As an ex-pat kid in the 70’s, nothing said America to me more than Texas. I misunderstood my mother’s explanation of the American state. “There are cattle in Texas,” she told me as we drove home from the international school in our Fiat station wagon, “and oil. There are great big oil fields with rigs.” We lived in a semi-rural area of Switzerland, and our next door neighbors were dairy farmers, so I had close-up experience with cattle, but I didn’t know what an oil rig was. We drove past a transmission tower, and I imagined that was what an oil rig looked like. I pictured a cow standing underneath the tower, munching on the square of grass contained in its footprint, and this became my go-to representation of Texas.
There is nothing more powerful than living away from the country of your birth to distill the essence of the place into your consciousness. Here’s what I knew about America in 1978: there was candy, lots of it. I knew this for a fact because the previous year my uncle Stewart sent us a care package from Maine filled with Razzles, Candy Corn, Mike & Ikes, Gobstoppers, Bubble Yum, Pop Rocks, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey’s Kisses, and Tootsie Rolls. The fact that Uncle Stewart was a dentist didn’t strike me as ironic until years later.
Every summer we’d visit my grandparents in Michigan where my cousins introduced me to the wonders of Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms for breakfast, and on Saturday mornings I absorbed the wonders of Fat Albert, Woody Woodpecker, and Bugs Bunny. If I knew nothing else about the land of my birth, I knew it was sweet, brightly colored, and that a fat kid named Albert lived there.
Along with candy, my understanding of what it meant to be American came in the form of pop music and movies. I’d seen Superman and Star Wars in the theater, in the original English, but the American films that aired on Television Suisse Romande were dubbed in French. Years later, it startled me to hear John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in their original voices. Westerns were very popular among my age group; every year at Halloween my mother drove me and a couple other kids to the other American ex-pat households (the only ones that knew what Halloween was), and the cowboy was the go-to costume for American boys.
To say that the American cowboy represented the United States to me is an understatement. With his cavalier, can-do attitude, his rugged individualism, and his perpetual five o’clock shadow, he projected the spirit and attitude of America in a way that no other cultural or political export could: more than Mickey Mouse, more than Keith Partridge, more than even Jimmy Carter. I loved the way a movie cowboy always tipped his hat slightly when greeting a lady and said, “ma’am,” the way he could sleep leaning back in a stool, hat pulled down over his face, boots propped up on a fence, the way he never took any shit in a bar, breaking bottles over the heads of anyone who dared cross him. There was no horse too wild to be broken, no drought too severe to live through, and no black-hatted scoundrel wily enough to escape the deadly force of an American cowboy.
When my mother told me that we’d be moving back to the States the summer I turned 9, I was thrilled. In the months leading up to our move I told anyone who would listen: “we’re moving back to America!” Not New York, not Brooklyn, but America, as if no further specificity was required. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I knew one thing: there would be cowboys.
I had survived the rigors of living outside of America’s sweet, sugary borders, and I returned expecting some sort of hero’s welcome. Instead I was treated like a foreigner, which, for all intents and purposes, I was. Outside of those summer visits to Michigan I had no working knowledge of the country; we’d left when I was three. My new classmates were quick to point out that I ate the wrong foods, wore the wrong clothes, and watched the wrong TV shows. I came to understand America as an outsider, learning its rituals, one at a time. I learned the Pledge of Allegiance and the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner with the zeal of an immigrant. I absorbed the lessons of TV advertising, I knew that Pert shampoo would give me bouncin’ and behavin’ hair, that Excedrin was headache medicine for pain, and that Riunite and a slice was nice. I watched the Super Bowl, not because I understood or enjoyed American football, but because I felt it was my civic duty. As an adult, for the most part I pass as American, but I still have moments when my difference becomes obvious to others. I have never quite understood the appeal of Johnny Carson, Las Vegas, or the deification of the Kennedy family.
In February, I travelled to Dallas for work; apart from the stirring theme song of the nighttime soap opera starring Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy as the Ewing brothers, I knew nothing about Dallas. My colleagues and I landed at Dallas/Ft. Worth, and we asked our cab driver, the default ambassador of any city, what we should see as tourists. “There’s not really a lot to do,” he began, almost apologetically, “there’s the art museum, we have an aquarium, and the grassy knoll.” I checked his expression in the rearview mirror for signs of sarcasm, but his wide face showed no signs of anything but the most honest to goodness, what-you-see-is-what-you-get composure that you’d expect from a tour guide leading families dressed in khaki shorts and sun visors around a state capitol.
The “Visit Dallas” brochure in my hotel room, which included the site of the Kennedy assassination in a list of notable landmarks, corroborated the cab driver’s statements.
Even the name of the institution is ominous: The Sixth Floor Museum, so named because Lee Harvey Oswald picked off the President from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. It wasn’t a landmark I’d planned on visiting, but after sitting through a training in the same conference room for days on end I was eager to get out and do something – anything, besides go back to my hotel room and watch cable TV.
The woman who sold me a ticket at the museum called me “sugar” no less than seven times over the course of our transaction, underscoring the sweetness in American life that I knew existed when my uncle Stewart sent my family a care package all those years ago, and that comes through in the vernacular in words like: sugar, sweetie, and honey.
