By M. J. Moore
Of all the questions about America in the 1960’s, perhaps none is heard as often as “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”
Invariably, the questioner is referring to JFK’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.
But there’s another answer to the question that many of us are inclined to offer: “Excuse me, but . . . which Kennedy do you mean?”
We’re the ones who were just a bit too young to have any clear, vivid memories of those four days in November, when non-stop black-and-white television coverage of the murder of the president transfixed America for a long, grim weekend in 1963.
For us, hovering in the vicinity of 3rd or 4th grade in the spring of 1968, the ultimate Kennedy tragedy is all about four days in June.
That’s when the gravity of certain minutes, hours, and days were branded upon our memories – four days in June, in 1968, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) was riddled with bullets; clung to life for 25 hours; then died. He was waked in New York City and then buried in Arlington National Cemetery on the night of June 8.
RFK’s murder stupefied us. For all those family members we looked up to (literally) and also for our teachers and neighbors who had been shattered by the disaster in Dallas fewer than five years earlier, the assassination of RFK was a dreadful encore.
Folks who were old enough to remember JFK suffered a ghastly, dizzying déjà-vu.
But it was also, for us younger folks, the first time we ever saw how shocked, scared, grief-stricken and pulverized the grown-ups could be, even about a public figure they had never met. In a profound way, though, it seemed as if RFK was family.
JFK and RFK still hold their places in the pantheon of American heroes. And for many of us who cannot honestly recall November 22, 1963, there is nonetheless much that still disturbs our memories regarding the very first week in June.
When we woke on the morning of June 5, 1968, untold numbers of us were counting out the last few days of school. But on that morning, we awoke to sobbing parents.
Late the night before (it happened after midnight in Los Angeles), RFK had been gunned down. The horrific picture of the late president’s younger brother, sprawled on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen pantry, a young Hispanic busboy offering a rosary in vain hope – already that file photo was transmitted worldwide.
All day long in our Catholic grammar school (perhaps also in the public schools), the intercom crackled with periodic news updates from the principal. Time stopped.
The next morning, the confirmation of RFK’s death at 1:44 a.m. marked the second time in a quarter-century that June 6 became a date of tremendous significance in the American narrative.
That afternoon, those of us at St. Denis School on the Southwest Side of Chicago were marched across the street to pray for Bobby at hastily scheduled Masses. All across America, millions of others were praying too.
The school year ended the next day, and all weekend the TV news programs (now in color) were our initiation into history.
That’s why so many of us still get chills or feel faint or hold back tears or feel jolted by a gut-level sense of loss, when specific photos or news clips are seen again.
The wake for RFK at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; his funeral Mass and his brother Ted’s heartrending eulogy; and then that extraordinary train ride—a railroad cortege winding its way from Manhattan down to Washington, D.C., which was met and saluted by innumerable Americans standing vigil, hands on hearts, flags waving.
Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? More than a million? No one knew. Too many to count. And it all happened so fast. But they were there every step of the way: All ages. All colors. All ethnic and economic gradations.Author Truman Capote aptly summed up that it was “the train ride of the century.”
Why? There were as many reasons as there were mourners.
In the maelstrom of 1968’s madness, RFK was a “peace candidate” at the height of America’s catastrophic and divisive war in Vietnam. He exuded optimism and compassion for all Americans, and often echoed JFK’s mythic cadences.
Policies and platforms aside, he was mature yet youthful – a man with a boyish grin.
For those of us in my tribe, watching it all on TV, being glued to the screen made us feel at least a bit connected to the infinitely complicated and the greatly-flawed-yet- heroic Kennedy clan. Elders whispered: “This really feels like a death in the family.”
It wasn’t that way merely for the Irish-Catholic community. It also felt that way throughout the ineffable and collective human circle, where hope was extinguished (or so it seemed) and suddenly 1968 felt like a vortex of fear, mayhem, and futility.
In one of RFK’s journals, he copied a quotation from the writings of Albert Camus; it was an excerpt that spoke volumes about his endless grief over the loss of JFK: “But sometimes in the middle of the night their wound would open afresh. And suddenly awakened, they would finger its painful edges; they would recover their suffering anew and with it the stricken face of their love.”
He never got over the loss of JFK. And we never got over the loss of Bobby.