History is a coalition of fragments, a cluster of suppositions and probabilities surrounding a nuclear core of truth. The more you chip away at it, the more you try and worry the truth to light, the more you are left with splinters and dust in your hand.
Who really knows, who can really say, what happens in the breath of a moment? At half-past noon, say, on a sunny Friday in Dallas, 50 years ago today?
We can watch the movie over and over again, the eerie silence, the faded colours, the watchful bystanders, the glint of sun on the black limousine, the blush of the pink double-breasted suit, and then, the sudden burst of fire and blood, like a planet exploding, a world coming to an end.
And still we don’t know for certain, and still we can’t say for sure, beyond the brutal, incontrovertible details of the What and When and Where.
I used to think, because I had read all the right books – or maybe they were the wrong books, looking back – that the final gunshot, the gunshot of the apocalypse, had come from somewhere up on the Grassy Knoll, where a sniper had been standing in wait behind the wooden stockade fence.
The Assassination of the President has its own mythology, its own cast of characters, its own happy-never-after ending, and the only way to understand it, if not to solve it, is to go to the place where it happened and walk around for a while.
So that’s what I did, one day in the early 1990s.
We were on honeymoon, travelling across the American South in a rented car, and Dallas, Texas, was one of the points of call, firstly because we wanted to see Southfork Ranch, where the Ewings lived – we knew who had shot JR, so that didn’t take up too much time – and then, Elm Street on Dealey Plaza.
It was a quiet, sunny day, and I stood on the bright green grass in front of the white pergola, the shaded walkway shaped like a rainbow, and I looked at the buildings I knew so well, from seeing them over and over again.
When something terrible or important happens in a place, history gives the architecture a fresh coat of meaning, and the buildings will never quite look the same. They live and breathe; they have borne witness.
Sometimes, the buildings are torn down, because they have seen too much. But in Dealey Plaza, like time itself, they stand still.
I could hear the echo, the rush in my ears, the psychic pulse of the aftershock, as I stood on the concrete pedestal where Abraham Zapruder stood, shooting his home movie. I followed the sweep of the motorcade as it turned the corner, and disappeared for moment behind the freeway sign, and emerged again into the cold light of day.
I walked a little further up the knoll, into the dappled shadows where the stockade fence stood, its pickets sharpened like spears. I stood there, imagining what the sniper may have seen, if there had been a sniper. I watched a car go by, towards the triple underpass.
And then, because it is human nature, and because I was there, I glanced around and I quickly prised off a small piece of picket, no bigger than the size of my pinky, and I stuck it in my pocket and walked away, towards the big brownstone box of the Texas School Book Depository.
Today the building is known as the Sixth Floor, because the southeast window of the Sixth Floor is where Lee Harvey Oswald stood and watched and waited with his rifle, his 6.5 mm Carcano Model 91/38 carbine, for the Presidential motorcade to pass below, just before half-past noon on Friday, November 22, 1963. Or so history tells us, if history knows the truth.
The Sixth Floor is a museum, tasteful and discreet, devoted to the life and times of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and to his last day in Dallas. I wandered around the exhibits, and then I walked over to the southeast window, where a pile of cardboard boxes stood, marked with “Books” and sealed with masking-tape. The sniper’s nest.
There is a pane of safety glass that stops you from going too far, but you can look beyond it, to see what Oswald would have seen, and when I did, my heart stopped for a moment. I followed the path of a car on Elm Street, six stories below, and it seemed to be travelling in slow-motion, and I saw for the first time that this would have been the easiest shot, the easiest three shots in the world.
The assassin had the perfect lair, and he would have had the perfect sighting. All he needed to do was look through the telescopic sight and pull the trigger, three times in six to eight seconds. There was no need for anyone else, no need for a sniper on the Grassy Knoll. Oswald, alone, on the Sixth Floor. It felt like the truth, and it hit me with a jolt.
But still I have the fragment of wood from the picket fence, my souvenir of Dallas. And when I pick it up and turn it to the light and hold it close to my eyes, it sheds a few specks and leaves an imprint, a shadow on the white paper, like the shroud of Turin, or the dust from a butterfly’s wings.