By James Charisma
Two years ago last summer, I passed through Dallas on a trip through the southern United States. While I was there, I purchased tickets for the Sixth Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository in Downtown Dallas. It was here that Lee Harvey Oswald had (presumably) shot John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, and the entire floor had been converted to a museum where guests could learn about the early ‘60s, the President, and the events leading up to the assassination.
I knew the facts about the Kennedy assassination, but not the details and certainly not the stories; when the elevator took us up to the sixth floor and the doors opened up to reveal a sprawling exhibit filled with rare photographs, vintage posters and declassified documents, it did not disappoint. At the museum’s core was a minute-by-minute walkthrough of Kennedy’s brief time in Dallas, from his arrival at Love Field airport to the shooting. I can remember the feeling of anticipation and dread that slowly built as I approached Oswald’s sniper nest in the corner window, lingering for an extra moment on a massive photo of John F. Kennedy riding in his limousine, smiling and waving, just before shots were fired.
Suddenly, alarms sounded. Security guards rushed onto the floor and yelled for an immediate evacuation, ushering everyone quickly into the fire escape stairwell. My phone was in my hand as I hustled downstairs with the rest of the crowd, and I accidentally snapped a picture while holding the railing. A woman ahead of me had been crying, moved by the exhibit, and the photo I managed to take included the stairs, my shoes, and the tissue she dropped onto a windowsill below (pictured below).
We spilled out into Dealey Plaza outside, security still yelling to move away from the building and keep clear, unsure if the threat was from a fire or a bomb or gunman. Nearby pedestrians and other passersby turned their attention to us and the alarm, which was now echoing down the street. No one knew what was happening. Twenty minutes later, they were able to get the alarm turned off, but the police had arrived and it was clear that no one was returning to the museum that afternoon. I eventually left Dallas a few hours later. It was only afterward, when I researched the assassination on my own, that I was able to hear the stories and learn more about what I had missed.
Looking back, I was only able to witness part of the Kennedy assassination, but in many ways, my experience might’ve been one of the most authentic to what that day in November 1963 actually felt like: excitement, suddenly an explosion — then confusion and fear. A full realization of what happened wouldn’t come until weeks, months, or even years later.
This upcoming Sunday is the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks — an event that represents to this generation what the Kennedy assassination was to generations prior: a single unequivocal moment forever burned into our collective American consciousness, which would change the shape of the world as we knew it.
On that day in New York City, nothing could be understood. It is only now, in the coolness of time, when we’ve had a chance to weigh the loss and the lives, that the picture starts to come into view. Like travelers moving away from somewhere and going toward someplace else, as time passes, the place we’ve left becomes clearer, if only because it can finally be seen in its entirety. Five wars, two presidents, and a whole new World Trade Center later … we’ve come a long way.
The question now is what lies ahead. 2016 has proven itself a somewhat depressing year, with so many tragedies and disasters unfolding that we need only say just one word — Orlando, Syria, Brexit, Nice, Zika — and we remember. This is a year where everything feels like it’s ending and everyone seems to be dying. We’re not even feeling good about the upcoming election of a new president to lead our country. And in December, another anniversary: of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago.
It’s easy to get caught up in the insanity of the present moment, where every news headline screams horror and where everything seems to sit at the brink of collapse. This is how the world felt in 1963, and in 2001. But the passage of time also affords us an opportunity — a corner window where we can gaze out on the road ahead of us and decide what happens next.
James Charisma is the director of Charisma Industries, a creative design agency in Honolulu.
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