The Design Observer Group


Posted 11.18.13


Jim Williamson

Dallas Is a Story I Tell



The author, ca. early 1960s, in the backyard of the Williamson home. [Photo courtesy of Jim Williamson]

1.

I grew up in a suburb north of Dallas named Richardson. And as places like Richardson are, or were, back in the middle of the last century, it was all tract homes and ordered banality. When we moved into our new house with its adobe brick veneer, there was nothing in the expanse of abandoned cotton fields to the north of our backyard but the deeply cracked soil called Black Gumbo, Johnson grass as tall as your waist and scrawny wild sunflowers. Today those tract houses stretch out for twenty miles beyond. 

The development where we lived was nicknamed the "Indian Reservation" because the streets were named after Native American tribes. My family lived on Cheyenne Drive, which was north of Cherokee and south of Chippewa. I went to Arapaho Elementary School. Everyone was white; this was, after all, suburban Texas in the early 1960s. The "head" of every other household was an engineer for Texas Instruments; no one's mother worked.

To say there was no mystery in Richardson is to say the obvious — there wasn't supposed to be any mystery. And what struck me then, even as young boy, was that nobody really seemed happy, and that you weren’t supposed to be. Happiness was something people viewed with suspicion.

2.
One day in November, while I was sitting in my classroom at Arapaho, a young girl whom I will call Cindy Harty arrived halfway through the afternoon. [1]  She was hysterical and sobbing. Her parents had taken her to downtown Dallas to see the Presidential motorcade, and they had witnessed the assassination of the President of the United States. It was that November day. They had seen the brains and the skull of John F. Kennedy blasted open by a bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from a window on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository — the same building where our textbooks were stored — the same textbooks we stuffed into our desks or lugged home at the end of the day. 

It never made any sense that Cindy's parents had brought her back to school. But a lot of things that happened on that day and on the days that followed have never made much sense; looking back I remember a time of remorseless incongruity. There had been, for instance, vociferous dislike in Dallas for the papist Kennedy, whom you'd often hear denounced from Baptist pulpits; but after the murder in Dealey Plaza all such partisan passions seemed to dissolve into collective ecumenical grief. My father, a Catholic convert whose hatred for Kennedy had often bordered on the irrational, broke down in a hotel lobby when he heard the news of the assassination from the desk clerk. The clerk, equally distraught, refused to let him pay his bill.



John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, Main Street, Dallas, November 22, 1963, minutes before the assassination. [Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News; Penn Jones Photographs. Baylor University Collections of Political Materials, Waco, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons]

Likewise our teacher, Mrs. White, a mean woman who would require us to copy the indexes of our textbooks by hand if we dared to talk in class, was moved to uncharacteristic concern for her eight-year-old charges. Soon we would be dismissed early to go to our homes, where our shaken families sat bewildered in front of the TV set. My family watched a young Dan Rather, born in a small town in southeast Texas and in those days the local CBS bureau chief. Even now, when I hear Dan Rather's baritone, I think about the assassination; his voice triggers what I experience as a constellation of event, memory and place that feels both real and imaginary — much like a celestial constellation that gathers disparate elements into a figure that is not really a figure at all but rather an intersection of circumstance and imagination.

Early on I began to understand the power of such triggers. Every Sunday morning on our drive to church, we passed the vacant house of Marina Oswald. Lee Harvey Oswald's Russian-born widow had moved there after the assassination, assisted by local charities. She was then under the protection of the Secret Service, in preparation for her testimony before the Warren Commission, and her small house appeared as sad and bereft as its absent tenant. "That’s where she lives," someone in the car would say, "but it doesn’t look like anyone lives there." In my mind's eye the montage of her house and her face have became another of the spectral placeholders for my recollections and imaginings of the place and time I call Dallas.

3.
In Western culture you find reference to similar recollections — to what I have called a constellation of memory, place and imagination — in the writings of the Roman orators Cicero and Quintilian and, even further back, in the lyric poetry of the Greek Simonides. The British historian Francis Yates, in her seminal The Art of Memory, traces the contributions of each of these authors as part of her larger argument that memory, and the use of mnemonic systems, were indispensable to the development of classical culture.

Yates pays special attention to what we have come to call the mental walk. As Yates describes it, an orator would use the process of a mental walk — which is really a story, a narrative — to help organize and then remember a speech that he was soon to deliver. The orator would imagine a journey through a place — a house, for example — and locate the ideas or events to be described and then recalled on a series of "places" along the route. Usually he would choose particular places with striking details — such as a crack in the stone frame of a doorway — for their capacity to stand out in the mind, their capacity to prompt his recollection and thus to allow him to recite a speech from memory — place by place, or image by image. Ancient orators mastered this process with uncanny precision, and even today it continues to influence our speech patterns; for instance, when we use rhetorical phrases like "in the first place” and "in the second place."

In this mnemonic system, the house is known as a memory palace; ultimately of course both the place and the journey are grounded more in our imagination rather than in any physical reality. To the extent that we carry these places, these journeys, with us throughout our lives — to the extent that they become part of us — we substantiate the classical idea that memory is not simply a utilitarian mental process but also a vital contributor to the construction of what we would now call the self. And although the concepts mental walk and memory palace might suggest place-narratives that are coherent, linear and rational, in my experience they prompt something messier and more complex.



Left: Texas School Book Depository, ca. early 1960s. [Photo: Warren Commission Document Photos] Right: Exhibition at the Sixth Floor Museum, a commemorative site located on the floor of the Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the fatal shot. [Photo: Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas]

4.
It is now the early 1970s, almost a decade after the assassination, and my memories of Cindy Harty take an odd and unexpected turn. Cindy and I are now in high school, and she is a member of the Eaglettes — Richardson High's version of the Kilgore Rangerettes (which were world famous throughout Texas). The Eaglettes wore sequined top hats, white satin miniskirts and white leather cowboy boots with tassels. In Texas, football is king and the whole school would turn out to watch them high-kick at pep rallies and Friday night games. Those high kicks were … let us say revelatory … about as close as you could come to anything like sexuality in a public high school in Texas back then.

