I wasn’t eighteen yet, although less than two months lay between June 6, 1968, and my August birthday. I was freshly graduated from high school and working a job I disliked intensely,
But I was having a good time, having shaken off the shackles of having to seek permission for almost everything. I’d stopped sneaking out to smoke and taken to staying out well past the midnight curfew that had accompanied me through high school. I took to swearing without fear and developing ideas of my own that seldom coincided with those of my family.
Something that happened well before that time was my interest in politics, one that had its foundation in the presidential election in 1960. Our fifth-grade class discussed it fiercely, debating the pros and cons of Kennedy and Nixon with raised voices and little actual knowledge. We had a desk top prototype of a voting booth, and we held our own election. The results were predictable.
We saw things through those years. Even where I went to school, the student body was silenced and horrified by JFK’s assassination. Not so much when it was Dr. King. We were not diverse there in the cornfields, people around us still used the n-word frequently, and being different in any way wasn’t something to be encouraged. While I had met black people, I didn’t actually know any. None. While I was sorry for Dr. King’s death, I couldn’t begin to understand the grief, anger, and hopelessness everyone in his race must have felt. I bought into “different” because I didn’t know any better, but I should have. I should have.
Because Bobby Kennedy was my hero, I should have.
It didn’t occur to me until June of that year that I should have dug deeper to understand. When Bobby Kennedy died, it was my first up-close acquaintance with social hopelessness, my first bout with sharp, sustained grief that didn’t have to do with someone I personally knew and loved, my first anger at people who think hate is okay. More than okay, it’s to be revered, shared, and cultivated.
I should have dug deeper.
I remember that day in June when Bobby was shot. Mom woke me to tell me, and even though he was still alive, we knew it wouldn’t be for long. The madman with the gun was very thorough in his destruction of the person many of us thought would be our country’s savior.
I’d seen him that April on his whistle-stop tour. I skipped school to go to the depot in Peru, Indiana and listen to him talk from the rear platform of a train car.
I was short and the area was packed. Although I could hear, I couldn’t see until the man behind me, easily a foot taller, put his hands under my elbows and steered me through the crowd to where I stood right at the end of the train. Right there! I could see Ethel Kennedy’s makeup that drew commentary from my Republican friends and Mr. Kennedy speaking earnestly.
I thanked the man behind me, bursting into laughter when I saw that the front of his shirt was plastered with badges supporting Eugene McCarthy for the presidential nomination.
“Things will be better,” I said to anyone who would listen. “When Bobby’s elected, things will be better.” I was buoyant with hope, with faith in someone who was up for rattling the cages of tradition and conformity that had kept me so unaware.
While I had been interested in politics since I was ten, I’d taken little time to widen the scope of that interest. Even that month, that same month that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the scope remained narrow. But Bobby would widen it, not just for me but for everyone. Our generation, all those others like me who skipped school to stand at the end of that train and cheer until we were hoarse, were going to make things better.
We’d get us out of Vietnam.
We’d end the hate.
We’d see to it that there was No More War. As a matter of fact, violence would disappear altogether.
No one would ever be hungry.
Everyone would have not only freedom of religion but freedom from it, too, if that was what they wanted.
We’d save the planet.
Racism would disappear. (That was an afterthought with me—I still didn’t get it.)
But then Bobby died.
My life changed irrevocably that year I turned 18. Because Bobby Kennedy lived and because he died. Our generation didn’t do any of the things we thought we would, but I learned to widen the scope as much as a white girl from the cornfields could manage. I learned to keep trying. Keep trying. Keep trying. And never, ever give up.
And at the end of the political day, I’m still looking for Bobby.