INDU BALACHANDRAN goes back into the past after a visit to downtown Dallas and the spot where President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.
John Jr.'s heart-stopping salute as his father's coffin goes by.
"Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?"
IT was Mahatma Gandhi for my mother's generation. And Rajiv Gandhi, for my daughter's... A chilling moment of disbelief we'll remember forever: where we stood, who we were with, when we first heard the shocking news of death.
I was a 10-year-old in Bangalore, sleeping late on a Saturday morning when my mother shook me awake. Kennedy is dead. I felt I had lost my favourite uncle.
Nearly 40 years later, on a holiday in the United States, I feel the goose bumps creep up on me, as I tell myself: I am actually standing here. Downtown Dallas, The corner of Elm Street, Dealy Plaza There's an eerie familiarity about these signposts, seen over and over again in newspapers and magazines so many years ago.
Looking up across the street, I can see the Texas School Book Depository: a seven-storey building whose image I knew as well as my own school building.
Here, on November 22, 1963, at 12.30 in the afternoon of a perfect sunny day, Lee Harvey Oswald crouched on his perch at the Sixth floor window, and fired the shots that killed President Kennedy.
A simple "X" painted in white marks the spot on the road where America's most beloved hero died. That's it, an X. What did I expect, a statue? I stand on the very spot, thinking uneasily with my basic Indian instinct I wonder if it's okay to stand here with my shoes on. My niece waiting across the road clicks a picture I will proudly show my mother but I have to sprint back quickly, as a car is coming down the road.
My sense of anti-climax is short-lived: the Americans have indeed magnificently commemorated The Spot. Not at the very place itself, but just across the road appropriately titled The Sixth Floor Museum. But before entering that, I stare at the famous "grassy knoll" the quiet green lawns back-dropping the assassination, and stop to see a small curb side exhibition of photographs and newspaper, for the tourist in a hurry. And in a flood of familiarity, pictures I've cut out in childhood from The Illustrated Weekly, old memories of Indian News Reels, even scenes from the Hollywood movie "JFK" all mingle in a rush, re-capping history for me...
John F. Kennedy was riding in an open motorcade on a goodwill-hunting visit to Texas. Because of pleasant weather, he had insisted that he and his wife enjoy the sunshine, without the usual protective hubble. The car crawled at 11 miles per hour, as excited onlookers cheered the smiling President and his glamorous wife. Soon the motorcade passed into the shadow of the Texas Depository building.
Suddenly the terrifying sound of gunshots ripped through the air. Kennedy was hit in the neck and back. Governor Connally, sitting alongside, also slumped, critically wounded. Shock turned to screams as Jackie Kennedy, stricken with terror, desperately jumped to the back of the limousine. Secret agent Hill pushed her back into her seat, and covered the wounded President as they raced to Parkland Memorial Hospital, four miles away.
Seven vehicles behind, NBC newsman Robert Mac Neil had been idly wondering what he would do if the President were to be suddenly shot at. A typical reporter's daydream, nothing else... The pandemonium further down the road broke his reverie. Leaping from his press bus, and sprinting towards Elm Street, Mac Neil frantically asked a young man coming out of the Depository building where he might find the nearest phone. The man directed him and moved on. As Mc Neil spluttered into the phone, the first news of the President's shooting, little did he know that the man who gave him directions was none other than the assassin himself Lee Harvey Oswald.
Jackie Kennedy with her children ... courage under fire.
Even as the Kennedy limousine sped with its bleeding President, security men roughly figured the direction of the gunshot: The tall building at the corner. Howard Brennan, an eyewitness standing directly opposite the book depository, provided police with the description of a slender man, around 30, emerging from the building shortly after the shooting. Police patrols flashed the description. Within the hour, another crime was reported in Dallas: a man, after an argument with a police officer, had shot him dead, and run into a theatre for refuge. He was caught, and taken into custody. By late evening, the two crimes were linked to the same assassin: and Oswald was formally charged with the murder of a President.
As stunned Americans sat unmoving from their TV sets, CBS beamed pictures of the shaken Jackie, her pink coat still splattered with her husband's blood, accompanying the coffin to Washington.
But another incredible drama was about to unfold. On Sunday, November 24, NBC was covering alive, the transfer of Oswald to the Dallas county jail for questioning. Oswald emerged, surrounded by detectives. And as millions of Americans watched horrified on their TV sets, a man in a hat suddenly jumped from the crowds, and shot Oswald point blank dead. Oswald's murder became America's first sensational see-it-as-it-happens news event.
The man who killed Oswald was 52-year-old nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who attributed his eye-for-an-eye murder to the depression and rage he felt after the President's assassination.
In the days following, the world would speak of little else the grief-stricken, beautiful Jackie, the brave little Caroline, and the heart-stopping impromptu salute of a tiny two-year-old John as his dad's coffin went by.
Famous, familiar pictures I would shortly see again, right here in this historical building...
Riding up in the lift for my date with history, I hear something surprising: right above the infamous Sixth Floor, is the spacious Seventh a very popular venue for hosting private parties, right through the year! I'm curious about this but our first stop is here. The Sixth. It's like retracing the footsteps of a killer, as our tour guide motions us forward. In one corner of the solemn, church-like space looms a glassed-off re-creation of the assassin's perch. Paint peels from the old gray walls. Cardboard boxes are piled here and there. One of these, right near the southeast window, is where Oswald rested his rifle to take aim.
With the American genius for detail and description, preservation and showmanship, we experience it all... Original news wire service teletype copy framed on the wall: "Bulletin (Dallas) An unknown sniper fired three shots... " The Zapruder movie camera is on display, along with 12 others confiscated that day. So are many of the photographs taken that day in Dealy Plaza. And a video showing of the famed TV newsman Walter Cronkite, who became an inseparable part of recording of history. His voice breaking with emotion, uncharacteristic for the stoic Cronkite, he announced to the world, interrupting the popular soap" As The World Turns": "From Dallas Texas, a flash, apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1.00 p.m. a half hour ago."
A whole wall is devoted to as many as 16 of the numerous, and still surfacing conspiracy theories. And then we tentatively move forward to the arched glassed windows, to peer down at the street below, to see what Oswald saw that day, as he waited for the world's most powerful man to ride by...
We're now at the 7th floor. Themed parties-here? It doesn't seem right, but we hear that just the other day, it was Tex-Mex Student Night. Earlier, the pharmaceutical giant Merck had held a breakfast meet here overlooking the famous grassy knoll, as a novel venue idea. For another corporate's annual do, a $100 ticket price for hors d'oeuvres, beer and wine, and a souvenir portrait of JFK.
"Isn't it like holding a celebration in a funeral home?" wonders one of the tourists in my group. But dancing is banned, informs the red-shirted security, who try to keep a strict separation between the festive Seventh and the solemn Sixth.
Opened in 1989 to Dallas citizens and to tourists like me around the world the museum, we hear, has an uneasy relationship with the Kennedy family.
As late as in July 2002, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK's sister, made what is believed to be the first-ever visit by an immediate family member. I wonder if her tour included a peek inside the Web cam, right near the historic Sixth floor window. It offers a real-time view to the white, painted "X" on Elm Street below...
To us, it's history. To them, it's murder in the family.
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