by Sharon Howerton
I am not a big group person or one who longs to attend large conventions, but when I heard that ACB was meeting in Dallas, I had to go. That was where President Kennedy was killed — do you remember the day? November 22, 1963? Humor me as I travel back and forth in time. When I told my oldest son of my experience at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, he asked me an amazing question. “Could you feel it?” My immediate response was, “Oh my goodness, yes!”
November 22, 1963. I was in the eighth grade at St. Florian School on the far south side of Chicago. A kid named Chester came back from lunch and said, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” Ani Simmons, the education programs coordinator at The Sixth Floor Museum, asked me what happened after that. “I think we went to church and were sent home,” I said. All I remember of that weekend was sitting in front of the TV (which, being blind, I could not see), all the way to Monday and the funeral. I don’t think anyone else at home – my parents and two sisters – watched with me. At one point in the evening, I think I prayed and felt this tingling on my face – something I have never shared with anyone.
Fast forward to 2015. In preparation for the convention, Janet Dickelman sent out an amazing amount of useful information. Love Field was closer to the hotel. Oh no, not that. Love Field was the place from which JFK’s body was flown. I couldn’t. My colleague Dawn was flying to Dallas, too, and she suggested we fly together; fortunately, we flew out of Chicago’s O’Hare and in to Dallas-Fort Worth.
A few weeks before we left, I decided to call the museum to ask if it was accessible to the blind and visually impaired. The receptionist said, “Oh yes! We are working on making it more accessible. I think you should talk with Ani, our director of education. She may not still be here, it’s a little after 5, but let me transfer you to her.”
Ani was there and was very receptive to me. “I was about to leave,” she said, “but something told me to take this call, and I’m so glad I did … When you get your ticket, let me know, and when you are done with your tour, have them call me; we can go across the street to have a refreshment, and I’d love to hear your impressions.” With my son Kevin’s help, I purchased my ticket for July 7 at 10 a.m.
On Sunday, July 5, along with a busload of conventioneers, my guide dog Cameo and I took a bus tour of Dallas. After a few turns, the tour guide said, “This is The Sixth Floor Museum, where President Kennedy was shot.” No moment of silence to remember? No ASKING for a moment of silence to remember? Well, I did it privately. I guess it really was 52 years ago.
At first I thought perhaps Cameo and I could walk there. Maybe it wasn’t far, but then I thought, “It’s hot, we don’t know where we are, Cameo has had enough stress being in a new place with all the activity of people, other dogs and all … Let’s take a cab! Why risk getting lost and put her through all that?”
“You look very comfortable,” Dawn said to me at breakfast Tuesday. I wore a simple dress for the occasion. Around 9:30, Cameo and I went to the concierge desk and asked about a cab. The doorman found us one. The driver, who said he was from West Africa, said he had been in Dallas for only a few months, having come here from New York with his wife and three young daughters. When we got to the museum a few minutes later, I asked, “Do you know the significance of this building?” “No,” he said. “This is the place from which President Kennedy was shot.” “Oh!” he said. “I always wondered what this building was.”
The driver walked Cameo and me into the building, up a flight of concrete steps. Were those the same steps that Lee Harvey Oswald walked when he went in to work that November day?
We were shown to a bench to the right of the entrance. A family was also waiting to get in. When they opened, I was directed to someone and gave her the printout of my ticket receipt. I was taken to an elevator by a young lady who went up to the sixth floor with us, found me a seat in a quiet area and handed me a small device with a headset. One could walk through the museum listening to each panel and viewing the photos, but to me it made more sense to sit quietly and listen with an occasional prompt from my museum helper if I didn’t press the numbers correctly to proceed to the next panel.
The narrator, whose name I did not catch, said he had been on the scene at the time of the shooting and ran into the book depository, now the Dallas courthouse and Sixth Floor Museum, to call his radio station to report the shooting. Did he run up those same stairs and go into that office where we had just presented our ticket? The audio tour started with the campaign in 1960, including the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and went through the road to Dallas, the shooting, the trip to Love Field, President Johnson’s inauguration, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral and the Warren report. It took about an hour. I didn’t have to think about navigating anything; I just had to listen and realized I remembered it all — 52 years later. I remembered hearing almost all of those news clips. There were times that the narrator would say, “If you want to hear more, go to the alcove behind you.”
