Dallas, Part 2: Up Close
November 22, 2012 | by Edward McPherson
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With all eyes on Dallas, it seemed fitting to re-run one of our favorite pieces from 2012, an ode to the city and its complicated legacy.
[Read part 1 here.]
Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Dallas is a jewel, Dallas is a beautiful sight.
And Dallas is a jungle, but Dallas gives a beautiful light.
—Jimmie Dale Gilmore, from the song “Dallas”
From a Boeing 737 on a sparkling fall day, Dallas looks like a patchwork of mottled greens and browns, the ground more rich and loamy than withered and sere, as if the coming winter were just nature’s way of winking. The lakes are murky, the land billiard-table flat, laced with former wagon trails that have now become thoroughfares. Approaching the city, cloned suburban houses sprout in rows that curl and stretch with predetermined whimsy, the pools, tennis courts, and golf courses popping up at neat intervals. Divided expressways thread through the map, the roads laden with cars, pickups, motorcycles, and semis all going, going, going, even on a Sunday, even on a football Sunday.
I am flying into Love Field, an airport that has served Dallas since 1917, when the army named the flying field after First Lieutenant Moss Lee Love, who crashed and died in his Type C Wright pusher biplane four years earlier. Kennedy landed at Love Field at 11:37 A.M. on November 22, 1963. It is a Texas State Historical Site. I am flying into history.
Twice the plane lowers its right wing as we approach downtown, as if in deference to that storied skyline. A spindly white bridge—designed by Spanish starchitect Santiago Calatrava—swoons in the distance, a cobweb of cables crossing the river. I am not approaching from that most famous angle, fast and low up the Trinity River bottoms, but from the east, and so we fly over LBJ freeway, then the state fair grounds, with the Cotton Bowl and the ruins of Big Tex, the giant motorized cowboy who, with his seventy-five-gallon hat, pointed the way to the fair park until he burned down nine days ago. (In the aftermath of the fire, the mayor of Dallas tweeted, “Dallas is about Big Things and #BigTex was symbolic of that. We will rebuild Big Tex bigger and better for the 21st Century.” Of course Big Tex himself was a rebuilding/rebranding job. The fifty-two-foot-tall cowboy began life in 1949 as a colossal Santa Claus, before being installed—three years later—at the fair grounds. From one dream to the next.)
We skirt the Park Cities neighborhood, keeping downtown to the south. The grass is still growing; the trees bear leafy green tops. And then the wheels hit, and the man in front of me—black, in his late thirties, a diamond stud in one ear and a Gucci carry-on in his lap—says loudly to no one in particular, “Home, sweet, home.” At this exact moment, in a stadium across town, the Dallas Cowboys kick off against the New York Giants.
Thirty-three of us are continuing on to Austin, but the rest of us stagger onto the bright jetway, which leaks sun and refreshing sixty-three-degree air. Below, baggage handlers work in shorts and wraparound shades. At the gate, a frazzled woman is complaining to a listless security agent that there is no place to smoke in the terminal. Behind the woman a flatscreen TV carries the Cowboys’ game. In fact, as far as the eye can see there are TVs showing the game. No sign of CNN or the Weather Channel here, despite the impending landfall of superstorm Sandy, which is wrecking travel for roughly a third of the country to the northeast. Last season, the Giants knocked the Cowboys out of a playoff spot. This is the first home matchup since then. Revenge weights heavily on the city’s mind.
Three months ago, in July, the team’s owner, Jerry Jones, exhorted fans at a rally: “Y’all should come to that stadium and watch us beat the Giants’ ass.” This week, management sent an email to season-ticket holders asking them to be loud, particularly on their opponent’s third downs, so that the shame of the last home game—when a bunch of visiting Bears fans out-whooped and out-hollered and generally embarrassed the hometown supporters—doesn’t happen again.
At halftime, the Cowboys trail twenty-three to ten.
They come back twenty-three to seventeen with nine minutes to go in the third.
Five minutes later, Dallas is up one point, twenty-four to twenty-three.
The Cowboys haven’t beaten the Giants in their new stadium.
Two field goals later—with 3:31 left in the game—New York is ahead, twenty-nine to twenty-four.
The game is a nail-biter. Deep in the Giants’ territory, with only a little more than a minute on the clock, the Cowboys throw an interception on fourth down after failing to convert a second and one. The game has taken on an air of fiction: the Cowboys, a troubled, disappointing team this season, won’t lie down and die—week after week, they find inventive ways to lure even the most wary fans into believing again, only to fail them. It’s as if the sportswriters in the sky were coming up with more and more outlandish plots to tug at a city’s heartstrings.
