Sunday, March 9, 2014

Walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963

DALLAS, TEXAS – When I arrived at my room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Dallas this past February for the annual BBYO International Convention, the first thing I did (which has been customary with me every time I enter a hotel room that I plan to stay at for the first time), I always check out the view from the window of my room.

This time, the view was -- to say the least -- quite historical. It practically overlooked Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. These two sites’ notoriety are well known and are forever associated with one of the most jarring tragedies not only in modern U.S. history, but also modern history in general: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

A couple of days later, I had a couple of hours of free time, so I decided to walk the short distance between the hotel and Dealey Plaza and take a few pictures. If I was in awe that my hotel room overlooked this historical sight, the feeling increased tenfold as I made my way towards the area. Although Elm Street is still a busy thoroughfare in downtown Dallas with a steady stream of automobile traffic going through the street, the area between the Texas School Book Depository building and the overpass near the Stemmons Freeway also sees a steady stream of tourists, who treat it as a historic shrine to the six seconds when a country lost its innocence. I couldn’t help but get a very hushed feeling, as I looked up at the book depository building and saw the sixth floor perch where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired the shots from his rifle, or stand on the Grassy Knoll (pictured above), or practically stand on the spot where Abraham Zapruder filmed the most notorious home movie in history, and gaze upon the “X” in the middle of Elm Street that marked where the fatal third bullet hit Kennedy (pictured below left), without having the black and white footage of the tragedy play in my head. Indeed, I was walking in the footsteps of November 22, 1963. I have read my share of books about JFK and the assassination, and have seen the Zapruder film and the countless hours of black and white footage of the on-the-spot news coverage (including Walter Cronkite's moment when he choked up after officially announcing Kennedy's death), but when you see it up close and personal in living colour right in front of your face, the impact is still there as if you were actually standing along the motorcade route during that fateful Friday at 12:30 p.m.
The following Sunday morning, I was fortunate enough to be one of the group of selected BBYO adult staffers to escort a group of BBYO teens to the Dealey Plaza area as part of a day-long activity where many of the teens had the chance to do a little sight seeing at several of Dallas’ best known landmarks. Our group had the chance to visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, which now occupies the old Texas School Book Depository building. Since its dedication 25 years ago, the museum attracts 350,000 curious visitors every year, who want to personally experience up close and personal not only the assassination of JFK, but also the historical legacy of his brief 1,000-day presidency.

Unfortunately, photography any kind is not permitted on the sixth floor of the museum, where the permanent exhibition is displayed; however, it is allowed outside the building and on the seventh floor, where visitors can take a picture of the assassin’s view of Dealey Plaza … only one floor up from Oswald’s box-laden perch, which is encased in Lucite. Each visitor is given a complimentary audio guide; narrated by veteran Dallas radio reporter Pierce Allman (who was one of the first journalists to report about the assassination of JFK from inside the book depository), the audio guide is an effective, informative tool that directs the visitor through the permanent exhibition in order to get the full story of JFK, his presidency, the era that ushered in the “New Frontier”, the tense atmosphere in Dallas before the assassination, as well as the assassination itself and its controversial aftermath. Besides Allman’s excellent narration, the audio guide also gives plenty of eyewitness testimonies of people who were involved in the Kennedy administration, as well as those who witnessed the tragedy when Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza.
But perhaps what makes the permanent exhibition so compelling to visit is the vast collection of artifacts that are on display that play a silent witness to the Kennedy assassination. There’s a copy of the home movie camera that Abraham Zapruder used to film the assassination (the actual camera is stored in the National Archives in Washington); the first wire copy bulletin to report the shooting; one of the actual table settings from the Trade Mart luncheon that Kennedy was supposed to attend that afternoon; the $12.78 Mannlicher-Carcano sniper’s rifle that was used by Oswald to shoot Kennedy (which is displayed on the exact spot where it was discovered by Dallas police Lieutenant J.C. Day); the actual suit, Stetson hat and pair of handcuffs worn by Dallas police detective Jim Leavelle when Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby (Leavelle was part of the notorious Pulitzer-Prize winning photo of the shooting; he was on the left side of the photo); and the expansive model mock-up of Dealey Plaza that was used extensively by the Warren Commission during its 1964 investigation of the assassination (pictured above is the original enamelled metal sign of the Texas School Book Depository that was above the Elm Street entrance of the building).

