Final Report of the Teapot CommissionLike most Americans, I'm readily willing to believe the worst, even beyond -- heck, well beyond -- when evidence strongly suggests otherwise. And similarly, I'm especially ready to believe the evidence of my own eyes, however inexpertly gathered, in the face of or in accord with other facts, and even more so if the evidence thus gathered supports the well-trod ruts of my own previously-ingrained opinions.
So, when it came to happen that I had some time to kill -- as it were -- in Dallas in April of 1999, I decided to do my own investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
I got the idea to do my own investigation when I got lost on the Dallas freeways. Flying into the airport in the region, one finds oneself with a good two or three hundred miles to drive just to leave the rental car lot. It was all I could do to actually point the car in the direction of downtown Dallas -- which, by the way, today is surely what Oakland was like in Gertrude Stein's day -- especially given that the directions given to me by the rental car clerk were just about as wrong as you can possibly get. You'd think a rental car clerk at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport would either know how to get to downtown Dallas or would know somebody to ask -- like any of her three colleagues standing nearby -- but apparently the metropole is a bit too big for such details to matter. Rather, she was correct in the essential details, like that I had to exit the airport first.
Oddly enough, so are Kennedy assassination conspiracists correct in the general details of the various theories concerning Kennedy's death: he's most assuredly dead. (Actually, though I haven't heard it directly, I'm pretty sure there's probably at least one or twenty or so theories that Kennedy staged his own death and is living to this day in a love nest in Buenos Aires with Hitler, but perhaps we can simply eliminate this minor fraction of the conspiracy populace for the sake of the investigation.) Using that initial fact as the basis of all future work, I decided to take up my own investigation when I completely accidentally ended up driving through Dealy plaza thanks to the geographically-challenged rental car clerk and a Rand McNally map that showed an exit not featured in reality.
I should mention parenthetically that I'm writing up these, the results of my investigation, in November -- these investigation reports take time to think up -- prompted to finally do so by the loss of the famed County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht for the position of Allegeny (Pennsylvania) County Commissioner here in my current investigatory base of Pittsburgh. I voted, for the second time in my life, for a Republican, whose major credential in my mind was that he had not appeared on Hard Copy, Entertainment Tonight, and privately circulated militia videos explaining how the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Nicole, Kennedy, and Vincent Price were clearly and absolutely without question conspiracies for which there is no incontrovertible evidence to disprove. I figured, if a nutcase like Dr. Wecht can lose an election in America, even if it was partially due to my doing something as non-sensical as voting for a candidate from the party of Reagan and Oliver North, then by god there's some hope the rest of you nutcases might form a reasonable opinion on something like the Kennedy assassination, with the evidence of a little personal investigation. I'm sure you'll take my word on it when I get to the results. (By the way, it rained election day. Turnout county-wide was nearly in the triple digits.)
Lest you think I take something as grave as the murder of a president lightly -- something that traumatized a generation -- I should explain my family come from a very long line of Kennedy fans. Really and truly. We're from Massachusetts, mostly. I remember my maternal grandfather saying something nice about him, which for a guy who still thought of Republicans as the party that put down the rebellion, and who had a dozen bad names for Catholics, really meant something: when transferred to the more enlightened branches of the family (those born after the great panic of 1893), it verged on hero worship. When we cleaned out my paternal grandmother's house after she died, we found all sorts of original memorabilia from the '60 campaign. When I cleaned up my parents' basement this summer, I found every issue of Life Magazine from 1960-72, all of which were articles on the Kennedy family. I volunteered for Ted Kennedy in his 1980 attempt to win the Presidency, a fact I remember clearly everytime the anniversary of his announcement -- also the day the hostages were taken by those whacky Iranian Students, November 3, 1979 -- twenty years ago to the day. I'd still vote for the guy, who (seriously) probably would've made a better president than his star-sexing, Soviet-stalking, brinksmanship brother. (We can talk about that some other time.) At some point, they'll bulldoze my great-grandmother's house and find nude pictures of her with Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes in Hollywood cemented up in the cornerstone.
