Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Heavy Six Hours In Dallas

At some point in the last ten years I decided that when visiting locations that are new to me that I will do all I can to become familiar with my new surroundings. Often times that involves walking a few miles in my temporary terrain, but it can also mean driving to places I want to visit. I am by nature a fairly reluctant person when it comes to new experiences, so my resolve is often tested when it comes to this commitment (I can always find work to do in the hotel room or I rationalize that the traffic will be really bad or that I will get lost in a strange city), but I am almost unfailing these days in making it happen. And when the experience is over, I have few regrets.

So, this morning after I awakened in a Holiday Inn Express in a suburb of Dallas, I took care of “housekeeping” items (email and doing some laundry) and then my day to include a drive to the west end area of downtown Dallas. Having never been there before I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I wanted to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy some forty-four years ago. With the help of Mapquest my trip to the location was uneventful, and parking was easy to procure. (If you’re planning to visit this site, you should know that it is really very easy to find and parking is a snap).

The Museum is in the former Texas School Book Depository, and the entire tour takes place on the sixth floor, the location from which it is alleged that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fateful bullets that would take our thirty-fourth president’s life. Each visitor is equipped (you may choose, but it is no additional cost and does add the the tour) with a personal listening device that provides guidance from panel to panel. The recorded information includes interview segments from those who were present that day, including recordings of original news casts from that day. These extras add a lot to the narration.

It is a sobering experience. There is little talking from other visitors (and today there were three or four buses of middle school aged students), and while it’s sober it’s not a morbid experience. The corner window from which the rifle was fired is blocked by plexiglass dividers with boxes set up to resemble the original site. The facts of the shooting are relayed in factual terms, not in a violence-glorifying or “here was where our President was martyred” sort of way.

There are alcoves in which video of the original news broadcasts can be viewed, ranging from the reports of the assassination “attempt” to the report of the President’s death, the funeral procession and burial of the president, and other vignettes. The tour concludes with positive reflections on the work -- finished and unfinished -- of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. His legacy is remembered in a reverent, though not maudlin, fashion.

After the museum experience I took a walk in the downtown West End area. It is a lovely sun-drenched Dallas day with highs in the 70s, and I happened upon the Sea Dogs Restaurant. Because it was high noon on a Saturday the area was not filled with people (as I suspect it might be during the lunch hour during the business week or on weekend evenings), so I had my pick of seating location. I chose to sit outside on the patio, where I could enjoy the warmth of the day and watch the occasional walkers pass by. Had I known before arriving that the restaurant is known primarily for seafood (now that I read the website I see that), I probably would have made a different choice, but I opted for the chicken fried chicken. If you can’t get good chicken-fried whatever in Texas, where can you?

I had a lackluster salad to begin with and minutes later my lunch arrived. The chicken-fried chicken was excellent, some of the best I have ever eaten. It’s thin crust was perfectly friend, not greasy and not tough, just enough to provide the crispness that makes a perfect contrast to the juicy, perfectly cooked chicken breast within. Atop the golden crispy chicken were sauteed mushrooms (and not from a can, either). They were a delicious, though unlikely, companion to the chicken fried chicken. Accompanying the chicken were mashed potatoes (so lackluster I won’t say another word about them) and “fried corn.” I saw fried corn on the menu and simply assumed it would be grilled, but what arrived was delicious, albeit a little on the salty side. Think “fried rice” without the rice and without the Asian flavors. It was a buttery, grilled combination of scrambled eggs (like fried rice), tiny chunks of texas toast and, of course, corn. The only thing that would have made my lunch more enjoyable was the presence of my family, whom I am missing after being away for six days already.

