Those of us who study the most important event in our lifetimes, one that changed the direction of this country for the next 50 years, are often regarded as “buffs” by those who have no sense of or interest in history. We are researchers, historians, medical and forensic experts and concerned citizens doing serious work on our history, which should belong to us, but which is still locked away in part despite recent files being released.
History buff revisits short-lived tour of JFK assassination-related sites and finds some things have changed
By MARC RAMIREZ
Dallas Morning News
Updated: 17 August 2013 10:33 PM
It is said those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Then again, Ron Nelson knew his history and he repeated it all the time. With enthusiasm.
For several years in the early 1990s, Nelson roved the grainy kaleidoscope of the Kennedy assassination on a regular basis, tracing its paths and landmarks for Dallas visitors as part of his own “JFK: The Tour.”
“I could do this tour in my sleep in those days,” he said.
With the 50th anniversary of the event at hand, the history buff sees a chance to share his passion anew, never mind that it might be one relic too dusty to restore.
At 69, Nelson no longer has the stamina to narrate his two-hour excursion, so the best way for tourgoers to enjoy the outing is self-guided, using the pre-recorded cassette tape he sells for $20.
Provided you can find a working cassette player.
Nelson has one, a tiny Aiwa boombox that he carried one recent morning in a rare re-enactment of the tour he hadn’t officially offered for nearly two decades.
His passion hadn’t wavered, even if his gears were a little rusty and things weren’t quite the same.
Familiar routes had been diverted or renamed, and certain landmarks alluded to on the tape – such as the Hard Rock Cafe once on McKinney Avenue – had changed or vanished.
During one part of the driving portion of the tour, he zoomed down the right lane of Turtle Creek Boulevard, even as his own voice on the tape advised: “Please move to the middle of the street, because the right lane ends.”
Suddenly he was pinned in the merge, forced to wait out the rushing cars to his left.
“Ha,” he said. “I forgot to do that.”
Nelson was 19 and living in Oklahoma City when Kennedy was killed. He moved to Dallas in the late 1960s and made a living as a commercial architect.
Every so often, he’d visit Dealey Plaza and take one of the Kennedy tours offered.
“It was just terrible,” he said. “Basically it was just a bus driver who knew next to nothing about the assassination. I thought: ‘A good tour could make some money.'”
He put something together and by the early 1990s was showing up at the plaza with his signature sea-foam-colored windbreaker (“JFK: The Tour,” it reads) and tipping hotel concierges who sent patrons his way.
“I never made any money at it,” he said.
After a few years, though, his real job began to suffer and, unable to afford city liability requirements, he pulled the plug. First, though, he hired a recording studio to mass-produce the tour on cassette.
The tour is two parts – a 30-minute walking tour, then 90 minutes by car. Nelson began at the corner of Main and Houston streets, his taped tidbits about nearby buildings barely audible above passing traffic.
Eventually, he ambled over to the Texas School Book Depository and grassy knoll, where, nearby, the infamous ‘X’ on Elm Street remains a macabre tourist photo draw.
“I don’t know who painted that X there,” he said. “But it looks pretty accurate.”
On the tape, Nelson adopts a Boston accent when recounting Kennedy’s
speeches and exchanges, and his folksy narration is laced with deadpan moments.
Tracing the motorcade’s mad dash to Parkland Memorial Hospital after the shooting, he cautions: “It is not recommended you try to duplicate it at that speed.”
Some nuggets may even surprise, such as the fact that Kennedy had flown to Dallas from Fort Worth, where he’d addressed a crowd the day before; or that LBJ was spirited away from Parkland crouched on the floorboard of the back seat of a federal agent’s car.
“LBJ’s first ride as president was not very comfortable, to say the least,” Nelson’s voice says on the tape.
He mimicked the beginnings of the motorcade route after Kennedy’s greeting at Dallas Love Field, along Mockingbird and Lemmon avenues, then Turtle Creek Boulevard.
“None of these buildings were here then,” he said. “Turtle Creek was not as positive. Hippies would come over here and skinny-dip.”
He suddenly pulled into the parking lot of an Audi dealership. The tape had gone silent; he flipped it over and the tour resumed.
Then it was on to Oak Cliff, and before long he was going the wrong way down a one-way street, near Adamson High School. He seemed befuddled.
“Oh, shoot,” Nelson said. “I went too far.”
But no, something wasn’t right.
“This is all new down here,” he said. “They’ve completely taken out 10th Street.”
He turned around and circled the campus, trying to come in from another angle. Finally, there it was, the corner of 10th and Patton Avenue, where Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Dallas police Officer J.D. Tippit.
Old city jail
Downtown, on Main, Nelson parked across from the old city jail and
approached the entryway leading to the basement level, where Oswald was shot by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
The garage door, rolled down, caught him by surprise.
“Oh, well,” he said. Suddenly: the honk of a car trying to pass. Nelson got out of the way and the gate began to roll up.
The car headed down into the garage. Nelson signaled with a finger. Come on. He trotted in with his boombox.
As he went in, a parking-enforcement vehicle pulled in after him. “Hey!” the officer said. “You can’t be down here.”
Nelson sheepishly headed back outside.
“You used to be able to go down there,” he grumbled.
Nelson doesn’t miss the struggle of drumming up tour business, nor does he miss the traffic.
But it’s clear that he enjoys sharing what he knows. To spend time with him is to brave a fusillade of JFK factoids.
Though he always avoided talk of conspiracy theories, he said, “What was fun was to get two or three conspiracy buffs on the tour and let them argue amongst themselves.”
AT A GLANCE: Tours for sale
What: “JFK: The Tour”
Format: Self-guided using a pre-recorded cassette tape
Time: 30 minutes by foot, then 90 minutes by car