I went along to the Dallas Book Depository building (left) to see the JFK assassination site, expecting it to be a bit touristy. But it’s not, it’s a dignified and educative place. I came away perplexed, as I imagine most visitors do, puzzled that an insignificant nutter like Lee Harvey Oswald could have so changed world history.
The building is about eight stories and just like a big box. The ground floor is now the entry area and gift shop, and you go by lift to the infamous sixth floor, where the fatal shots were fired. The rest of the building seems empty, apart from the corresponding corner of the 7th floor, where you can take in an Oswald-type view to the highway and target zone. Glassed-off is the sixth floor’s northwest corner, where Oswald actually took aim and fired, and the museum has done its best to replicate what the nook looked like on that day in November, 1963. His firing point is shielded by stacked book boxes which Oswald likely arranged to conceal himself from other employees, and to create a little sniper’s nest by the window.
I hadn’t realised that the Book Depository was literally that. Wholesalers shipped in thousands of their textbooks for warehousing, and the workers’ job was to organise them into smaller lots for distribution to individual schools. Oswald had been working there for a month, filling those orders. That’s Coincidence No 1: his vantage point was the ideal spot, since the highway takes a sharp bend by the building, meaning cars must slow to a near stop before accelerating away.
Oswald that morning had been given a sheet of stock to ‘pick’, unsupervised, allowing him to squat in the corner at leisure, snacking on a bag of chicken pieces as he waited for his target to arrive. That picking sheet is one of the exhibits.
You arrive at the floor and are routed through exhibits and audio-visuals pithily covering JFK’s term. It takes quite a time to cover what must be about 45 stations. Luckily it was the tourist slack season, due to Texas’ ferocious summer heat, so crowds were minimal. You get quite immersed in it all, and it comes as a genuine shock to finally arrive at the glassed in corner. From other windows it’s already clear what a sitting duck JFK was. In the hollow among the corner boxes, you can almost see Oswald encamped there. Trees by the roadside have grown a lot but at the time the verges would have been virtually bare. The famed ‘grassy knoll’ is directly opposite, again more treed over than in 1962.
There were plenty of schoolkids touring the building, and I could see that, to them, the events of 1963 were ancient history. They all seemed boisterous and cheery, whereas adults had a solemn and shocked mien.
I’ll skip the well-known narrative. The exhibits then go into the inquiries and perplexities, this speculation that went on for 30 years or so. The two key evidences were the famous film by Mr Zapruder, taken from the knoll side, and the fact that one motorcycle police outrider’s radio microphone was accidentally stuck to ‘on’ and recorded the sounds. Many of the eye-witness accounts were confused by echoes of shots bouncing off buildings and concrete.
The FBI, then lacking today’s 3D computer modelling, created a physical model as big as a lounge room. It is on display, complete with lengths of string from the 6th floor mini-window to the model car. For all their pains, the FBI version was incorrect. The initial Warren Commission report, in all its thousands of pages, only opened up more perplexities. I didn’t know, for example, that some years later, the US’s top acoustics experts officially re-analysed the data and pronounced there had been 4 shots, meaning Oswald had an accomplice after all. Then five or so years after that, yet another team of acoustics experts, using superior technology, officially contradicted the first lot and brought the tally back to 3 and no need for a second assassin.
What is still disputed is the mystery of the ‘pristine bullet’. At the hospital when State Governor John Connally (who was in the front seat) was being moved from a stretcher, the slug of a bullet dropped off. This slug was in mint condition, not squashed or marked in any way except a tiny bit at the rear. Apparently this was the bullet that first struck Kennedy through the throat, then hit Connally and, somehow, wounded him in five separate places. Amazing.
Until my visit, I also was unaware that a cop rushed into the building just as Oswald bolted down the stairs to the canteen. The cop grabbed Oswald, but the bookstore boss said, “He’s OK, he works here!” So Oswald was free to exit the building, sparking a subsequent manhunt that culminated in his murder of Police Officer J.D. Tippett, shot dead when attempting to arrest the assassin.
It was also weird that Oswald had lived in Russia and had a Russian wife, Marina, but the FBI and KGB had a heart-to-heart and, by mutual agreement, the Cold War angle was ruled out. Other weirdness saw the Texas State and the White House fighting over who had rights to the body (legally, Texas did) and the White House more or less kidnapping the body. The autopsy was mightily bungled, fuelling controversy for decades. There is an excellent film, Parkland (2013), that recreates the stranger-than-fiction narrative at the hospital and afterwards, with our own Jackie Weaver playing Oswald’s mother.
I exited through the gift shop, full of books about the assassination and JFK era. While conspiracy theories continue to draw adherents and intrigue the merely curious, the prevailing consensus after all these decades of theories, accusations, investigations and and analysis seems to be that Oswald was, as the Warren Commission concluded, just a lone nutter who was in the wrong place at the right time.
Crossing over (carefully, at the lights) the dual highway to the grassy knoll, I found a buff who had set up a stand to peddle conspiracy material. His shtick was that some woman had taken a second movie of the killing, and this footage had been officially hushed up because of what it contained. He had all the paraphenalia to make his case — facsimiles of press reports about this movie and other apparently plausible stuff. I noticed his audience, especially the kids, seemed quite credulous as the chap rabbitted on in a very polished and plausible way. The school teens and their teacher were all exuberant and, while the lights were holding up traffic, they rushed onto the highway spot for selfies.
I seemed to recall a Woody Allen ‘take’ on the grassy knoll, and have just found it on YouTube, I think it’s from Annie Hall. He’s reminiscing about past girlfriends, especially Alison Portschnik, and how the Kennedy assassination ruined his sex life.
Poor Woody. If only he had toured the Book Depository, quite a few of the questions that so distracted him might have been laid to rest.
Fresh from revelling in the northern hemisphere’s summer, Tony Thomas is back in Melbourne, breaking out his winter overcoat and wishing that there might be some truth in all those warmist assertions that the climate will warm any day now