When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” Story

 

 

Taken only five years apart. Was it 50 years ago I made the switch?

 

Fifty years ago this week — on a very late Tuesday June 4th evening — I was coloring my hair in the New Jersey apartment I shared with my mother. Recoloring I should say. And it wasn’t going well.

With the radio on in the background, into the early morning hours of June 5, I continued to make a mess of my hair. And, as I waited for the bleach or the dye — I can’t recall which direction I was going — to do its thing, I heard the news that Robert F Kennedy had won the California primary, pushing out my candidate “Clean Gene” McCarthy by just a few percentage points (46% to Gene’s 42%, I’ve learned).

I wasn’t happy.

I’d been irritated with RFK ever since he’d entered the primary campaign shortly after Eugene McCarthy showed so well in New Hampshire. At the time it seemed Bobby had let Gene take all the risk before getting into the primary race himself.  (See my post from March 14 on why I supported Eugene McCarthy.)  I sided with those who saw Bobby Kennedy as an opportunist.

I pushed my political disappointment out of my mind. My plan was to find a drug store early the next morning and buy something that would “fix” my hair in time for me to get to work, a summer job at Overbrook, the nearby psychiatric hospital. And so I washed the chemicals from my hair, wrapped my head in a towel, and went to turn off the radio.

It was then that I heard Bobby had been shot. In the head.

It had been only two months since Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed by an assassin’s bullet. And the memories of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, not yet five years before, had not dimmed. (Here’s April’s 50-Years-Ago post, including MLK’s assassination. And, I did a 50-years-ago post in 2013 on JFK’ death.)

“Not again,” I remember thinking. Then, soon hearing he was alive, on his way to a hospital, I went to sleep.

I awoke the  next morning not thinking much more about Bobby than that he’d survived the night and that was a good sign.  I remember my trip to a drug store, buying something from the hair products aisle, and then being at work  that afternoon and evening, thinking there was nothing to be concerned with. I’d successfully put RFK out of my mind. He’d made it to the hospital alive; that’s much more than either JFK or MLK had. Denial is a much underrated defense mechanism, Maureen Reagan once famously said.

It would not be until Thursday before I learned he had died. And sadness was not my primary emotion. Fear was. There were too many dead heroes in my life. I felt scared for Eugene McCarthy and scared for the others I thought would come.

I’ve changed my mind about RFK in the years since.

I no longer use the word “opportunist” when  I think of him. Instead, I see him as a careful and a savvy politician. And I don’t mean that pejoratively.  Learning that McCarthy had been bent on getting Kennedy to run helped.

My political views have also softened over these past five decades.

I try not to see candidates as black or white, good or evil, competent or not.  I see them all as imperfect human beings trying to do the best they can. Some are motivated by greed, some by a more generalized self interest; some seek fame, some want to leave a legacy. But all want to be successful at what they do.  I see politics as a game of compromise, with few if any absolutes. Finding flaws in our politicians is not, for me, an automatic death knell for them.

I still believe in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, though I’ll admit to a few cracks in the solidity of that belief.  Still, this quote from a speech Robert Kennedy gave in South Africa in 1966, resonates:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total, all of these acts will be written in the history of this generation.”

 

Generally, I also try to stay away from the “If onlys” and the “What ifs;” they sap my energy to no good effect.

But it is oh so very tempting to believe that had Bobby Kennedy won the Democratic primary he would have gone on to defeat Nixon.  (I actually can’t say that about Eugene McCarthy.) So very much would have been different. No Watergate …

Alas.

Judith Baca’s mural of RFK at the Robert F Kennedy Community School, open 2010. Thanks to LA Times for image.

But memories are slippery things.

For example, I have a distinct memory of listening to the funeral for RFK that Saturday, June 8 on my car radio as I drove south on the Garden State Parkway to the shore. I remember the eulogy that Teddy Kennedy (later Senator Ted Kennedy) gave, specifically the last paragraph:

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

I remember that clearly.

The problem is, Saturday, June 8 is the day I graduated from The King’s College in Westchester County, New York, 75 miles north.  I have my graduation program to prove it and a few photos. How do I reconcile that?