And like most members of my generation, I grew up in the pall of the assassination of Kennedy and the feeling of dread that his murder was a sort of Shakespearean foreshadowing of the doom of us all. I was born just a week shy of nine months after the assassination, and it's not at all clear if I was a zygote blessed with the last rays of sunshine from Camelot or conceived in a desperate act of physical passion by my parents to console one another over JFK's loss and the fact that a guy who bred spaniels was in the White House and we of the next generation were all going to die in World War Vietnam. The question of whether I was wrought unto this world in the sunset of hope or the penumbra of dread has really and truly kinda bugged me in a moderate way my whole life. So regardless of the love vs apathy relationship I've had with the Kennedy legacy itself, as one who never properly experienced it, I've got to confess as well to a certain lingering doubt that I should care more deeply about these funky assassination theories.
So, really and truly, there I was in downtown Dallas for the first time, driving the "wrong" way through Dealey Plaza. Suddenly seeing the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building was a stunning shock of recognition. It was like I'd just driven onto a movie set, but one reconstructed from some sort of collective memory that felt joltingly real. Those of us who weren't of the age of conscious thought at the time of the events have lived our whole lives with the building, the window, the street, the curve, the triple underpass, the grassy knoll, the whole tableau simply etched onto the cortex despite never having experienced the moment itself, that defining memory of where-were-you-when-you-heard and being glued to our black and white TVs for four days, as our parents were. Passing the scene directly through my cornea for the first time, it was very much like remembering a key event in my life, like one's wedding day or first kiss or the birth of one's child (not that I can remember any of those events with any clarity myself, but you get the point). Oh yeah, one says to oneself: this was all based on a true story.
In that moment, I felt a true and deep sadness for Kennedy. Given that part of our post-60s post-post-modern media upbringing has been seeing the Zapruder film endlessly (from the evening news to a frame-by-frame analysis via a QuickTime movie to official web documents put out by the National Archives), autopsy photos of Kennedy's brain, and computer animations of the single bullet's path through Governor Connolly's back, one almost has to have a clinical -- pathologically cool -- mental approach to the assassination simply to avoid being overwhelmed. But somehow being in THE PLACE itself transcended the accumulated graphical and verbal barrage of the last 36 years; I felt a sense that this was, if nothing else, a place where a person had died, somebody real. One moment he was riding along in his car, just like me, the next moment his brain had been destroyed and his essence as a person was gone.
I hadn't thought about the assassination when planning my business trip to town, and I most assuredly had not though of doing something as ghoulish as visiting the site of a famous murder. To do so would be to admit either stunningly bad taste, or that I cared, or that somehow the conspiracy theories had some demonstrable truth. Or that resolution or absolution could be achieved by going there. But in those brief seconds as I drove through the plaza known by sight to billions, I temporarily stopped cursing the rental car clerk and decided spontaneously to go back to visit the place.
Downtown Dallas is mostly flat and has a lot of really tall buildings in it, thanks to a bunch of oil booms, and virtually no street traffic on weekends -- and not a whole lot on weekdays, for that matter. These buildings are in archaeological strata, according to which particular oil boom built them (the busts being the intervening strata of vacant lots, I think), in no apparent relationship to one another or to anything else, and separated by random strips of concrete roadway and parking lots. Like most of Texas, it all seems slightly oversized for the people hunched down along its streets.
The hotel I was staying at was the Adam's Mark Dallas. No, this is not an adult rent by the hour flophouse, but a strangely-named small national chain of pseudo-luxury hotels. (I've also been to the one that used to be in Philly, which was like visiting the casting call for a George Romero movie - things happened, just a bit stiffly and with a musty odor.) The Adam's Mark Dallas, it turns out, is a recent rehab of the Southland, Dallas' original skyscraper from the 1950s and at one point the tallest building west of the Mississippi. The building, even in rehab, is hideously ugly. Pictures of it in its original state show it to have been hideously ugly from the moment of its design. However, somehow the Dallas Convention center got built across the street from it, so instead of taking the foresight of the caretakers of such mid-century landmarks and monuments to urban planning as Cabrini Green and Boston's Southeast Expressway and imploding the thing, the Southland became a "luxury" hotel.
