Wednesday, November 23, 2011

In Dallas, Texas...

That's how the most famous television news bulletin of all time began 48 years ago yesterday.

Great cities inspire impressions, mental images of themselves, the greater the city, the more diverse the impressions. For Dallas that image could be the neon sign of Pegasus, the symbol of Mobil Oil on top the Magnolia Petroleum Building. Or it might be the neighborhood of Deep Ellum, a cross between Harlem, Algiers and Bourbon Street. It could be the conspicuous consumption that was personified by the TV series named after the city, or Neiman Marcus whose flagship department store is on Elm Street in Downtown Dallas. It might be the quintessential American image of the cowboy, or the football team named for them, or more likely still, their cheerleaders. Or it could be the braggadocio that defines Dallas, a city whose aggressive pride of place makes Chicago look downright timid.

For me, Dallas will always be personified by the three words at the top of this post, and a place in the city that will forever be etched in the memory of anyone who was alive at the time, Dealey Plaza.

A few years ago, I read an article from a Look magazine my father saved that commemorated President Kennedy’s assassination. In the article, the author wondered how that event would affect the children around the country who witnessed it first hand on TV.

I am one of those children.

I was in kindergarten, not quite five years old that late November day in 1963. We had a TV in our classroom and it happened to be on at the time the reports started coming in from Dallas. There are indelible images from that morning, I remember my teacher frantically changing the channel to get more information, and the news becoming grimmer with each successive bulletin.

I don't remember the bulletin that finally announced the president was dead, maybe I've seen that clip of Walter Cronkite breaking down on camera so many times that I can't distinguish what I saw and when.

My grandmother met me at the school bus later that afternoon. I asked her who would be the next president. Like the rest of the country, our TV set was on non-stop for the rest of the weekend. I was transfixed. One particular image struck me, a man removing, as if ritually, the presidential seal from a podium. I learned many years later that this was the dais the president was headed to in Dallas to deliver the speech he would never give.

I visited Dallas my first and only time about fifteen years ago. It was during the midst of a cross country drive, bringing my parents home to Chicago from Phoenix. Since it was the middle of winter, it was certain that we would take the southern route, but I lobbied for an even more southern route, one that would take us within spitting distance of Mexico. Even though it would add several hundred miles to our trip, it would take us through some pretty interesting places. Mostly, I wanted to go to Dallas.

It was an amazing drive through southern New Mexico and Texas. We passed through the rough and tumble border city of El Paso, alongside rugged Big Bend National Park, then through some desolate landscape as we approached the oil fields near Odessa. Unlike many of my friends who are turned off by its conservative politics and religion, I've always been drawn to Texas and its people. Perhaps it was the folks in Beaumont who welcomed me so warmly into their homes when I photographed them as part of a documentary project. Or driving through the Panhandle with its wide open, wind swept landscape that seems to go on forever. Or maybe it was the girl who charmed my socks off thirty years ago in Houston. In any case, that drive which was completely tedious for my parents, was exhilarating for me.

Eventually we got to Dallas. I had no guidebook but it didn't matter, I recognized the place from the freeway. It looked just as I had remembered from the photographs, only much more intimate. It was raining and my parents humored me as I got out of the car to check it out. There it all was, the Book Depository, the pergola where Zapruder shot his famous film, the grassy knoll, the stockade fence, and the triple underpass.

I was alone, at least thought I was until I saw a solitary figure near the stockade fence. I turned my head away, then turned back and the figure was gone. To this day I have no better explanation other than I saw Lee Harvey Oswald's ghost. Well that's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

We all went up to the sixth floor of the Depository which is now a museum devoted to Kennedy and the assassination. You can look out the window from where the shots were fired. There are two x's on Elm street that mark the spots where Kennedy was hit. They are clearly visible from that window. I'm not a marksman but in my uneducated opinion, it didn't look like a terribly difficult shot, especially for a former Marine.

Afterwards my parents and I had lunch at a nearby steakhouse then went to check out Neiman Marcus for my mother. After that we went on our way. We had accomplished what we set out to do in Dallas.

To some it might seem creepy to seek out the site of a person's murder. Perhaps it is. I don't know why I was drawn to Dealey Plaza any more than why I'm drawn to John Kennedy and his assassination. All I know is the event that took place so long ago was a major milestone in my life, my transformation from babyhood to childhood.

On the morning of November 22nd, 1963, I knew what a president was, and who the president was, but in life, President Kennedy meant nothing to me. All would change that afternoon. It was not the first time I experienced death, but it was my first experience with sudden, violent death. John Fitzgerald Kennedy would from that day on become a revered figure in our household and of course for a while, all over America.

On that fateful day, the whole terrifying world opened up to me. Even though I didn't understand it at the time, the things that happened outside the boundaries of my own little world, all of a sudden mattered. Looking at my daughter who is the same age I was when JFK died, I realize how awfully young that is to bear the weight of the world on your shoulders.

No one knows what this country, or the world for that matter would be like had Kennedy lived. But I suspect that all of us died a little with him that day. 

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