By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
Taking a side trip to announce my first novel, “Tail of the Lizard,” has been published and available at Amazon.com.
While the year of the coronavirus has forced many of us to put travel ambitions on hold, bringing this story from vision to completion has been a journey in itself. I have always regarded literature as an alternate form of travel, both as a reader and a writer.
“Tail of the Lizard” is a product of imagination related to a fascination with the assassination of JFK since getting word of it in my fifth grade class.
The idea took root after watching a documentary in which a number of eye witnesses related observations that don’t fit with the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and was the only gunman targeting the president that day in Dallas.
Others were involved, and I was struck by the thought of: What if you were in Dealey Plaza on Nov. 22, 1963 and subsequently came in contact with some of the conspirators under different circumstances?
That is the premise for a fictional tale that takes place 30 years later, in 1993, mainly in South Florida and the Bahamas.
It involves a hunt for sunken treasure, an audacious prison break (based on one actually attempted in Miami), a plot to kidnap Fidel Castro, various quirky characters, murder, mystery, romance and ultimately a suspenseful reckoning.
Touring JFK sites in Dallas
In the course of events in the novel, the protagonist makes a trip back to his hometown of Dallas. To get a feel for the setting, I made a trip to Dallas and visited sites related to the assassination, including the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza, the Sixth Floor Museum, Texas Theatre where Oswald was arrested, Oswald’s boarding house, Parkland Hospital and the now defunct Conspiracy Museum.
It has been some years since my visit. But approaching the 60th anniversary (2023), interest in the assassination of JFK remains central to Dallas tourism.
The Sixth Floor Museum draws 350,000 visitors a year, second only to the Alamo in San Antonio as the most-visited site in Texas.
This was my experience in Dallas:
Scene of the crime
They stoop and read the plaque next to the street, the one with the understated inscription denoting simply that this site is a national historic landmark. They turn and stare up at the same sixth-floor window in the red brick building that looms at the corner. Then they turn and peer at the drab fence in the shadow of the trees atop the little hill.
You know what they are thinking because you have been grappling with the same mental puzzle, interlacing familiar images of history with the realities of the landscape. Did the fatal shot come from the window up there or somewhere on the so-called Grassy Knoll? You ponder one, then the other, half expecting to glimpse a ghostly gun barrel or puff of smoke.
After more than half a century, the mystery surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains as compelling as it was tragic.
Pardon the choice of words, but the air is leaden with intrigue in Dealey Plaza, apparitions of bogus Secret Service agents lurking behind every tree. I have come on a research mission for a novel in which the main character, who witnessed the assassination as a child, becomes entangled 30 years later with participants in the conspiracy to murder JFK.
No, I don’t subscribe to the conclusion of the Warren Commission, that the assassination was the singular handiwork of Lee Harvey Oswald. Opinion polls have shown that about three-fourths of the American public shares that skepticism. Even the government-backed House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978 came to the wishy-washy conclusion that JFK was “probably” the victim of a conspiracy, but let it drop there.
All that seems clear is that the demise of the nation’s 35th president has become convoluted beyond hope of a conclusive determination. The irony is that the countless conspiracy theorists have become accomplices in the conspiracy. What surprised me was how many people are still interested.
JFK mystery remains compelling
I arrive in Dallas half expecting to be viewed as a lone nut poking about in the footprints of history. But even on a drizzly Saturday morning in February, fascination with JFK is very much alive in Dealey Plaza. Someone has placed a red carnation on the plaque marking the spot of the fatal shot and scattered the remainder of the bouquet on the granite slab of the cenotaph memorializing Kennedy a few blocks away.
The intriguing aspect of a visit to the plaza is that it has changed very little since Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was gunned down in front of a lunch-hour crowd — the original Nightmare on Elm Street. Stroll down Elm from the corner at Houston, bending left, then right toward the triple underpass, and it is easy to visualize the scene frozen in time and imagine the echoes of the gunshots while attempting to pinpoint their origin.
All of the buildings surrounding the plaza were in place at the time of the assassination. The Texas School Book Depository, from which Oswald allegedly fired all the shots directed at the motorcade, is now known as the Dallas County Administration Building.
Notably, the word “allegedly” is included on the plaque on the face of the building. An anonymous scribe has etched an underline into the metal below it.
It is that seed of uncertainty and doubt, I believe, that draws so many people to this place. There is, in part, the lingering sense of a national tragedy and the urge to pay homage to a popular fallen leader. There is also the irresistible allure of the whodunit.
