Bells shatter a November morning

After shots were fired in Dallas, news reports of the president's assassination were flashed around the world via wire-service Teletypes.

SACRAMENTO — Five bells rang, followed by the clack-clack of paper spewing from the Teletype. It was a bulletin.

"Dallas, Nov. 22 (UPI)—Three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade today in downtown Dallas."

Five bells for a bulletin. Ten for a very rare flash alerting editors and broadcasters to earth-shaking news. There were several flashes that day. One came soon after the initial bulletin.

"Kennedy seriously wounded perhaps fatally by assassin's bullet."

And about an hour later:

"President Kennedy dead."

Bells? Teletypes? Flashes?

It's striking how primitive communications were 50 years ago compared to today. And few of us can imagine what they'll be like in another half century.

Hopefully people won't still be staring at their plate while a lunch companion rudely plays with his so-called smartphone. But that subject's for another time.

Most folks in their mid-50s or older remember where they were when the flashes from Dallas stopped them in their tracks. In California, it was late morning.

I was working at the state Capitol in the UPI bureau. That would be United Press International, which no longer exists as a major news service.

Our sworn enemy, the Associated Press, hangs on, although its reporter corps continues to dwindle as the news media decentralize into cyberspace.

There's more information bouncing around these days, but much of it is unreliable and irrelevant. That's also for another time.

In the battle for survival, AP won. But on that day 50 years ago, UPI kicked its butt. That is, Merriman Smith did.

"Smitty," UPI's veteran White House reporter, won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kennedy assassination. He was riding in the press pool car of the presidential motorcade, squeezed in the front seat between the driver and a White House aide, when three loud cracks were heard. A gun buff, Smith instantly recognized the sound as rifle shots.

In the back seat were three other reporters, including the AP's Jack Bell. Smith knew where to sit: with the car's only telephone at his feet. He grabbed it and dictated the bulletin — then kept clutching the phone while Bell beat him on the back and wrestled for it.

UPI broke ahead of AP and kept pulling away. Smith capped his performance with a riveting, detailed wrap-up piece written aboard Air Force One flying back to Washington.

In the Sacramento bureau, we reporters huddled over the A-wire machine, waiting for the bells and devouring every word. We weren't the only ones.

The little office soon flooded with politicians and legislative staffers. One I vividly remember was a former college roommate. He leaned through the door and mouthed the words: "Is it true?"

It struck me that nothing was true in those days unless the wire services said it was. Confirmation was on the yellow paper rolling out of Teletypes. There was no 24/7 cable TV news. No emailing. No tweeting.

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