A friend of mine shouts, “This team maximizes pain!”
The Cowboys get the ball back with forty-four seconds.
My friend covers his face and says, “I can’t believe I still care.”
A touchdown would win the game.
Twenty-five seconds: they’re inside the Giants’ territory.
“They always do this to me. They always do it.” My friend rocks on his heels. “This is the entire season.”
Then, with sixteen seconds on the clock, a miracle: a high, unexpected Hail Mary into double coverage—pure prayer, what we used to call a “huck” on the playground—is caught by a receiver leaping into the back of the end zone. The stadium levitates. The Giants’ coach looks like he’s suffered a coronary. My friend bolts out of the room, shouting gibberish.
Then: there’s a chance the receiver landed out of bounds.
Commercial break while the officials review it.
Cameras dissect the play from every possible angle. No one can agree on what he sees. The receiver’s hand seems to graze the ground an instant before the rest of his body crashes into the end zone. Where do his fingers land—out or in? From the air, his fingers stretch out, out, out—then his palm, elbow, and body land in bounds. But it is no matter. The officials make their ruling: out of bounds by a finger. By a millimeter. No touchdown.
My friend shouts, “Conspiracy!”
Outside the window, you can hear the city groan in the darkening twilight.
But it’s still not over. Ten seconds left: a pass to the sideline, a handful of yards.
The Cowboys throw an incomplete pass across the middle.
New York calls a timeout.
One second left. The last “last chance.”
The Cowboys throw the ball out of the end zone.
Hope and heartbreak.
The Giants win and will now have to fly back into Hurricane Sandy.
The mythic allure of the Dallas Cowboys—a subject worthy of many of the countless books it generates—is too great a phenomenon to fully unpack here. Founded in 1960 by the sons of oil barons, the team is steeped in tradition and oil. As Dallas searched for something to cheer about in the years after Kennedy, the Cowboys became a lone star rising above the new Texas: “America’s Team,” as they became known, a symbol of the biggest and best in the state. The Cowboys have sold out every home game since 1991, even in their new billion-dollar stadium—the largest in the league—which crammed in a record 105,121 fans, some standing, some sitting, for its opening in 2009. (Another game in which fans watched the Cowboys fall in the final seconds to the Giants.) Forbes lists the team as the world’s third most valuable sports franchise (after England’s Manchester United and Spain’s Real Madrid soccer clubs), and even sixteen years after the Cowboy’s last Super Bowl victory, the team matters more than its wins and losses. The franchise is worth $2.1 billion, thanks to the aggressive—and some might say cutthroat—dealmaking of the team’s owner, oilman Jerry Jones. (The team makes nearly twenty million more off its stadium in sponsorship deals than any other NFL team; its operating income is $108 million greater the next runner-up’s, a sum that exceeds the entire take of the NBA or the NHL.) But money only tells part of the story. The Cowboys remain one of the premiere characters—sometimes heroes, sometimes villains—of the NFL in a way that the Cleveland Browns, say, will never be. Its cheerleaders have their own reality TV show, now going on seven seasons. Currently, the Cowboys are a dreadful team; Jones is regarded as a vainglorious meddler, a plastic surgery–enhanced and spectacle-driven egomaniac, ever appearing on the sidelines to mismanage his fractured, overpriced team. But at this point, the image has supplanted the reality. This year, an ESPN poll found the Cowboys to be the most popular team—yet again—with nearly nine percent of fans nationwide rooting for them on Sunday.
I’m in a third-floor deluxe suite with a sitting room, two bathrooms, four-hundred-thread count sheets, and an oblique view onto a pool—all of which, according to the rate on the door, goes for somewhere between nine hundred and a thousand dollars a night. Of course I’m not paying that. I’m staying with one of the writers of the revamped Dallas, a childhood friend who has flown from L.A. back to our hometown, where he has occupied this room for the past three weeks. There is a television embedded into the bathroom mirror. TV writers live hard. I feel like a power broker, like I own this town.
Across from me, at a desk that contains stacks of scripts—pink pages, blue pages, a day’s worth of scenes shrunk down to pocket size—along with a telephone, a laptop, a paper coffee cup, a plastic lighter, and a fifth of Black Label, sits my friend. He is writing, putting words into the mouths of characters who tomorrow will speak them, whereby—post production—they will form another gospel in the holy writ of Dallas, to be debated and discussed on Twitter, fan sites, glossy magazines, and the like. I’m on the couch, writing about him.
