Written by Gary Wosk
It had been mostly a blur, the turbulent bygone decade that I grew up in, the 1960s.
Occasionally, flashes of hippies, drugs, the British Invasion of rock and roll groups, the Vietnam War, anti-war protestors, civil rights marches and riots, and of course the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King would enter my consciousness. Those moments were far and between, and it usually took a TV documentary to bring that time back to life.
The fog was recently lifted when I read a newspaper article written about Juan Romero, an employee of the Ambassador Hotel who had delivered to room service to Senator Robert Kennedy, who after declaring victory in the California presidential primary was shot in the hotel’s kitchen and later passed away at Good Samaritan Hospital. It was Romero who tried to comfort the senator as he lay prostrate on the floor holding a rosary.
As I read the article, I began to remember how insulated my life had been before this tragedy and that of the senator’s brother, President John Kennedy. Everything seemed safe.
Up until 1961, when my parents, younger brother and I lived in the Bronx, my only concerns as a nine-year-old were eating as many hamburgers as I could (meat, bun and ketchup only), Good Humor Man ice cream cups and bars (especially bananas on a stick), and drinking thick chocolate shakes (at the corner drug store/luncheonette). To work off the calories, I would roller-skate down up and down steep sidewalks (it’s a miracle that I survived), catch lightning bugs in glass jars that had holes in the lids so the lightening bugs could breathe (inhumane in retrospect) play handball against red bricked buildings that housed young families (I was fast on my feet then) waiting for the snow to begin falling and go on sleigh rides (again, I was lucky to have survived because there was a chain linked fence to pass under at the finish line.
When we moved to Los Angeles in the following year, I became preoccupied with something other than having fun: The Cuban Missile Crisis. I lived in fear for fourteen days. Doomsday seemed imminent. I can still remember the mad-dash to purchase backyard bomb shelters. After war with the Soviet Union was averted, I went back to being my former self, the kid who lived for fun. Again, I didn’t have a care in the world.
That came to an end on November 22, 1963. I was sick and had stayed home from elementary school when CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite interrupted a children’s show I was watching on a 12-inch black and white TV with rabbit ear antennas. He sadly announced that President John Kennedy had been shot.
For the first time in my life, youthful narcissism was replaced by sadness for the country. The images on TV and photographs in newspapers of the fallen president, First Lady Jacqueline, the couple’s children, John-John and Caroline, the funeral procession, the horse drawn caisson, flag draped casket and the Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery reinforced my mood.
Somehow, my life returned to “normal” again. Grief gave away to looking forward to playing Little League baseball and watching my favorite television shows which included Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, The Twilight Zone and The Ed Sullivan Show. The assassination of the president no longer preoccupied my daily thoughts.
Five years later in 1968, life was still normal. I was a sophomore in high school looking forward to another summer vacation of playing baseball and basketball, attending Angels and Dodger games, laying out with my friends near the community pool to work on our tans, going to the movies and listening to rock and roll music on my transistor radio. I wasn’t interested in girls and dating yet. I wasn’t even interested in getting my driver’s license. At this point in my life, however, it wasn’t just about me. I was concerned about ending the war in Vietnam and the presidential primaries.
At 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday, June 5, 1968 my father awakened me with the shocking news. “Robert Kennedy has been shot.” I was still half asleep and the word did not register right away. As I watched the television coverage, it felt like November 22, 1963 all over again, however, this time the tragedy affected me more deeply.
I never met Robert Kennedy, but I had campaigned for him in the California presidential primary. It was first time in my life I had been involved in a cause. He was my hero along with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax and actors Charlton Heston and Boris Karloff. Three weeks earlier, on May 15 in the gymnasium at Los Angeles Valley College, Kennedy delivered a speech. This was the same gym I played pickup basketball night after night neglecting my studies. I couldn’t believe that such an important person would select a community college for giving such an important speech. It was a surreal experience. Kennedy was speaking from the same spot on the court where I would drive to the basket.
The gym was filled to capacity. People, who sat in metal folding chairs and wooden bleachers, wore plastic campaign hats and buttons. Serious looking men attired in suits appeared to be part of the United States Secret Service and were scattered about carefully monitoring the crowd. Before Kennedy spoke, cheerleaders and a marching band led a pep rally. Although there was barely any ventilation in gym, no one seemed to mind the uncomfortable conditions because the person we believed would help make this a better world was about to appear.
Following his speech, many of Kennedy’s supporters, including me, ran outside to get another glimpse of the candidate. As I watched the motorcade from a bridge that spanned narrow Ethel Avenue, the limousine carrying Kennedy suddenly accelerated after being pelted by an object, an omen of what would take place in less than three weeks.
On the night of the California presidential primary I had gone to bed at about ten with the full expectation of turning the radio on to 710 KMPC in the morning to hear that Kennedy had been declared the winner. Instead, it was the end of Camelot.
Again, my carefree existence was interrupted by another tragedy, but as it turned out, sadness, though a formidable foe, was not invincible. With time, what were once constant thoughts of Robert Kennedy, his wife Ethel, the slow moving train that transported his body to Washington, D.C. as mourners stood by the tracks to pay their respects, and again, Arlington National Cemetery, faded away.
Normalcy had returned again. By the time I turned eighteen I would be working at McDonald’s, attending Valley College and saving money for a planned trip to Europe with my best friend.
In looking back at the events of 1963 and 1968, they serve as reminders that even though there are times in life when all seems hopeless, life can return to normal again with the passage of time. Human beings, including children and teenagers, are resilient. Miraculously, the ability to rebound is part of our genetic code.