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Wednesday
Nov282012

An Assassination + 45 Years

When a 63 year old woman takes the hand of her 19 year old former self and wanders through old memories the most astonishing things can happen. I have never been one to live in the past, I am not overly sentimental and if anything I am more future oriented, although lately I deeply understand the importance of living each moment fully in the present. At this age I can so easily envision the supply of these moments coming to an end some day relatively soon and I aim to savor each one. So, I have slowed down a bit. I live more on heart time. It was from this space of here and heart that I traveled back in time to 1968 to relive a traumatic memory. How amazing to see these events again through wiser eyes. Is it possible to comfort one's 19 year old self? Yes, definitely. Is it possible to learn a thing or two from one's 19 year old self? Yes, absolutely.

It was a year I will never forget. I was a freshman in college, an American Studies major at California State University at Los Angeles. Politically active, I worked in Southern California for Bobby Kennedy's campaign in his bid for the Democratic party's presidential nomination. My best friend Kathy and I were so proud and excited to be “Kennedy Girls”. This was a team of young women who helped organize campaign events and tried to build up enthusiasm and energy before any RFK appearance. We all wore navy blue skirts, white blouses and a white straw hat with a red, white and blue band that said “Kennedy”.We had worked long and hard in the days leading up to the California primary. When we were not out at an event we were in campaign headquarters making phone calls or stuffing envelopes. It was such an exhilarating time and I was an idealist, in love with the idea of making a difference in the world. I believed with all my heart Robert Kennedy could make such a difference.

At one of the campaign events, which happened to be in my home town at the San Gabriel Mission, Senator Kennedy walked up to me, asked my name, shook my hand and thanked me for working on the campaign. I was thrilled, of course. The thing I remember most about him was his sincerity. When he spoke to someone it was not cursory, not the fake-smile-hand-pumping gestures you get from most politicians. He had an almost shy demeanor, a humble confidence that was endearing. He spoke directly to me with his thick Boston accent and I felt at ease, on equal footing. It was unmistakably genuine; such charisma the man had! Soon after we spoke he entered the sanctuary of the church to pray. He was a devout Catholic.

Finally, the date of the California primary arrived-- June 5, 1968. My friend Kathy and I arrived at the Ambassador Hotel in the evening and took our places on the stage of the downstairs auditorium. The room was filled with people who had worked tirelessly on the campaign. Ours was a private event and the evening's schedule called for RFK to speak to his supporters in the Embassy ballroom upstairs, be ushered through the kitchen (a back way, avoiding the crowds) to the Colonial Room where he would speak to the press and then take the service elevator to the private celebration downstairs where we were.

As the night wore on we all nervously awaited news of election results and finally, sometime after 11 p.m., the news we had yearned for reached us. Kennedy had won the primary! The place erupted in cheering and chants of “RFK! RFK! RFK!” Such excitement! We were so beside ourselves with joy, the atmosphere was absolutely electric! Some of the campaign leaders spoke enthusiastically to the crowd as we waited for our candidate to appear.

Upstairs, Robert Kennedy gave a rousing victory speech to his thrilled supporters in the packed Embassy Ballroom, then shortly after midnight was whisked through a door that lead to the kitchen service area, on his way to meet the press corps. It was there he had the horrifically tragic encounter with a young armed Palestinian immigrant by the name of Sirhan Sirhan. Shots rang out and in seconds Kennedy was on the floor, mortally wounded. In the midst of the chaos that followed, a busboy leaned down beside him and pressed rosary beads in his hand. Bobby asked him “Is everybody all right?”. Those were his last words.

Someone raced downstairs and screamed the horrible news to all of us from the back of the full auditorium. It was utter pandemonium. No one knew if there was one shooter or a whole army of them. People were yelling and screaming and crying and panicking. In the mayhem the crowd surged forward and people were being crushed against the front wall of the stage. We pulled 10 or 12 people up on to the stage to save them until the organizers could settle the crowd. I had never see mob rule in action before and it was terrifying. Once the crowd was somewhat under control people were sobbing and desperate for information. Was he alive? Would he be okay? Was anybody else hurt? Who did this terrible thing?

No answers came for us that night. In quick order the LAPD officers were swarming the hotel. We were all told to return to our vehicles and sit in them until we were interrogated and released from the parking lot. Stunned and reeling, we sat and cried. It was hours before we were released. We were questioned briefly and asked for addresses and phone numbers where we could be reached (weeks later, we were both questioned in more detail by FBI agents) and finally were allowed to leave the hotel parking lot. We arrived home about 4 a.m. Heartbroken, I laid on the couch watching television coverage until I fell into an exhausted sleep. Bobby Kennedy died later that day from his wounds.

Never since have I ever been in a situation where the highest of highs was followed so immediately by the lowest of lows as it was that day. That day changed my life in ways I can only see now that I look at it in the context of all the days of my life that followed. It was the day I learned that very bad things can happen to very good people. But it was also the day, on a very deep unconscious level, I had a choice. Somehow I steered away from the easier route of cynicism and disillusionment and headed steadfastly back towards life and goodness. It has made all the difference.

 

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Reader Comments (1)

This is beautiful and sad. How surreal to be in the midst of that story.

I think we get cynical when we do not allow ourselves to cry about our sorrows. It makes us expect everybody to swallow up their sorrow.

A few weeks ago I threw something out (in a cleaning fit) that my 6 year-old wanted to keep. I had forgotten that. When she found out it was gone she cried, and I held her in my arms and said I was so sorry for forgetting. That moment was so sweet, because she was just sad and I was just sorry and I just loved her so much, no thoughts in my head where I was beating myself up about it. And when she stopped crying, it was OK again.

Have a wonderful day!!!

January 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSimone

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