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Scene of the Crime

Dallas' Sixth Floor Museum offers knowledge and reflection, but no answers.

by PAUL GERALD

f nothing else, it's worth it just to look out the window. It's one of the most famous views in American history, even if you're just looking up at it from Elm Street, just beside the grassy knoll.

But to stand on the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository and look down through the window, over a tree, to the spot where the convertible was, is something else entirely.

PHOTO BY PAUL GERALD
X marks the spot before the Texas School Book Depository.
Actually, you're one window over, since The Window is closed off in a re-creation of how it looked on November 22, 1963. But it's close enough to give you a weird feeling, a feeling which is the essence of the Sixth Floor Museum, a 10-year-old tribute to the life, times, death, and legacy of John F. Kennedy. Everybody faces questions when they stand in the window: What was it like that day? Who did it? Who else? Why? What did it mean?

And there are no answers, in the window or the museum. A Dallas friend told me, "I bet not one of these conspiracy people has ever stood in that window. I could make that shot, and Oswald was a trained shooter." And the street does seem pretty close for a rifle with a scope. But you could also stand in the window and think, "Let's see, three shots with an old, bolt-action rifle at a moving target all the way down there, and two hits in the three shots ... "

The best tribute to the Sixth Floor Museum is that whatever notions about the assassination you have going in are perfectly intact when you come out. It is decidedly undidactic. It is simply about the man and the event. And even though little of the exhibit will be new to you, it's all in one place together, and being at the scene of the crime gives it a special sense of urgency.

The permanent exhibit begins with a tribute to Kennedy, his life and presidency, but it also avoids any glowing post-mortem idolatry. Kennedy, especially in Dallas, was intensely disliked by many Americans. One of the items on exhibit is a full-page ad that ran in the Dallas Morning News the day Kennedy arrived and blasting him for his Cuba policy, among other complaints.

The artifacts from that day in Dallas are what make the Sixth Floor different: the radio and TV reports, a sheet from the AP teletype showing the initial bulletin, the actual camera Abraham Zapruder used. His film shows up repeatedly, but the fatal, head-exploding shot is never shown; the museum stresses that its displayed material is suitable for all ages.

The various conspiracy theories are given equal time, right alongside the government investigations that discredited them. One thing that really jumps out is a quote from Lyndon Johnson stating that he never thought Oswald acted alone. Again, the museum is impartial: If you think Oswald acted alone, you've got the U.S. government to back you up; if you think the Warren Commission is crap and the government is full of it, your mind won't be changed here.

Another thing that jumps out is the conclusion that, for all his importance in reopening the debate and bringing it to today's generation, Oliver Stone is considerably, if not completely, full of shit. At the end of his movie, JFK, he makes a big point of reminding us that a House of Representatives commission in the '70s concluded there was a high probability of conspiracy.

Stone left out what the Sixth Floor includes: first, that two subsequent government investigations completely discredited the House report; and second, that the House committee's conclusion -- that a shot from the grassy knoll missed the president -- is based in large part on a recording taken from a policeman's microphone that happened to be transmitting at the time. The museum plays that recording, and if there are gunshots on it, then there are monkeys on the moon.

But there are questions in life that have no answers, and seemingly 10,000 of them revolve around the death of John F. Kennedy. Any way you look at it, it was a horrible thing, and I was thinking of that when I went down to the grassy knoll. I stood on the concrete wall where Zapruder stood. I checked out the view from behind the picket fence. I stood in the Texas heat and tried to imagine what it must have been like. I listened to the spiel of one of those conspiracy people, selling his evidence right there on the grassy knoll.

Having stood there and in the window, having read about the man and the event and what it did to the country, having been assaulted by both sides of a great argument, all I felt on the grassy knoll that day was sadness.

The Sixth Floor Museum is at 411 Elm Street in Dallas. Phone: (888) 485-4854. Web: www.jfk.org.


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