Of course, one’s fascination with JFK and the assassination gets ratcheted up a few levels after visiting the exhibition on the sixth floor. And the excellent gift shop/bookstore located on the museum’s street level helps foster that interest even further. It sells an excellent selection of books and publications that deal with Kennedy’s life, presidency and legacy (including such best selling titles as Arthur Schlesinger’s “A Thousand Days”, Theodore Sorenson’s 1965 biography “Kennedy” and JFK’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage”). There’s also a wide selection of books that deal primarily with the assassination, the conspiracy theories and about the museum itself (I chose its excellent illustrated guide book and the story behind the making of the Sixth Floor Museum called “Assassination and Commemoration”, which will be the subject of a future Book Banter review). There are also complete reproductions of several American newspapers from November 23, 1963, and the usual assortment of souvenirs and collectables relating to JFK (including a full-scale reproduction of his famous rocking chair, which can be purchased for about $400).

Also, here is a something to take note of when you visit Dealey Plaza. Throughout the area, there are several roaming vendors who are willing to give you a quick lesson on the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. And if you’re convinced (or not), they sell copies of a privately-published illustrated historical journal ($5 each) that expands upon those theories, as well as a companion DVD. Being the tourist (and history buff) that I am, I decided to purchase the journal, which I added to my JFK library.

Visiting the Dealy Plaza area and the Sixth Floor Museum is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience which is almost like walking on historical hallowed ground. As you immerse yourself in this nationally recognized historical landmark, you get a mixed feeling of awe and sadness at how this somewhat tranquil part of Dallas set the stage for the turmoil that was to mark the rest of the 60s which forever burned in the conscience of the Baby Boomer generation and subsequent generations around the world. And it all happened with only three shots in six seconds on a sunny Friday afternoon in late November of 1963.

For more information about the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, go to their website at

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Meeting a True "Survivor" -- Ethan Zohn

DALLAS, TEXAS -- During the first seven or eight seasons of the pioneering CBS reality series “Survivor”, I was an avid watcher of the show, as I eagerly awaited the next installment every Thursday night to find out how the castaways fared in their exotic locale, as they tried to obtain immunity, not get voted out of their tribe, and win the title of “Sole Survivor” and get $1 million for their troubles.

Ethan Zohn, the former professional soccer player who won that title in the show’s third season “Survivor: Africa” survived the harsh, primitive conditions in Kenya, and yet never received one vote against him.

“The real challenge of ‘Survivor’ was what I would do when I suddenly won the million dollars. I wanted to be the type of person who used his celebrity in order to make a difference to others,” said Zohn, who spoke at the annual International Convention of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) last week in Dallas, Texas (that's me above, pictured with Ethan in between sessions).

During the two one-hour sessions he conducted, Zohn entertained the audience of teens and adult staff with stories of his time as a contestant on “Survivor: Africa”, in which he admitted he wasn’t prepared for the loneliness and isolation of the desert of southeastern Africa, and was guided by two principles that assured his eventual victory: be selfless in a selfish game and be a member of the community.

Zohn also spoke about how he became a survivor of another type: his two successful battles against cancer, in particular Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, in which he had to endure 22 blasts of radiation treatments, four chemotherapy sessions, a new drug and a stem cell donation from his brother Lee, which helped to put his cancer in remission. “As a patient, it’s really hard to articulate what it is to be sick,” he admitted.

He also spoke about the charitable organization he founded with the $1 million he won from “Survivor”. It’s called Grassroots Soccer, and the inspiration came from a reward challenge he won with his tribe mate and alliance partner Lex, in which they went to a Kenyan village and Zohn ended up playing hackey sack with a group of children who were HIV patients at a local hospital (he ended up giving his hackey sack, which was his luxury item from the game, to one of the children).

“That was my ‘do something moment’, and from there, I decided to start this charity and help save lives,” he said. Based on that incident and his experience playing pro soccer in Zimbabwe, where bodies of HIV/AIDS victims are buried all over the streets, Grassroots Soccer trains pro soccer players from across Africa about HIV/AIDS, and in turn, through their soccer skills and what they learned from their training sessions, these players teach HIV/AIDS awareness to children across the continent, and hold charity soccer tournaments to benefit the cause.

“I was always taught to do the right thing, which is why I used the money I won on Survivor to help the disadvantaged in Africa and erase the stigma of HIV there, too,” said Zohn. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Short story collection shows another literary side to veteran Montreal TV newscaster

After It Rains by Bill Haugland (Vehicule Press, $18)

For years, Bill Haugland honed his skills as a writer and storyteller, mainly as a reporter for CFCF’s suppertime newscast “Pulse”, and later as its anchorman. However, while he became a master news storyteller, Haugland was also trying to develop his skills as a storyteller of a different nature, mainly fictional stories.

