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Komplaint Dept. - Oswald and Dallas… Let Them See What They Have Done

The legend of Lee Harvey Oswald still looms large in Dallas.

by Bob Nickas
Jun 12 2014, 2:13pm

In the lobby of the Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas. All photos by Jason Metcalf, unless otherwise noted

The founding father of Dallas, John Neely Bryan, had been at various times in his life an Indian trader, gold prospector, lawyer, postmaster, and colonel in the 18th Texas Cavalry, briefly and not particularly distinguished. He operated the ferry across the Trinity River, persuaded many to settle in the town, and once served as a delegate to the state's Democratic convention. He shot a man who insulted his wife, and though the man survived, Bryan abandoned his family for a half dozen years, leaving five children behind.

Nearly marking the centennial of these events, entirely by coincidence, an elementary school was built on Deer Path Drive and named in his honor. Some time has passed since deer have been seen in the area, but the school remains, as does Bryan's legacy, such as it is. His varied exploits, troubles, and tribulations may be seen to reflect the city and its history, which, as rampant development continues, is in danger of being erased. 

Elevated practically to the status of a fine art, erasure in our time inhabits many forms, yet spans the same echo-trajectory: the presence of absence, equally haunting and mundane. Take, for example, a small unobtrusive plaque set into the trampled ground alongside Elm Street in Dallas, just in front of the Bryan Colonnade. Its inscription: 

Dealey Plaza has been designated a National Historic Landmark. This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America. 1993. National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior

Nowhere does the plaque state exactly why the site is particularly significant. Maybe it’s unnecessary? Or perhaps it's simply inconvenient, in the way that guilt often manifests itself, weighing on so many for so long that it's simply easier to elliptically remember what's better forgotten. What might “possess” mean today? To contain, or its opposite, to let slip through one's fingers? And what does “commemorate” mean? To honor the memory, or to enable amnesia?

A large white X is marked in the street directly before the plaque. From time to time a tourist will step onto or alongside the X, while a friend, wife, or husband stands directly opposite on the curb with a camera to take a photo. More than something to show the folks back home, it allows anyone to occupy this charged site, and die another day. The person on the X almost always voices impatient concern: "Hurry up. Take the picture. What are you waiting for?" This is because cars coming straight down the slope on this section of Elm approach quickly on a green light. Were they maneuvering the hairpin turn at the corner and driving much more slowly, there would be time to get off a second or third shot, and the tourists wouldn't have to scramble back onto the matted lawn. 

Out of harm's way, they sometimes proceed toward the blocky brick building that houses the Sixth Floor Museum, which could more accurately be described as an illustrated book that you can walk through. As with most institutions, the only admission is the price of entry, and here it's $16. As my photographer and I purchase a pair of tickets, the woman at the register calls us "Sugar" no less than four times in about half a minute—our most welcoming moment in Dallas. Though for many of us this is an insignificant space of time, a lot can happen in 30 seconds.

Wayne Gonzales, untitled, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 100 x 76 inches (254 x 193 cm). Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

We are informed that photography is not allowed on the sixth floor or in the gift shop, but that pictures can be taken on the seventh. For whatever reasons, they are wary of cameras around here—even in the gift shop. Now that almost anyone with a cell phone can take photos, everyone is a potential witness with the instant evidence to prove or disprove, which also makes every one of us a potential liability. Of course, given the flattened photo-book feel of the exhibition at the Sixth Floor Museum, wouldn't taking pictures be entirely redundant? Even if photography can't escape its own "compulsion to repeat," a photograph of a photograph remains in no way remarkable. More likely the activity of taking pictures in this museum is thought to be disrespectful, as if this were some sort of hallowed place, a reverential site. In that respect, one must wonder why it has been turned into a sideshow to begin with, a diversion and its edifice, a means to perpetuate one of the longer running fictions in a world of faithful disbelief. Maybe every museum, whether devoted to natural or unnatural history, is in some sense “the scene of the crime.”

