"From Dallas, Texas — the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time."

— Newscaster Walter Cronkite, choking back tears as he reads the bulletin handed to him during a live broadcast

DALLAS — I wasn't going to visit that place we've seen a thousand times in old, grainy newsreels. Forty-nine years later, what would be the point?

But driving through what locals call the West End Historic District, my wife looked at the map and said, "Dealey Plaza is only a couple of blocks that way."

It is said that Americans began to lose their innocence on that day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

You know the rest. Within five years, Robert Kennedy, who seemed destined to follow his brother into the Oval Office, was murdered in Los Angeles, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.was killed by a sniper in Memphis.

And there was Vietnam, a war that tore the country apart, and Watergate, a scandal that led to the resignation of a sitting president, Richard Nixon.

If you were born after 1963, this is only history, but for people who remember, people like me, the events were, in turn, shocking, heartbreaking and infuriating.

It isn't necessary to glorify John Kennedy. He was a politician and a human being, but to this college kid, America in 1963 seemed more optimistic about the future.

By 1974, when Nixon resigned in disgrace, the country was changed. We had lost faith in the people and institutions that are supposed to lead us.

For my generation, it doesn't feel like a reach to suggest that the corrosive politics and government dysfunction of today can be traced to those few moments in Dealey Plaza and the grim events that followed.

For a first-time visitor, Dallas seems a prosperous blur of turnpikes, shopping malls, high-rise office buildings and parking garages. I don't think the locals would be offended if I called it sprawling.

There was a time when people blamed Dallas for the assassination. This never made sense, unless it also made sense to blame Los Angeles for the murder of Robert Kennedy five years later. Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin in Dallas, came from New Orleans.

But Texas is different than California, and people were angry.

It turns out that Dealey Plaza is named after a civic leader and newspaper publisher named George Bannerman Dealey. You can see his statue there, not far from the grassy knoll.

The grassy knoll. On Nov. 22, 1963, the words were added to the mythology of American politics. Here was patch of grass — on Elm Street, no less — shrouded in stories of what did or did not happen on that day.

Here was where shots rang out as Kennedy's motorcade reached the downhill section of Elm Street, just before the Triple Underpass.

On the day we visited, a handful of tourists wandered the area.

Dealey Plaza is bordered on one side by a nondescript collection of buildings, including what is now the Dallas County Administration Building.

Once upon a time, it was known as the Texas School Book Depository.

Two floors of the building today are set aside for what's called the Sixth Floor Museum.

From his sixth floor perch, Oswald fired the shots that killed the 35th president of the United States, according to the Warren Commission.

Over the decades, of course, the assassination has spawned many theories about what happened and who was responsible.

Disagreeing, in part, with the Warren Commission, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded there was a "high probability" that two gunmen fired shots at the president as his motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza.

Whatever the truth of it, the controversies contribute to Americans' capacity to imagine conspiracies in every kind of political event.

Next year, a half century will have passed since Kennedy was killed, and Americans of a certain age will remember where they were when they heard the news. I was leaving a language lab.

After we drove around for a few minutes last week, I decided I didn't want to visit the Museum Store and Cafe, or experience the Dealey Plaza Cell Phone Walking Tour, or see where Oswald fired his rifle.

I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Let someone else imagine how it happened, I thought.

Let someone else imagine how different the world might be.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.