Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 22, 2010

On the Grassy Knoll

Posted November 22, 2012

Unless today is their birthday or anniversary, for Americans of my generation, and probably my parents’ generation, too, today’s date, November 22, will always be the Day of the Assassination. If the date doesn’t bring anything to mind — at least for Americans — you should know that on this day in 1963 the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was killed. You’ve probably read about it, or maybe even seen an Oliver Stone film that pretends to report on it, though I hope there is not yet a “Presidential Sniper” game for your X-box. I don’t think you have to watch the History Channel for more than about 4 hours before they run another program about it, so you might look there if you need more info, but be careful what you credit out of all the conspiracy theories.

A lot has been made about the role that television played in giving everyone around the world nearly instantaneous access to live images and reportage within hours of the event. For days we were saturated with an around-the-clock immersion in footage from Parkland Hospital, the takeoffs and landings of Air Force One and other craft, scenes from the Dallas Police Headquarters and the killing of accused sniper Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. We had uncountable stories filed from reporters standing on the Grassy Knoll, in front of the Book Depository, and from every possible angle. There followed the massive funeral ritual in Washington, D.C. and another succession of images, still and motion, that are emblazoned into the memories of those of us who were old enough to witness them on television.

Even then, 47 years ago, it already was a relatively media-rich world. Photography had been around for more than a hundred years. Both radio and recorded sound had been proliferating for more than 50 years, and World War II had generated an immense outpouring of audio and still and motion photography, meaning that, at least in moderately developed areas of the world, the citizens of 1963 were accustomed to watching intensive accounts of critical events.

The first live television broadcast of a “world event” I recall was in 1959. I distinctly recall my mother calling my brother and me out of the front yard to come in and watch the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which was being broadcast as it happened. Why was this a big deal? Because THE QUEEN was there with President Eisenhower! My grandmother, who despite having been in the U.S. since 1922 was still about as English as they come was BESIDE herself. It was THE QUEEN! (Her coronation, in 1953, was the first to be televised ((and in England, the last, Chuck, baby!)), but I know that we did not have a TV then, and, besides, I’m not responsible for remembering things that happened before my 2nd birthday.) There was young Queen Elizabeth, then 33, and good ol’ Dwight David, declaring all the wonderful things that would accrue to The Commonwealth and their good friends in the Colonies with the completion of the Seaway (and it was a massive engineering accomplishment, by the way). Ike had gone over with a few buddies a little less than 10 years before to help out our good friends in Merrie Olde, and here was Liz paying a nice return visit.

In 1965, there was another TV Armageddon in our house for Winston Churchill’s funeral, which was also broadcast live (we MAY have had color TV then), and which we also watched with my grandmother. I like to remember that. She revered Churchill for his leadership in the War. I cannot adequately tell you how powerful an experience it was to sit there with a woman who, as a young woman had been bombed by zeppelins in Hull in 1915 and ’16, and who had watched in agony the WWII bombing of Britain from America while her sons and daughters served for the U.S. Sir Winston Leonard-Spenser Churchill occupied the pinnacle of her pantheon of heroes.

I believe that citizens of Dallas have come to grips with the association of their city with the JFK assassination. It’s a fine city, full of theaters and museums and thriving with commerce. It could use a hill or two, but the Trinity River threads through a huge green space on its western and southern sides, it has a growing network of public transportation, and, all-in-all, could serve as an emblem of American can-do spirit. It has a great newspaper, whose founding editor, George Dealey, spoke the words that are carved in stone on the publication’s building: “Build the news on the rock of truth and righteousness, conducting it always upon the lines of fairness and integrity, and acknowledging the right of the people to get from the newspaper both sides of every important question.” Try reading that while you’re watching CNN or Fox without laughing out loud!

But last week, as I regarded the city from the 32nd floor of the Reunion Tower, I had eyes only for an iconic site that history and the events of one day have made indelible in my memory. (Click on photo for an enlarged view)

IMG_5057 Brad Nixon

This is Dealey Plaza. If you’re at least my age, you would recognize it in an instant without my telling you what it was. If you needed a hint, I’d suggest that you focus on the building in the top right corner of the photo; then you’d say, “That’s the Texas School Book Depository.” For Americans of a certain age, it’s one of the most recognizable buildings in America. I won’t need to tell you which way the limousine was traveling, or how the scattered crowd of onlookers appeared as they ducked or ran on that November day. Anyone in Dallas can tell you which window was the one from which Oswald (allegedly, accuracy forces me to say) fired the fatal shots. In my mind, this single scene demonstrates the power of our media-manic age; we have seen this small wedge of ground from every possible angle. We know this ground the way students at the U.S. Army War College know the disposition of forces around Bastogne or the way you know the street you grew up on. There’s a tour bus in that photo, and you could provide the narration as well as the guide was doing as I snapped this shot. On that day, we emerged into a new era of immediacy and awareness driven by the power of media, transforming an insignificant  corner of a mid-American city into an iconic site.

