11/18/2013 07:02 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Dallas: At the Scene of the Crime

"In Dallas, in November of a year that ends in '3'..."

I wrote this one for the 40th anniversary. A decade's passage hasn't changed a thing.

Six floors above Elm Street, the view is still clear, the result still deadly. You walk gently here, as everyone does, and you speak -- if you speak at all -- in muffled tones. It's the only way to walk, and to speak. Once upon a time, in this place, the world came undone.
You had to see it for yourself.

You'd never been to Dallas before, never set a foot inside the city limits -- not before it happened, and not since. But now you find yourself there on other business, in November of a year that ends in "3," so what choice do you have? You buy a ticket and step inside the elevator. A moment later, the doors slide open and it's 40 years ago.

You'd already seen the building -- from the street, looking up. In the cab bringing you in from the airport, you'd kept one eye vaguely scanning the horizon, and finally you were downtown, just blocks from your hotel, and suddenly there was an underpass -- a triple underpass -- and then a street with a certain slant to it, a street bordered by green spaces of a certain size and shape. And looming over all of it (though "looming" wouldn't have been the word at the time; it must have looked every bit as innocent that day, every bit as welcoming, as any other building in town) a structure of reddish-brown brick, seven stories high. You were approaching it from the opposite direction -- the underpass first, then the street, and then the building, but you saw it and you knew: You'd been here before. We'd all been here before.

Six floors above Elm Street, the doors slide open and it's 40 years ago -- the cars and the crises and the movie posters. Here's the young president in grainy black and white, so elegant in his speeches, so masterful at his press conferences. Here's the president getting ready for a re-election campaign, trying to mend fences. Here he is preparing to visit Texas, and Texas preparing to receive him. Here are the yellowing newspaper stories -- the potential for protests (he was far from universally beloved, you remind yourself, especially in parts of the south), the pleas for hospitality, the schedule of events, the map of the motorcade route. The turn from Houston Street onto Elm, right beneath the sixth-floor corner window.

Here are the president and his wife stepping off a plane, in living color now, and he's smiling and he's shaking hands and he could be anywhere, anytime. And here's his wife, and she's smiling, too, but she's wearing that pink suit and she's holding those red roses, so you know exactly where they are, and what happens next, and how little time they have left before they make the turn from Houston onto Elm.

You can't quite get to the sixth-floor corner window -- it's protected by glass, or something that looks like glass -- but you can see it, see it as it might have been that day, partly hidden behind stacks of boxes. You can't quite get to the sixth-floor corner window, but you can get to the window right next to it, perhaps a dozen feet away. You can stand there and watch Houston turn onto Elm, and watch Elm drop away toward the triple underpass, and you can see how close it all is, and how the angle would have been even better from the corner window, and you want to scream, "Stop him!" and you want to scream, "Look out!" And you want to scream.

You know what happens next, but it happens anyhow. Here, on the walls, are the photographs to prove it. The photographs and the jumpy newsreel footage, the first confused reports on radio, on television. Then the awful, official word. And the rest of it, in a mad cascade: a suspect, an arrest, a coffin, a procession, a riderless horse, another shooting, another killing, a child's salute, a bugler with a trembling lip, a flame.

Six floors above Elm Street, it always ends the same way. And it never ends.