Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Being There Fifty Years Ago


I tell people considering mission trips that you can read all you want about a place or an event, you can watch videos of what happened, but it’s still not the same thing as actually BEING there.  You need to put your feet on the ground of the place.  Feel the air against your skin and see the panoramic view.  Smell the city.

Those of us who lived in Dallas fifty years ago had slightly different experiences following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It was our city.  We knew what it smelled like.  It smelled ordinary.  Normal. 

We oftentimes drove right past the School Book Depository in routine travel.  Back then there was a huge Hertz car rental sign over the building and it displayed the time.  All the wide-angle photos of November 22 show that it happened at 12:30.  That time is burned into our memories.

It was a Friday.  Just as the day will be this year.  I was in gym class.  Except that day we spent class in the auditorium because they were decorating the gym for the Homecoming dance.  The teacher gave me the attendance slip to take to the office.  As I dropped the slip of paper in the box I heard the radio in the background say, “The President has been hit.”  I thought in terms of a rock thrown from the crowd.  I had no idea an inconsequential nobody had killed the most powerful man in the world.  

Homecoming for Sunset High School was cancelled that year.

The most enduring memory for me is the silence on the bus going home that afternoon.  A bus full of high school kids is always noisy.  That day the bus was silent.  Not one person spoke.  No one had words.  We didn’t even have questions.

So many of the routine background scenes of my childhood are now iconic images of that day. 

Our most popular neighborhood movie theatre was the same one Oswald was captured in.  The older kids usually sat in the balcony so we could practice smoking but it’s quite possible that at some point I have sat in the same seat he did on the main floor. When I was a kid going to the movies on Saturday it was kind of a tradition to flatten your empty popcorn box and throw it around the theatre when the movie was over.  That’s my main memory of the Texas Theatre:  throwing popcorn boxes.

If you’re going to pick a spot to commit one of the most ghastly crimes of the century it’s always thoughtful if you can do it in a place that’s already tourist friendly.  In Dallas we already had a concrete memorial plaza right there. Nobody ever paid any attention to it until the assassination.   It was named after the founder of the Dallas Morning News, George Bannerman Dealey.  He may not have been a large figure in history but he left behind a family who loved him and had a lot of money to build an impressive memorial. There is a fountain and lots of concrete to stand around on, even some places you can sit. 

It stood ready to immediately accept the thousands of tourists who came and still come.  A couple of times I took my brothers there late at night with a purpose of our own but it wasn’t tourism.  People had started throwing coins into the fountain and we would wade in and gather them up.  After counting all the pennies and nickels there would usually be just enough money to buy a dozen donuts across the river at the Lone Star donut shop.  It was open all night and was a precursor to Krispy Kreme in that you could buy donuts right off the conveyor belt—right out of the fryer after they had been drowned in sugar.  There is no taste in the world as good as a fresh donut. My brothers and I had no historical longings at Dealey Plaza; it was all about the donuts.

Years later we had an exchange student from France.  She arrived with a list of three things she wanted to see:  a cowboy with long hair, the ranch where the TV show Dallas was filmed, and the spot where Kennedy was killed.  I crossed the cowboy off her list immediately and told her they don’t make cowboys with long hair. At least not in Texas, anyway.  

But the Kennedy Assassination site was easy enough.  I drove out there, parked the car and we walked around a bit.  Most people were content to walk around on the sidewalk but not Nathalie.  “Where did it happen?” she asked.  I pointed to the street.  Exactly where?  I walked closer and pointed.  She kept refining her search until I finally stood in the middle of center lane of traffic half-way between the Schoolbook Depository and the overpass and stomped my foot onto the pavement: “Here,” I said.  They have since painted a big white X in that spot for that same question.

Beaven has different memories.  He was in the Air Force and remembers feeling funny about being away from home, yet calling home Dallas.  Somebody ran into the power plant where he worked and yelled at him, “You killed my president.” That was how he heard the news that day. It was hard to be a Dallas citizen that autumn. 