From my hotel room on a twenty-something floor, I was startled to see I could see directly to Dealey Plaza. The street where Kennedy was shot and the book depository itself were obscured by several intervening buildings of intermediate height, but I couldn't tell from the distance whether they would've been old enough to have been in existence in November of '63.
Assuming an angle from the roof of the Southland -- less than a mile away from the plaza -- the alignment and angle were just right. It flashed to me that the vantage point would've given a potential assassin any of a number of chances to shoot at the motorcade going through downtown that day, and that the wind and distance of a shot fired from a skyscraper would certainly have gone unnoticed by passersby below. Good perch, a clean getaway -- perfect for the real killers.
Let me back up for a moment. I've examined many of the conspiracy theories, even read the Warren Commission report in some detail in high school, and despite my protestations of not caring that much, feel like I've given the available evidence surrounding the Kennedy assassination some thought. Making up your own mind about something, no matter how unqualified you are in any given field, is one of our rights as Americans.
And frankly, I've found the idea that a lone nut with delusions of grandeur living in a paranoid time and trained by the US military in the use of simple firearms as a boot, and who had ready access to firearms all Americans enjoy, who acted on a sick whim, to be a perfectly plausible explanation of the assassination. Occam's razor and all: ask yourself how many people you know or have come across that you think capable of letting a few rounds loose all of a sudden in the PO or local elementary school, compared to the number of vast extra-governmental conspiracies you've detected. I won't get into the whole history of Oswald, but he sure seems to fit the part of somebody who'd take a shot at the Pres.
There are all sorts of legitimate questions about the botched investigation, but again, ask yourself what's more likely: that the police, FBI, state police, Warren Commission, CIA, and just about every law enforcement agency in the US imaginable were capable of coordinating on a vast conspiracy, or that a bunch of ignorant yokel hick cops with virtually no training panicked at having the most powerful person on the planet shot to death under their jurisdiction and just blew it on the forensic and crime scene details? My local police can't even figure out whether the yellow striped curb near my house is a no-parking zone or not.
There are other details conspiracy theorists love to trot out that just make utterly no sense. Like Kennedy's body motion and the direction the gore flew out. Nobody who's ever shot a pumpkin could have any question the poor man's head was moving in the "correct" reactive angle to the bullet fired. Physics. Or the discrepancies by eye-witnesses about the sound and number of shots fired. Sound carries funny even in uncomplicated situations, and the human cognitive processes are such that any two people standing in different locations are going to experience the same sound event in different ways. I'd think conspiracy only if everybody had the same story.
Still, the one thing that always made me think twice about the second gunman- organized plot theories is the mechanics of shooting Kennedy in a moving car. Even if Oswald had gotten his marksman's badge from the Marines, how do you make three killing hits at a moving car from a steep angle using a mail-order .22 rifle? All those grainy stillshots, the apparent great distance at which the Zapruder film was shot, the subjective rapidity with which the whole thing took place, they all suggest a sense of distance and scale that call into question the idea of whether Oswald could make those shots.
Looking out my hotel room window, I could think of some extra-high-powered rifle in the hands of a super-trained marksman leaning over the edge of the Southland and picking his shots. The greater relative distance might account for a lot of things, such as the disparity between the number of shots heard by some and the number the Warren Commission reported (and thus the strange single bullet theory.) The image of some CIA-employed ex-Navy SEAL with mafia money in one pocket and a Fairplay for Castro and Cuba membership card in the other flitted through my mind, and actually made sense in passing. It was sort of like a calculus problem in my high school math class: one knows there has to be a solution, and has a half-studied and dim idea of approximately what's going on, but the clarity of a full solution without actually understanding the problem just occasionally flashes rather than settling with assurance into one's mind. Just enough so that you think you might have it, even when nobody else might have. That was my Southland sniper theory. Now I really had to find out - myself.