Exterior: a nondescript south Dallas studio, not far from John Neely Bryan’s cabin, where another Dallas—the original Dallas—was born. Looming above, a massive industrial block, bombed out, tagged with graffiti. It reminds me of Robocop. We pull up in the predawn dark. The place where dreams are made.
I sign a confidentiality agreement. I am an initiate, an outsider. Worse, I am that most suspect of villains: the writer. I become privy to secrets that won’t be known until season two begins airing in a few months. Because I won’t betray my friend—who got me on the set—and because these people are masters of the double cross, the legal ensnarement, the ruination of men, I must be circumspect.
I meet the director in an interrogation room, bare, save a table and two metal chairs. A single light burns above. A sign warns us we’re under video surveillance; badges must be worn at all times. The walls press in, thick, gray cinder blocks. Thump them with your palm. Hollow. Painted. On the other side of the door, the crew grumbles about the Cowboys game. Six turnovers, four interceptions. Should they fire the quarterback? They’re eating chilaquiles with Mexican peppers, hot off the breakfast truck. What did you do last weekend? I cut down cottonwoods. The director and the writer discuss a line in Urdu. Nearby, blue light streams through hospital windows. The swimming pool murmurs at Southfork, where painted pastures stretch for miles. A yellow and white striped awning ripples in the breeze. An elevator door opens onto the twenty-eighth floor. Step into the offices of Ewing Energies, where someone is playing a radio. A note on a secretary’s desk reads THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE IT! The windows command a sweeping view of downtown Dallas, a massive neon green screen. The sun is not up yet, but today is bright and sunny and unseasonably cold. A woman is washing a window to nowhere. We are hermetically sealed. Cliff Barnes, J.R.’s nemesis, steps out of a red golf cart, smoking a cigarette. A hush falls. Quiet. Private rehearsal. A hallway in the hospital turns seamlessly into a police station with wanted posters on the wall. I recognize some of the faces on the posters working around me, manning the cameras, the props, the lights. Next to the posters stands a biohazard box; a public-health sign declares SOME OF THE BEST MOTHERS ARE FATHERS. Hospital bleeds into police station which bleeds into jail. Twelve of us crowd into the interrogation room. A man snarls at me, “You set me up!” The walls are torn apart to make room for lights.
A crowd gathers in the hallway of the police station. The director and writer debate the feasibility of staging a traffic jam today. A guy leans against a wall that suddenly gives way. “Who built this set?” he asks. The director says to no one, “Sometimes you forget it’s not real.”
Announcement: there will be policeman on set today. All guns, handcuffs, and pepper-spray canisters are fake.
The scene is repeated over and over: a father loses a son; the son loses a father—and an empire. They speak the language of guilt, betrayal, duty. With headphones on, we sit in the dark and watch. Reset the scene. A woman laughs, a hammer bangs, something heavy clatters to the floor. Then the bell rings, the great red light is lit, we’re rolling, the director calls, “Action!”—and everything and everyone is suddenly still, all eyes on the monitors. One camera shoots from above; another glides on rails up and down the room at a glacial pace, imperceptibly heightening the emotion, making one trip there and back as the actors cycle through rage, remorse, denial, and defeat. We restart when the boom mike drops into frame. The master is finished; now for the close-ups. The actors are ringed in light. They’re beautiful. Then they’re gone, replaced by doubles of roughly the same height wearing roughly the same clothes—as if seen through a fogged mirror—who pantomime the scene while the crew rehangs the lights. Shooting the same scene from all possible angles is called coverage. It erases mistakes. It’s what we all wish for. Now tight on the feet and sweep up. Once on the door as it opens. Once on the clasped hands. Over and over for more than two hours, we watch two men in a box choke themselves up again and again. My headset puts me in the room where I can hear the smallest whisper. A dozen cops walk by, unnoticed.
In the police department, Christopher Ewing fights for custody of his babies. I know the man next to him, his lawyer, as a Secret Service officer from another TV show. There is some walk and talk, some steadicam. Nearby, seated at breakfast tables outside the set, a core of cops is receiving instruction. “Find a prop and carry it, if possible.” Away from the action, it is cold and dark. There is no time and no weather. In one corner, a giant tree reaches for the ribbed ceiling, neglected, forgotten. Outside, in the parking lot, nine cars are being arrayed around a $350,000 Rolls Royce to give the illusion of a midday traffic jam. Inside, the prop master approaches the writer with a question about the color scheme of a fake search engine that churns out false results. The writer likes what he sees. The script supervises marks her pages, noting the continuity.
