The centerpiece of the JFK Museum in Dallas is the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed (by many) to have fired the shots that ended President John F. Kennedy’s life. You walk through a maze of enlarged photos and memorabilia from that era, guided by an audio program that is narrating and explaining JFK’s life, his election, his brief presidency and ultimate tragic assassination. Interspersed throughout the exhibit are actual television clips, including grainy tapes of JFK’s speeches, public appearances and broadcast news reports. For people my age, who lived through those traumatic days, it’s a remarkable trip back in time.
But equally startling to me when I visited the museum the other day, was my sense of having become one of “them” – the old folks, who young folks just can’t comprehend.
Maria and I were walking through the exhibit along with a crowd of high school kids on a day-trip with their teacher. They were an eclectic mix: Hispanic, Asian-American, black, punk, straight – whatever. They wore jeans, wool caps, spiky haircuts, and the occasional tattoo. They jostled one another and joked around, generally showing only mild interest except to peer closely at the freeze frames of home movies that appear to show a chunk of the President’s skull exploding from his head.
Many of the others brushed past, more curious to see the spot from which the shots were fired. The corner of the building with the stacked boxes and open window was walled off with Plexiglas, a permanent sterile recreation of what the museum materials insidiously label the “sniper’s nest.” There’s a certain morbid fascination in seeing the open window overlooking the street below, now conveniently bearing large white X marks where the first and final bullets struck.
But I was more transfixed, and ultimately moved, by the black and white television clips, all of which I had seen either live or shortly after the actual events:
Walter Cronkite announcing the time of death and having to stop, remove his glasses, and collect himself as his voice cracked with emotion.
JFK making a stern speech about the threat of nuclear missiles in Cuba, and pronouncing it “cuber.”
Lee Harvey Oswald looking bruised and confused, denying to a crowd of hostile reporters that he had anything to do with it.
A startlingly clear image of Jack Ruby lunging in to gut shoot Oswald in a crowd of cops and reporters; the gunshots crackling like fireworks as Oswald grimaces and crumples to the floor.
We had stopped at a small seating area, where they ran a short compilation of footage from the funeral, and suddenly, the raw emotion of that day came flooding back to me. My composure dissolved when I saw the image of John-John, maybe three years old, standing by the side of the road in a wool coat and cap like a stout little man, saluting as his father’s flag-draped casket rolls by. Huddled on a bench in a half-dark museum, watching newsreel footage of a funeral from fifty years ago, I had tears rolling down my face.
A couple of the teenagers from the school group wandered in for a moment and, finding nothing engaging in the images, quickly moved along.
I remember as a teenager seeing a World War II veteran in his late 50s standing at a memorial day parade in my hometown. He wore a cloth cap with medals pinned to it and a paper rose in his lapel. Standing stiffly erect, he raised and held a crisp salute as a military band marched past carrying a lowered flag in honor of those who had died in World War II. I was embarrassed to see his eyes brimming with tears.
Today’s 17 year olds must consider the assassination of JFK as interesting, but ancient history – how I at age 17 would have viewed Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, and the end of World War I. Now, to these kids I’m the old-timer with the incomprehensible emotional attachment to an abstract historical event. And maybe decades from now, long after I’m gone, they’ll recall September 11 in the presence of a later generation, and find themselves perceived as being as ancient as I seem to them now.
To everything there is a season.