Everyone said it was a really nice day for November. That time of year in Dallas, rain, cutting winds, and dark skies would not be unusual at all. On top of good weather, we were halfway through Friday, Thanksgiving only days away.
I worked in the PR department on the third floor at Southwestern Life, on the corner of Main and Akard. We were definitely in "Downtown Dallas" at the time. Parades, celebrations, special events of any kind always came our way.
Around noon every day, three of us from the office grabbed hot dogs at Orange Julius and played a quick game of pool before we headed back. This day, though, we stayed in. We'd run out to lunch a little later, after the president and Jackie drove by.
It's hard to imagine all this happened nearly 50 years ago. That dreary phrase "Things have really changed" scarcely hits the mark at all. I worked in a very nice office, top-rate for 1963. The walls were uncolor blue. Chairs, floors, tables, and doors had the unforgettable glow of antiquated oak, the same as every classroom in the land. In other departments, men hunched over high tables, recording – by hand – payments, premiums, and other such matters in large gray ledgers. Charles Dickens could have slipped right in at ease.
Every man in the company wore suits (sports coats, never), white shirts, and ties. As an act of reckless abandon, I once walked down to Bond's men's store and bought a white shirt with narrow red stripes, stripes you needed glasses to see. I wore it the very next day. Word went through the building, but nothing was really said.
A sign of the times was the open window. A/C was confined to movies and stores. In the PR department, we often leaned out windows and watched the buildings across the way or the people below. Straight down below was the sidewalk. Three steps more and there was Main, traffic passing by.
This is where we were, two other guys and I, moments before noon on a fine November day. The two secretaries had windows of their own. I had almost stayed away that day. There were serious problems at home. Still, I decided this was something I had to see. The problems would still be there when I got off the bus that afternoon.
The streets outside were jammed. There's no other word for it. You could even see people perched on top of buildings. In downtown Dallas, every window in every office was open. Thousands and thousands of open windows everywhere.
Around 12:20 we heard the sirens from the motorcycles leading the motorcade. Then, almost at once, sooner than we expected, came the large '61 Lincoln, the bubble top removed so everyone could see. Then, the president and Jackie, and Governor and Mrs. Connally, were directly below us. The president waved. Jackie looked lovely in her pink suit and hat, and then they were gone.
I remember thinking how quickly the crowds disappeared. One moment everyone was there, then no one at all. I stayed at the window, peering down the street. The motorcade was out of sight down Main. In a moment, it would turn right on Houston, past the old red courthouse, then left on Elm, and head up Stemmons for the luncheon at the Trade Mart. Our boss had left early to attend.
I heard the shots. One. Two. Three.
Only seconds later, a police car screeched off Akard onto Main. It turned on two tires, just like on TV.
That night, like the rest of the world, we watched the day's tragedy unfold again and again on black-and-white TV. We knew Kennedy died at Parkland Hospital. The shooter's name was Oswald. They caught him in a theatre in nearby Oak Cliff. Later, we saw LBJ sworn in on Air Force One. Even in black and white, it was clear Jackie's suit was still stained with her husband's blood.
My daughters, 10 and 7, were sent home from school. They heard what had happened, but didn't know why. They watched their teachers cry.
The next day, Saturday, traffic was at a standstill downtown. Like everyone else in Dallas, we wanted to see where it had happened. For over an hour, we scarcely moved an inch. I had the window down and nodded at two motorcycle patrolmen who'd pulled up beside us. I could hear the static on their radios. Suddenly, one officer turned to the other and said, "Oh God, they've shot Oswald!"
Another night of black-and-white TV. We learned Jack Ruby had shot Oswald in the county's underground garage. Years before, a bunch of us had gone to Ruby's strip club, a sleazy joint at best, one of the few such clubs in town.
My neighbor, Jesse Curry, was chief of police at the time. My two daughters were often down the street playing with his daughter. Jesse came in for a lot of flak after Oswald was shot. There is no question better security could have prevented what happened in that garage. Still, the man at the top takes the heat, and Jesse took plenty.
Late that Saturday night, I saw a car parked in front of my house. It was dark, but I could see several men in the front and in the back. I called the police at once. An officer asked me to hold. "Those are our people," he said a moment later. "Thanks very much for calling."
A lot of people forgot there was another security problem that was out of Jesse's range. Those open windows along the way. Too many windows to count. Way too many close to the passing car. Sorry for the image, but I was a semi-fair pitcher at the time. I could have hit the man with a brick.
Stories flew for some time after the assassination. Everyone had known Oswald, Ruby, Oswald's wife, anyone and everyone who had been associated with that afternoon in November. I heard more stories than I can possibly recall. Many of these tales were clearly ridiculous. Some revealed "things you must never tell anyone at all." A lot of stories were more frightening than I could imagine, then or now.
Gov. John Connally and his wife had been in the front seat of the Kennedy car. Connally was wounded and took some time to recover. He and my father were good friends. I still have the letter he sent, thanking my father for his concern. Connally signed his name in a very shaky hand.
I think everyone who was there that day was changed in some way by Kennedy's death. A crazy thought, I guess, but I wondered how astonished the man would be if he could have guessed his father, mother, wife, son, two brothers, three sisters, and a number of others in the Kennedy clan would die in the years after his passing.
My own life was changing at the time. I couldn't imagine the bad times on the way, but I would live to see my losses, and the better days that would come along as well.
There was someone else watching the tragic events that day, someone I didn't know at all. I would meet her in 1974, and better days have turned into better years.
For more on Neal Barrett Jr.'s life and career, see "Lone Star State of Mind," June 7.
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