When he retired from telling new stories several years ago, Haugland decided that instead of going the traditional route of writing a trenchcoat memoir of his life as a TV newsman, he used his TV news background as a premise for a novel. In fact, he turned it into two novels about the goings on of a mythical TV news operation in Montreal during the late 60s and early 70s, Mobile 9 and The Bidding.

For his third foray into fiction writing, Haugland decided to dig through a dusty old box that was stored in his Vermont home that was filled with story ideas and short stories that were started but remained unfinished. So with a lot of discipline and his knack for telling a story, Haugland went back to many of those stories and completed them. The end result is his first short story collection After it Rains.

The book is a collection of 14 short stories of varying themes and narratives that don’t solely rely on his past experiences in TV news. In fact, it deals with several examples of the human experience, whether it be realistic, fantastic or humoristic. Haugland’s purpose in telling these stories is to show the reader what these experiences are like from the point of view of the people who are taking part in it or being affected by it.

For example, there is the experience of a quirky family planning a carrying out a bank robbery (“Family Finances”); confessing to a murder while on death row (“A Confession”); how a simple object can release a tale of survival during the Holocaust (“The Photograph”); the wild, hustle and bustle world of the TV news stringer during the late 60s (“Stringer”, in which the mythical station CKCF from Haugland’s previous two books figures prominently in this story); and how an inherited 1943 U.S. penny turns into something more for the lonely grandson whom it’s handed down to (“The Wishing Jar”).

Haugland shows that he does have the knack for crafting and developing a quite readable fictional short story. In fact, he even knows how to develop a good plot twist that will throw quite a curve to the reader. Case in point, “41 Ward B”, a story of two elderly patients who reside in the Alzheimer’s ward of a rehab center. Although their rantings and states of mind could be attributed to their deteriorating mental condition, the ending is quite surprising (for the better) and leaves the reader with a “wow!” reaction.

After it Rains is an enjoyable collection of diverse short stories from someone who spent his career telling the public true stories on a daily basis for over 40 years. And after so many years of telling the news, it’s refreshing to see that Bill Haugland can effectively craft a series of 15-20 page works of fiction. Basically, he just cemented his new career as a writer of good fiction. Hopefully, the trenchcoat memoir won’t be so far behind, too.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

"American Idiot" A Raw, Energetic Production

The Evenko group got 2014 off to a raw, energetic start at Place des Arts, as the national touring company of "Green Day's American Idiot" started a brief two-day, three-performance run at PDA until tomorrow (Jan. 5).

This ground-breaking, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical does for the post 9/11 generation what "Hair" did for the 60s and "Rent" did for the 90s.

Using the songs from Green Day's landmark album of the same name, the show expresses the dreams, angst and hopes of three young men during the early 2000s -- Johnny, Turry and Will -- as they trek to the big city in search of their own sense of self-menaing and fulfillment in a rather cynical, harsh world. However, their respective journeys face unexpected obstacles, mainly early parenthood, drugs and the war in Iraq.

The young ensemble cast -- who are most resplendent in their uniform of that generation (torn jeans, t-shirts and hoodies) give raw, intense performances (which are exemplified by the riveting dance numbers, which are sort of a post-9/11 equivalent to what was done in "West Side Story"). They sing and dance their hearts out as they brazenly channel the deep rooted cynicism of the youths of that period.

The audience that were present at the Saturday matinee opening performance of "American Idiot" greeted each musical number with wild enthusiasm (it even got to the point that they even wildly applauded several of the numbers after hearing the first few notes being played, which is a testament to how familiar many of the audience members are with the album). The multi-media warehouse set with the multiple video screens and flashing lights are used to its fullest extent to signify the grittiness of the post-9/11 world. And the live onstage band that provided the loud, energetic musical accompaniment was excellent; it was almost like going to a Broadway show ... and a rock concert broke out!

Also, the cast, for an encore, gave the audience a special treat, in which each member was given an acoustic guitar and harmoniously sang "Time of Your Life", which is probably Green Day's most recognized song.

Although I was never a devoted follower of Green Day and their music, after seeing "American Idiot" onstage, it effectively showed me how the 9/11 terrorist attacks deeply affected the youth of that period who tried to find their own way during a very complex time in recent history. Also, if Evenko continues to present more original, out-of-the-ordinary Broadway productions to Montreal, I look forward to see what they have in store for its theatregoers in 2014.

If you want to purchase remaining tickets for the Jan. 5 performance of "American Idiot", go to the Place des Arts box office, or online at, or