Friday 15 December 2017

Plaza where it is forever 1963

John F Kennedy in 1962.
John F Kennedy in 1962.
A scene from Oliver Stone's 1991 movie ‘JFK’
A still image from amateur footage released in 2007 showing US president John F Kennedy and his wife, the late Jacqueline Kennedy, moments before the president was shot at Dealey Plaza. The film was donated to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. Insert: John F Kennedy in 1962

Tim Walker, Dallas

Many of those who converged on Dealey Plaza that hot, bright day in November came hoping for a story to tell their children.

Not James Tague. Then 27, Tague had driven into downtown Dallas to take a cute redhead on a date. And yet, 50 years later, he is still telling the story, over and over again.

Standing on what is now known as the Grassy Knoll, he points to a spot west of the plaza where he found himself stuck in traffic just before 12.30pm on November 22, 1963.

"I got out of my car, walked four or five steps, looked up at the intersection and noticed a crowd and a limousine coming through. I remembered reading that President Kennedy was going to be in town, so I thought, 'OK, I'll watch him go by'.

"No sooner did I have that thought than I heard what I thought was somebody throwing a firecracker. Then came the 'crack, crack' of two more rifle shots and I felt something hit me in the face, stinging."

Tague had been nicked on the cheek by what investigators later surmised was a bullet fragment or a sliver of concrete shrapnel, making him the third man wounded during the shooting, along with the Texas Governor John Connally and US President John F Kennedy.

"Across the street on the Grassy Knoll a policeman had stopped and was talking to another man," Tague says. "I crossed just in time to hear the man sobbing, 'His head exploded'. The policeman said, 'Whose head'? And he replied, 'The president's'."

Dealey Plaza is more a traffic intersection than a public square, significantly smaller than it seems in the footage of the Kennedy assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder. Tourists jog on to the asphalt, oblivious to the threat of oncoming cars, for photographs at the white X that marks the spot where the fatal bullet struck America's 35th president.

At the time, the outside world considered Dallas a cauldron of right-wing extremism, the only city in Texas to vote against the Democrat at the 1960 presidential election. A month before the president's doomed visit, UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson was struck on the head by a placard-wielding Dallas housewife. Kennedy had warned Jackie: "We're heading into nut country."

But the couple's welcome was joyous. Around 200,000 people lined the sidewalks to see them. As the motorcade progressed down Main Street, Connally's wife turned to Kennedy and said, "Mr President, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you."

Pierce Allman was a 29-year-old reporter for a local radio station sent to cover Kennedy's arrival at Dallas's Love Field Airport. He had been so impressed by the president that, after wrapping up his report, he strolled the few blocks from his workplace to Dealey Plaza to watch the motorcade.

He was standing on the intersection opposite the book depository as the president's car appeared. "Jackie was radiant," he says. "Kennedy looked great, too. I called out something like, 'Welcome to Dallas, Mr President'. And then, boom."

Allman heard Jackie scream as the president's car raced away.

He ran across the street to where a couple were lying flat on the pavement with their children. Bill Newman and his wife, Gayle, were the closest civilian eyewitnesses and would later give evidence to the Warren Commission.

As Allman remembers it, Newman turned to him and said, "They got the president". He says: "My first thought was, 'I've got to get to a phone'." As he dashed to the lobby of the book depository, "the door was half-open, and there was a guy standing there. I asked him to show me to the nearest phone and he jerked his thumb and said, 'In there'."

Allman's was the only on-the-scene report of the shooting. He stayed on the line to the radio station for the next hour, relaying the news when a rifle was found stashed among boxes upstairs. Three weeks after the assassination, the young reporter was interviewed by the US Secret Service.

As Allman brushed past Lee Harvey Oswald into the book depository building, Kennedy was being rushed to Parkland hospital. Nowadays it is a medical metropolis, but in 1963, Parkland was a single building.

Nurse Phyllis Hunt had recently transferred from the emergency room to the outpatients' clinic to avoid night shifts, but during her lunch break on November 22, she popped across to see an old colleague. Kennedy was declared dead at 1pm, 22 minutes after arriving at Parkland. "Sometimes it seems as if it was no time at all," Hunt says. "And sometimes it feels like it was forever."

The Sixth Floor Exhibit opened in 1989 and the city assumed it would be temporary. Two years later, Oliver Stone's movie 'JFK' was released and visitor numbers soared. For several years, Dallas retained a stigma – that was finally dispelled by the success of the city's Dallas Cowboys team, which won its first Super Bowl in 1972, and by the TV soap, Dallas, which debuted in 1978.

The trauma unit where Kennedy was declared dead is long gone, replaced by a radiology waiting room. But Dealey Plaza remains and what took place there is still fresh in the minds of those who witnessed it first-hand. "When I come down to Dealey Plaza," says Allman, "it's forever 1963." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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