You’re from New Orleans! You know who else is from there?” John, our tour guide in Dallas, asked. “Yes,” I answered, “and you know who was named John?”
You can look at the fine museums, performance center and nouveau modern buildings in Dallas; you can experience a bit of the quaint Texas of lore in a downtown neighborhood called West End, where Stetsons and boots can be purchased at Wild Bill’s Western Store or you can have dinner at the YO Ranch Steakhouse, where the menu includes rattlesnake chili and buffalo filet. You can do all those things, but it’s hard to ignore nearby Dealey Plaza and the sixth floor of the building on the corner overlooking Elm Street.
Our tour guide dutifully showed us the other attractions, but then as John turned a corner not far from a grassy knoll, the interest level increased as though flipped by a switch – this is why we were really there.
Whenever there is talk about the events of Nov. 22, 1963, there is always a mental asterisk. We have been conditioned to believe that there is a still an unsolved conspiracy, even after a half-century’s worth of global sleuthing. There is a lot to question, such as if any other evil force was behind the assassination, but there is one factor that is absolute: Lee Harvey Oswald did it – and he was acting alone from the Texas Book Depository. The murder weapon was his rifle. His past was that of a fanatic out to take his place in infamy. To John the tour guide New Orleans is a wonderful place to visit, but there is another asterisk. It is also the birthplace of Oswald.
By late 1963 the assassin-to-be was living in a one-story rooming house in Dallas’ Oak Cliff neighborhood. John drove us to the place, which is now known as the Oswald Rooming House. Patricia Hall, the granddaughter of the woman who owned the building back then, greeted us. At the time, 16 men lived in the building scattered across different rooms. There was a common sitting room with a worn sofa and a black-and-white TV and a kitchen. The décor was basic Americana froufrou. “Let me show you Lee’s room,” she said. Had Oswald spent the rest of his life in a jail cell it would have seemed spacious compared to this tiny room that contained simply a bed, chest of drawers and a chair. Here a 24-year-old loner likely thought through killing the most important person in the world, who had lived all is life in spacious mansions.
After the assassination, and with Dallas in turmoil, Oswald returned briefly to the house that afternoon to get a jacket. (He had left his other one in the book depository.) That tiny room would provide his last moment of solitude. From there he began walking, with a pistol in his pocket, through the neighborhood. By then the police were primed for a manhunt. We know the rest of the story: When a patrolling officer stopped the shooter, who no doubt looked suspicious, Oswald shot and killed him. He then ran into a nearby movie house where he was spotted, wrestled down, arrested and taken to jail by a band of eager cops.
From that day, Patricia Hall’s life has been one of remembering Oswald, largely for tips. She was 11 at the time, but claims to remember playing games with Oswald and some of the guys on the front lawn. Oswald would bring some notoriety to the neighborhood, but according to John, property values have generally stayed low. Neighborhoods of assassins are apparently soft on the market.
Not far away was another home where Oswald lived before his divorce from his Russian-born wife Marina. It was in the small backyard there that Oswald, dressed in black, posed for a picture, taken by Marina, showing him with a rifle and pistol and a copy of a newspaper called The Militant. That was the pose of a man with a mission. The picture would eventually become famous from being on the cover of Life Magazine.
For Patricia Hall the case still is not totally closed. In the hours that followed the crime, she recalled, the FBI and other police rushed to the house. He grandmother watched as they entered Oswald’s room and carried away his possessions, as well as the towels and sheets. “They said they would return the sheets,” she said, “but they never did.”
Maybe one day there will be another knock on the door.