In Ewing Energies, Christopher and John Ross—the sons of Bobby and J.R.—square off like their fathers. They walk; they lie. The camera picks them up, pivots around them, tracking their do-si-do of deception. “They’re the center of their own storm,” says the director. Elsewhere, Sandy is massing strength and about to smash into New Jersey. The winds have reached 90 miles per hour. Obama will speak soon. We’re in a bunker.
I drink a soda in the Ewing Energies kitchen. I have to keep myself from throwing the empty away in the prop trashcan. The fridge holds huge light bulbs. The office is a $400,000 fake. A crew member hums the Dallas theme. There is a problem with the choreography: a line is needed to buy Christopher enough time to walk over to John Ross, who is talking to an oil hand. Just a throwaway—something small. The writer looks at me. I have five minutes to think. I give him the words. The director signs off. And suddenly I've become history. I feel a giddy thrill. I've written my small bit into Dallas lore, which—depending on which take they use, and if that take makes the final cut—will amount to four or five words no one will notice.
Another scene at Ewing Energies: four cops exit the elevator. Three of the four are real Dallas PD. Are their guns real?
After a thirteen-hour day, I’m at my hotel, eating alone at the Rattlesnake Bar. Next to me, two men talk golf. One of them has just moved to town. The local tells the new guy a long story that ends with, “He asked me to cash his check, and it was a royalty check from Texaco!” The men laugh.
I wake up at five A.M. to watch Judith Light administer a sponge bath. I grew up with her as the mom on Who’s the Boss?, which ran from 1984 to 1992. She is no angel now. Back at Southfork, I witness Christopher drink enough bourbon to kill a horse, take after take. But it has no effect. Each time, it’s as if he's having the first bracing drink of the day. This is a land of no hangovers, physical or spiritual, a place designed for the coupling and recoupling of impossibly attractive people. A wonderland. The fountain of youth. But there is a price. Someone tells me they think each episode runs north of three million dollars.
We—the director, the DP, the writer, and others—sit just off the set in what’s called “video village.” The actors are in another room; currently, we are blocked from seeing the real thing by walls, scrims, screens, and a closet full of shotguns. But we see it better than they do—from more than one angle on twin high-definition monitors. If it doesn’t happen on the monitor, it doesn’t really happen. I turn off my headphones. I faintly hear the voices from another room. Sound bleeds from the director’s headset. Am I crazy, or is there a lag—are we, on the headphones, just slightly in the past?
Historical events used to be indexed by markers and monuments—physical objects that pointed to, but did not literally depict, the events that happened. Thus tourists go to Gettysburg and marvel at granite slabs that stand in for the regiments that fell on the field. End of story. Not so for more modern history, where imaging technology has become so ubiquitous and persuasive that nothing ever ends. We experience a reality that is endlessly replayable and remixable—on film, on TV, on cell phones, online. Here is how history unfolds today: we watch the event in real time (often on a screen in front of us), and then the footage is shuffled off to a digital cloud, where it can be accessed at any time from anywhere. As I type this, on a screen somewhere, the muddy waves of superstorm Standy slam into Atlantic City, Predator drones rain bombs down on Middle Eastern deserts, and the Twin Towers again and again crumble to dust. These videos are not mute artifacts of the past; they are the past, happening right before our eyes.
Nothing ever ends. It is only a click away. And because events never end—and because the images themselves offer no clear and stable interpretation of themselves, but instead can be endlessly dissected and debated—the past, as the saying goes, is never really past. Because we can witness the past, we think we can know it—but we can’t, not fully. The footage remains grainy, no matter how close we get. And that frustrated sense of knowing/not-knowing leaves us stuck, on the verge of an illumination that never will arrive. We can’t put anything behind us.
Where was JFK assassinated? For most of the country, Kennedy didn’t die in Dallas, but on television. And that’s what Oliver Stone got right in his oft-maligned 1991 movie JFK—since the release of the Zapruder film, we, as a country, have been stuck in a dark room, watching history being endlessly replayed, back and to the left, back and to the left…
And so when people come to Dallas for the ultimate close-up, they come not to the DFW metroplex but to Dallas-on-the-TV. They’re here not to understand history, but to experience it. To stage it. To shoot it. To bend the physical reality to the collective fantasy—and then insert themselves in it. Through equal parts erasure and reinvention, Dallas has made itself a blank screen, a place for others to project their opinions and for the city to sell its story.