I can’t recall where my mother was the night I was coloring (or bleaching; ruining for a time, anyway) my hair. Was she away? And if so, where? Was she home and asleep? Our apartment wasn’t that big! And it was well past midnight. I could ask her.

And how is it I had a summer job before I’d graduated? Was it the interview I was going for, instead? And, whatever did my hair look like when I went? Again, memories fade. And, sometimes, I am grateful that they do.

While I believe that it was a tragedy for the country, not just his family and friends, my brain refuses to lock onto the tragedy of the death of Robert Kennedy. Instead, it keeps me whirling around in the mundane, the insignificant, the irrelevant. Was I bleaching or dying my hair?  Was I driving south to the beach or north to the college? Why was I alone in the car? I never went to the shore alone.

Perhaps it’s protecting me. The idea that three of our more outspoken advocates for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the different — JFK, MLK, and now RFK, we were big into initials in the 60s — were gunned down within five years of each other … this cannot possibly be more than coincidental.  Can it?

Sally Edelstein’s blog, Envisioning the American Dream, has a post this week on Remembering Bobby Kennedy. I hope you’ll check it out.  As usual, she’s got a wealth of great vintage photos and images from the era.

How about you? Where were you the night Bobby was shot? 

23 Responses

  1. Bernadette Laganella
    | Reply

    What a time that was – the death of innocence for us and the country.
    Bernadette Laganella recently posted…CEE’S WHICH WAY CHALLENGEMy Profile

  2. Merril Smith
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    Excellent post, Janet. Memory is slippery. My sister and I have compared some events from our childhoods–things one of us remembers but the other doesn’t. I don’t remember when RFK was shot.
    There have been all sorts of stories on NPR this past week about RFK–and a Netflix documentary is coming out.
    Merril Smith recently posted…TithonusMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I tend to stay away from all the retrospectives of that era, Merril: Vietnam War movies, the assassinations on the Bio channel, Oliver Stone movies, etc. My bias is a “been there, seen that” and I don’t want to go back. Not sure why it’s suddenly become important for me to write these 50 year posts. Probably just the number. This particular post left me emotionally drained and down for a bit. I need to keep my focus ahead, on my future. I keep reminding myself I still have one. 🙂 Thanks for swinging by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  3. Ally Bean
    | Reply

    I’ve no memory of Bobby Kennedy being shot. I was young and my focus was more on swing sets than politics. If my family was talking about it, it didn’t register with me. It was only later in college poli sci that I came to realize the significance of that event.
    Ally Bean recently posted…As Our Summer Begins, A Dazzle Of ZebrasMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes, the distance of time really helps with perspective. Were you a poli sci major? I’ve done some time in that field. Helps as we wend our way in our current morass. So glad you added your voice here, Ally. Keep coming back. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  4. Marian Beaman
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    I like how you combine personal nostalgia with political happenings. I do remember when RFK was shot, but I don’t remember what I was doing. (I was teaching an English class when President Kennedy was shot.)

    This week I’m remembering RFK in retrospectives on TV. I did click over to Sally Edelstein’s article. This stands out for me: “The youth of our nation are the clearest mirror of our performance.” That’s powerful!

    About your photos: You’ve always been pretty but darn it if I can remember that you were a nurse.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hmmm. And I was taking an English class when JFK was shot. Sally’s posts always raise my awareness of something. And, about that photo — I was a student nurse for one year. That was enough for me. Remember, I was planning to be a missionary nurse (in Africa; I had it all planned out, not knowing Africa was a continent and not a single country). Nursing school ended the nursing plan; Bible college, the missionary part. Some day I’ll write about it. 🙂
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  5. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I distinctly remember walking down the hall of the unit I worked on as a nurse and feeling an overwhelming fear right after I heard the news of Bobby’s death. I wondered what it would all mean. It truly felt like the end of innocence. As in the message of Camelot, we had one brief shining moment. Now the world was a dark place filled with unknowns. And you are right about memory being slippery. It was probably easier to focus on hair color than on the stark reality of the situation. Great story!

