My first sighting of the new world came from the back of the family station wagon, in the late afternoon as the slanting sun behind us lit up the city skyline with fierce and brilliant color. Now, of course, the vista of skyscrapers that awed me as a child is buried in the shadows of modern Dallas; the buildings that seemed so monumental then against the flat horizon were the pale blue Southland Life building, the Mobil building with the neon winged horse atop, the Republic Bank, largest bank in the Southwest—as I come upon those structures now they seem petite and almost historical. Foremost, as we approached the city, was an unpretentious cubical edifice with an enormous billboard on top advertising Hertz rental cars and blinking the time and temperature. The building itself was anonymous, and afterward, when the world knew it as the Texas School Book Depository, people in Dallas identified it by the Hertz sign and said, “Oh, that one.”
We were moving from Abilene, where my father was vice president of the largest bank in town. My sisters had been crying for weeks, since Daddy had returned from his mysterious trip and announced that he had gotten a new job—at last he would be president of his own bank. It was small, he warned us, but it was in Dallas, and Dallas was growing, and as the city grew so would his bank. Dallas was a place where dreamers like my father were given a chance.
Dallas was a boom town, full of promises. As in all boom towns tension was high. Some people were zooming through society like race cars, giving the world an impression of Dallas as a city of affluent hicks—you could see them suddenly flaunting their greenbacks at the gaming tables from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo or talking too loudly in their drawling nasal voices in restaurants that were really too good for them—monied, naïve, too eager, democratic yes but socially pretentious. For an astounding number of people Dallas was just such a jackpot, and they formed a rough society of nouveaux millionaires; they would build a gorgeous Gatsby-like mansion on the north side, enroll their children in Hockaday or St. Mark’s, open a Neiman-Marcus charge account, buy a mink coat and two Cadillacs, and join the Republican party. The winners were easy to spot.
The losers made their own headlines. Dallas was the murder capital of Texas, which led the United States in homicides. We were reminded that Dallas killed more people some years than all of England did—a statistic with little effect, for wasn’t England a sound-asleep society, and weren’t we exploding with new force, building a new world, making millions by the minute, and did you expect a new world to be born without death and broken hearts?
In many respects my father was typical of the kind of man who made that new world. He went to a one-room schoolhouse in central Kansas, watched his family farm blow away in the same wind that brought the Depression, and with no apparent resources other than his own unbending will put himself through Central State Teachers College in Edmond, Oklahoma, then through law school at the University of Oklahoma. When World War II broke out he dutifully joined the infantry, spent seven years fighting in Europe, the Pacific, and Korea under conditions that twice turned his hair completely white, and was discharged as a major in 1952 at the age of 36; a civilian now, with a family of five, and he had not even begun to make a career. He hit the ground running.
After eight years he learned the frustration of small-town banks with sleepy family management, so when he was finally offered the presidency of the Lakewood State Bank in Dallas he accepted at once. In 1960 it was a small and troubled storefront bank in Gaston Avenue, between Doc Harrell’s drugstore and Kirk’s Beauty Salon. To see it now—three city blocks of land, a tower, a parking garage, fountains, expensive art on the walls, a boardroom table that would have made King Arthur blush, and a modern amalgamated name, Allied Lakewood—is to realize my father’s own aspirations in their most tangible form. He build this bank, with the help of people like him, people who came out of nowhere with nothing, who came to Dallas because Dallas would give them a chance.
For my parents, leaving the close social quarters of Abilene was like getting out of jail. They were not true West Texans; they had not come to love the unending monotony of mesquite barrens or the high, hot blue sky that made sunsets a matter of prayerful thankfulness. To an outsider, Abilene was like a small landfall in the Sargasso Sea—remote, laconic, and forever closed to strangers. By comparison Dallas seemed wide open, but it wasn’t really, as we soon learned. Politically it was shut up tight. Ambitious newcomers like my father found the leadership of the city distant and mysterious, a cabal, and it would not do to crash the secret circle. You must prove yourself, endure probation. If you do, you will be noticed; you’ll be brought along slowly, like a colt being trained to a bridle. One day someone will approach you. You’ll be asked to “do something for Dallas.” You’ll get an assignment. For my father it was to head up a bond election to air-condition the public schools. People were surprised when the bond passed; the secret circle opened and admitted my father and of course quickly closed behind him.
And why shouldn’t he be glad to do something for Dallas? Hadn’t the city shared its bounty with him? Later, the civic-mindedness of Dallasites would seem cold hypocrisy to the rest of the world, but most people in Dallas had the same gratitude and protectiveness that an immigrant has toward a place that opens itself to him and allows him success. If this new world was not perfect—well