Meanings pile up; they fold, they fault. Pressure builds. This dissonance comes at a psychic cost. Kennedy’s body is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but Dallas bears the wound. Growing up, for me Dealey Plaza was a blank spot—a confusing interchange of two- and one-way streets on the edge of downtown, a dark patch of grass you might mistakenly drive past on the way to a basketball game at Reunion Arena (now gone), a place not to be lingered in, a footnote left unread. I never visited Dealey Plaza on a school field trip. I never visited there with family. In the years after the shooting, the sixth floor of the Book Depository remained empty—with city business eventually taking place in the five floors below. A public exhibit didn’t open until 1989.
It takes me a map to find it.
We stand on the ground floor of the Dallas County Administration Building, formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository, waiting to pay sixteen dollars. The woman selling tickets asks, “What zip code are you from?” I tell her, and she says, “Thanks, sugar.”
Six floors up, a parent addresses a group of ten or so children: “Okay, kids. Go learn something. Have fun!” The kids hit the green button on their audio tours and disappear into the Sixth Floor Museum, where there is no food or photography allowed, and cells phones are to be kept silent.
I have traded one set of headphones for another—the audio feed for the audio tour, one kind of simulated reality for another. This tour is historic, contextual, stitched together with eyewitness accounts. A voice gives me instructions on how to move through the space; where to go, how to look. There are Germans, school children, and Japanese tourists with clipboards. We form an uneasy procession, alone together.
What we learn: Only forty-two years old when he hit the campaign trail, JFK was a young president for a new generation, the television president, as Nixon learned so disastrously at the debates, unprecedentedly photogenic and media savvy. JFK used news photos, press conferences, TV appearances, and glossy interviews to produce his own reality called Camelot. But his presidency wasn’t built on thin air; it intersected with Big Historical Events: the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Space Race, the Peace Corps, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, among others.
JFK, an incomplete timeline:
November 4, 1960: Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson—campaigning in Dallas on the eve of the election—are harassed by a mob of three hundred Republican women dressed in red, white, and blue, who tear off Lady Bird’s gloves and, as the Johnsons attempt to enter the Adolphus Hotel, block their way and spit on them. Johnson slows down and—for the benefit of the cameras—suffers the abuse for an excruciating thirty minutes. Civic leaders express shame, and the state swings for Kennedy and Johnson. But the idea of Dallas as a conservative viper’s nest is born.
October 24, 1963: The ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, is whacked on the head with a placard wielded by a forty-seven-year-old woman wearing pearls. City leaders issue a telegram of apology on behalf of the city; they send a copy to President Kennedy.
Thursday, November 21, 1963: About five thousand anti-Kennedy handbills are distributed around Dallas. “Wanted for Treason.”
Evening, November 21: The Dallas Times Herald publishes the route of Kennedy’s motorcade on its front page.
Morning, November 22: A full-page ad appears in The Dallas Morning News lambasting Kennedy and his policies. It is paid for by an anonymous group of right-wing businessmen calling itself “The American Fact Finding Committee.” Many Dallasites find the ad in poor taste, even rude. It appears on a day that will spawn countless committees searching for the facts.
November 22, 11:37 A.M.: Kennedy lands at Love Field. He shakes hands across a wire fence with the rabid and joyful crowd there to greet him.
A video shows the moments leading up to the assassination. The footage is familiar, the frames iconic. The big welcome for the president. His motorcade creeping toward Dealey Plaza. Jackie in a pink wool suit with navy collar and matching pillbox hat. We are re-experiencing a tragedy that, for most of us, occurred onscreen. Unless we were present in Dallas in 1963, the simulacrum is the experience. Five kids cluster before the monitor, holding their breath as the limo glides across the plaza. Just before the first shot, the frame freezes and bleeds into white. A boy whispers nervously to a friend, “Did you see it?”
Jackie’s rose bouclé suit was a copy, or recreation, made by an American dressmaker of a Chanel original. Jackie wore it that day at her husband’s request. The dressmaker made it at her request. Jackie needed to wear something made in America.
The exhibit traces the motorcade’s route downtown. Some ten thousand supporters line the streets. The wind catches Jackie’s hat, and she reaches to steady it. The limo rolls down Main Street, then up Houston, passing the jail to which Oswald would have been moved had he himself not have been assassinated. We turn left through the torturous hairpin turn onto Elm Street, passing below the windows of the Book Depository. Nellie Connally, the governor’s wife, says, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!”
First, a Polaroid blown up to an enormous size: the image is grainy, impressionistic, a blurry pointillist blot. A voice in our ear guides us to stills from the Zapruder film pasted on the wall. Seven slices of life that occurred between 12:30 P.M. and 12:31 P.M., as recorded onto 8 mm Kodachrome II color film moving roughly at 18.3 frames per second through a Bell & Howell Model 414PD Zoomatic Director Series camera with a Varamat zoom lens trained on full close-up on a subject in a moving car some sixty-five feet away.
