As an occasional travel writer, one of the least favorite places I’ve visited over the years was Dallas, Texas.
Dallas, in my mind, has always been associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I first heard the news about Kennedy’s assassination when it was announced on the school intercom that the president was dead. Classes were cancelled and the student body went home where we stayed glued to the TV set for three days watching replay after replay of the JFK motorcade passing the Texas School Book Depositary building, where the president was shot. We watched in horror as the motorcade rounded the bend at the Grassy Knoll as the First Lady, in a frenzied panic, seemed to be climbing out of the back of the presidential convertible.
It’s hard to imagine children crying over a dead US president today, but in November of 1963 there were many distraught kids with bloodshot eyes.
The Texas School Book Depositary became an evil place, and the whole of Dallas in fact became heavily tainted because of what happened there. It is said that many in the Kennedy family refused to travel to Dallas for many years after the assassination.
Despite my reserve about traveling to Dallas, when the opportunity came to visit the city with a group of travel writers for a five-day tour of the city, I signed up, eager to see Texas with its massive steak houses, ranches, women with big hair and all those millionaires in levis and cowboy boots.
One item on our scheduled sightseeing list caught my attention: a visit to the old Texas School Book Depositary building where we would inspect the spot where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim.
Though very much aware of the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death—was it the CIA, James Earl Files, or the Sam Giancana-controlled Mafia?--Oswald was still an important factor, whether he actually killed Kennedy or not.
“I’m going to Dallas,” I told friends. “But I’m not overly excited. Dallas to me has a bad vibe.”
The flight into Dallas was flawless, unlike the return flight from a press trip I took to Palm Springs, California where, on a beautiful blue sky summer morning, the plane tilted slightly to the right and then to the left like a tightrope walker losing his balance. We were later told that the plane had lost an engine and that an emergency landing in Phoenix was necessary.
At the Dallas airport, we were met by the tour coordinator, an engaging and pleasant man.
“Dallas isn’t so bad,” I thought, checking out the small gifts in the press swag bag on the hotel bed.
Swag bags are fun gift bags (compliments of the host city) for visiting travel writers. There are swag bags for Academy Award nominees that contain gifts worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars, but for writers the loot is often along the lines of stationary, specialty cheeses, a baseball hat or a bottle of wine, pens, T-shirts, scarves and chocolate.
Opening press receptions in the pre COVID era enabled visiting writers to get to know one another and to meet city officials and local business owners. Some receptions included a cocktail party followed by a large dinner.
At the press reception I felt a knot in my stomach, something tight and unpleasant. The pain increased slowly, building from my groin to my head until I felt feverish. I was unsuccessful in drowning my discomfort with a glass of Merlot. People would speak to me; their mouths would move but I only half heard the words. The sociable smile on my face collapsed as I entered the men’s room. I had begun to feel faint.
“Getting sick at a press reception is not acceptable,” I thought. “I can’t miss the dinner!”
Fainting in public has got to be one of life’s most humiliating experiences.
Back at the reception, the faint feeling came on stronger, so the only thing to do was to sit on the floor.
The host asked me if I was okay. I did not reply, “This is Dallas, where they killed Kennedy,” but told him that I felt faint. An EMT crew was summoned and I was abruptly hauled out on a stretcher, visions of the press dinner fading fast as another vision took its place: the cold, utilitarian world of the ER, where I’d be probed and tested for the next five hours only to be told that I probably had food poisoning but was otherwise okay.
Back at the hotel, I met my peers for breakfast only to discover that they had somehow gotten it into their heads that I had long ago disappeared into the vortex of intensive care.
Talk about a lesson in how rumors get started.
They started calling me the Bionic Man.
Our first scheduled visit in Dallas was to the Goss Art Gallery on Cedar Springs Road to meet multiple Grammy Award nominee George Michael and his partner, Kenny Goss. Michael, as it turns out, wasn’t there but in a nearby studio recording a new song. Goss threw us an impromptu party—shrimp, cheese and good French wine—but was called away suddenly when Michael telephoned and said he wanted him to run over to the studio and listen to a new song.
It occurred to me that maybe Michael’s call about a new song might have been a stage maneuver to get the attention of the press.