The mission statement of the Sixth Floor Museum opens with: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. Included in the price of admission is an audio guide narrated by Pierce Allman, the first reporter to broadcast from the Texas School Book Depository on November 22,1963. He begins the tour by stating that he was there, and then narrates historical photos and moving images, including the Abraham Zapruder and Orville Nix films, a glassed off recreation of the sniper’s perch, and autopsy sketches. At one point Allman tells the listener to look out the window at Dealy Plaza, imagine aiming a loaded rifle at the spots on the street below that have been marked with white painted Xs, and having the marksmanship to hit the moving target.
There’s a guest book at the end of the tour where patrons can record their reactions. It lay open to a page where someone had written in all caps: “OSWALD ACTED ALONE.” Underneath, someone else had written: “America has never been the same;” and next to that, underlined:”Optimism died.”
Photography is not allowed on the sixth floor, but if you’ve got the wherewithal you can pose on one of the white painted Xs on the street while a friend takes your picture and then uploads it to Instagram, and there’s a bearded, bespectacled man – unaffiliated with the museum, who sits on a folding chair at Dealey Plaza and implores passersby to look at his materials – displayed on an easel and a TV tray, and listen to conspiracy theories.
Was it possible, I wondered, that the city of Dallas feels so responsible for the death of JFK that like a visual hair shirt it feels the need to put the event on public display in the most morbid way possible, and if so, why did it seem to venerate the assassin almost as much the victim? There have been other notable assassinations in our nation’s history – you can go to Memphis and see the room at the Lorraine Motel where MLK was shot, but there’s no recreated sniper’s nest across the street where you can listen to an audio narration directing you to imagine yourself as James Earl Ray lining the man up in your crosshairs. Was I simply reacting as a snobby, liberal, gun-hating Northerner? Earlier in the week I’d noted a sign posted at every entrance of the building where I was training that read, in all caps: “POSSESSION OF WEAPONS IS PROHIBITED, POSESION DE ARMAS ES PROHIBIDO.”
Hung on a wall of my hotel room, across from the bed, was a sepia toned photograph of two long horn cattle. Western themed objects had been placed around the building as if to remind guests that they were, in fact, in Texas, despite the fact that if it weren’t for the pair of cowboy boots on display behind the check-in counter, the black and white photographs of long dead ranchers in the lobby, and the hotel restaurant playfully named “The Brass Cactus,” this hotel could have been located on any stretch of highway, anywhere. I saw exactly one person wearing a ten gallon hat; that was my only cowboy sighting. He sat in the lobby of the hotel; his white hat creating a distinctive profile on an otherwise ordinary looking man. He sat alone on a leather couch, perhaps waiting for someone, simultaneously fitting in with the hotel décor and standing apart from anyone else in the lobby.
As for JFK, I’ve never been hugely into the Kennedys but I understand the appeal from a sociological standpoint. They’re an American dynasty that has been elevated to the strata of myth, and unlike some other notable American families like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, have enough public service and tragedy woven into their history to dilute their aristocratic aura and make them accessible to the rest of the country. My family lives in Boston now, Kennedy country. I can’t visit Cape Cod without closing in on Hyannis Port, home of the Kennedy Compound, and there is a litany of things in Boston named for the man: The John F. Kennedy library, the John F. Kennedy school of Government, the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, just to name a few. Boston venerates Kennedy by naming buildings after him; Dallas venerates him by making the site of his murder their most identifying characteristic.
Dallas comes across as an outsider trying to fit in, taking on the trappings of Western lore without having a true Western identity, the way I started wearing Levi’s and listening to Billy Joel when my family moved back to the states. It’s identity as a city is just as flimsy–you can go shopping, you can watch a football game, or you can work–all things that you can do just about anywhere. You can eat some really good brisket, and you can buy a pair of heirloom quality cowboy boots, but that’s about as Western as it gets.
The Sixth Floor Museum itself certainly projects some mixed messages. Included in the FAQ section of its website is:
Q: Was the Kennedy family involved with the creation of the Museum?
A: No. However, much care has been given to creating a museum that is respectful of the subject matter.
It has a gift shop that sells votive candle holders with JFK’s likeness stamped on them, Christmas tree ornaments, and volumes detailing the history of the Kennedy administration and the assassination itself.
This month marks 50 years since the assassination. The Sixth Floor Museum website has a link to a calendar of events commemorating the event around Dallas: there’s a play called “Oswald: The Interrogation,” Jack Ruby’s lawyer will be speaking, and an organization that goes by the acronym COPA (the Committee on Political Assassinations) is convening in Dallas on November 22nd. Something for everyone! Amid all the postulating, theorizing, and analyzing, the only person I’m really curious about in all this commemoration is Caroline. Her parents and brother all dead, she is the sole survivor of the particular unit of Kennedys that she comes from. On October 16th of this year Caroline was confirmed as the US Ambassador to Japan. I wonder if she’ll be in Japan on the day that Dallas and the rest of the world remember her father’s murder. If I were her, that’s where I’d want to be: half a world away, where the time change is drastic enough that I wouldn’t have to deal with most of it, where I could walk down the street in relative anonymity, where the experience of this most morbid of golden anniversaries will be distilled into its essence in the way that only physical distance and being a stranger in a strange land can.
J.H. Palmer is a Chicago-based writer and storyteller, and co-produces the live lit show That's All She Wrote. She has appeared at a number of live lit venues including: Story Lab, Story Club, Essay Fiesta, This Much Is True, 2nd Story, SKALD, Mortified!, WRITE CLUB!, Guts & Glory, and The Moth GrandSLAM. She is pursuing a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Chicago.