great distances and long horizons. The various landmarks are probably small too, unprepossessing, cracked and chipped in places, dusty; everything covered with the fingerprints of humanity, everything a bit scrubby. I expect I may go sometime, to Palestine, to be a guilty bystander in a place that has tugged at my consciousness for so long. At least I hope to. Next year in Jerusalem, as they say.