DALLAS - I peer through the window of history and see a painful memory in the reflection. Suddenly I’m staring back on November 22, 1963 – the day before my birthday. I’m sitting in our living room watching television when the words BULLETIN, BULLETIN flash on the screen. A sober-looking Walter Cronkite appears and announces that “just moments ago in Dallas, Texas, President John F. Kennedy was shot.”
My young world is suddenly turned upside down. I run to the balcony overlooking St. Vital St. in Montreal and see my mother and older sisters walking casually down the lovely tree-lined street clutching bags of groceries and presents for me.
“John F. Kennedy has just been shot,” I yell at them and their pace quickens. My older sister, a news hound like myself, breaks into a full gallop.
A few minutes later, the whole family is watching in disbelief as the events of that fateful day unfold on our old Fleetwood black and white. A chubby little boy clings to his mother, thinking this was the beginning of the end.
Forty-eight years later, I’m in Dallas looking down on Elm St. from a window of what’s now known as The Sixth Floor Museum – it was called the Texas School Book Depository back then - and see Xs painted into the pavement across from Dealey Plaza. They mark the spots where bullets fired from a gun positioned just a few metres from where I’m standing on the sixth floor, pierced John F. Kennedy’s body and ended one of the most promising political periods in American history.
Left: The Sixth Floor Museum is now preserved as a part of world history. Right: The exact spot from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot remains as it did that fateful day.
The pane of glass I’m looking through is not THE window from which gunman Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots. THAT window is now encased in glass like a prized museum piece – the boxes Oswald used the steady his gun still stacked high around the window that afforded the assassin a clear shot of Kennedy’s open limo as it passed.
Others take my place in front of the window as I move away to admire photographs and memorabilia collected and brought here from that day – it appears that they, too, are looking back on their past.
Almost 50 years after that turning point day in history, the story of what happened here in 1963 still captivates visitors to Dallas – young and old.
And despite the passing of time and the revelation of JFK’s indiscretions while in office – brought back to life through books and the recent television mini-series The Kennedys - The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza still remains one of the city’s biggest tourist draws – welcoming over 325,000 visitors annually.
The Sixth Floor Museum was established in 1989 – the building actually dates back to 1898 - to chronicle the life, death and legacy of a man who was larger than life.
The permanent exhibition – John F. Kennedy and the Memory of a Nation – features hundreds of photographs, documentary films and artifacts relating to the early 1960s; the events between Nov. 22-25 - including photographs of Oswald being shot and killed by Jack Ruby a few days after he had killed Kennedy; the world’s response to the assassination; the major investigation that followed, known as the Warren Commission; and President Kennedy’s legacy.
In all, there’s 35,000 items in the collection, the most treasured of which are the original medical records from Parkland Hospital where the president was taken and where he was later pronounced dead; and original negatives of photographs taken during those epic November days.
The Sixth Floor was modernized with new flooring before the museum opened – the only areas not disturbed or refurbished were the sniper’s perch in front of THE window and the staircase where the rifle, later identified as the one Oswald used to kill the president, was found.
Cameras used by people lining the Kennedy route that day and later used as evidence at the Warren Commission hearings, as well as the FBI model of Dealey Plaza that was constructed to retrace events of that day, are also on display at the moving museum.
You can follow Kennedy’s entire life at the Sixth Floor – from the time he was a hero in World War II; then follow his advancement through politics leading up to his defeat of Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1960; to that fatal day outside THE window.
Left: Displays in the Sixth Floor Museum show the chaos after the shooting. Right: The seventh floor of the museum is devoted to other characters of that day, including Jack Ruby, the man who killed Oswald.
Audio-guided tours make the Sixth Floor Museum experience even more memorable – haunting voices from the past keep you mesmerized throughout. Afterwards, members of the museum staff are available to answer any questions you might have.
One of the most asked questions is: "Does the museum show the Abraham Zapruder film, the only one that details Kennedy clearly being shot?’ The answer from a staff member: ‘Non-violent portions of that historic film are included in one of the museum’s video presentations but the entire Zapruder film can be viewed on the Collections page of the museum’s website – www.jfk.org ."
Some of the most moving photographs in the collection are the ones showing Kennedy actually being shot; the picture of Oswald clutching his stomach after being shot point-blank by Rudy in Dallas Police Headquarters; the disturbing photo of vice-president Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as U.S. President aboard Air Force One with a blood-soaked Jackie Kennedy standing next to him; and the moving image of Kennedy’s young son, John Jr. – he was killed in a plane crash accident a few years ago - saluting his father’s casket at the national funeral a few days later.
Special exhibits, events and public programs are held on the seventh floor of the museum, which is open daily - except Thanksgiving and Christmas – from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday and noon to 6 p.m. on Mondays.
Oddly, to me at least, the city decided to erect the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza in tribute to the late president a short walk away from the museum on Main St., instead of in Dealey Plaza across the street from where events played out in 1963.
Of course, debate still rages over whether Oswald acted alone that day. The conspiracy theorists who gather outside the museum each day are still trying to convince passersby that others helped Oswald carry out the unthinkable act – and they try to persuade unsuspecting tourists to part with their money to hear why they think that.
Across the street from the museum stands the Dallas Police Headquarters where Oswald was held right after the shooting – the barred window of the cell he was held is clearly visible from the street. It was in the basement of this building where Oswald met his end at the hands of Ruby.
The Museum also offers a cell phone tour of neighbouring Dealey Plaza, which, of course, played such an important role that day.
Visitors come from over 100 countries annually to see the museum and many of them weren’t even born when Kennedy was killed – guests between the ages of 6 to 18 account for almost 55,000 of the facilities yearly attendance.
And, more than 30 heads of state and foreign dignitaries visit the museum yearly.
Lee Harvey Oswald may have taken John F. Kennedy from us that November day in 1963, but the Sixth Floor Museum keeps his memory alive.
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is located at 411 Elm on the northwest corner of Elm and Houston Streets.
Admission to the museum costs $13.50 U.S. for adults and $12.50 for seniors – children 5 and under is admitted free.
The museum employs 50 staff.