As a sometime travel writer, one of the least favorite places I've visited was Dallas, Texas. Dallas, in my mind, has always been associated with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I first heard the news of the assassination when one of the nuns in my parochial school announced that the president was dead. Classes were cancelled and we went home where we stayed glued to the television set for three or more days watching replay after replay of the JFK motorcade passing the Texas School Book Depository building, where the president was shot. We watched in horror as the motorcade rounded the bend at the Grassy Knoll and the First Lady, in a frenzied panic, seemed to be climbing out of the back of the presidential convertible.
It's hard to imagine ten-year-old kids today crying over a dead U.S. president, but in November of 1963 there were many distraught kids with bloodshot eyes.
The Texas School Book Depository 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 up to visit 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 Levi's and cowboy boots.
One thing on our scheduled sightseeing list caught my attention: a visit the old Texas School Book Depository 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, Calif., 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. This was not air turbulence but seemed to spring from something mechanical. When the pilot announced that the plane had lost its 'auto pilot' and had to make an emergency landing in Phoenix, it didn't help matters any that I noticed fear in the eyes of the flight attendants. The descent into Phoenix was fast and furious and when we arrived safely on the runway a team of fire trucks and ambulances stood ready.
At the Dallas airport, I was met by the tour coordinator, a pleasant man who introduced me to some of my peers. We were driven to our hotel and given a couple of hours to get adjusted before the opening dinner and reception.
"Dallas isn't so bad," I murmured to myself, checking out the small gifts in the swag bag on the hotel bed.
Swag bags are 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. If a host city has plenty of money (like Palm Springs), you might even find an original framed painting among the goodies.
Opening press receptions are events where visiting writers not only get to meet other writers on the tour, but also city officials and local business owners. They usually include a cocktail party and a large dinner.
At the Dallas 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. This was freakdom of the highest degree, sitting on the floor like Paramhansa Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi.
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 his 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 staged 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 window sill 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 we could look out the same window where Oswald 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 who replayed the approach of the motorcade, imagining 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 toward the hospital, I wondered if the atmosphere around an important space where a great tragedy had occurred contains 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 and began to shave 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 weirder, I looked out the bathroom window and saw the 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.