Four years later Beaven went to work at WFAA television station and most of the guys he worked with had been there that day.  The other handy thing if you plan to make history is to do it within walking distance of news media. Fifty years ago, there were no cell phones.  But the assassination site was within walking distance of both of Dallas’ newspapers and television stations.  Two blocks south was the Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV.  Two blocks north was the Dallas Times Herald and KRLD-TV.  A lot of the Dallas reporters were the first to break any of the news that day. The only catch was that the cameras back then ran on tubes and you had to give them 20 minutes to warm up before you could broadcast.  So the earliest news broke via radio.  They say television came of age that week.

Kennedy’s funeral was the first television event broadcast in color for those who had the newest televisions sets.  It made only a small difference because everything on the screen was black and gray.  People were dressed in black. The horses carrying the caisson were black. Even the sky was gray in Washington that day.  The only thing in color was the red, white and blue of the flag that covered the coffin.

A couple of Beaven’s friends called around the other day to confirm with each other what they remembered: that Channel 8 in Dallas was the first television station in the United States to broadcast 24 hours a day.  They felt a duty to stay on the air after the assassination.  Even the national networks stopped broadcasting after midnight back then. They would show a film clip of the flag and play the National Anthem and the screen would go blank until morning.

The people who lived in Dallas that day don’t usually hold any truck with conspiracy theories.  It was all just too damned ordinary to be anything as complicated as a conspiracy. The house where Oswald rented a room was about two miles from my house and we often drove right passed it. The house was so non-descript that it is obvious to me he was just a poor nobody of the most pathetic kind.  A guy so broke that he didn’t have a car and made his getaway from the crime of the century in a city bus.  A bus.  A skinny guy in a white t-shirt who was so unremarkable that he needed to do something horrible to get attention.  A guy who probably bought his ice cream at the same Cabell’s convenience store as I did and rode the same bus I did.

I know the daughter of Clay Fowler.  He was Jack Ruby’s original attorney.  She said that once Ruby’s family got involved they replaced her dad with a high-octane attorney from California.  But I asked Debbie the question everyone else asks her:  Why would your father want to defend the most notorious man in the country who committed a murder in front of television cameras on live TV?  She said her mother had asked that question and his response had been “Every man deserves a defense.”

Dallas had our share of kooks that day but we also had ordinary, overlooked men of honor and dignity.

I have another friend who lived down the street in Irving where Marina Oswald was staying.  She remembers the police cars sealing off the traffic to her street but she was able to ride her bicycle past the house and was curious about what was happening inside. Within a few days her neighborhood went back to normal. 

These were ordinary people living ordinary lives.  No conspiracy theories here.

It was horrible.  It changed the make-up of our country.  A historian last week voiced the theory that if Kennedy had lived we would not have gotten as involved in Viet Nam as we did but we also would not have had the civil rights legislation that Lyndon Johnson was able to pass in Kennedy’s memory.

We could play “What If” all day but history has a strict set of rules.  You only get one try.  There are no do-overs.  Kennedy did not live.  We did get over our heads in a senseless war in Viet Nam.  But today our black friends have equal access to the same rights as everybody else.  Without Johnson stepping into the presidency in such a tragic way this may not have happened when it did.  Or it may have come through great upheaval and violence.  It might not have been a peaceful process with laws encouraging people to do the right thing.

But we don’t get to choose.  We don’t get the ear of the Creator and we don’t get to weigh the balance:  thousands of men of my generation lost versus civil rights won.

We can only live the lives we have at the moment. And, fifty years later, the coins people throw into the fountain at Dealey Plaza are probably more dimes and quarters than pennies and nickels.  But I am now way too dignified to wade around in a fountain to pick up coins in order to buy donuts. I also weigh about fifty pounds more and avoid donuts if I can.

I live in East Texas now and I can’t remember the last time I walked around that part of Dallas. And the Hertz sign that told the time is gone. 

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