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Here, in the only display that comes vividly alive, there is a photo of the moment when Jack Ruby shot Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police station. Although his contorted body and face is undeniably the focus of this iconic image, it is a double portrait, for Oswald is inextricably linked to the detective to whom he was handcuffed that day, Jim Leavelle. Wearing a tan-colored suit from Neiman Marcus and a Stetson, Leavelle stands in stark contrast from the crowd, his eyes locked on Ruby as he instinctively yanks Oswald away from the shooter and prevents his demise—in that moment at least. Perfectly lined up with the photo in the display case, we see the actual suit and hat and the handcuffs, rigid yet floating in space. It's as if, in that instant, shot at point-blank range, Oswald simply vaporized. Already gone, a problem summarily dispensed with, and for all to see. 

Over in a corner, behind a floor-to-ceiling glass case, is a cluster of Texas School Book Depository boxes, some stacked around a window, serving as the backdrop for a rifle on display, a Mannlicher-Carcano—a stand-in for a stand-in. Although it's a bright, sunny spring afternoon, the lighting in the museum is dimmed, funerary. So much for setting the stage all over again. 

One flight up, you can position yourself at the window that looks down onto Elm Street in front of the Colonnade, and onto the X in the road, though it's invisible to the naked eye. One's comprehension of what happened here is not so much revealed by the museum's exhibitions, but in the place itself, its exterior, the landscape, how it's all laid out geographically—the building, the trees on the hill, the fence, and the railroad tracks that run conveniently behind. What happened here, it's clear to see, happened out there. Dealey Plaza is not in the shadow of the former Book Depository building, which is now the Sixth Floor Museum. It is, in fact, quite the other way around. The building is in the shadow of the plaza. To see it from above and then to walk around outside, to see it from the perimeter and from all angles is to grasp exactly what occurred, neither as related in the official story nor its gently calibrated revision, but what took place that day. You have no doubts at all, and even though you may not be able to put it into words, your own certainty is articulated in being there. And being there, sensing so strongly in what the actual topography will tell you, the evidence and the indictment is simply incontrovertible. No wonder that plaque is so deceptively banal, a banality that is in no way evil but merely a matter of business as usual.

You can't help wondering why the building wasn't torn down, why the roadway and the pattern of traffic wasn't altered, why the Colonnade still stands. To obliterate a place is to remove every physical vestige, every psychic trace, brick by brick. If only they—whoever they are—had thought of it 25 years ago. People would have been against it, of course, but accidents happen, and surely in Texas a gas explosion isn't all that difficult to arrange. Nothing in comparison to the removal of the most well-protected person in the country, his supposed assassin, the assassin's assassin, all the collateral damage. But you can't obliterate a place as easily as its inhabitants, especially when the place itself inhabits our very consciousness.

Wayne Gonzales, untitled, 2000. Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 inches (61 x 76 cm). Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery

That day in Dallas it was easy to be reminded of a sign that once prominently hung on the back of Carlos Marcello’s office door in New Orleans. Marcello headed the city's crime family in the early 1960s, and his sign read: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” How do we know this? Because Marcello was a cousin, by marriage, of one of my best friends, someone who grew up on Pauline Street, the same street where Oswald was born. This was someone whose parents were close to Lou Ivon, an assistant DA and right-hand man to Jim Garrison, the District Attorney of Orleans Parish. Garrison's office investigated the connections between Oswald and the mob, and the mob and various intelligence agencies, concluding that the man so many believed had killed the president, a man reviled, himself believed he had infiltrated a plot and was in Dallas to prevent it from being carried out.

While he came to be seen as a convenient patsy, even by Jackie, Garrison considered Oswald a hero, particularly in the sense that a hero is sacrificed to a greater cause. Though in this instance it was in every way sinister, and the "hero" would go on to be demonized. The fact that my friend, the child who grew up around the larger-than-life figures of Marcello and Garrison, and in the wake of a national tragedy, would become an artist who, for many years, was obsessed with and made numerous paintings related to this story, is in no way surprising. This is what the genre of history painting is for, to show us images that the camera cannot capture, a genre revived in Andy Warhol's post-'63 portraits of Jackie. 