As we sat there, people came and went, chatting like any other ordinary day, talking, laughing — didn’t they know? Couldn’t they feel it? Guess it’s just me.
Our guide took us back downstairs on the elevator. She introduced us to Ani, and we went across the street to the café, where we had a long chat. It was a small street, not anywhere near as wide as the street on which I live — just a small ordinary lighted city intersection where, 52 years ago, people had lined the street to see the presidential motorcade pass … and to see the president shot. Even before we left the building, Ani let me feel the bricks of another building in a passageway through which we walked. “Now these are the original bricks of the depository,” she explained. “The elevator you rode in was not there then, but the place where you sat? That was there then. This building was opened in 1988.”
Over tea, we talked about the tour and the museum. I asked her if the supplemental material was audio-described. She said no. I mentioned that I wished it were — not to hold up a person’s tour but to be available to a visually impaired person, or anyone who might want to hear that additional information. “Should we have things labeled in braille?” she asked.
“No, not really,” I said. “Having audio information is more useful to anyone. I am a good braille reader, but not everyone is. Besides, audio would be much less expensive.”
“That is the thing about accessibility,” Ani said. “If you really think about it, something that you think might help one group actually helps a lot more people.”
Ani explained that there were several continuously running feeds as well as the place where the funeral and memorial clips ran all the time. “Would you like to go back and hear them?” she asked.
At first I said no, but then I enthusiastically said yes. I might never be there again. “But could we try to let Cameo relieve?”
“Of course we could!” she said.
We walked across the street again to a grassy area — I don’t know if it was the grassy knoll — and it struck me that 52 years ago, people had been standing there waiting for the presidential motorcade and seeing history, another day of infamy in the life of the United States. “There are squirrels around here,” Ani explained, “and sometimes homeless people sleep here at night; maybe that is what she smells.” We tried twice — she wouldn’t go!
Back into the building we walked — up those stairs — now the site of the courthouse. “The judge is still in there,” Ani said. “I can see him through the window.”
Ani then took me into the library, and it was from this room that the narrator called WFAA to report the shooting. Now it is a Kennedy library with hundreds of hours of audio and any kind of book or video one might want concerning the assassination. “People come here and do research for weeks at a time,” Ani explained. “There are three computers here; they can just sit here and listen and read.” At the time we entered, no one was there.
I knew that right outside of the Sheraton Dallas, a light rail train ran. I also heard trains going past the museum. “Were those trains here back then?” I asked Ani. She said they were. “Would that be the same train that runs past the Sheraton?” I asked. “Probably not,” she replied. “That train is DART — Dallas Area Rapid Transit.”
We then went back up to the museum. Ani let me feel the (now restricted) freight elevator which had been used back then to transport the boxes of textbooks to their place and eventually to where they were shipped.
She took me to the sniper’s perch, now glassed in, from which Oswald shot. We then went a few steps farther to another glassed-in area where a rifle similar to the one he had used was placed among boxes of books, just as it had been found in 1963.
As we stood at the sniper’s perch, she explained that the trees are much higher now. I couldn’t help but wonder, “How could those shots be so perfect and exact that they hit Kennedy and the other dignitaries like Gov. Connolly and not anyone on the street?”
We heard the various audio feeds and went to sit briefly in a small quiet area where the funeral and other memorials continuously ran. “Many times you can hear a sniffle in there,” she said, “as people remember.”
Ani explained that the seventh floor is used for large gatherings; she took us up there, too. I asked if the banquet hall where the Dallas residents were waiting for President Kennedy was still there. “Oh yes! It’s used all the time,” she said.
By this time it was around 1 p.m., and we headed back to the Sheraton Dallas, awed and grateful for a life-changing experience.