Archive for the 'Tourist Sites' Category

The JFK Assassination: Size Matters

21 November, 2013
Pic 1: The Book Depository looms over the Parkway

Pic 1: The Book Depository looms over Elm St.

Earlier this year I spent a morning at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. It was an early spring day with just enough crispness in the air to make the sunlight pop. As I strolled around, I was struck by the familiarity of my surrounds. Images, from the Zapruder film to the myriad iconic pictures of the day, have seared the scenes of November 22, 1963 into my brain.

Standing next to Elm St, the road taken by the presidential limo, everything around me was familiar yet also surprising. Everywhere I looked, I just kept thinking It’s small!

Pic 2: New grass for the Grassy Knoll, just across the Parkway

Pic 2: New grass for the Grassy Knoll; X marks the spot of a shot.

From the south side of the street I looked over to the grassy knoll and it was simply right there! Not off in the distance, where a second, third or fourth gunman or a Cuban or a Mafia hit man, a deranged Republican or equally improbable character could have plugged away with impunity, but rather just a few yards beyond the three-lane road. To talk to the tourists gazing out from tree-shaded knoll, I wouldn’t have had to shout, just project my voice a little.

In fact, Dealey Plaza and Elm St, the stage where the killing of Kennedy played out, is like a lot of stages: small. From the top of Elm St to the places where John F Kennedy was shot isn’t much larger than an midrange suburban lawn. It’s like when I toured The Tonight Show studio at NBC in Burbank when I was a kid and discovered that what seemed sprawling on TV wasn’t any larger than a two-car garage.

Pic 3: The view from the Grassy Knoll

Pic 3: The view from the Grassy Knoll.

Typical camera lenses have wide angles and looking at my own photos, I see how my images make the views broad, the distances long. But when I stood behind the fence on the grassy knoll, looking at where the bullets hit JFK (conveniently marked with X’s painted on the pavement), I was almost on top of Elm St, which was lined with bystanders that day. Where Abraham Zapruder filmed with his 8mm camera was just a few feet away. Yet, in the minutes after the gunfire, dozens of people pointed at the open window of the Texas School Book Depository while almost no one pointed at the much closer grassy knoll.

The view from above, courtesy of Apple Maps

Dealey Plaza from above.   ©Apple Maps

Later, I visited the highly worthwhile Sixth Floor Museum in the eerily familiar red brick former book depository. (Walking in, I couldn’t help but shiver as I entered that place.) Crouching down just behind where Lee Harvey Oswald aimed out the window I was again struck by the lack of distance. Elm St is right below Oswald’s perch and the two painted X’s are close. Rather than a marksman, it seems that even the most casual of weekend warriors hoping to rid America’s woods of dangerous deer could make the shots. His field of fire was, yes, small. [The museum forbids photos from the window, which means you can purchase images of the view from the gift shop.]

I am convinced that had others been shooting at JFK 50 years ago, people would have both heard and seen them. Even the click of a lighter behind the grassy knoll is audible across Elm St. As an American, I may be predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories (you get one guess as to where most of the world’s UFO reports originate) and my years as a reporter taught me that nothing is too bizarre or improbable to be true, but in this case I’m not buying it. Wishing for some cinematic sweep of intrigue doesn’t make JFK conspiracy theories any more true than the tantalizing prospect that scores of MIAs have been kept hidden in the jungles of Vietnam for decades.

And if you only read two pieces of 50th anniversary coverage, try these two:

  • In a concise and cogent essay, Slate’s Fred Kaplan debunks a wide-range of conspiracy theories.
  • November 22, 1963 was that era’s “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed/the World Trade Center was destroyed?” moment. Edward Cohen of The Atlantic has clips of the initially breathless TV bulletins and weaves them together with context and thoughtful commentary.

Finally, although I had only just turned three, I have vivid memories of the news that Kennedy was killed. My mother and sister sat weeping in front of our big old black and white TV, which stayed on – with me in front of it – for the next several days.


Hunting Beatles in Hamburg

10 April, 2012

Star Club Memorial, Große Freiheit 39

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Beatles seminal gig at the fabled Starr Club in Hamburg, which was the seminal point during a two-year run Germany’s second-largest city that transformed them from a bunch of lads from England into superstars. Looking for traces of their Hamburg legacy, I found a few addresses with links to the boys. Mostly, though, I found sun-faded dildos.

The Star Club is most closely associated with the Beatles in Hamburg but it’s long gone. There’s only this sad plaque [above] on the shabby apartment complex that replaced the 2000-seat venue after it burnt down in 1987. However the Beatles didn’t play the Star until it opened on 13 April 1962 by which time they were well on their way to fame and fortune. Their Hamburg gigs began in August 1960, when John, Paul and George plus bass player Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best arrived from England in a busted up old van and began their transformation into sensations.

Indra Club, 64 Grosse Freiheit

The first gigs were in the small Indra Club, which actually survives and once again has live music some nights. They were paid next-to-nothing and played at least four sets a day for what must have seemed eight days a week. Their quarters were an unheated room at a nearby movie theatre (now an apartment house) where they were awakened each day by the sounds of budget-matinee-attending housewives pissing in the adjoining toilets.

Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36

In October 1960, the Indra was closed due to noise complaints (I lived in Germany, Germans hate noise.) The boys moved just up the block to the Kaiserkeller, a basement venue of a larger theatre. This place also survives, although in much-altered form.

Gretel & Alfons, Grosse Freiheit 29

As you wander about the Grosse Freiheit, the short and straight road that was the center of the Beatles time in Hamburg, you realize just how small their world was: their venues and scuzzy rooms were all within a few hundred meters of each other. Their favourite cafe and bar durimg their few off-hours, the barely changed Gretel & Alfons, was almost next to the Star Club.

Former Top 10 Club, Reeperbahn 136

In late October 1960, the Beatles broke with their promoter at the Kaiserkeller and went for slightly more money and marginally better living quarters at the Top Ten Club just around the corner. Things quickly fell apart as the old promoter reported George Harrison to immigration authorities (he was 17) and McCartney and Best retaliated by setting fire to a condom in their old daggy living quarters. This added “attempted arson” to their legal woes and the boys went back to Liverpool. The Top 10 Club building survives but has had many incarnations over the years, most recently a now-closed gay disco.

How much for that ducky - or dildo - in the window?

Unlike the early 1960s, the infamous Reeperbahn, the main drag of Hamburg’s renowned St Pauli district, is no longer an edgy strip of cutting edge clubs and bars. Today neon-bedecked strip joints and live sex clubs are as common as bars with shot specials aimed at tourists and weekend warriors from nearby farm towns. Even the goods in the plethora of sex shops look deflated. You won’t find the Beatles of today playing anywhere here. On weekends, prostitutes with so much makeup that they look like grotesquely animated blow-up dolls prowl the streets, chatting with the mobs of cops.

Where the Grosse Freiheit meets the Reeperbahn, the city has created “Beatlesplatz,” a desolate open-space with the outlines of the Beatles formed from stainless steel. You can decide if the drummer is Best or Ringo Starr (who had replaced Best for a Starr Club appearance in November 1962). By 1963, the Beatles were gone from Hamburg. John Lennon later said: “I might have been born in Liverpool – but I grew up in Hamburg.”