Books, On the Run

Notes from a grassy knoll in Dallas

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Crime writers Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott, Jock Serong and Emma Viskic have begun their US tour, On The Run: Australian Crime Writers In America, and have promised a daily update of proceedings.

In this installment ROBERT GOTT takes in Dallas, and compares America’s history of political assassination with our own.

Dallas, Texas. Dallas doesn’t mean ‘Dallas’. I’ve never seen a single episode of the TV series and Larry Hagman will always mean ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ to me. Dallas is Dealey Plaza, the grassy knoll, Zapruder, and the Warren Commission. It’s Love airfield, JFK, Jackie Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit and Lee Harvey Oswald.

It’s also Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Mrs. Marguerite Oswald. I’ve asked around, and nobody remembers that she released an album. I have it. I bought it back in the 70s, because for many of my generation the JFK assassination was very definitely, as the young people say, a thing. I read Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement and I rushed to judgement. I wasn’t obsessive about it, but I was interested enough to be unable to walk by a record shop (remember them?) without buying Mrs. Marguerite Oswald – The Oswald Case: Mrs. Marguerite Oswald Reads Lee Harvey Oswald’s Letters From Russia (1964).

While other people were sitting around listening to Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep, I was rocking to Mrs. Marguerite Oswald, and committing bits to memory as if they were song lyrics.

“I go from place to place without any pay. Many people have written to say that I am trying to commercialise on my son’s death. I will have royalties from this record. This is the way I earn my income.”

Mrs. Oswald’s strongest claim for Lee Harvey’s innocence rests on his response in one of his letters to her, when she had sent him the wrong magazines. “He thanks me even though they were the wrong magazines. This is a good boy. This is a polite boy. This is not a boy who would assassinate the president of the United States.” Perhaps the Warren Commission wasn’t alerted to this compelling evidence.

How long will it be before the expression ‘grassy knoll’ requires a Google search to retrieve its meaning?

Dealey Plaza is one of those places that functions in a culture as a memory site. These are places where memories coalesce into an agreed understanding of what happened here, and what it means. Except, of course, Dealey Plaza is a disputed site. President Kennedy was assassinated here. Beyond this indisputable fact, there is no agreement. One shooter? Two? Three? I’m fascinated by memory sites and how they appear to govern our collective sense of who we are, and yet how ungovernable they actually are.

In my teenage years the Texas School Book Depository was as familiar as the Great Pyramid of Giza. I never imagined that I would one day stand beneath it and be disappointed by its banality. It’s a brown box, solid, not unattractive, with a seventh floor that looks like an architectural afterthought. Oswald’s window is on the sixth floor, at the far right end (from the observer’s point of view). It was so familiar to me, and here it was. How is it that this ordinary structure out-competed more glorious architectural wonders for my attention? The chiselled name above the entrance reads, ‘Dallas County Administration Building’, and not ‘Texas School Book Depository’, but it is the latter name that sits fixed in our collective memories. There’s something about its rhythm – Texas School Book Depository – with those final two syllables sounded out.

I’d always imagined that the landscape of Dealey Plaza, pinned in place by Oswald’s window, Zapruder’s vantage point and the grassy knoll, was a wide, sweeping sort of place. It’s surprisingly compact, and I thought that even I might stand a chance of making the shot from that window. It no doubt looks more challenging from the actual position. The picket fence on top of the grassy knoll, the place where a second shooter may have blown out the back of Kennedy’s head, has been replaced several times, with bits of the original occasionally coming up for sale.

On the expressway two white crosses have been painted to mark the points of the first and second shots. It’s a busy road with cars coming at speed from around a blind corner. People like to have their photograph taken on the second cross, the place in the Zapruder film where Kennedy’s head bursts like an exploding melon. They dash out into the road, stand on the ‘X’, grin and dash back, evading traffic. I don’t know what the casualty rate is, but for me, this is simply the living embodiment of natural selection. If you get hit by a car, well, that’s very sad for your family and friends, but on the upside,  it limits the passing on of the gene that made you stupid.

Australia has no real history of political assassination. Most people, surely, would recognise the name Lee Harvey Oswald. If you begin typing it, auto-complete does the rest. How many Australians would recognise the name Peter Kocan? On June 21, 1966, he fired a shot from a sawn-off rifle, at point blank range, through a car window at Arthur Calwell, who was the leader of the Australian Labor Party.

Kocan was an admirer of Lee Harvey Oswald and he believed that assassinating Calwell would turn him, Kocan, from a nobody into a somebody. Oswald’s bullet, if it was Oswald’s bullet, blew out Kennedy’s brain. Kocan’s bullet was stopped by the thick glass and lodged harmlessly in Calwell’s suit lapel. Calwell suffered minor cuts from the shattered glass.

Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby. Kocan was awarded the Australia Council’s Writer’s Emeritus Award in 2010 after a distinguished career writing fiction and poetry.

How long will it be before the expression ‘grassy knoll’ requires a Google search to retrieve its meaning? Eventually the number of people for whom it means nothing will outnumber the people like me for whom it has immediate, evocative resonance. If you don’t think this could possibly happen, the history of memory sites suggests otherwise. They have a way of falling out of the collective imagination. For the people who built Stonehenge it must have seemed that its meaning would never, could never, be lost, and yet now, all we have are theories about its original purpose; and worse, we have phoney Druids who lay claim to it, despite the fact that it predates Druidism by two thousand years.

Dealey Plaza looks unchanged from the way it looked in 1963, apart from signage, which is discreet. This is not an accident or the result of neglect. A great deal of money has been spent to freeze it in time. It is a perfectly ordinary place made extraordinary by a few ghastly seconds on November 22, 1963.

For the other installments in this series, click here.

5 responses to “Notes from a grassy knoll in Dallas

  1. Love you, Bob. Classic Bob: ‘Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby. Kocan was awarded the Australia Council’s Writer’s Emeritus Award in 2010 after a distinguished career writing fiction and poetry.’

    The Aussies in America. Shake it up on both sides!

  2. I’ve been to the Sixth Floor Museum twice now. It recounts the before, during and protracted aftermath with solemnity and sobriety, well worth seeing. I couldn’t imagine doing anything more crass and gauche as running out to stand on the two crosses. Fortunately, I didn’t see anyone do it in either of my two visits.
    One point though: the grassy knoll has actually changed quite a deal because the trees have grown significantly since 1963 and it’s now less open than it was then.

  3. I was at Mosman Town Hall when Arthur Caldwell was shot. I was in my mid- teens and had just become aware of the Vietnam War. It should have been massively horrifying, but in the context of all the TV war coverage I had seen, it didn’t strike me then as being as exceptional as it was. I suspect I was in shock. I don’t know if I even mentioned it at school the next day. It remains my only experience of gunfire.

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