When a Texan Thinks of Thanksgiving
By: Paul Carpenter, Guest Contributor
When a Texan thinks of Thanksgiving, the Dallas Cowboys cannot be far from their mind. The annual game is as necessary to the day as turkey, dressing, and distant relatives being far too close to home. Cowboys’ fans have a good deal to be happy about on this day, too; the team has won five of its last six Thanksgiving Day games.
This Thanksgiving, the city of Dallas will also commemorate a tragic moment in its history. This year marks the 49th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in downtown Dallas, an event that marred the city’s name for decades and left a nation in mourning. Dallas became linked that day with the assassination of President Kennedy in much the same way that Waco would come to be synonymous with Branch Davidians; it was a source of civic shame. Locations like Dealey Plaza, Love Field, and the Texas School Book Depository, once only known regionally, became internationally recognizable for their ties with the assassination.
The Texas School Book Depository has since been transformed into The Sixth Floor Museum, named for the floor where Lee Harvey Oswald’s sniper nest and rifle were found. Established in 1989, the museum now stands as a monument to the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy chronicling both the events of November 22, 1963 as well as the impact our 35th President made on the world.
The museum is striking in many ways, the most outstanding of which is that it is located where the act it is documenting took place. There is a profound eeriness to observing exactly what the president’s assassin saw that day.
And with more than 320,000 guests annually, the museum’s popularity is a testament to the fascination surrounding the assassination of a President. Visitors range from buses of school children to tourists to conspiracy theorists journeying to their Mecca.
While the mention of conspiracy theorists is supposed to be taken as a tongue-in-cheek remark, it has to be mentioned. This is yet another unique aspect to the Sixth Floor Museum; it is not particularly concerned if you believe the official account or not. The museum’s vision statement begins by expressing their desire to be an impartial forum. There are entire sections of the permanent exhibit focused on these conspiracy theories. And why shouldn’t there be? The museum’s literature claims that almost 80% of Americans believe the president’s death was the product of a conspiracy.
The truth is, it is nearly impossible to not be swept up in the intrigue of it all while visiting Dealey plaza. The parking lot sits next to the infamous grassy knoll, where families take photos to document their trip and loony old men close one eye in order to calculate trajectory or somehow justify their suspicions. Inside, headsets are given to visitors before they take an elevator to the sixth floor.
The exhibit, with the aide of the audio companion does a remarkable job of providing an important historical context for the events surrounding the assassination. Guests are guided through a history of the president’s family, his administration and its policies and his trip to Texas in late 1963 before ultimately taking a turn, both literally and figuratively, toward the corner window.
The corner window has a decidedly ghostly quality surrounding its panes. This corner of the building has been recreated to appear exactly as it would have on that day: textbook boxes arranged haphazardly to obscure a sniper’s perch. From the row of identical windows that line the shared wall, visitors can easily see what Oswald would have seen on that day. There is a heaviness in the air that, though 49 years removed from the event, remains palpable.
The exhibit continues with a look at the events that immediately followed the shooting. The chaos of the day made discernable through well-constructed displays and complimentary audio commentary. As in real life, once the smoke cleared, the investigation began. Visitors are shown ballistic, acoustical, photographic and forensic evidence collected by law enforcement, as well as a very compelling 10-by-10-foot model of Dealey Plaza prepared by the FBI, complete with a presidential motorcade.
What truly makes the Sixth Floor Museum a treasure is that it raises as many questions as it answers. While visitors come away with a much greater understanding of what happened that day, they are left with an unsolvable puzzle. Why was he assassinated? Who did it? What were the assassin’s motives? Where would our space program be if not for this? Fortunately for every would-be sleuth to have pondered these queries, in July of 2010, the museum opened the Reading Room to the public. The Reading Room is a collection of all things related to the president, 1960’s culture, and the assassination. The Reading Room provides a venue to seek answers to the questions uncovered on the sixth floor.
After participating in history at the Sixth Floor museum, don’t be surprised if you find yourself walking toward the infamous grassy knoll with one eye closed in order to calculate trajectories.