On one of those Friday nights, I was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car driven by my friend Rob O'Dell. Cindy — whom I remember as not just friendly and pretty but also as what we would have called shapely, the kind of popular girl shy teenagers like myself would admire from afar — was sitting in the back seat with her druggy boyfriend Mike LeBlanc. We were driving to a party in another Dallas suburb. We were passing house after house, all as unremarkable as our own houses, all with the same brown lawns and stunted trees. I have no exact memory of anything we said in the car that night until the moment when Rob blurted out "That sucks!" I can't even remember why: perhaps another driver cut in front of the car. And I remember also the next moment when Mike said quietly to Cindy — he might not have thought that Rob and I could hear — “I’d like to suck Harty.” And then Cindy said, quietly, in a matter-of-fact way, "I hear they taste like soda pop."

She was, of course, referring to her breasts.





Top: The Eaglettes, Richardson High School, ca. early 1970s. [Photo courtesy of Jim Williamson] Bottom: Kennedy family at the funeral for John F. Kennedy, Washington, D.C., November 25, 1963. [Photographer: Abbie Rowe; Abbie Rowe White House Photographs, National Archives and Records Administration; via Wikimedia Commons.]

5.

Even today, 50 years after the assassination, when I think about Dallas I think about those events and the images they conjure: monotonous spec houses, endless textbooks indexes, Dan Rather’s voice and Marina Oswald’s forlorn face and empty house. But the images that stand out are these: the dead president and the alluring figure of a young woman. Such different images, and yet I simply cannot unbraid them; and when they come to mind it is with a peculiar mix of deep sadness and perplexed bemusement — one image evoking shared national tragedy, the other furtive teenage reverie. To be honest, I do not think I ever want them to be untangled: I am drawn to how they make Dallas — and my adolescence — seem enticing and mysterious. For despite the lore, despite its unwelcome significance in 20th-century American history, the city is neither; if you didn't know the history, the city would seem like a thousand other places. And by now— when you can watch on YouTube the 8-millimeter film of the assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder — most of what is "Dallas" about Dallas has become a kind of caricature.

Places and our memories of places are part real and part imaginary, part shared and part personal; they are demarcated not only by actual experiences but also by the imaginative geographies they engender. Years ago when I was in college my sister lived in an apartment building on Copacabana Beach, in Rio de Janeiro. If you went to the beach in your bathing suit, you had to use the service elevator rather than the public elevator and you would descend through a pungent cloud of coffee grounds mingling with the kitchen refuse of the other tenants. Years later, even a whiff of coffee grounds and food scraps is enough to make Rio and the sensual pleasures of the beach become a visceral presence. When my daughter was a child, we traveled every year to a quaint resort in the Yucatan; today the sight of Scorpio in the night sky calls to mind joyful memories of both her young laughter and gorgeous turquoise water — it can feel as if I am actually there, even though the old resort has long since given way to the global leisure industry.

Because this kind of experience, this kind of memory, is so prevalent in my life, place seems to me to mean much more than an undifferentiated physical location, and also more than any particular shared cultural site. For me the idea of place has come to seem indeterminate, powerfully idiosyncratic, verging on the immaterial. Perhaps this is a form of stubbornness, of resistance: the imaginative creation of a parallel, solipsistic place, a retreat from the discordances of modern life.

6.
The need for retreat has to do, as you might guess, with all the usual contemporary suspects: global capitalism, the commoditization of dwelling, the ubiquitous sameness of world culture — all contributing to the sense of un-rootedness or what the architectural historian Anthony Vidler has called the "modern unhomely." [2]

I earn my living as an academic, and I have done so for over two decades. In one capacity or another I have taught in a dozen institutions on four continents; I have lived on three. I now teach in Ithaca; my daughter just started a job — teaching, as it happens — in Japan; I will teach next term in Rome. Thanksgiving I will be in Maine, Christmas in Japan, New Year's Day in Italy. I am working on a building project in Prague, a version of which I have built three other times in three other locations. Faculty lounges, boardrooms, bullet trains, Skype conversations: all are full of people pretty much like me.

I have many memories of events which happened in places where I no longer live; I have many acquaintances, friends, colleagues and even family members who have little in common with each other, no connectedness to any common place. They are part of what we might call my networks, and I am part of theirs. In our industrial, developed world, the ritual engagement of place is no longer a given or a constant; it may even be a hindrance to the modern goal of social mobility. Especially these days, when it comes to place, you might say we are increasingly left to our own devices.

In the university where I teach now, at the beginning of each academic year, we ask our freshman students where they are from. The students in my small department come from 26 countries. My faculty colleagues and I listen to the list of various places with wonder and joy; but in my case also with some ambivalence and regret.

Recently, one of my students asked me, “Where do you tell people you are from?”

I used to tell people I was from Dallas, and that I am a Texan. I like to affirm this identity, this history. But today I do so with a certain sense of dishonesty and loss — or rather, with the need to expand the answer, to describe a complex life, a circuitous journey that is increasingly ordinary. Yes, I am from Dallas, and I am a Texan, but I am also neither. The Dallas I know, the Texas I am from: these are part fact, part memory, part fiction. As much as anything else, Dallas is now a story I tell.

Where I am from, and who I am: these are not specific to place. These are now amalgams of place and imagination, and I am rooted in the constellation that is thus created — in memories connected, though ever more tenuously, to their placeholders. Mine is an elastic story of place and experience, a story of modern life. It is a home I carry with me.