Assassination theories abound
Everyone who visits Dealey Plaza turns into Inspector Columbo. You tramp around the scene of the crime of the 20th Century, hands on hips, squinting, scratching your head, scrutinizing the terrain, assessing the distances, calculating the angles, pondering the possibilities. And there is always one more question. So many questions with conflicting answers in this case.
The main path of controversy leads to the infamous Grassy Knoll, the proverbial mountain of a molehill along the north side of Elm with its distinctive concrete pergola and adjacent stockade fence. One can stand on the pedestal where Abraham Zapruder shot the most scrutinized 22-second snippet of film ever made, the most revealing record of the assassination, using an 8mm Bell & Howell home-movie camera.
One can climb the steps that many witnesses, including police officers, dashed up immediately after the shots were fired in search of a would-be gunman. The steps lead behind the picket fence at the edge of a parking lot next to a railroad yard.
It was this area behind the fence that a supervisor in the railroad switching tower reported seeing two men at the time of the assassination. Footprints and cigarette butts were discovered there afterward, as well as muddy footprints on the bumper of a car backed up near the fence. The parking lot has since been paved, but the switching tower remains near where on this particular morning an early-’60s vintage white Chevy Corvair is parked with a “For Sale” sign in the window.
The rickety fence looks as if it could date to 1963, though the existing slats — some a drab gray, others unpainted — are several generations removed from then. The fence is littered front and back with graffiti, much of it vulgar or mindless, some of it heartfelt:
rest in peace
only God knows the truth.”
“We miss you Jack.”
Peering over the fence at the approximate spot on Elm Street where the fatal head shot struck Kennedy sends chills through me. Was this the vantage point of the person who killed JFK? While I’m standing there a man exploring the site with his son poses the same question.
“I don’t know. The government said the shots all came from up there,” I say, pointing through the tree canopy toward the former school book depository. “Some of the people who were down by the street thought the shot that hit him in the head came from here.” I shrug and walk away, leaving him staring into the murky recesses of history.
Cashing in on history
Where other cities have panhandlers, Dallas has hucksters selling assassination literature. “Get the whole story, only $5.”
A hotdog vendor is stationed in front of the former TSBD near the corner of Houston and Elm, where the president’s limousine made its final turn into the line of fire. It’s business as usual. The National Park Service estimates that more than two million people a year visit the site.
Incredible to think that there was once sentiment in Dallas to raze the historic building, as if that would purge the city of its sense of shame. Instead it was preserved as an historic landmark and since 1989 has housed the slick Sixth Floor Museum as a tribute to the memory of the slain president. The museum is the logical starting point for a Dallas sojourn.
Security in the museum is tighter than it was in Dallas the day of Kennedy’s visit. Everyone entering must pass through an airport-style metal detector. Exhibits, along with short documentary films, convey the atmosphere of the early ’60s and the spirit of the Kennedy presidency.
Seeing the old film clips, after all the latter-day revelations, helps restore appreciation for the charisma of the man, and provides an understanding of why people are still touched by his memory. The “sniper’s nest,” the Oswald window, is partitioned off inside a glass booth with book boxes arranged similar to the day of the assassination.
The museum is comprehensive and powerful, and carefully constructed to lead to the official conclusion. While various dissenting theories are acknowledged, their presentation serves mainly as a means of dismissing them.
Notably, the museum’s version of the Zapruder film cuts off just before Kennedy is struck by the fatal bullet. Questions of taste were obviously a consideration, but not showing it inhibits the student of history from forming opinions about what happened.
Conspiracy Museum was a treasure
At the time of my visit, one could get the flipside of history’s spin cycle a few blocks away from the Sixth Floor Museum at The Conspiracy Museum. Unfortunately, it was forced to close when the lease was up and the landlord got a better offer for the space from a fast-food chain.
His financial gain was the loss for those who prefer to question and consider history from all possible angles.
“We just want to show there is more to the story than you get at the other place,” museum manager John M. Nagel told me. “We don’t give you answers to all the questions, but you will get questions to their answers.”
The museum offered a mind-boggling array of theories about all of the presidential assassinations, as well as those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In one display, a diagram depicted bullets raining down on JFK like confetti. The operative word here is fusillade. Others that come to mind are fantasy and paranoia.
It didn’t stop with the Kennedy assassination. Downstairs was the Great Coalbin Exhibit, a massive wall mural that spanned a whole room with a half-century of conspiracy theories, utilizing oriental symbolism to convey the artist’s message that behind virtually every significant event since 1940 are sinister hands within the government.
To me, the benefit of a visit to The Conspiracy Museum was the opportunity to view a film of all the most vivid footage that exists of the Kennedy assassination. Did the fatal shot come from above and behind or from somewhere on the Grassy Knoll?