So it was that, after definitively establishing that there's absolutely nothing to do in downtown Dallas, Texas on a Sunday afternoon, I made my way across the landscape of boarded up high-rises, indoor mini-malls, 1960s vintage courthouses, cage-like government offices, used car and vacant lots, and Texas-style McDonald's to the plaza itself.
On foot, the whole place comes into very sharp focus indeed. The most startling thing initially is what a nice-looking building the depository actually is: an early-century brick building of modest size and sturdy proportions, but with the type of decoration eschewed in a merely functional building for much of this century. The facade has pleasing arched double windows, arranged in faux-Palladian framing arches up to the top floor. The red color of the brick, which has been cleaned at some point and kept clean, is satisfying in contrast to the less successful and more dreary whites and greys and non-descript browns of the miscellaneous government and office buildings nearby. Parts of the building are still used from some function, although the infamous sixth floor is kept empty and unused but for the occasional tour. There's a plaque on the corner, noting the assassination site, using the word "allegedly" when describing Oswald's role in the shooting, as all Dallas accounts apparently use. The plaque itself at a distance could just as well be a historical marker noting the invention of the covered wagon tongue.
More subtle, but far more revelatory, is the experience of walking the site itself. It's just small. It's not larger than life: it's a short city block, not even a real block but a half block before the highways of the triple underpass/overpass. The plaza itself, named for an early-century Dallas luminary, is a split park with two squares of green, left in the middle of this split boulevard, only half of which we've come to know in the films and pictures. This little parklet has been given the dual monniker of both Dealey and the Kennedy Memorial park, although there's nothing much in the way of a commemoration of Kennedy's life, and very little of his death other than a bare mention of the facts.
You can cross the street, which angles down to get under the underpass, and stand on the sidewalk and face up back towards the depository. The problem of the marksman is easily solved by doing so. The distances are not appreciable at all. The angle of the road coming into the plaza actually forces cars to slow down, and the natural instinct of a driver would be to slow down anyway, going into the blind underpass. Of course, Kennedy was on a political trip, and the cars would be going a slow and steady pace, anyway, to allow people to see him and wave. From the slow pace of traffic and the frequent out of state plates driving slowly through with drivers gawking around, I suspect many people do the drive-through themselves.
This still being America, the plaza draws tourists, hucksters, and nutjobs alike. The three parties have an affinity for one another. A steady crowd of several score people at a time always seems to be present on the infamous grassy knoll, on the same side of the street as the book depository. One gets an excellent view of it from across the street; you could soft-toss an egg underhanded and hit the most-frequently-alleged position of the second gunman. To truly believe America is full of enough idiots to produce at least one willing to pull the trigger on a sitting President, one need only watch the crowd on the grassy knoll for a while. Every ten minutes or so somebody from the throng steps over to the curbside where the actual first shot is marked, risking their own life and limb against traffic to try to gape back towards the sixth floor window. One actually dashes out into the street in the middle of traffic, to take a picture, while I'm watching.
I stop and listen for a bit. The noises of traffic are strange: as traffic approaches from the east, the noise for a moment appears to come from the west. I try a shy, quiet Philly "yo!" to test the echoes. Too quiet: I gather the gumption and shout it out. The echoes change quite a bit as I move up and down the sidewalk. Frequently, I get no echo at all; once I got three "Yo"s back at me, like I was Yo-ing in Yankee Stadium. Sometimes, you can't hear traffic at all until it's right on you. There's nothing particularly mysterious about this: there are buildings of different heights around the perimeter, and one side is open to the skies. Acoustics are reflective, surfaces absorb sound waves differently according to their shape and the constituent material. Walk down any downtown street in any city and you'll experience something similar, if you pay careful attention. It's quite clear why there was so much conflicting testimony about the sounds, the number of shots, and so forth.
Braving myself for the real test of courage, I go up to the corner and cross over to the book depository side and on over to the grassy knoll, where there's a concrete area, a driveway, and a little grassy slope in front of the famous knoll. Not only are there lots of gawkers, latter-day rubber-neckers, standing around and pretending they were witnesses or the second and third gunmen, the hucksters/whackos are out in full force. There are several small booths and temporary kiosks where conspiracy theorists are selling their wares: videos, books signed in person by the author, photos, you name it.