The first frame at 12:30.
Then 1.26 seconds later.
Then 2.23 seconds later.
Then .7 seconds later.
Then .9 seconds later.
Then one second later.
Then 2.1 seconds later.
One of the stills is the achingly familiar Zapruder frame #238, for many casual viewers the first sign something’s wrong: Kennedy’s hands go up to his throat, elbows out like wings. After, his head drops, he leans over, then comes the head shot, which sends him—as everyone knows—“back and to the left,” and he topples into the seat and Jackie climbs over the rear of the limousine.
After the third shot rang out, Jackie shouted, “They’ve shot him.” Governor Connally, wounded by the second shot, said, “My God, they are going to kill us all.” Both of them already supposing a conspiracy, a “they.”
The day after the assassination, Abraham Zapruder sold his film to Life magazine. The magazine damaged the film, leading to the loss of six frames—but even Oliver Stone doesn’t take this to be a sign of a cover-up. On November 29, Life published thirty-one black-and-white frames of the film, plus another nine in color two weeks later. Americans pored over the photographs.
A less-famous film, taken by Marie Muchmore and showing the shooting from another angle, was bought by United Press International and aired in its entirety on WNEW-TV in New York on November 26, four days after the assassination.
As the limousine races to Parkland Hospital, it speeds past the Trade Mart, where a room of people awaiting a luncheon with the president now bow their heads and pray for him. At the head table, a place setting with a delicate coniferous motif sits empty.
Next exhibit: a map of the route the victims took through the ER to reach Trauma Rooms #1 and #2 in Parkland. A dotted line winds through the halls, then splits at the rooms. Red dots represent JFK (room #1), Connally (room #2, across the hall), and LBJ (waiting in Minor Medicine).
While her husband is in the hospital, Nellie Connally will deliver a statement on a telecast: “It had been a wonderful tour and when we arrived in Dallas, and were in the motorcade, the people could not have been friendlier, the crowd more wonderful or more generous in their reaction to the President. The city of Dallas does not deserve to be blamed for this ghastly crime.”
Years ago, late one night at a dinner party in New York City, I found myself seated across from a tipsy older socialite, who—it was revealed—had grown up down the street from my grandparents in Dallas. She remembered little things: what the inside of their house looked like, the fact that my grandfather—a vascular surgeon—would patch up the kids and pets of the neighborhood. She then raised her glass of wine and dropped a bombshell: “Oh, he was such a good surgeon! You know, the whole block knew he operated on Kennedy, but of course no one talked about that!” I was flabbergasted; my wife couldn’t believe I didn’t know the story. I called my mom the next morning and she assured me that—despite the woman indeed being an old neighbor—my grandfather hadn’t operated on the dying president. But the woman had one thing right: no one talked about it.
Behold the sniper’s nest: a glassed-in exhibit of the fatal sixth-floor windows. The walls are brick, the floor wood. Boxes of books block the southeast corner window. The adjacent window on the south wall is half open; boxes are stacked before it to serve as a seat. The voice in my ear explains this is a “reconstructed display” of how detectives found the sniper’s nest minutes after the shooting, and, indeed, what I see matches the evidence photo on the panel in front of me. Detectives found three cartridges below the window and Oswald’s fingerprints everywhere.
While I’m peering through the glass at the display, a woman next to me tells her kids: “None of this has been touched in, what, forty years?” I don’t correct her math or her assumption, but let the silence linger, as they confuse the recreation with the real.
We line up along the south windows and imagine the path of the motorcade. A man in a baseball jacket stabs his finger at the glass: “I don’t understand why he didn’t shoot him there—it’s a much easier shot!” “That gun was known for jamming,” a woman offers. “Perhaps it jammed.” Their son asks, “But who shot him though?” and the question goes ignored.
Below us, somewhat inconceivably, a film crew is setting up. They carry large back scrims. A red car of unknown vintage pulls up. We see an actor in a dark suit. Next to him, a flash of pink. An excited woman asks, “Are they recreating it?”
Meanwhile, white Xs dot the middle lane of Elm Street, supposedly marking where Kennedy was when the bullets hit. No doubt I’ve driven over them countless times in my life, unnoticed. A couple takes a picture on the green of Dealey Plaza, posing themselves in front of the Book Depository. Behind them looms Reunion Tower. The traffic breaks, and a woman in heels ludicrously teeters into the middle of the street to pose on an X, putting herself firmly in the crosshairs of history as an accomplice shoots a picture.