This was a chance to see it as Zapruder’s camera captured it, again and again in slow motion, letting the viewer be the judge. Now you can get the same on YouTube, but The Conspiracy Museum is another lost roadside attraction to be lamented among sanitized tourism.
Plenty of JFK tours to choose
There are various JFK reality tours available in Dallas. Most notable is the somewhat macabre JFK Presidential Limo Tour in which one can ride the motorcade route in a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible from Love Field to Dealey Plaza with a brisk final dash to Parkland Memorial Hospital, accompanied by realistic sound effects including the chilling echo of gunfire.
I prefer the old-fashioned archaeological method of poking through the past and uncovering gems where they lie. I head southeast across the Trinity River to the Oak Cliff area.
This is where Oswald lived in November, 1963, and where he fled after the assassination. In one of the few undisputed events of the day, he ducked into the Texas Theatre on West Jefferson Boulevard without paying and was arrested.
Don’t miss the Texas Theatre
Texas Theatre is a treasure and my favorite stop in Dallas. As I pause to take a picture of the exterior, a woman gives me a handbill that reads: “Theatro Texas presenta Domingos Populares.”
The price is the same as Oswald paid: gratis. There is still an inscription identifying the seat where Oswald was sitting — center section near the back — when the police stormed in and arrested him.
Before the show, the manager encouraged me to explore the upper level of the theater and I was surprised to discover a room set up as a residence, though apparently unoccupied. This became the home for one of the characters in my novel, “Tail of the Lizard.”
The Oswald arrest was just a moment in a long and colorful history of the venerable theater, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The building has withstood several threats of the wrecking ball as well as a five-alarm fire.
The theater was a state-of-the-art marvel when it opened in 1931 (the first in Dallas with air-conditioning) and operated in a chain financed by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Oliver Stone remodeled the exterior façade for his 1991 film, “JFK.” At the time of my visit it was being used for community theater productions.
Since 2010, the Texas Theatre has operated as Aviation Cinemas (a nod to Hughes), an independent and repertory cinema. During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 it has been closed for indoor screenings but while functioning as a drive-in on weekends in the parking lot behind the theater.
Before leaving Oak Cliff, I stop at several other notable sites: the corner of Tenth and Patton, where Oswald allegedly shot police officer J.D. Tippett; the now unoccupied house at 214 Neely St., where Oswald lived with his wife, Marina; the boarding house at 1026 N. Beckley where Oswald lived at the time of the assassination, now with flowers in the yard, and the hedge neatly trimmed.
Intriguing witness accounts
Back in Dealey Plaza, Mark A. Oakes is setting up a table in front of the pergola on the Grassy Knoll to sell his Eyewitness Video series of “Real JFK Facts.” Oakes began selling various JFK assassination videos in 1995 and continues to do so.
A former aerospace engineer, Oakes presents videotaped interviews with witnesses to the assassination and related events, including police and Dallas officials. One of the most interesting is the account of Patsy Paschall, a court clerk who filmed the assassination from the Criminal Courts Building across the plaza from the Grassy Knoll. Her film, purportedly showing suspicious movement in the shadows atop the picket fence at the moment of the fatal head shot, was unknown until many years later.
I hand over $20 for one of Oakes’ tapes and along with it receive a packet of printed material. Included is a photocopy of a note that former Dallas Sheriff’s Deputy Al Maddox claims was given to him by Jack Ruby, in which Oswald’s killer wrote, “You may think I’m crazy but keep this note for a later date and you will know what I say is true my motive was to silence Oswald.”
While Oakes relates the tale of the Ruby note, a crowd begins to form around his table. I step back and glance one more time at the sixth floor window above, and to my right, and to the stockade fence on my left atop the knoll.
The mystery remains as vivid as it was on Nov. 22, 1963 — fertile ground for a fiction writer’s imagination.
Final word — a fictional perspective
Andrew Dallas Huston, in my novel “Tail of the Lizard,” discussing the assassination from his viewpoint in 1993:
“I’ve often wondered how everything would be different if the same thing happened today … The biggest difference that strikes me is that every other person in Dealey Plaza would have had their own video camera to film the president. Even if some TV station didn’t have a camera on him at that moment, someone would have gotten good footage of what happened on tape, and it would have been on the air within an hour being broadcast all over the world.
“If that film had been on television the day of the assassination there would have been such an outcry that they could have never made anyone believe it was Oswald acting alone and concocted the ridiculous idea that one bullet went through Kennedy and caused all of [Governor] Connally’s wounds.”