The Texas School Book Depositary (now called The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza) was next on our list and, surprisingly, some journalists opted not to go. The building was exactly as I remembered it from television news footage, although it is now a museum that chronicles the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy.
The spot where Oswald took aim from a window has been sectioned off and left exactly as it was in 1963, unlike the rest of the building which has been remodeled. This obscure corner still has the same rustic wooden floorboards, an unkempt windowsill, and (probably) the same glass panels that Oswald saw when he waited for the president’s car to come into view. One of the panes of glass seemed to be slightly cracked but it was hard to know if the crack was caused by Oswald or had another origin.
There were stacks of boxed books in the corner area and a small pile of unboxed books under the windowsill. The pile of unboxed books was arranged so that some of the books stuck out as if jarred out of place from the movements of somebody in a crouching position. Other things seemed to be on the floor, small articles that would have seemed perfectly natural in a real book warehouse.
Nothing that I saw in Dallas affected me as much as this small corner space.
From where we were standing you could look out the same window that Oswald looked out of when he watched the approach of the presidential motorcade. The years had not altered the look of the road below. I knew that I was not the only journalist in the group who imagined Oswald waiting patiently with his eye glued to the gun’s telescopic lens, his finger on the trigger.
Outside on the Grassy Knoll, I experienced a similar effect. The familiar road signs from the old newsreels were in evidence. Missing were the shocked onlookers, many with their hands over their mouths as others sat on the grass embankment in shock.
As I imagined the motorcade speeding towards the hospital, I wondered if the atmosphere around an important space where a great tragedy had occurred contained some element of the deed, some psychic signature, some invisible mark.
Could most people standing in this spot long enough (with their eyes closed and their mind at rest) feel something rising up within them?
That evening, with the 1963 assassination still on my mind, I stood in front of my hotel mirror shaving in preparation for the evening meal at a nearby restaurant. In the bathroom was an open window with its sky-wide view of the city below.
Suddenly, like a sharpshooter’s blast, I heard a breaking news weather report from the television in the other room: a tornado was headed towards this section of Dallas and would hit at any moment.
Just when I thought that life couldn’t get stranger, I looked out of the bathroom window and saw a huge black funnel of smoke whirling insanely towards the hotel.
“Dallas is really cursed,” I thought, putting away the razor and preparing to make my way to the hotel lobby after hearing a series of fire alarms.
Guests were ushered cattle-like into the hotel basement where we stayed for the better part of an hour until the threat had passed.
“So how was Dallas?” friends asked when I returned home.
“On the floor in a dead faint,” I replied.
2. Years before the Dallas press trip, John F. Kennedy’s legacy entered my life in a most unusual way.
In the early 1970s I was living in Cambridge-Boston and on my way home from work on the MTA line. While riding the train I struck up a conversation with a military looking guy named Steve, a few years younger than myself. The conversation proved to be so engaging we opted to grab a coffee at the Hayes Bickford cafeteria in Harvard Square after which we retreated to my rooming house on Kirkland Street by the Fog Museum.
The conversation took a surprising turn when Steve told me that when he was a student at the Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania, not far from where I grew up, his father, a well connected politician, took him to the White House to meet then President Kennedy. Steve talked about meeting Kennedy and how mesmerized he was by Kennedy’s greenish-gray colored eyes. He said that the president invited him back to the White House, unaccompanied, any time he wished. The young cadet did just that, thanks to his being able to travel to Washington with his father and says that he met Kennedy privately a couple of times.
These were not conversational meetings, however. Steve told me that the two of them became intimate. “The president really liked blue eyes and he liked my blue eyes,” he said. Steve divulged a few details I will spare the reader but insisted that he was telling the truth.
Years later when I ran into Steve on Cambridge Street in Boston on New Year’s Eve 1980, I remarked how little he had changed. After some chit chat, I got around to asking him once again about the Kennedy thing. “That was a lie, right? You really weren’t serious about that? You were putting me on?”
“No,” he said. “It happened.”
So, I left it at that. Here was yet another unfathomable Kennedy mystery, right up there with the dense fog surrounding the role of Lee Harvey Oswald.