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I was almost eleven years old when RFK was shot. What I remember is my parent’s horrified response to the news on the Huntley-Brinkley Report.

    And like Merril, my sister and I (we are only thirteen months apart in age) have compared many of the events from our childhoods and there are numerous things one of us remembers but the other doesn’t; and many that we remember—but differently.
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Choose Your BattlesMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I envy you your sister, Laurie. That ability to compare, to validate or correct, is one I’ve missed. I tend to assume my reality is “the one,” which doesn’t serve me too well, as you can imagine. I’m glad you mentioned your parents here; we pick up so much from just watching them — always modeling, even when they don’t know it. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  7. KM Huber
    | Reply

    I was almost 16 in 1968 and in love with the first girl of my life, and it would not end well. But RFK’s death shut everything else out for me for a few days, and for once my mother and I didn’t argue about housekeeping chores. The death of Bobby Kennedy may be the last time my family and I agreed on politics; in 1966, Bobby came to Casper, Wyoming, and my father and I went to hear him speak. I shook his hand, a moment never forgotten. Well, what’s not forgotten are his eyes. I suppose 1968 was the year my activism began, just another layer of my rebellious nature, but assassination, Nixon, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam–all–would touch my life in the next 10 years. Of course, as a 16-year-old, all I knew was angst. In retrospect, no year came close to 1968 until 2016, 2017, 2018….

  8. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Bill and I talked last evening about how devastated we were by Bobby’s death and just before that Martin Luther King. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time but the news that day made me drop to my knees. I do remember asking at the time, “Where is this country going.”

    Unfortunately we are again in a traumatic time. I am asking that same question every day.
    Joan Z. Rough recently posted…The Laws Of My NatureMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      This is certainly a good test of our system — and the premise that it is not dependent upon any one person. One can’t take it down and one can’t fix it; it must be a majority. And our midterms will determine how the majority feels about that. But it is hard to sit in the unknown. I tend to pull weeds; it’s great therapy. Thanks for being here, Joan. I apologize for taking so long to respond; I was out of town and my phone got rather balky in writing Replys that went where they were supposed to. I’ve lost so many over the months, I’ve given up using my phone. But, now I’m home. Always good to come home.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Janet, I was in diapers when RFK was killed, so of course I don’t remember it. Growing up, it seemed that JFK’s and King’s assassinations carried more weight in the country’s conscience, but I came to know of RFK eventually. Unbelievable, the era that you came of age (hubba, hubba on the pix btw!). I try to find some comfort concerning recent political events, knowing that the wheels were coming off before, too, and we managed to hold it together as a nation. I hope we can overcome again.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Great metaphor, Tim — wheels coming off. And muchas gracias on the nice compliment.

      See my reply to Joan, above. I weave between dark pessimism (let’s empty our portfolio, buy a camper, and hit the road) to guarded optimism (our system is meant to withstand these crazy swings). Only time will tell. I just hope I’m around long enough to read how history says it. Thanks.
      Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

      • Tim Fearnside
        | Reply

        Our system certainly is designed to withstand these things, although so many of our safeguards are either under attack, proving ineffective, or being outright dismantled. It frankly scares the hell out of me. I want to believe we’ll get through this, and remain guardedly optimistic that we will. But I fear it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and that it’s going to be a dog fight the likes of which we haven’t seen in some time, if ever. Even then, so much damage will have been done. I never thought what’s happening now could or would ever happen here, and I find it hard not to feel demoralized. But hope, community, and action are all we have, I suppose, and we can’t let sorrow devolve into defeatism. There’s far too much at stake…

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          You remind me of the stories I read over and over of Jews in 1930s Germany who had opportunity to leave — though back then the ” to where” was often a big problem — but chose to stay, in optimism.

          I so hope I’m wrong.
          Janet Givens recently posted…When Memory Fades: Another “50 Years Ago” StoryMy Profile

  10. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    Remembering when… Thanks so much for sharing RFKs quotes. Words we need to remember.

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