HAMBURG — When I was still in grade school, I had a large, metallic game board depicting the United States. It was a geography game that taught not only what the individual states looked like, but also where they belonged on the map.
Each time I assembled the country, I left one state off the map: Texas.
In the throes of heartbreak that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the streets of Dallas on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, I felt Texas wasn’t worthy of being part of the country. Those people were bad people. They had killed the president.
Being a historian as well as a journalist, I ventured to Dallas for the first time, last week, to be part of the city’s official commemoration of the life of the 35th president. A chill went up my spine when the flight attendant innocently said, “Welcome to Dallas.”
I had researched a detailed story published, last week by Bee Group Newspapers, featuring reminiscences from ordinary citizens of that dark day. I spoke to three people who had seen Kennedy scant hours before he was shot – even one who had shaken the president’s hand at a rally in Fort Worth.
There was no shortage of stories from people my age and older. Everyone seemed to know, with crystal-clear accuracy, exactly where they were when the bulletin came from Dallas, and it really hurt to remember.
My arrival at Dealey Plaza on Thursday afternoon was filled immediately with a replenishment of all the words and images I had absorbed, during the past 50 years: the Texas School Book Depository building (now known as the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza) and the infamous grassy knoll. To walk there was a profound experience.
A mix of languages and opinions swirled in the air above me, as foreign journalists, conspiracy theorists and the curious roamed the grounds where Abraham Zapruder had come to see one of the most admired men in the world. What he saw through the lens of his 8-mm movie camera at 12:30 that afternoon haunts us still.
The Sixth Floor Museum’s exhibits are comprehensive and unbiased, presenting what we know, what we think we know and what we wish we knew more about.
If you are my age and you stand along Elm Street and don’t feel emotion in your throat, you don’t have a soul.
I was there 50 years to the day, at the hour and in the place where my decision to become a journalist was forged. It was a great choice.
Prior to my trip, I reached out to some other people, including a Dallas firefighter who dabbles in photography. Tony Gerber was working at Station 17 the day before the anniversary and welcomed me to pay him a visit. I didn’t want to be one of those obnoxious tourists who stops at a firehouse to just see the trucks. He laughed, and invited me to stay for dinner.
We sat in the truck bay and talked about our shared experiences as if we had known each other for years. Another firefighter wrestled with a crossword puzzle and a third, who had been given the honor of cooking that evening, began breading chicken strips.
Then, the bells. A reported house fire. Chairs and tables scattered as the pumper and the ladder truck roared to life. Gerber yelled, from somewhere across the truck bay, “Dave – do you want to come along?”
Who wouldn’t? The call did not amount to much and the only real damage was a delay in eating dinner. Nine of us devoured fried chicken with thick white gravy, fried okra, mashed potatoes, corn and some biscuits that had been in the oven just a little too long. It was the best meal I had, during the entire three-day trip.
I left Texas knowing that Dallas really does have a heart, after all.
David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. The author can be reached at