Wednesday, March 26, 2014

X Marks the Unknown

You have to admire them, on some level.  At least I do.  It takes enormous devotion and sometimes huge outlays of cash to be a Conspiracy Theorist.  I mean, they are seeking and finding The Truth.  I, on the other hand, spend my time redistributing the taxpayers money in service of the common good.  I attend meetings predicting the academic needs for the next generation of community college students, apply for grants to promote public/private dialog on some important topic still to be determined, or, when the time is right, request ten percent raises in faculty travel budgets.  I do important work—I really do.  But while I ply the trade of a bureaucrat, they become at various moments detectives, historians, scientists, and philosophers.  Their intellectual roots are those of Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Oppenheimer.  These are people who listen to whatever the authorities tell them and reply with a resounding, “Bull Shit! Let me tell you how things really work.”  
X Marks the Spot Where John Kennedy
          Suffered the Fatal Wound
For me, I just don’t care enough.  Nor do I care enough to search for the roots of my particular brand of intellectual apathy.  Perhaps I am cursed with an idiosyncratic strand of dull-witted DNA.  Maybe I suffer from the accumulated compound interest of so many afternoons imbibing in delicious beverages brewed from malt and hops.  It could be the cranial scar tissue developed over a decade or two from self-important verbal slashings offered by various discontented teachers who earnestly wished that I would finally learn their sage wisdom that “curiosity killed the cat, you know.”  Or maybe my unappreciative psyche never recognized the opportunities for intellectual freedom offered when I was caught alone in the corner of a dull dinner party while a brave Theorist spit the evidence of his canapé, spiced with the latest crumbs of his pet atrocity.
It’s been fifty years and four months since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on Elm Street in Dallas, Texas.  I have lived in Texas forty-nine years, and this week was the first time I have visited Dealey Plaza.  (So the Theorists can exclude me as a suspect.)  I have no reason why it has taken me so long to visit this so powerfully important piece of geography.  I mean, when one makes the list of the most important dates and places in the history of the United States, November 23, 1963, 12:30 p.m., Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, is somewhere near the top of the list.  Being ten when he was killed, I am the product of the grieved and shocked nation: I am one who inherited the deflated hopes of a nation, the distrust of all authority, the skepticism of honor, and the fear of institutional evil.  At bottom, you know, the assassination and the unsolved crime, all just proves that in the end the bad guys will win.  The Vietnam War and Watergate, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, did nothing but reinforce those feelings.
photo by John Mazziotta, Dallas Times Herald
But who done it?  The Lone Gunman.  Or two. Or four.  Oswald. James Files. Howard Hunt.  Why?  Mob retaliation.  Cuban retaliation.  Ku Klux Klan.  CIA.  The Russians.  Lyndon Johnson.  While the Sixth Floor Museum allots respect to the possibility that someone hid behind the fence above the Grassy Knoll and to the difficulty of someone like Oswald firing three shots in the required time, I, at least, departed Dealey Plaza feeling what I have always felt.  I will never know.  Maybe my government did kill its president.  Maybe some criminal or political entity did.  Maybe, as in Lincoln’s case, it was a small group of discontents.  Or as with Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, the assassins of Garfield and McKinley, Oswald was his own special breed.  And perhaps this is another reason, we travel to Dallas and to Dealey Plaza.  We hope that we will solve this mystery.  It is like visiting The Alamo or The University of Texas Tower or the compound of the Branch Davidians.  We want to stand in the real world and feel our way toward answers otherwise denied us. But will we really understand what occurred in these?  I don’t expect so.  I do not expect to be set free in a perfect understanding of people or history.  Yet somehow I wake up each morning and proceed to do my job in spite of these unanswered questions.  Odd. 
      Before the family and I leave North Texas and head west for four months, I thought I should visit Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum in The Texas Book Depository.  Knightsmama and the boys decided that the sixteen dollar price tag was a bit much, so they headed over to the Ross Perot Museum of Nature and Science.  By the way, they loved it.  My sons were so happy not to be visiting another historical site or art museum.  And I was equally taken by the Sixth Floor Museum dedicated to Kennedy and the fateful day in Dallas.  I hung out for about three hours, with a couple hundred other people, at least, reading most of the historical displays and listening to the very informative taped guided tour.  I walked about Dealey Plaza imagining the motorcade making its turn onto Elm Street, hearing the shots, standing where Zapruder stood with his camera rolling, walking up the grassy knoll where there was or there wasn’t a second shooter.  And I watched my fellow human beings perform one of those odd and moving spectacles that it never occurs to me to participate in:  when the traffic halted for the light up the hill, men and women stepped into the middle of the street and stood on the X’s painted in the middle of the street.  The First X lay where Kennedy was struck by the first bullet that pierced his throat.  The Second X, several yards down the road, marks where the President suffered his fatal head wound. Now why would calm sane citizens rush out into busy street and pose for that photo-op.  “I stood where U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot,” they will tell their family members, their co-workers, the next guests at their back yard bar-b-cue.  What they won’t say is, “where his head exploded like a melon smashed by Gallagher’s mallets....”  What is the source of this urge I asked myself as I photographed the tourists standing on the spot.  X marks the spot.  X for extermination.  X for extinguish.  X for exit wound.  Are we gawkers at the gallows?  Are we meditators on memory?
Where the First Bullet Hit
Even though this one behavior struck me as bizarre, the rest of the experience was one filled with as much reverence and deep love for this country as our visit to the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, to the 911 Memorial, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, and to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  In each of these places, people of all ages, of many colors and hues, from many nationalities, speaking many languages come together to consider the weight of the dream that is American Liberty and the cost of that liberty and the cost of the mistakes we make creating and defending that liberty.  Of all the places that the Caravan has visited in the past year, and really in all our past travels as a family, these locations are significant for a deep sonorous hum of respect and awe that pervades.  At the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial, an international joy is added, a palpable sweetness, as if humans could really accept each other and offer mutual respect and love.  At the Vietnam Memorial, Dealey Plaza, and the 911 Memorial we honor great wounds to the American spirit.  We hope and pray, together, in our individual acts of pilgrimage and homage, to keep that spirit alive.  Through the winter of grief, we wish, that the sprig of greeny tenderness return.  We remember, we say, when peace and a purposeful positive future seemed possible, even probable.  We have not given up, we announce by our mere presence.  This is our civic faith and John Kennedy and his brother Bobby are among its saints.  

Soundtrack.  Moms Mabley:  "Abraham, Martin, and John."

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