Friday, November 27, 2009

Assassination Vacation

This post was started in Dallas on the evening Sunday, November 22, but was delayed due to Youngest Daughter's ingestion of a 12-ounce bottle of Coke, which turned out to be the equivalent of letting her do a line of blow. Current Husband and I don't let the kids have soda unless it's a special occasion. This night turned out to be very special. YD was like Robert Downey Jr., on- AND off-set in "Less Than Zero". She spent the next five hours in the hotel room jumping on the couches, the beds, the carpet squares, her brother, her sister, her father and me. She was simultaneously asking to ride the elevators and use the ice machine, power-changing the channel on the 42-inch flat screen TV, and translating the hotel guest guide in Arabic. We survived, the blog did not. This is the delayed story.

We're on a vacation of sorts, and we decided to take the kids to a popular attraction. Was it Disney? Six Flags? The Zoo? Oh no. I took a page out of Sarah Vowell's book, Assassination Vacation, and took my impressionable young children to see the Sixth Floor Museum in the Texas School Book Depository Building in Downtown Dallas. On November 22. Because if one is going to show the children pictures of the 35th president getting killed, one should do it on the exact date so they get the full emotional impact.

It's important to take children to traumatic landmarks, because the subliminal message is: The world is an unpredictable place. If you don't listen to your parents, we can't be responsible for what might happen.

You may ask, "Why go to Dealey Plaza for Thanksgiving?" My parents live in the southernmost part of Texas, near South Padre Island and the Mexican border, which is a 22-hour drive from our home in the Quad Cities. It's been six years since our last visit south, because it has taken that long to forget what it's like to travel over the course of two days with children. So we loaded up the van, packed the juice boxes and snack packs, fired up the DVD player and charged all DS's and iPods, and pulled away from the curb.

The first eight hours weren't so bad. Then the batteries started running low on all of our diversionary tactics. That's when the touching began. With two children, you can guess who is touching whom. With three, it becomes the Bermuda Triangle of Touching - one never knows where it began or where it will end, and the trail of evidence seems to mysteriously disappear. CH and I also discovered that somewhere along the way, we taught the kids to speak loudly and carry a small, quickly concealable stick. I made CH pull over in Oklahoma, where I erected a barrier of pillows between the children, and then threatened them with physical violence through my clenched, frothing teeth. This bit of exemplary parenting was rewarded with my third Starbucks espresso beverage of the trip.

Finally, we arrived at the Dallas hotel, our halfway point. We unloaded the van, gave the children Ambien-laced cookies, and waited. (Just kidding, Department of Human Services!) The next morning, we woke them in time to make the complimentary continental breakfast and let them gorge themselves sick on cereal, fruit, yogurt, and English muffins, because three meals are unnecessary when one is free and bathrooms are scarce. It was time to go to Dealey Plaza.

As we approached the Texas School Book Depository Building in downtown Dallas, I got the butterflies in my stomach that only a seriously ill presidential-historian-pop-culture junkie will. I am a Kennedy freak. I rate my obsession with the Kennedys up there with my odd proclivities for the stories of Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones, John Lennon, Watergate, domestic terrorists, Jane Austen and the Twilight saga. (And skinny vanilla lattes. And food. And red wine. Okay, I have an obsessive personality.)

The kids had that lead feeling in their stomachs that only the children of a person who lights up when a National Historic Landmark sign for a Presidential Library passes will. They know they are in for a few hours of Mommy Telling Them About History. And not eating or drinking or going on rides or going to the bathroom or being allowed to talk about anything but history. Fun!

We got out of the car and I breathed in Dealey Plaza air. I could touch the building Lee Harvey Oswald touched. I could see the Grassy Knoll, and where those shadowy bastards who were never caught parked in the railroad yard. I put two cameras in my bag and we walked through the portal doors to the early 1960's.

