Strangers in Dallas, Embroiled in the Death of a President

| December 8, 2014 | 0 Comments
President John F. Kennedy during a happy time during his presidency.

President John F. Kennedy during a happy time during his presidency.

Veteran San Diego publicist Laura Walcher and her husband, Bob, were living in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination and had their own encounter with the celebrated Zapruder film. The following is an essay Laura Walcher wrote about her experience.

Here’s how it went: WFAA-TV broadcast engineer Bob Walcher took a roll of film from a colleague at the station, who had collected it from a distraught Abraham Zapruder. He stashed it in his pocket, waiting for processing, to see what it might or might not contain, given the chaotic newsroom situation. But the film was 8 mm; the station could only process 16 mm! Staff made a frantic call to the local commercial film processor for help — another hour crawled by before the lab could stop the run and put it on the development schedule. At the network, Walter Cronkite had announced the president had been shot. The president, he now said, has died.

Meanwhile, across town, in Neiman Marcus’ cafe, along with a packed house of diners, shoppers, and newshounds, I’d been rooted to the blaring television set. Coverage began calmly enough, the crowd at the scene cheering the beginning of the motorcade, close-ups of President Kennedy smiling, waving, Jacqueline serenely by his side, the perfect companion, sunny, charming in her signature chapeau.

Back then, in Dallas, the Kennedys may have been the most optimistic people on earth. Or those in the greatest denial, because too much of the city didn’t want them, didn’t respect them. The city did not love its president.

I did. I managed to convince my squirming toddlers in tow — Billy, 5, and Jean, 3 — how exciting our outing was; that we were going to watch the motorcade, that they were going to see a great American president, one they’d remember all their lives.

Now I stood in that packed cafe, shocked, riveted by the first news of the shooting, gasping, awaiting the next report. When the final news came that the president had died, every person I could see leapt up, arms raised with screams, shouts, and cheers of glee.

Alone, enfolding my tiny children who had, of course, no understanding, I also screamed, bursting into tears of grief and rage, unable to believe the sight of the cafe crowd celebrating the death of President Kennedy.

A mile from home, I stashed Jean into her stroller, with big-boy Billy running along. We’d gone just for the walk, sunny day, using the shopping center as our destination, knowing the president was coming to town, happy to be able to watch the event.

Now we raced back, as fast as I could move with children in a stroller, to watch in horror the rest of the story unfold — to wait, wait, wait, for Bob to get home, to seek some understanding, to wish it all away.

It had been hard to be happy in Dallas, to say the least. To begin with, we were Northerners, New Yorkers, Jewish. Those traits, in themselves, were enough to draw the disdain of some neighbors. Far worse, the appalling bigotry we encountered, pervasive and ugly toward Dallas’ African-American citizens. I needn’t repeat how they were treated, what they were called there, then, but it was highly insulting, crude, unkind.

The unfolding of events continued to batter us: the hunt for, the arrest of, Lee Harvey Oswald, the debate about who he was, murdered before he could reveal anything about himself — so sad, so tragic, so infuriating.

No Zapruder film was needed as witness to Lee Harvey Oswald’s death. Nearly all the media were there. Nearly. Yet in the midst of the tumbling events, Bob, with the WFAA staff, had inexplicably been sent to cover a routine church service, a nonevent, wholly interrupting the days and nights that were otherwise consumed with the president’s fate — and taking one more potential eyewitness off the scene.

Maybe Oswald had compatriots. And maybe he didn’t. It’s still hard to know, absolutely, for sure, the truth of the man, the truth of the deed, despite the immense number of investigative reports, books, films, and continuing emerging “facts.”

Today, I’m told that Dallas is a “better” city. Yet, our country is still threatened by a polarized populace, a divisive mood that sadly resonates: could it lead to some other cafe full of Americans cheering for the death of an American president?

Dallas may indeed be a different city. But I might never know, at least first hand; I don’t even want to be there to change planes.

Walcher is Principal PR Counsel to J. Walcher Communications. This essay Earned a First Place in the 2014 San Diego Press Club Journalism Awards.

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Category: Local News, National News

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