From the August 1995 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Ginny does Dallas


I recently found myself with a day to kill in Dallas. (Hmm: "A Day to Kill in Dallas." Sounds like a neat title for a documentary.) Most business travelers comparing notes on experiences they'd just as soon have skipped agree that Dallas is a hot, sterile, unimaginative city. However, anybody who wasn't raised in a cave with wolves knows at least one touristy thing to do in Dallas, so I oriented myself with the city map and headed out to Dealy Plaza; having been there hundreds of times courtesy of David S. Lifton, Oliver Stone, Abraham Zapruder, and others, I wanted to see it for myself.

Before we go any further, let me state absolutely that, child of the '60s notwithstanding, I am not and never have been sentimental about Camelot. At least not that Camelot. However, being fed a preposterous official "explanation" of wildly incongruous events, patted on the head, and told to run along and play really irks me. So there I was, in the 95-degree heat, wandering the streets of Dallas searching for chips in the curbstones near the Triple Underpass. Truth is a cruel mistress, O Best Beloved.

The Texas Schoolbook Depository has been turned into a slick little shrine — privately owned, we are told, but fitted out in the best official museum style with the help of advisors from the Smithsonian Institution, no less. The Sixth Floor Museum is replete with recorded narrative, rat-maze partitioning, theater presentations, an appallingly boring curator's shop, and a security system that would foil Iraqi terrorists.

One enters the building from the rear. Why, I'm not sure, although I suspect it has something to do with reluctance to deface the historic facade with the de rigueur wheelchair ramp. I was charged an outrageous sum merely to get into the building, and was advised that a self-guided audio tour was available for an extra fee. I declined, because 35 percent of my gross income is already used to propagandize me and mine in assorted grim ways, and I didn't want to add to the outrage. Looking back, I regret not having rented the junior audio tour, just to find out what ghastly sugar-coated interpretive slop was being shunted into the brains of the glassy-eyed toddlers wandering through the facility while hooked up to earphones. Life is a series of missed opportunities, alas.

Immediately upon receiving my ticket, I was passed through a metal detector jacked to a higher setting than the airports used during the Gulf War. The dread substance that made me a menace to society was finally discovered to be the earpiece of my glasses, which the guards graciously allowed me to continue wearing, probably because I walked into a post as soon as I took them off for inspection. The whole arrangement has an air of locking the barn after the horse has been stolen (or in this case, put down), but I guess there is some historical precedent for supposing that people might bring firearms into the building.

Around the corner from the metal detector was the gift shop, designed for the purist among us. The postcards were all in sepia tones, or black and white, and everything was Very Tasteful — reverent, even, what with all the cloying photos of Caroline and John-John, video compilations of the network TV coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, books about the Warren Commission, and coffee mugs. God, how I love tourism. Because I wanted to round out the family collection of core research materials, I approached the salesclerk, to whom That Friday in 1963 was as far-off an event as Black Tuesday in 1929 was to me. I asked him whether the shop carried the book Conspiracy of One. He told me primly that there was no conspiracy material in the store. My patient explanation that the title, Conspiracy of One, logically implied a non-conspiracy point of view seemed not to fall on fertile ground, and after he finally suggested that I inquire at the Conspiracy Museum for that kind of thing, I gave up and took the (former freight) elevator to the hallowed Sixth Floor.

Most of the displays are given over to sentimental drivel about the glamorous young president and panels lauding the triumphs of his truncated reign, which actually is a pretty neat trick considering how few of them there were. (Bear in mind we are talking about the statesman who, in his crowning moment of diplomacy, stood before an adoring crowd, the wind ruffling his forelock, and declared firmly in ill-advised German that he was a jelly doughnut.) As filler, there are lots of panels setting up the era as a hotbed of redneck rage sparked by the pious crusade of Martin L. King [*] and, more generally, as a period of unrest that would be the destruction of all saintly men. I expected to hear the strains of "Abraham, Martin, and John" waft in over the sound system, and I was desperately grateful to be spared the same.

The Oswald Window is now protected from public contamination by a plexiglass wall, and carefully replicated textbook cartons, stenciled with the titles of 1960s schoolbooks, are artfully arranged as they were when the Lone Gunman purportedly propped his rifle on them. Since one of my goals was to see how far from the moving target a rifleman would be in the sixth-floor sniper's nest and whether the view was unobstructed, I was mildly disappointed. The next window over, however, was just a few feet to my right, and I was amazed to see how closely I overlooked the motorcade's path and how long a stretch of roadway presented itself. Given how slowly the limousine was crawling along, it might have been possible to aim and fire two shots with a (good) bolt-action rifle, even for a marksman with Oswald's military ratings. Also (and I was even further impressed by this when I went outside to explore the plaza) there were enough brick buildings and other solid surfaces that gunshots might well have echoed in a manner misleading even to combat-trained earwitnesses. Hmm.