Today, everything gets documented. The next time you’re watching a clown blow animal balloons at the mall, look around: there’ll be about fifteen people recording it on their cameras and phones. If, instead, the President of the United States were driving by that same spot, there would be a thousand people taping, filming, recording and fifty thousand frames of imagery would be on the Internet by nightfall. It’s impressive to note how many people were actually recording the scene on that undistinguished salient of concrete in 1963. CLICK HERE to read the Wikipedia listing of people who were photographing or filming those few minutes in Dealey Plaza, which lists at least 32 recordings, the most famous, of course, being Abraham Zapruder’s home movie version. Today, how many would there be?

It’s neither the Pyramids nor the Grand Canyon. It’s not a great government center, unforgettable geographic landmark or a work of art or any of the thousands of other images that resonate across cultures and eras. It’s a little ramp of roadway with a bank of green grass on one side made unforgettable in a single instant.

I was 12 years old. Seventeen thousand days have passed since then, only a handful of which I can remember as vividly as that one. Always, until my days end, I’ll be able to answer the inevitable question, the question that binds us all together from that day: “Where were you?”

Dealey Plaza Brad Nixon 2331 (640x475)
In a sense, all of us were there, together on the grassy knoll.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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Responses

  1. Good one. Boy, your article made me lose myself in the photos and Wikipedia data. I spent some time also looking at a link from there to a frame-by-frame breakdown of the Zapruder film they had there.

    I was in Mr. Trudell’s 8th grade science class, Orville Wright Junior High in Westchester (L.A.). After that, I think we were all just in space . . .

    Tom

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  2. Great article, Brad.

    I was 18 when Neil Armstrong first uttered “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Yet, I don’t remember the date in July, 1969 when Man first landed on the moon, one of the most significant achievements in the history of mankind.

    Six years earlier, I was 12 when I heard that fateful announcement in the afternoon on November 22, 1963. I was in Mr. Nelson’s 7th grade math class at J. E. Prass Junior High School. I was seated towards the front left side of the classroom. Mr. Nelson was at his desk in front of me, a little to my right. When the announcement came in over the P.A., I remember turning to look at the large round clock on the wall over the door on the right wall. That’s all I remember of that day. Just a round, black-framed clock. White face, black numbers, announcement.

    I watched the funeral procession on TV over the Thanksgiving weekend. And all I remember of that weekend was more black and white. We had a color TV; but all I remember was a sea of black and white images: black-dressed mourners, black horse, black caisson, all slowly marching endlessly on a white concrete street.

    Of the two major historical events in my lifetime, isn’t it odd that I should remember the day President Kennedy was shot when I was only a kid of 12, but not the day Man first landed on the moon when I was a young adult of 18?

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  3. i was in 7th grade, in mister lindley’s art class when they made the announcement over the p.a. system, and sent us home. one kid in class cheered. there was a lot of anxiety, was this the first stage of the soviets attacking us, did this have to do with cuba?

    days later, we were up in cottage grove visiting the staubach’s for thanksgiving when oswald was shot live before our very eyes. i ran out to the kitchen to alert the adults. they thought i must be confused, “no, they shot the president, honey” “no! they shot the guy that shot him!” and they all came out and sure enough.

    i don’t recall the day of the moon walk either, but i was in japan with my dad.

    thanks brad, for the reminder.

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    • The moon walk was July 20th. I’ll never forget, because we’d just left the Warren Co. Fair to get home to see it. Impressed that you saw the Oswald shooting. I was not tuned in at that moment. But it just proves how the media suddenly had permeated our lives.

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      • Now that you bring it up, I, too, saw the Oswald shooting live on TV. Another shock! More black and white images of that tumultuous time.

        NOTE: Those readers of Brad’s blog who are much younger than I may not know what I meant by a “color TV.” “Black and white TVs” when I grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s showed only black and white images, even if the programs were broadcast in color. “Color TVs” could show both black and white programming or color programming; but you had to move a dial to switch back and forth between only color or only B&W to adjust to the type of show being broadcast. Yes, in those days and up until around the mid-1960’s, most TV shows were broadcast only in black and white!

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  4. On the playground at George Mark’s Elementary School.

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  5. Brad great reading! Funny that I had similar experiences to a couple of your blog responders. I was watching TV in England at about 8:00 p.m. and my parents were eating in the kitchen with our neighbors. I ran in to tell them “the President has been shot” and they look at me and said “the president of what?”. I thought there was only one president (of America)! When I said Ameria? They all ran in to watch the news. I was nearly ten years old. I also cannot recall where I was when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Although I believed we watched it at school on black and white TV. School doesn’t get out for the summer in England until the end of July. As for Churchhill, well he lived a few miles form me and my mother knew his personal secretary so I have some stories there…for another time!

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    • Susan, thanks for the perspective from Merrie Olde. I’ll definitely want to hear some of those Churchill stories!

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