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JFK World

Julia Barton

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The Texas Theatre where Oswald was apprehended
(Julia Barton)
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Forty-five years ago this weekend, President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie landed at Love Field Airport, got into the presidential limousine, and emerged onto the streets of Dallas. We all know what happened minutes later. It's been nearly half a century, but the world's interest in the JFK assassination has hardly waned. Every year sees volumes of books on the topic, movies and TV specials. Americans may be known for their short historical memories, but this date seems unlikely to fade from popular memory any time soon. But as Weekend America's Julia Barton reports, there is one place where its resonance is oddly muffled: Dallas.

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Gary Mack and a coworker are taking me through one of the white-painted, fairly useless structures on Dealey Plaza, the city park best known as the place where President Kennedy was shot.

"They need to hose this place down again," says Mack, eyeing some urine in a corner. "We keep an eye on it and so do some city people. Sometimes it gets a little run down and we have to make a phone call. 'Come on guys, let's get going.'"

Mack is curator of the Sixth Floor Museum nearby. It's dedicated to the assassination and its aftermath and occupies the top two floors of the old Texas Schoolbook Depository Building. From where we're standing above Dealey Plaza, we can see all the places significant to the assassination: Elm Street, the Grassy Knoll, the window of the "sniper's nest" on, yes, the sixth floor of the Schoolbook Depository.

"If you get a chance to go to Dallas, Texas, you must come here," Mack says. "If you've ever heard about the Kennedy assassination, you absolutely have to come here."

I used to come here with my friends in high school when we were bored and driving around downtown. We came here as a joke. In a city with few pedestrians, it was funny to see people walking around, standing, staring. It was funny that they were so caught up in the past, stuck in some world that we believed no longer existed: JFK World.

That was 20 years ago, and JFK World has only grown since then. Larry Hancock lives there pretty much full time.

"We're not really promoting anything. We're just being critical," he says. "That won't help us from being called conspiracy nuts, of course."

Two years ago, Hancock published the 600-page book "Someone Would Have Talked." He helps to organize the yearly JFK Lancer November in Dallas conference, happening this weekend. It's still going strong, he says, not so much for sentimental reasons as technological ones: 15 years ago Congress ordered the government to centralize all records about the assassination. And now, with the Internet, anyone can be an investigator.

"In 2008 we can do things that they were unable to do, and see connections and associations that they had no ability to do back in 1964," he says.

With the web, JFK World has become international. But here in Dallas, it's hard to feel that.

"It's been awkward bringing it up probably more in Texas than anywhere else. It was painful - we've taken oral histories starting in the last decade or so from a number of people that had just literally refused to talk about it."

Hancock and other residents of JFK World want to know everything about Dallas in 1963. All the principle witnesses have been interviewed many times, but others who were just around, in the corners of that time, are just starting to tell their stories. Dallas is a place where shame and silence have played a real role, but that's finally starting to change. Almost.

Just travel across the Trinity River from downtown to Oak Cliff, the part of town where Lee Harvey Oswald lived. He came here in the middle of the day after the assassination. He was seen with a gun, seen to shoot a police officer who approached him. And then he ran into the Texas Theatre.

Jason Roberts takes me in the lobby of the Texas Theatre now. When Oswald ducked in here 45 years ago, the theater was decked out like a Venetian palace with vaulted windows and red and gold walls. After 1963, the theater's owners covered those walls completely in bright white stucco. Robert and the nonprofit he chairs have been trying to get it restored and reopened for two decades. You'd think the theater's claim to fame would help.

"We've talked to several folks in town, and people that remember the time period and have access to some funds that could help. And they were typically the ones that would tell us just don't - don't talk about Lee Harvey. If you want to do something with it, that's fine, but don't bring in the Oswald portion. And it's hard to kind of educate people and let them know that that's a significant event in history," Roberts tells me.

We're leaning against the same row of theater seats where Oswald was apprehended. The theater is huge, but it's hot and airless. When Roberts can finally tear out the stucco here and bring this place alive, it will breathe more oxygen into this city. And breathe out a little more shame.

And Dallas may finally join JFK World - which is to say, the rest of the world.

  • Music Bridge:
    Reperto
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Luminarium (Hapna Sweden)

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