Memoir of a War Resister—A Novel of the 1960s

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Chapter 16—"Abraham, Martin And John"

My first year of college was coming to a close. Despite the fact I had five days of finals coming up, on June 4th I went to Bradley Hall to watch the California Democratic primary returns. McCarthy lost every primary except Oregon but we held high hopes for California. Polls were tight. Early returns showed McCarthy in the lead. Only Los Angeles County with forty percent of the vote remained to be counted.

The night was going to be a long one. Polls closed at 10 p.m. Chicago time. It was now close to 2 a.m. and I drifted in and out of sleep, curled up with Jeff on the couch. Ginger, as usual, softly strummed her guitar. Hook, as usual, alternated between pacing and standing against a wall, arms crossed. Jake and Marty, as usual, strategized. They were planning our trip to the Democratic National Convention in August. Chicago was never going to know what hit it.

I wanted to give up. The Oreo bag was empty. I had an 11:00 final the next morning and I would be exhausted if I stayed up all night. “I’m leaving. Someone tell me how it turns out.” I got up to go.

“Stay until 3:00 and if nothing’s final by then, I’ll walk you back to your dorm,” Jeff said.

It became final, very final, long before. Fifteen minutes later the newscasters projected Kennedy the winner. “Shit,” Marty said. “I was sure McCarthy was going to pull this one out.” I sat stunned, tears rolling down my face as I stared at the celebration on the screen.

Bobby Kennedy came to the stage with his wife and gave the peace sign to the crowd. They cheered as he stood there smiling. He gave seven minutes of thank yous. To his dog. To the pitcher for the Dodgers. To everyone standing there. I didn’t want to watch but I couldn’t pull myself away. I felt so sad. At the same time, this very charismatic man who I loved won the primary, would win the nomination, would win the election, would be the next President of the United States.

Kennedy kept on speaking. “I think we can end the divisions within the United States. We are a great country, a selfless and a compassionate country. The country wants to move in a different direction. We want to deal with our own problems within our own country and we want peace in Vietnam.”

“We didn’t do enough,” Marty said. “We fucking didn’t do enough.”

“Shut up, Marty,” Hook said. “You worked your heart out. Move on.”

Hook was right. Enough was enough. I walked over and sat next to Marty, my hand on his knee. Kennedy finished. “So my thanks to all of you and now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.” He gave a thumbs up and a peace sign. Then Kennedy’s right hand moved to his head where he brushed back his hair.

“Marty, you do that just like Kennedy,” I said.

“Do what?”

“Brush back your hair.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Watch him sometime. You do it almost exactly like him.”

Marty turned back to the TV trying hard not to push the hair out of his eyes. We stared as the crowd screamed, “We want Bobby. We want Bobby.” Kennedy left the podium, shaking hands and smiling, scratching the back of his head as he disappeared backstage. That was it. That was the end of it all. That was the end of Bobby Kennedy.

I squeezed Marty’s leg and stood up. “God, I’m tired,” I said. I glanced back at the TV. Kennedy’s advisors left the stage. Marty didn’t move. He stared at the TV, at the crowd of supporters mulling around the ballroom floor not wanting to leave their celebration.

While I gathered empty cookie bags and Jake and Jeff moved couches back against the wall, Marty stayed glued to the TV and the crowd yelling, “RFK. RFK. RFK. RFK.” None of us said a word. Hook stood against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest.

I sat down next to Marty again. “It’s over, Marty. McCarthy lost.” The crowd on the TV was suddenly silent.

Marty looked at me, then back at the TV. “Something’s happened.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look.”

The people near the stage were no longer celebrating but looked towards the door where Kennedy left. They seemed confused, frantic. A woman on stage put her hands to her mouth and appeared to be crying. Advisors pushed, trying to see what was going on. I heard someone on the TV say, “What happened? Do you know?”

I grabbed Marty’s hand.

Then two people came to the microphone and started talking, shocked looks in their eyes. “Please stay back. Everybody please stay back. If there’s a doctor come right here.” Jeff sat down next to me and took my other hand. Hook moved from the wall to a chair next to the TV. Jake and Ginger stopped what they were doing. A series of people took the microphone calling for help, calling for people to leave. “Is there a doctor? Would a doctor come right here? We need a doctor right here at the microphone immediately.” Those on stage got more frantic. “Please stay back. Please stay back. Is there a doctor? We need a doctor. It’s very important. Quiet. Quiet please. The best thing everybody can do here is, in an orderly way, leave. Would you please do that? Please, in an orderly way clear the room.” They kept saying it over and over and over again. Leave the room in an orderly way. Leave the room in an orderly way. What was going on? Why do you need a doctor? Tell us something. “Would you please do that? Would you please do that for us? Would you move out quietly?” Tell us what is going on.

Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, took the stage and in a calm voice tried to get everyone to leave. “We don’t know what’s happened but all of this noise and confusion is not going to help.” It didn’t work. Nobody was leaving. They wouldn’t tell anybody what was happening. People clung to each other crying. A young man wearing a sweater and jacket took the microphone and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen. Ladies and Gentlemen. We have a doctor now. Will you please clear the room? And offer your prayers at this hour.” Prayers for what?

