Dealey Plaza is a place too small to contain history so largeby Eric Ringham, Minnesota Public Radio
Lee Harvey Oswald could have hit President Kennedy with a rock.
This is assuming that the Warren Commission had it right when it decided Oswald was the gunman, the only gunman, involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Plenty of people question the who, and offer theories about the why, but there is broad agreement about the what, when and where. The assassination took place at half past noon, 47 years ago today, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas.
When he heard the news, the kid in the desk next to mine in the third grade that day jumped out of his seat and swore vengeance. If I could get the guy who did this, he vowed, I'd make him pay. I don't recall that he described any precise weapon or method. But it's a safe bet he meant nothing so mundane as firing a pistol into somebody's midriff in the Dallas police station, as Jack Ruby did on television.
Probably thinking to protect me from the awful image, my mom assured me that Ruby's gun was shooting only blanks, and that Oswald died because at such close range even blanks are dangerous.
For me, the whole story came to revolve around questions of distance -- how close somebody like Jack Ruby (or my classmate) could get to a scoundrel like Oswald, despite police protection; how far Dallas was from my hometown of North Wales, Pa.; how far a sniper with a telescopic sight could be from a beloved president and still cut him down.
That last one filled me with dread. Oswald must have been some kind of super-villain to succeed in killing the president, I thought. The attack must have been from an incredible distance, impossible to predict or prevent -- or else, obviously, the Secret Service would have prevented it. I imagined Dealey Plaza to be the size of a football field or bigger, on a scale fit for a turning point in history.
That gridiron image stayed with me until a couple of months ago, when I had an opportunity to visit Dallas. The sniper's nest in the Texas School Book Depository building is now recreated as an exhibit in what has become the Sixth Floor Museum. Though you can't approach the exact window, you can go to one nearby and peer down at nearly the same angle.
As I said, Oswald could have hit Kennedy with a rock. The space isn't like a football field. More like a baseball diamond.
I'd experienced the sensation twice before: At the Dakota apartments entryway in New York and at Ford's Theatre in Washington. They are small, stingy places that fail to do justice to the murders of John Lennon or Abraham Lincoln. How could events so big happen in places so small?
Dealey Plaza is like that -- too small, too ordinary. It seems shocking somehow that traffic still travels along Elm Street. It's just a road like any other, except for a white X that supposedly marks the spot where Kennedy suffered the final, fatal wound. Cars drive over it every day.
The famous grassy knoll is still there, but it doesn't live up to the mysterious sound of its name; it's just an ordinary bit of sloping ground next to an ordinary underpass.
The staff of the Sixth Floor Museum is bracing for a surge of interest in 2013, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination. The museum is well worth a visit, but I think the most moving exhibit is an unintended one. It's the modest scale of the place, and the implicit message that extraordinary evil can occur in the most ordinary surroundings. And that disaster may be closer than we think.
Eric Ringham is commentary editor for MPR News.