Dealey Plaza. It’s a hot morning in August of this year, and motorists whizzing down Elm Street are witnessing a curious, if not sinister, phenomenon. Three people have gathered around a manhole at the foot of the famous grassy knoll. There’s an attractive young blond woman, a spry, grizzled older fellow in a Coors cap, and a guy in his thirties with a tape recorder. The older guy is bending down and—demonstrating remarkable vigor—pulling the hundred-pound manhole cover out of its recess in the sidewalk.
Then he stops. Waits for a Dallas Police Department squad car to cruise by and disappear into the darkness of the Triple Underpass. At last he has yanked the massive iron seal clear of the opening that leads down to the storm sewer system honeycombing the underside of Dealey Plaza.
Then he does something really strange. He walks out into the middle of Elm Street traffic, heads uphill between two lanes of oncoming cars, and plants himself in the middle of the road about 25 yards upstream.
“Okay now, Ron. I’m standing right where the president was when he took the head shot. Now I want you to get down in that manhole,” he yells at the younger guy, who, not to be coy, is me. “Elaine,” he calls out to the woman, “you show him how to position himself.”
So here I am, out in the midday sun, lowering myself into this manhole. It’s kind of cool down here, though some might call it dank. While it is nice to escape the pounding of the direct sunlight, this is not my idea of summer fun. But this is no ordinary manhole. This is the historic Dealey Plaza manhole that a certain faction of assassination buffs—led by Penn Jones, Jr., the guy in the middle of Elm Street—believes sheltered a sniper who fired the fatal frontal head shot on November 22, 1963. This manhole is the first stop on a grand tour of Dallas assassination shrines, during which, among other things, Penn has promised to show me the exact locations from which, he says offhandedly, the nine gunmen fired at John F. Kennedy that day. Sort of the Stations of the Cross Fire in conspiracy-theory gospel.
You remember Penn Jones Jr., don’t you? The feisty, combative country editor of the Midlothian Mirror. Author of the four-volume (so far) privately printed series called Forgive My Grief, the continuing account of his JFK-assassination investigation, which focuses on the deaths and disappearances of the 188 witnesses (so far) who Penn contends knew too much about the assassination conspiracy to be permitted to live.
Well, Penn Jones, Jr., is still on the case. He has retired from his editor’s post to a farmhouse in Waxahachie, where he lives with his disciple and research associate, Elaine Kavanaugh, and publishes a monthly assassination newsletter, the Continuing Inquiry.
“Elaine,” Penn yells out, “get Ron to back up against the wall there. Then he’ll know what I mean.”
I think Penn has sensed that I have some reservations about his Manhole Sniper theory, and this elaborate positioning is designed to address my doubts. In fact, I am skeptical.
Not the least of my problems with the Manhole Sniper theory is that it requires the putative manhole assassin to have popped up the hundred-pound manhole cover at just the right moment, fired a shot, then plopped it down over his head without any of the surrounding crowd taking notice of his activity. But Penn is determined to set me straight on this misapprehension.
“Okay now, Ron, you’ve got to move back so’s your back is touching the rear of the hole there,” Elaine says.
I follow her instructions and find myself completely under the overhang of pavement. In total darkness, except…well, damned if there isn’t a perfect little rectangle of daylight coming through an opening in the pavement right in front of my eyes, and damned if Penn Jones’ face isn’t framed right in it.
“That’s the storm drain in the curb side you’re lookin’ out now,” says Elaine.
“See what a clear shot he had?” Penn Jones yells out. “Okay, Elaine, now pull that manhole cover back over on top of him. Ron, you’ll see that even in the dark you’ll be able to feel your way to one of those runoff tunnels he used to squirm his way under the plaza to the getaway.”
Elaine begins to lug the heavy seal over the hole. Over me.
“Well, actually, Elaine, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. I get the picture,” I say, hastily scrambling out, visions of the glowing eyes of sewer rats sending shivers through me.
Penn Jones hustles over dodging traffic, and drags the cover back into place. He gives me a look that says, “Uh huh—another one not prepared to follow the trail all the way,” and then he sets off on a trot up the grassy knoll to what he says is the next point of fire.
But before we follow Penn Jones up the grassy knoll, before we get any deeper into the labyrinthine state of the art of JFK-assassination theory, let’s linger a moment on the manhole demo, because we’ve got a metaphor here for my own stance in relation to the whole web of conspiracy theory that the assassination buffs have spun out over the past twenty years. Because I’m going to be your guide in this excursion, and I want you to trust my judgment and powers of discrimination. I want you to know my attitude toward these people, which can be summed up by saying that I’ll go down into the manhole with them but I won’t pull the cover over my head.
You need a connoisseur when you’re dealing with the tangled thicket of theory and conjecture that has overgrown the few established facts in the years since the events of that November 22. You need someone who can distinguish between the real investigators still in the field and the poets, like Penn Jones, whose luxuriant and flourishing imaginations