Parked on the driveway is a sister car to the death car: a Lincoln convertible, I think. Alone among the features of this tableau, the car is huge. You can ride through the plaza in it (for a hefty fee), although on the brisk spring Sunday I'm there, there seem to be few takers. I cautiously look at the car, not wanting to suggest interest in an actual ride in the thing to its obviously very eager-for-business keeper. The thing, as I've mentioned, is just huge -- they made 'em big back then. The rear seat is as big as the entire interior of my '91 Mazda 323, actually probably bigger, truth to tell. With only two people seated in the back, a good six or eight feet of metal trailing behind him, Kennedy would've been a very hard-to-miss target indeed. I mentally transpose the car from its parking spot onto the path of a car passing in front of me, and look back to the window. One, two, three shots at a mosying twenty miles an hour at such a big target -- with the car heading away, and the relative angle for a gunman hardly changing at all -- the evidence of the eyes and senses is that a kid with a paintball gun could've hit the target. A supersoaker might have a fighting chance of finding the target, gravity helping.
The fun part, if you can call it that, is walking over the grassy knoll trying to find the spot where the alleged second gunman might've stood. The topology of this area has undoubtedly changed slightly, but it still appears to be roughly as in all the photos we've seen. The tourist-ghouls fill in nicely as stand-ins for the witnesses of November '63, all looking as they did then at the spot where the car crossed by. Again, everything is much closer and humanly-scaled than the memory of photograph and film suggests. To get a clear view of the motorcade, a gunman on the knoll would've had to have been shooting right on top of the other people there. Pulling further back, including the spot of the alleged "blurry police officer" pointed to in one photo of the event as evidence of a second gunman, you can't really see the road clearly; it's just the angle of the slope, which obscures the car. One would have a hard time making a killing shot at that angle without any people present, much less with a small crowd in front, which even today obscures the view. I look around to make sure nobody's looking at me, and hold up my finger like a pistol and try to follow a passing car from several spots. The angles are impossible: to shoot somebody in a moving car requires 'leading' the car perfectly, and nobody in the car was shot from the side, for heaven's sake. The knoll is close to a perfect 90 degree angle from the site of the first shot. Further back, the road is completely invisible.
In fact, if you take as much of a circumnavigation of the square as you can around the site, it's also clear that it would've been extremely difficult for a gunman to take a shot without instantly being noticed by those around them -- except for the depository, and an upper window or the roof of the courthouse and former county jail (now converted to a museum) opposite the plaza. I'm not sure how the courthouse was eliminated as a possible sniper perch, but the angles certainly would be wrong, based on the Zapruder film. This is instantly obvious to the naked eye when standing on the extreme corner, barely twenty feet from the corner of the depository from where Oswald shot.
So, I looked excitedly up -- what about my Southland sniper theory? It had a certain dramatic modernity, and unlike all the other conspiracy theories, I'd come up with this one on my own. If the facts fit, maybe I could sell my own video from the knoll.
I positioned myself on the opposite sidewalk again, and looked back towards teh Adam's Mark, clearly visible by the weird mark thingy that serves as a logo for the chain. The intervening buildings probably weren't all there before, but some probably were. And from this perspective, the skyscraper is just way, way too far away. One might believe, under completely ideal circumstances, pre-aimed, with no wind, and the best available rifle, that one shot could've been made from there. But not two, certainly not three, and at a steep angle. Not being a gun guy, I'm not completely sure of this, of course, but there's simply no clear path for which one could think a rifle shot could be fired -- except a line one would have to draw right through the window of the schoolbook depository. Since this theory now required that bullets travel in an arc over the depository, it seemed somewhat unlike even to its author by this point.
