Dealey Plaza: birthplace of a mystery that still reverberates

Seeing is not believing in Kennedy assassination

by Joel Achenbach

The Washington Post

Dealey Plaza is a depression. It is a shallow basin on the western edge of downtown, framed by concrete structures called pergolas and peristyles that were built in the late 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. Designed as a gateway to the city, the plaza is more of an ode to the automobile because the broad lawn is sliced by three converging streets: Elm, Main and Commerce. They slope from east to west and meet beneath a rail line in what is known as the triple underpass.

That is where President and Mrs. Kennedy were headed, on Elm, when the ghastly thing happened.

On the north side of the plaza is the famous grassy knoll, where the second shooter supposedly lurked. There is a second grassy knoll on the south side of the plaza. And the grassy knolls aren’t actually knolls, but rather are just slopes on the rim of the plaza.

The place hasn’t changed much since Nov. 22, 1963. Some of the signage is different. Skyscrapers loom in the distance. The live oaks are bigger. Otherwise, it is remarkably preserved, including the building on the northeast corner of the plaza, which in 1963 was a warehouse known as the Texas School Book Depository. Up there, behind a pile of boxes in the southeast corner of the sixth floor, Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger.

“It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” Kimberly Feare, 52, of Redwood City, California, said of Dealey Plaza on a recent Saturday afternoon. “But maybe it’s dwarfed by the incident itself. It’s such a huge thing.”

There, off the cuff, from a tourist, is the central tension of the Kennedy assassination.

This was, as she noted, a huge thing, a moment routinely and almost numbingly cited as an end to our innocence, as the termination of postwar conformism and the beginning of the chaos and madness and rage of the 1960s. It killed the first television president, his death captured on film. The assassination has been, ever since, the subject of obsessive investigation. There is always more to learn, always another factoid to gnaw.

The official story, first promulgated by the Warren Commission, describes the assassination as the act of one man. The Oswald-acting-alone narrative is a small one, and kind of meaningless. The assassination, in this telling of events, was an unlucky alignment of the stars. Which suggests that history can pivot more or less randomly. There is a special terror in that — the notion that huge things can happen for no good reason.

Against that story comes a wide variety of alternative narratives. Many invoke that second gunman on the grassy knoll. Or perhaps multiple gunmen. Or as many as 10 shots in Dealey Plaza. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” has three separate sniper teams.

Here is Patti Martin, 52, of Oklahoma City, standing in Dealey Plaza near the spot from where Kennedy was hit in the head: “There’s too many gaps. There’s no way there was one gunman.”

Patti Martin: “Why would he have waited until here?” Meaning this spot on Elm. “He had a perfect shot at that corner.” (In fact, he had already taken two shots, closer to the corner.)

Depending on your theory, the assassination was the work of the CIA, the KGB, the Mafia, Castro, the anti-Castro Cubans, the Dallas police, Lyndon Johnson’s Texas cabal, the limousine driver, Texas Gov. John Connally or the Secret Service (in one version, a panicky Secret Service agent heard the shots, pulled his assault rifle and accidentally killed the president).

The conspiracy theorists have one advantage: They don’t have to have all the answers, merely enough questions and doubts to shatter the mainstream consensus. The Lone Nut orthodoxy is essentially a closed narrative — it all but says, “Keep moving folks, nothing to see here” — while the conspiracy theories are self-sustaining, a perpetual-motion mystery that will be with us forever.

And they do one more thing: They bequeath the assassination a deeper layer of meaning. This is an institutional murder. The bad guys are powerful people in the shadows of our civilization. This is not some small event — it is an epic struggle between enlightenment and evil.

In this view, the official story is a theft of history. Freedom and justice and perhaps our cultural sanity require us to rescue the truth from a quagmire of lies.

For many of us, what we see at Dealey Plaza says a lot about who we are. It reflects a worldview. It reveals how we process information. It even becomes part of our identity, like party affiliation or religious belief. And thus, as we study the facts, and scrutinize the images, and examine all the angles and trajectories, we are vulnerable to confirmation bias. Believing is seeing.