It had been seven minutes since Kennedy left the podium and all anyone said was; Clear the room. Please clear the room. Please clear the room. You can help us by clearing the room. You can help us most by clearing the room. Please clear the room. Please clear the room. It became a mantra and we couldn’t move. We couldn’t clear the room.

Someone else took the microphone and said to the crowd, “Would you please clear this room so we can get medical aid to the Senator. If you do not leave the room we cannot get medical aid to the Senator so would you please leave or would you rather stand and cause confusion.”

Are there any more doctors? Are there any more doctors? It must be serious. Proceed to the exits. They kept saying it over and over. Tell us something. We don’t want to leave until we know what’s going on. The police took the microphone and asked people to clear the room. The press cornered people to ask what happened. Nobody commented. Nobody knew.

Calling for a doctor. Please somebody help us.

Finally, a voice of a newscaster. “Indication now is that Senator Kennedy himself has been wounded.” He told us two doctors were helping the Senator but he didn’t know any more than we did at this point. Something terrible had happened. Leave the room. Leave the room. But aides were still not saying anything. I can say nothing. I can say nothing. Are there any more doctors in the house? If not, could you clear the room and find some? How many people have been hurt?

A group of men huddled on the stage talking face to face with each other. One stood up. “This is Terry Drinkwater CBS news. We’ve had indication of clarification of exactly what has happened back there.” What does that mean, indication of clarification? Just say it. And he did. “Senator Kennedy was involved in a shooting. And a newsman was involved and one other man was involved. There are now three doctors back there caring for them.” A lot of blood. They are taking ice into the room.

They interviewed someone who said there were several shots fired and there was panic. They brought out an injured woman and put her on a table so doctors could tend to her.

Another woman said she saw them put Kennedy in the ambulance. He was unconscious. Not moving. Another man said he gave the Senator a pair of rosary beads and Kennedy was looking straight up. I said the act of contrition. I am sure he heard it. He was alive. The man said he thought Kennedy was shot from the rear of his neck and that it was a male who did the shooting. Time crept by, seconds moved slowly. Clear the room. Clear the room. We were silent.

The words kept coming at us, chaotically, quickly. I couldn’t make sense of them. Here’s what we know. Six shot revolver. Hit in the head. Hit in the hip. Surgery needed. Color good. Assailant white. Three others shot. Unidentified man. A woman. A boy. Good Samaritan Hospital. Intensive Care. Good enough condition to be moved. Rosey Grier, bodyguard with New York Giants, apprehended the assailant. Small caliber revolver. Definitely hit more than once. Fell to the ground. Cognizant. Awake. Wife came to his side and talked to him. Color good. He was on the floor. Packs of ice. They’ve given him last rites. Shrieks. Pandemonium. Remembering 1963. Remembering another Kennedy.

We watched for forty minutes. We watched for an eternity. I want to go back in time. I want to go back to when the fireflies were alive.

In the end, one bullet lodged near the base of his neck, another atomized in his brain, a third out his chest. Marty put his hand on his head. The tears rolled down his cheeks. He broke the silence. “Fuck,” he said, almost to himself.

I showed up for my exam the next morning and then watched the news all day. They kept showing the shooting over and over and over again. They showed John Kennedy’s assassination over and over and over again. They showed John and Bobby’s wives, stoic, composed, a model for how we all should act. Fuck that.

The victory speech. The hair pushed back. The peace sign. “On to Chicago and let’s win there.” The walk to the pantry. The shots. The 17-year old busboy handing him a crucifix as he lay on the floor. Those staring hopeless eyes.

I was asleep in my own bed when Bobby Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. the next morning.


Contributor Column

By Becky Jamison

The Lake Forest College Community has been shocked by the second assassination of a major figure this spring. Bobby Kennedy died on June 6 after being shot following his California primary victory.

Kennedy’s body was flown back to New York City where he lay in state so those who loved him could pay their respects. They came by the thousands. The young, the old, the poor, the black, and the disenfranchised walked past his coffin lying at the great high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Bobby Kennedy will be remembered for the passion with which he fought for civil rights. He desegregated the justice department and sent U.S. Marshals to protect the first black student at the University of Mississippi. He was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

Bobby’s Kennedy’s greatest speech was the one he gave the day Martin Luther King died, “What we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.”

We remember Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and pray for their families.


At the funeral his brother, Teddy, gave the final goodbye. “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.” Teddy paused, a catch in his voice. “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 some day come to pass for all the world. As he said may 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.’”

And then he was done. But there was no ‘why not?’ Not here. There was only a why. A great big screaming ugly why.

The door to the Cathedral opened as the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus filled Fifth Avenue. Kennedy’s coffin was taken to the train station for a slow ride to Washington for burial. Mobs of people lined the tracks for the entire ride to the ending.

My beginning was over. The pain was deep. I didn’t know it could go deeper.

U.S. Soldier Body Count: 28,374

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