The first thing I saw was a floor-to-ceiling color photo of JFK and Jackie in the convertible, waving, just before the first shot rang out. Jackie was in the bright pink suit and pillbox hat, red roses on the seat beside her, and both of them are smiling and waving. I was geeking out. I took a picture of the kids next to the wall and said, "...and this is right about when Mrs. Connally says 'You can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President!' and then he gets shot the first time." I was thinking the kids didn't look appropriately impacted by this statement when I noticed the sign: "Cameras are not allowed in the museum." WHA?!?!??!?

Why are people not allowed to photograph the JFK assassination exhibit!? I think it is a conspiracy. Do they fear that the information inside the museum will make it to the outside, and then the truth will be known? Do they think if I have photos of the museum it will deter me from returning and bringing my friends? Are they worried that someone MIGHT make their family pose with Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby for their Christmas card photo? Because I had no intention of doing something that crass. (I saved that for the Grassy Knoll, of course.)

While the other two children looked alternately bored and confused, Youngest Daughter got into the spirit. She did the audio tour with me, where we donned earphones and listened to a guided tour of the museum. However, she became impatient around the Cuban Missile Crisis and started moving ahead. She would turn her little First Grader face up to me and say, "I'm going to The Race to Parkland Hospital, okay?" and I would have to say, "Oh no, honey, the President has to be shot first, at The First Shot Rings Out, just wait a minute."

It started to dawn on all of the children that this was a real person when they saw the little movie where Caroline and John-John come out with Jackie and John-John salutes his father's casket as it goes by. So sad. Of course I am crying, which traumatizes the children further. CH uses this opportunity, in a totally selfless act, to take the kids to the Hard Rock Cafe for beer (for him) and Cokes (for the kids) and nachos and to watch the Dallas Cowboys game. Oldest Daughter stays with me, because she wants an iTouch for Christmas, and she knows who buys the gifts.

I wander around the exhibit for another hour, retrieve my historically deficient family, and make them stand and look at the large "X" on Elm Street where the limo was when the fatal shot rang out. We then walk to the Grassy Knoll, and past all of the Conspiracy Theory nuts who bring out their tri-fold cardboard displays and self-published books and ask for tips. CH theorizes this is to fund pot smoking in their mother's basements, because it is not being spent on quality displays or fancy clothes.

As it was the anniversary date of the assassination, there were a lot of people milling about Dealey Plaza. Oddly enough, on the way back to the car, we saw about 100 people getting ready to do a bike ride on the path of the assassination, and they were all dressed in tweed and looked Scottish. When I asked what they were doing, they said, in a Scottish brogue, "The Tweed Ride. It's something we do." Oh.

When we got back to the hotel room, I asked the kids what impressed them the most. Oldest Daughter said, "That the government kept operating, and the next president was sworn in right away." Hello, iTouch! Middle Son said, "That it isn't for sure that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone." You, too, may get an iTouch! Youngest Daughter said, "That Dallas, Texas has so many Scottish people." Okay, that may be worth a Puppy in My Pocket Standard Poodle Newborn Center. CH said, "That the Cowboys managed to win that game." No sex for you, CH.

(I would like to take this opportunity to note that unbeknownst to me, The Edge, my next husband, was in Dallas a few days later at the Thanksgiving Day Cowboys game. I am quite sure that he not only would have preferred to attend the Sixth Floor Museum with me, but would have given interesting theories on the Grassy Knoll shooters while noting how stunning I looked in front of the Who Was Jack Ruby? display. But I digress.)

But for me it was being present in a place about history that irrevocably changed the world. If you asked people how they felt in the days after the assassination, many of them said they felt like the world was ending, or that it seemed the future was uncertain, and yet, here we are. Still okay, and able to bore our children in National Historical Landmarks. It gives me hope that someday I can look proudly on as my children force my grandchildren to trudge through the September 11 Memorial in New York or Pennsylvania and make them respect the past and embrace their future. And reward them with sugary drinks that will make them lose their minds. It is the Circle of Life.


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