After lunch I continued to walk around the West End area, visiting the John F. Kennedy Memorial site on my way. The Memorial site is a block or so away from the assassination site, and is a stark white reminder of the era from which Kennedy comes. A cenotaph (I learned that means an “open tomb”) structure, the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza seeks to remember the joy and idealism of Kennedy’s presidency. It is another solemn reminder of Kennedy’s connection with Dallas, and its startling simplicity is captivating. It is a square thirty feet high and fifty by fifty feet with no top. There are seventy-two concrete columns, held aloft by eight that actually touch the ground. In the center is a simple, square granite base that has etched in gold on two of its sides: JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. It is a hauntingly personal experience to stand within the walls, so empty yet echoing with the downtown sounds one can almost hear the cracks of the rifle that took the president’s life four decades ago. Yet it is hopeful, rising as it does to the skies, hearkening back to distant time while pushing forward to the future. Aesthetically it seems to capture the spirit of our youngest president, flush with an idealism cut short by the harsh reality of unanticipated premature demise.

I stopped by the Old Red Courthouse a block away to check into their Information site. If you visit Dallas, this location will provide you excellent information on all kinds of happenings in the area ... from accommodation options to restaurants, historical sites, theater schedules and maps. There is an internet alcove with three computers available for use by the public and what appears to be a helpful guide. (She was busy helping someone else while I was there, and while I am quite self-sufficient, I could tell that she was doing an excellent job for the individual inquiring about options for his kids, in particular). I didn’t have time to take in the Old Red Courthouse itself (which appears to house history relevant to Dallas), but I was able to locate the Dallas Holocaust Musem, only a couple of blocks away.

As I walked to the Holocaust Museum I mentally took time to evaluate my emotions. Having spent the better part of two hours reliving the JFK assassination trauma, I wondered how I would do hearing about the horrors of Holocaust Germany, but I decided it was something I needed to do for moral reasons, if not for emotional ones.

The Holocaust Museum is a difficult journey, but decidedly meaningful and important. The visitor is equipped with a personal listening device (not unlike the ones at the Sixth Floor Museum), but more helpful here because each site is marked with a number. When you are ready to hear the narration for that part of the tour you simply punch in the appropriate numbers. There are approximately 3 hours of narration, and the visitor can choose which he or she chooses to hear. I listened to approximately 75% of the complete narration, shortening some by my choice, and simply not choosing those with which I had some familiarity. The concept is compelling. A particular day has been chosen (I forget the exact date at this moment) during the height of World War II on which three important events occurred. One is the Conference in Bermuda at which there was little substantive action taken to assist the European Jews, another was the Warsaw Uprising, and a third that date in Dallas-Ft. Worth. It is a fascinating approach to hear how on the same date in history three groups of people were engaged in varying degrees to support or lack of support of European Jews.

The narration and accompanying exhibits are riveting. There is a railroad car from Belgium during the era in which Jews were transported to concentration camps, from which a haunting lullaby is sung (the lullaby was actually written by an important singer of Jewish origins who sang in the boxcar to her own children as they were transported to their deaths). There are original artifacts which bring the evil of the Holocaust into a much more personal realm. I will never forget the jumbled display of children’s shoes, removed before their deaths and stockpiled by the Nazis. Nor will I forget the box of human hair, the box of gold teeth and the fragments of burnt human bone displayed as a reminder of this regime of human terror. There is a memorial room in which the names of hundreds of those who died during the Holocaust are remembered and a theater in which the firsthand accounts of survivors are projected. By the time I left the museum two hours after my entrance, I was ready to see the sunshine outside, grateful for the gifts of democracy and humbled by the realization that as a white male I have been privileged in more ways than I can ever fully articulate.

I cannot help but think that in our world today there are similar campaigns of horror currently raging in Sudan and in the Mideast. I wonder why we who have the freedom, the means and the voice to rise up in holy outrage do nothing, but I fear I know the answer. For many of us, especially those of us born into a privileged racial or economic class, those who are being slaughtered today look too little like us for us to bother. After all, if our children are happy and healthy (or relatively so), and if our parents are in good enough health, why do we need to worry? May God forgive us. And persuade us to act with more courage and speed than the leaders of our grandparents’ era some sixty years ago.

It was a heavy six hours in Dallas. But I don’t regret a single minute of it.

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