Every time I drive to Dallas or points northward, I glance over at Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My eyes unconsciously drift towards the building formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository, specifically the sixth floor window. And I think of what might have been.
My path has often crossed the streets and avenues that the late President John F. Kennedy traveled on. I was a kid of 13 when my family moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C. We visited Arlington, Virginia, in 1964 and I was astonished at the scene of Kennedy’s grave. The mound of earth, covered with greenery, was as raw as the collective wound that still pained the nation.
Caps, faded and weather-beaten, of service members who attended his funeral, surrounded a small flame. I remember the caps; it just didn’t seem fitting for a president’s grave. But First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy made the right decision. She selected architect John Carl Warnecke to design a marble memorial for her husband and children. Today the caps are gone but the eternal flame is still a feature.
In the 1970s, I visited JFK’s grave again to find his brother Robert buried nearby. And in the 1990s, I found the inscription for Jackie. Though the long lines of people paying respects have shortened, the Kennedy portion of Arlington National Cemetery is still one of the area’s most visited sites.
Every visit to Washington, D.C., or Boston conjures memories of JFK for me. As does many parts of Dallas.
Parkland Hospital has a display commemorating the dark days of November, 1963. The leadership of the country was passed to LBJ when Kennedy was pronounced dead. Governor John Connally was treated there as well. The autopsy of Officer J.D. Tippit, who was allegedly shot by Lee H. Oswald, was performed here. Two days later, Oswald himself was rolled into the emergency room.
I visited Dallas during the 40th anniversary of the assassination in 2003. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is visible from IH-35 but it merits a closer look. Conspiracy theorists hawk their books and pamphlets up and down Elm Street. Although their make-shift tables and megaphones appear a bit tacky, there is nothing disrespectful about the museum itself.
The Sixth Floor Museum chronicles the life and death of the late president. Although it explores the facets of alternate shooters, the focus of its 40,000 items is on facts and history. November would be a powerful time to visit the site, to learn more, to leave a flower, to release an emotion.
But the memory of the first time my path crossed with that of JFK is the strongest.
Fifty years ago, a plane flew low over my seventh-grade classroom at Cole Junior/Senior High School at Fort Sam Houston. The principal came on the public address system. “That was the president,” he exclaimed. The kids in my class felt elated that we had been so close to the most famous person on Earth.
Twenty-four hours later on Nov. 22, 1963 the principal came on the PA system again. And a shock set in, comparable to that of 9/11.
Kennedy gave his last speech at Brooks AirForce Base on Nov. 21, 1963, the day before he was assassinated. He spoke of a story from Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer.
As a boy, O’Connor and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over then wall – and then had no choice but to follow them.
“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space,” Kennedy said to the audience in San Antonio, “and we have no choice but to follow it.” Though he meant his metaphor to apply for aerospace exploration, the image serves to inspire other ideas.
As my path continues, I am reminded of Kennedy when I pass by memorials, high schools, and other buildings that bear his name. I am reminded of his youth and his vision of the future. I have hopes that such optimism will never die.
Rudy Purificato, an Air Force historian who was the last base historian at Brooks Air Force Base when it closed in 2002, will discuss President Kennedy’s visit to Brooks Air Force Base on Nov. 21, 1963 – mere hours before he was assassinated in Dallas the next day. The talk titled, “Countdown to Eternity: JFK’s Last Brooks AFB Visit on Space Exploration,” will take place at the Central Library Auditorium Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 10-11:30 a.m.
Also in honor of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, on Nov. 21, Brooks City-Base (formerly Brooks Air Force Base) will host remarks from Mayor Julián Castro, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Brooks City-Base Chairman Manuel Peláez-Prada.
Don Mathis served as president of the Texoma Poetry Society in 2011 (a Sherman member of the Poetry Society of Texas). And in 2010, ‘Dionysus Don’ was crowned champion of the McKinney Poetry Slam. Don is very involved in the poetry community in Bexar County. He is a founding member of the San Antonio Poetry Fair and participates regularly with Sun Poets and La Taza writers’ group. His poetry has been published in anthologies, periodicals and has appeared on local TV and national radio. He currently works for St. Philip’s College.