Unlike the gray men who dominated the TV news, Robert Kennedy looked like my friends. His hair was always kind of a mess, and so was mine. He parted it on the right; I parted mine on the left. I tried brushing mine from the right. It felt weird, and looked modern. I tried to keep it that way, but it kept slipping back.
At 9, I didn’t understand why we weren’t winning in Vietnam, and wasn’t quite sure what civil rights were, but I was rooting for Bobby. In my juvenile hero-worship, he replaced The Beatles, who were getting a little too weird for me, anyway. I’d seen him on the Mike Douglas Show, which came on right after school, and Mike Douglas had asked him about stories that he was “ruthless.” I’d never heard the word before, but Bobby smiled, and I figured it must be a good thing.
That week fell in that giddy time just after school let out and right before my birthday. Early June was better than Christmas. The world was green and wide open, and I had nothing to do all day but climb trees and eat Pop-Tarts and read Hardy Boys books and ride my Schwinn Typhoon. That particular evening I’d had a sore throat, and my mom told me to rest. She thought I might be sick, and was having second thoughts about inviting another family over for a summer-welcoming supper party. She called the doctor, and he told her “No sweat”—it was the first time I’d ever heard that phrase. It was a bad time for pollen, and allergies, and he’d been hearing a lot about sore throats. I went out and climbed the maple tree, up to the spot I called the Crow’s Nest, 20 feet above the ground, just to prove I was fine.
It was a Tuesday, but seems in my memory like a Friday, as all evenings do in the summer. The guests came over, and we grilled hamburgers, as we always did. The sameness of those evenings was part of the appeal. Dad would grill hamburgers while the kids played around in the backyard, where I had a fort in a patch of woods, assembled from the wooden remains of a tree house.
We had whole-wheat hamburger buns, a clever and progressive new innovation, and the hamburgers had Lipton’s onion-soup mix folded into them, which was the clever modern way to make hamburgers. After supper the kids would go outside and run around or maybe play Battleship while the adults laughed around the clinking in their glasses and played jazz on the hi-fi: piano music, Count Basie, or Thelonious Monk.
Usually I stayed up later than my parents, whether they knew it or not. That night I got tired earlier than they did, and surprised myself by plopping down in the living room and watching TV. Some of my friends’ families had color TVs, but we still had a black-and-white portable set. It was on a tray, with wheels, as if a TV weren’t necessarily permanent.
I don’t remember what I was half-watching, half-awake—some Ann-Margret movie—but it was interrupted by the announcement that Robert Kennedy had won the California primary. This was information I thought would interest the adults, who were out on the porch. I ran out and told them, and there was some interest, but more laughter. More amusing to them than the news itself, perhaps, was the fact that this 9-year-old kid cared about it.
I fell asleep watching the news, and my parents woke me up—the other family was gone—and sent me to bed. I woke up a few minutes after 3 in the morning. My throat was on fire, I wanted to throw up, and my head seemed set to explode. By the light from the window in the bathroom mirror, my reflection scared me. I looked like somebody else, like an old man. I would later tell people I woke up at exactly the moment that Robert Kennedy got shot in the head.
He was alive for about a day after that. I prayed as much as I’d ever prayed for anybody, with the confidence that it would work, or at least do some good.
The penicillin shot in my behind hurt even worse than my throat full of broken glass. In our house, sick people with a fever stayed in bed, but my mom knew I was a fan of Bobby Kennedy’s, and wanted to let me see his funeral. I saw more of him than I’d ever seen before. I had no idea there were so many films. Such a strange parade of images it was, as I sat uncomfortably on the couch, awake and in my feverish dreams, moving images of a young man I knew was dead.
We didn’t have a remote control, so I left it on the same station all day. One of the networks—it had to be either NBC or CBS (ABC, which was on fuzzy UHF, was a shabby pretender) accompanied its retrospectives with a pop song said to be Robert Kennedy’s favorite. It was a bright, cheery, fluffy thing that seemed to have nothing to do with his life, or what had happened, but they kept playing it, over and over. It had a line something like “It’s a sunny day.” I didn’t like it. It all just seemed so weird.
For years afterward, the song would come to me unbidden, reminding me of the pain and the fever and the images of a young man freshly dead, but now I can’t remember it at all.