Stuck at the windows, I’ve left the audio guide playing, and now we’re on to Oswald’s apprehension and assassination in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters. Strip club owner Jack Ruby would plead not guilty by reason of “psychomotor epilepsy,” claiming he was in a sort of unconscious dream state when he shot Oswald. The jury sentenced him to death by electric chair, but he appealed, and it was cancer that killed Ruby in 1967.
Back at the studio, the Dallas police seem a very companionable lot, not threatening at all as they stand around and eat their yogurt, with nary a pair of fascist mirrored sunglasses among them.
The Secret Service reenacted the shooting in late November and early December of 1963. The FBI reenacted the assassination on May 24, 1964. I stand before a model of Dealey Plaza built by the Bureau; a quarter of an inch equals one foot and white strings trace the trajectories of the three shots. The evidence is continually sliced and diced. A glass case holds twelve cameras, film and video, that captured the event, with a blown-up still from each. I study a blurb about the 1976 to 1978 acoustical investigation that proved with ninety-five percent certainty the existence of a second gunman; I read about the 1980 to 1982 counterinvestigation that contradicted the previous investigation’s certainty. Doubts and mysteries pile up: “the back wound” that doesn’t match the autopsy report, “the pristine bullet” found on the gurney at Parkland, the curious dent in the limo and chip on the curb. Culprits abound: the Soviets, the mob, Texas businessmen, the FBI, the CIA, Fidel Castro, anti-Castro groups, and so on. In 1981, Oswald’s body was exhumed in an effort to put to rest theories that a double had been buried in his grave. In 2003, a survey found seven out of ten American still believed in a conspiracy. I compare a map of the microphone placement used for reenactments to one tracing the normal “echo patterns” in urban environments. I mouth the words “echo patterns.”
I grew up in the echo pattern. I didn’t live through the event. There are people whose first-hand experience leads them to regard this story as a simple—albeit horrible—one about fear, hate, derangement, evil, take your pick. For them, my story, built on absence, might seem pointlessly complex, obdurate, even obscene. But that’s the problem with echoes: they don’t tell you where to look. Despite the museum’s levelheaded, authoritative tone, we stitch our own stories. We linger in front of the panels we want to believe: theory, counter-theory, fact, supposition. To wander the museum is to wander through a dark day, to wander through doubt and uncertainty, to wander through the mystery of why men murder.
At the end of the exhibit, we are invited to record our thoughts in the “Book of Memories.” I leaf through the pages. There are lots of sad faces and doodles of the initials JFK. (Kennedy himself was an incessant doodler.) Someone writes, “I wish that he was still with us.” In cursive: “John F. Kennedy is the best.” Keep flipping: “I’m Jess and I think Lee Harvey Oswald worked for Jack Ruby and planned all this.” “Thank you for your service, JFK.” “RIP JFK.” A visitor from Nepal: “Greatest man ever.” A line of Chinese characters. “A wonderful walk through history to honor such a man.” “What a meaningful tribute.”
Unable to put my finger on the meaning, I get into the empty elevator. A man enters at the last minute. As we descend, he breaks the silence: “That’s a lot of history in one place.”
Exiting the museum, I step onto the plaza and push past two men hawking conspiracy newspapers. They act suspiciously, either to drum up business or dodge the authorities. But the cops are busy holding back traffic and pedestrians as the film crew gets in place. In front of me, a man in a dark suit and skinny tie crosses the street with a young raven-haired woman in a pink wool suit. There are dark stains on her lap.
We, as a crowd, stand dazed, hearing echoes, as the camera gets its shot. People start taking pictures of the woman, as if this too were something to be documented and dissected. She seems sheepish, even guilty. She puts on a coat and hides behind the man; then she disappears.
J.R. will be here soon, someone tells me. And so I wait. In the late afternoon, there is a strange moment when the light streaming through the living room windows of the ranch actually matches what it would be if we were outside. The studio is momentarily in synch with the world. Artifice equals reality. My internal clock chimes true. But time slips on—outside the sun sets—while we remain stuck in the perpetual late afternoon, waiting for J.R. to arrive.
Suddenly, I turn around and there—lost in a crowded room—is J.R., tying his own tie. He fidgets with the knot; he cannot get it right. No one helps him until a prop person appears with his hat.