The staircase route to the second-floor lunchroom is now blocked off, as is, for that matter, the lunchroom itself, so I was unable to go haring down four flights in the boiling heat to determine how near to collapse someone establishing an alibi at the soda machine would or would not have been. It's probably just as well; I'd have felt like an idiot breaking my ankle in the pursuit of historical truth. There is, however, another plexiglass-shielded stack of boxes marking the spot where the rifle was concealed until the sharp-eyed minions of justice found it.

Near the exit, there is a bound album in which visitors can record their impressions of their visits. It was full of sloppy verse and adulatory if ungrammatical prose. It was also guarded by a very prominent security camera, which I assume was monitored by eagle-eyed guards ready to swoop down and carry off anybody daring to record heretical opinions.

The nonofficial vendors who had set up shop outside the museum had a much better handle on market trends. They were selling full-color maps with big red arrows indicating critical points on the motorcade route, marvelous tabloid-like booklets full of sensational descriptions and graphic photos, and heavily iced lemonade. I love the free market.

I spent an hour walking up and down the Grassy Knoll, peering over the Stockade Fence, hunting those chipped spots on the curbstones, pacing off distances, and otherwise immersing myself in my surroundings. I then checked my official walking map to locate the Conspiracy Museum that the salesclerk had mentioned. I checked the index twice. It wasn't there. But after all, what else would you expect Them to do? I gave up and had lunch in a delightful little pub that listed 19 single-malt scotches on its menu. I chalked my morning up as a satisfactory (6 on a scale of 1 to 10) journey into anti-history, despite the valiant efforts of the establishment to turn it into a religious experience.

Several hours later, quite by accident, I found a sign pointing to the Conspiracy Museum, a cheerful and sunlit building about two blocks from Dealy Plaza. I walked into a huge reception area filled with bookshelves. They carried all of the standard non-Warren titles, including stuff that was out of print, and some used, scarce paperbacks neatly packaged in plastic and priced for collectors. They also offered sweatshirts, T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, and video tapes. The fellow behind the counter, who was about my age and one of the co-owners of the establishment, apologized for the $7.50 admission fee, because the air conditioner had developed an intermittent noise so loud as to interfere with the continuous-run video presentations. He then knocked 30 percent off the fee, told me where the water fountain was, and explained that the film was just getting to the good parts. I could stay as long as I wanted, and I should hold on to my admission ticket, because it was good for readmission for 24 hours from my initial entry. I was also welcome to join the walking tour that started in 40 minutes, or if I wanted, I could wait for the next one, since they ran them several times each day. Would I be interested in being on the mailing list? Would I like their Internet address? I really love the free market.

The video explored inconsistencies between the recollections of the Parkland Hospital ER staff and the official autopsy reports, and included sequences Not For The Squeamish. There were a dozen other true unbelievers in the theater with me, including two women and a couple of kids younger than 12. They were all glued to the screen, nudging each other at particularly shocking revelations of official cover-up and whispering comments that revealed a detailed familiarity with the decoy ambulance, the Magic Bullet, and the missing brain. My kind of folks. Somebody fiddled with the volume controls on the monitor, so the clunks of the air-handling system barely fazed us.

When the film was over, most of the audience trooped off for the walking tour. Having done my own, I stayed at the museum, which was not a one-theme establishment. Obviously, most of the action centered on the events in Dallas in 1963, but the current exhibit in the main museum area was devoted to April 1865, with lavish attention paid to the capture, trial, and execution of the group that met in Mary Surratt's boarding house, Dr. Mudd's incarceration, and whether or not John Wilkes Booth's mummified body was on exhibit in Kansas as late as the turn of the century (the mummy in question was last heard of in the Washington, D.C., area in the mid 1970s). After regaling the museum proprietor with a story of my recent dinner chez Surratt (the boarding house is now an obscure Chinese restaurant, virtually unidentifiable as a historical site), I left the Conspiracy Museum in search of a decent margarita. It had been an altogether satisfactory afternoon, and I might even make a repeat trip. Next time, if I throw in a day trip to Waco, I could even make it into a long weekend.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion but suspects the key to the conspiracy really rests in New Orleans and is currently studying menus.

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