So how about that Single Bullet Theory? You know, the problem that there were more wounds (three in Kennedy, one in Gov. Connolly, who was riding on a little jump seat opposite Kennedy) than there were alleged shots fired, for which Arlen Spector (now my Senator) came up with this theory as an investigator for the Warren Commission. The basic idea is that one bullet did a really whacky twist on the way out of Kennedy's body and caught Connolly as well. For this end of my investigation, I did some ballistics tests with the help of my grandpa and an old summer vacation.
When I was a kid, though, my grandfather had a BB gun, and in those less timorous days, we were allowed to take it out into the side yard and shoot at a target placed on the side of a cardboard box. Inside the cardboard box were a couple of layers of packing foam hanging from some wooden dowels Grandpa'd run through the top of the box. The foam was meant to catch the bbs, partially so they wouldn't go rattling around the rest of the neighborhood, but also so my frugal grandpa wouldn't have to buy BBs so often. You could just collect them off the bottom of the box.
One time, after I'd gotten bored firing at the designated twenty paces at the BB box target, I decided I was going to go in for the kill. I pretended I was an army guy, advancing and firing on some prone or prostrate enemy, pumping round after round into him for the coup de grace. I half-trotted towards the box, still careful my shots wouldn't go wild, getting closer and closer. Just a few feet away, I was firing down at an angle, and started back as I realized a BB had just hit me in the face!
After determining there was no rock to deflect it back, or second BB gunman in the woods having on with me, I opened up the box to make sure everything was in order. It seemed to be. The best I could figure was that I'd hit the top wooden dowel, it'd bounced through only one of the foam packing sheets, and somehow been deflected off the other dowel and back out of the front of the box. The fact is, the BB hit my face, hard enough to sting.
A 22 is a small caliber weapon, but it's enough to kill a person, and if you take a walk through Dealey plaza, it's really easy to see how the distances were short enough to cause some damage. I've fired a .22 on occasion (really, I'm not a gun guy, really I'm not) and perhaps paradoxically, the smaller caliber makes it a lot easier to handle than more powerful weapons -- less kickback, and one can sort of cradle a smaller rifle more easily. And the single bullet causing injuries to both Kennedy and Connolly? Perhaps improbable, but not excessively so, not if you've fired a BB down into a cardboard box filled with packing foam and had the BB bounce back into your face. Bone probably acts and is shaped something like those wooden dowels, flesh like the packing foam and cardboard. It's just a lot easier to believe a single bullet made both wounds than it is to try to figure out how a second gunman would and could fire into the car and the extra bullet be magically extricated from Kennedy.
In short, everything about the generally-accepted account of the Kennedy assassination seems extremely plausible to me, now that I've walked the spots and thought the whole thing through in sequence. It's simple, and in accord with my understanding of physical law and human psychology.
I wished, walking back to my hotel room, that we could simply be rid of this whole conspiracy thing. It seems like a cancer on the collective consciousness, this idea that there was a vast plot beyond our control to even accurately identify it after the fact, that American society and liberal democracy were so far out of control and out of whack that somebody felt compelled to kill a human being for some strange political reason but couldn't apply that same conspiracy towards something a tad more productive, or at least directly effective. One always comes back to motive for murder, and a senseless murder has the purist motive: the one scrutable only to the killer.
I wished, in a way, that Dealey plaza itself would disappear, so we wouldn't have that jar of the place, the uncomfortable memory of the death of someone like Kennedy, who is all the more real to me now for having seen the place of his death up close. Why didn't they just tear the damn building down, anyway, instead of leaving the window permanently gaping open like a head wound?
But as I think about it, staring out my hotel window again towards the place, I finally think it's good that it's there. Maybe others can walk the place and get the same sense I do, know the simple truth of a random drive-by killing and not that the fates and furies are aligned against any one of us, and get the still edgy but somewhat easier comfort of the human scale of the tragedy at Dallas. And maybe its us babies born after the thing happened itself who will be the first to shake this thing off.
God rest, Kennedy. That's my final report. Pittsburgh, Nov. 3 '99
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Final Report of the Teapot Commission
November 22nd. I have resurrected an old posting from my pre-blog-days website, originally done in November 1999.
Posted by Matt at 2:10 PM