J.R. is not himself. He sits between Bobby and Sue Ellen, joking like old friends. They kiss, they hug, they give each other shit. They’re shooting a promo for the show. They ad-lib, mug for each other, steal one another’s lines. While Sue Ellen fixes her hair, J.R. pretends to fall asleep. Bobby gives him an elbow and J.R. comes up sputtering. It’s a vaudeville routine, not a blood feud going back decades. J.R. is the life of the party, but, again, he is not acting like himself. He is too happy, too in love with his brother and his ex-wife. Between takes, J.R. gives me a fist bump—a fist bump!—and offers some career advice. “Write, write, write,” he tells me. He is warm and caring. Maybe I have been entirely wrong about him.
The jacket, hat, and shoes Jack Ruby wore on the day he shot Oswald are in an auto museum in Roscoe, Illinois. The toe tag from Oswald’s corpse has been sold a number of times to private collectors. Kennedy relics are harder to come by. The entire contents of Trauma Room #1 at Parkland are interred in an underground government storage facility in Lenexa, Kansas, and are not accessible to the public. Kennedy’s limousine was dismantled to its frame, then rebuilt and used by Johnson and Nixon before winding up in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Jackie’s bloodstained pink suit is stored at the National Archives, with the consideration that it never be publicly displayed, an agreement that is up for renegotiation with the family in 2103. Currently, the suit rests in a box in an undisclosed room whose air—kept between sixty-five and sixty-eight degrees and at forty percent humidity—is recycled every ten minutes. The pillbox hat is missing, presumably lost, possibly sold—though no one is sure. Three years after the assassination, the bronze satin-lined casket used to transport Kennedy’s corpse to Washington was bored with holes, filled with eighty-pound bags of sand, put into a pine box that was also bored with holes, and dropped by the Air Force into a section of the Atlantic Ocean off the Maryland-Delaware coast used as a weapons graveyard, where—because of unexploded ordinance—it cannot be recovered, an empty coffin within a coffin, buried nine thousand feet beneath the waves.
At 4:20 P.M.on November 23, 2012, fewer than four weeks after I saw him—and forty-nine years and a day after JFK’s assassination—Larry Hagman died in a different Dallas hospital with his fictitious brother, Bobby, and ex-wife, Sue Ellen, at his side. The world went into mourning: celebrities took to Twitter; the BBC called Dallas night and day for reactions; fans flooded Southfork. Hagman had finished shooting five of the scheduled fifteen episodes of the new season of the show; the producers assured fans J.R. would be given the sendoff he deserved. As for Hagman, he had not one but two private funerals, one in Santa Monica and one at Southfork, full of real and fictive family. A day after the Texas funeral, fifteen hundred fans from across the world flooded the ranch for an open memorial, where they took tours, left mementos, and signed a book of memories. In 1988, Hagman announced what he thought should go on J.R.’s tombstone when his time came: “Here lies upright citizen J.R. Ewing. This is the only deal he ever lost.” Hagman has no burial site; instead, his son is said to be scattering his ashes around the world.
Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eye…
A rich man who tends to believe in his own lies.
—Jimmie Dale Gilmore, from the song “Dallas”
The last shot of the day. Night: J.R. sits in a chair in his room, alone, scheming. A single lamp burns. A drink on table. The phone rings, a nefarious call—lines of influence are crumbling, webs tangling. J.R. speaks three lines into the phone, going from vindication to rage. There is still a wall between us, but I've got my headphones on. The camera lingers on his face as he stares into middle distance. Behind his eyes deep oceans are churning. A fire burns. The script suggests a fuse has been lit. The man next to me shudders. We all shudder. Because, suddenly, there is J.R. He’s there on TV, where we always can find him, where we should have known to look.
A block away from the Book Depository, in a plaza next to the County Records Building, stands John Neeley Bryan’s cabin—or, rather, the cabin everyone supposes is his. A plaque at the foot of the cabin gives an inaccurate account of how Dallas got its name. The cabin’s door and windows are padlocked shut. One cannot see inside.
The simple wooden door faces the John F. Kennedy Memorial in another plaza across the street. The memorial, designed by architect Philip Johnson and dedicated in 1970, is a thirty-foot high open cube of white precast concrete; perched on eight legs, it floats twenty-nine inches above the ground. The memorial is a cenotaph, or “empty tomb.” Two narrow slits face north and south; the tomb remains open to the sky. An inscription on the ground reads: “The death bullets were fired 200 yards west of this site.”
The cenotaph is meant to evoke the freedom of Kennedy’s spirit.
It is empty, save for a black slab upon which a body might rest.
But there is no body.
Nobody inside it but us.
Read part one here.
Edward McPherson is the author of Buster Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat and The Backwash Squeeze and Other Improbable Feats. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Observer, I.D., Esopus, Salon, and Talk, among others. He teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.