From every angle

It was on a concrete pedestal of the north pergola that clothing manufacturer Abraham Zapruder, accompanied by his receptionist, Marilyn Sitzman, stood with his 8 mm Bell & Howell home movie camera and made what is surely the most scrutinized film clip in history.

And there are other films. The buffs know this. There is the Bronson film, the Muchmore film and the Nix film. They are not nearly as vivid and gut-wrenchingly graphic as the Zapruder film, but the researchers study them closely.

Orville Nix was filming the motorcade from a spot near Main Street, aiming his camera toward the grassy knoll. After the shots rang out and the president’s limousine raced to Parkland Hospital, Nix went back to work. He didn’t get his film developed right away because he hadn’t used the entire reel. The younger, digital generation may not fully grasp this concept. There was unused film, and he wasn’t going to waste it.

The following Saturday — eight days after the assassination — he took the camera to a high school football game and filmed the majorettes performing at the halftime show. Only after that did he drop it off to be developed, and later got a phone call saying you better come down here, you’ve got a movie of the assassination.

Bill and Gayle Newman saw the assassination up close. They were the closest bystanders, other than the occupants of the limousine and the motorcycle cops. They were just 22 years old, with two small children, Billy, 4, and Clayton, 2. They wound up at Dealey Plaza and took a spot along the curb of Elm Street.

They are in a lot of the photographs and films of the assassination. They are the young couple on the ground, shielding their kids. Bill is seen pounding the ground with his fist. He remembers saying, “Some son of a bitch just shot the president.”

They slept that night, and for many nights, with their boys in bed with them and with a loaded 20-gauge shotgun close at hand because they were witnesses and had no idea whether someone would come after them.

The Newmans recently showed up at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza inside the Texas School Book Depository to talk about what they saw that day.

Bill: “The side of his head blew off and the white matter flew up and the red. And I turned to Gayle and said that’s it, hit the ground.”

Gayle: “You just see bits of flesh flying up and white matter. It was just terrifying to see.”

Always holes

Over near the grassy knoll, vendors have painted two X’s in the center lane of Elm Street, representing JFK’s approximate location when he was struck by bullets.

The first X, close to the book depository, is pure guesswork. No one to this day knows when, exactly, Oswald first fired, and whether it was the first or second shot that hit JFK and exited his throat. The second X, representing the final, fatal shot, is far more accurately located.

“If I were doing it, I’d move it back 2 or 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm). It’s pretty close,” said Gary Mack, the curator of The Sixth Floor Museum. He means that, based on his study of the images of the assassination, he would move the X a couple of inches closer to the depository.

He used to be a hard-core conspiracy theorist, but he will now tell you that Oswald did it and that virtually all conspiracy theories disintegrate on close inspection. He believes there is more to the story than what the Warren Commission reported. He thinks Oswald and the U.S. government were more entangled than the government has let on.

“There are enough of those holes in the story that make the conspiracy folks keep digging,” Mack said. “What these conspiracy theorists don’t know, that all cops and journalists know, is that there are always holes in stories.”

Dealey Plaza simply in its physical existence represents a reality check on conspiracy theories. The distance from Oswald to Kennedy at the fatal moment was just 88 yards (80 meters). Mack says that when hunters come to the plaza, they all say the same thing: You wouldn’t even use the scope for that shot.

But the monstrousness of the deed will always create a reality-distortion field. This place is a portal to alternative histories. Looking closer doesn’t seem to clarify much. Examine the breaking-news coverage from that day in Dallas and you will see, already, the fracturing of the narrative. Witnesses report seeing things we know didn’t happen (the Kennedys holding a dog between them in the limousine). And they often fail to see dramatic things right in front of them, such as Jackie climbing precariously onto the back of the limousine after her husband was shot in the head.

It is as though people couldn’t see, or mentally process, something that bizarre.

Dip a toe into Dealey Plaza and you find yourself immersed to the neck. Or deeper. This is not just a depression, it is a pit, an abyss, and you can easily slip all the way down, and the next thing you know you will be looking for bullets beneath the turf. Your world will be framed by grassy knolls.

A word to the wise: Get the hell out of there.