And the source of that quote, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead," turns out, unexpectedly enough, to be none other than Benjamin Franklin. And with a hundred? Secrets kept to a power of ten, to the grave and beyond, whether or not they knew they were part of the bargain. And to all those questions which continue to be raised like so many bodies exhumed over and again, we may only conclude, "Ask not what your country can do for you…"

That afternoon in Dallas, we saw signs in shop windows urging customers to leave their guns in their cars, reminding them of the penalty for entering the premises with unlicensed weapons. The west remains as wild as ever, ready to defend itself against anyone who might threaten its freedom, or who might insult its wives, offering a very believable stage for just this sort of play. We thought of this as we flipped disinterestedly through a $3 box at Good Records, as we cruised slowly past the Last Baptist Church on Federal Street, as we furtively snapped pictures of a Sphinx in front of an enormous Crystal Palace.

Within seconds, as if on cue, a security guard emerged, informing us that permission is required to take photos. He was nice enough, though, letting us simply apologize and be on our way. This turned out to be the Infomart, which, according to its website, is "a premiere data center, telecom and high-tech office facility" whose tenants include AT&T, IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Texas Instruments. With its oversized pretension to echo the past, specifically that of civilized, scientific England in the 1850s—a far cry from the Lone Star State of that time—the Infomart is emblematic of the aspirations and fantasies that drive so much of modern life, or at least support its facade. A Sphinx with no particularly enigmatic quality, merely decorating another repository for the useless hoardings of the information age.

This pavilion monstrosity sits in weird parallel to its immediate neighbor across the freeway, Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, an establishment that doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is—a place of escape that embodies an inalienable fact of the present: Entertainment erases history. And nowhere in Dallas, not even in the vicinity of the Crystal Palace and Medieval Times, is there any trace of Camelot. Yet everything here stands in the shadow, if only of fantasy, or of itself: The Infomart across from a theme-parked restaurant, a faux French chateau on a hill next to the sleek glass wall of the Plains Capital Bank. Money and its double. And from the windows of a faithfully replicated Oval Office at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, one's view is not of Washington, DC, but of the West Elm Mall.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Lee Harvey's one afternoon, a friendly, unpretentious rock 'n' roll bar on Gould Street, an area that is likely destined for the next wave of gentry. Despite the name, as we were indifferently informed by the woman behind the bar, who has surely been asked a thousand times before, the building has no connection to the city's most infamous son. The name serves as a reminder that among a younger generation of Texans—perhaps especially for those who saw the Oswald hit on live TV—only an irreverent relation to what happened is possible, the disconnect which allows for any sort of proximity to horror. Thus you have the Butthole Surfers in the 80s with their psychedelic nightmare, "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave," the questionable taste of poster artist Frank Kozik and his brilliant image, which seamlessly shifts Oswald's assassination to the kinetic punk rock stage. But in it you also have the possibility for a song as elegiac as Homer Henderson's "Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine," as well as Erykah Badu's controversial and misunderstood video for "Window Seat," which this telescoped distance allows, yet which lingering guilt and dread would deny. Maybe it should have been filmed from that perch in the Sixth Floor Museum? Or from alongside the Bryan Colonnade? Or from both angles, for a much more cinematic and documentary effect.

On our way to dinner at Mesa on West Jefferson, a Mexican restaurant that specializes in cooking from Veracruz, we noticed that the Texas Theater was just a block away, where Oswald, or someone who bore a striking resemblance, was arrested that November 22. Three doors down, coincidentally enough, is Anytime Bail Bonds, of which he couldn't have availed himself, and wouldn't end up needing in any case. We made plans to drive over to Fort Worth the next morning, to Rose Hill Memorial Park, where Oswald is buried—and where, quite possibly, two bodies were interred, though not simultaneously. 

The sky that day was impossibly blue, crisp, and clear, streaked with long white lines, as if gridded by surveillance from above. The former Carswell Air Force Base is not so far away, but really, at this point, why would anyone care? At Rose Hill, a modest stone is set in the ground, about the size of the plaque at Dealey Plaza, though it bears only the last name, and no dates as these markers almost always do, inscribed with the birth and death of the person, referring to loved ones or children left behind. It's fitting, somehow, since Oswald came into and left this life as a ghost who haunts us still.

Landing late that night in New York, drowsy, I was suddenly startled as the plane touched down, thinking that we'd traveled through a half century of time and space and had, all the while, been flying back to JFK.

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