Spring comes to upstate New York after four- and-a- half, sometimes five long, dark gray months, making the residents especially appreciative of its arrival. I think kids are much less preoccupied with weather than adults are, but I remember in 1968, as a 12-year old, the onset of spring: the sunshine, the return of our luscious, green Kentucky bluegrass lawn that my brother David and I meticulously manicured under the fanatical direction of our father, and the basketball in our driveway, finally unburdened from layers of sweatshirts and stocking caps.
I remember the welcome start to that spring as a radiant backdrop to events in my life, involving my family, my friends, and my school and events in history that are permanently interwoven into my life.
My parents, my 16-year-old brother David, and I, lived in Vestal, New York, in a large, modern colonial house, with big front and back yards, and several old, tall, oak and elm trees. My oldest brother, Clayton, on a forced academic sabbatical from The University of Texas, was also living with the nuclear family for the first time in three years. Vestal was a suburb of the “Triple Cities”— Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City. Located just a few miles north of the Pennsylvania border and 180-miles northwest of New York City, the total population of the Triple Cities was about 150,000. It’s beautiful country, as long as it isn’t the middle of winter, situated just west of the Catskills, with rolling hills, forests, streams, and, most importantly to the Frink men, many beautiful golf courses.
“I don’t know if you can get the nomination, Bobby.”
That was my mother’s admonition to Robert Kennedy, delivered from our den as he announced his candidacy for the presidency, via the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Watching Walter Cronkite was a Frink family tradition. During 1968, it was often a tradition carried on by my mother and me alone — as my father put in 60-hour weeks at IBM, as David hung out with his girlfriend, Laura, literally the girl next door, and as Clayton engaged in any activity possible that kept him out of the house. My thought, which I kept to myself, about Kennedy’s announcement, was that certainly he would get the nomination and likely he would be the next president. After all, he was Kennedy. Not a very sophisticated or analytical thought, I grant you, but hey, I was 12.
Politics was a big interest in our family. The only interests more important were sports, primetime television, and the social and athletic scenes at Vestal High School. David was a major player at the high school and the rest of the family were fascinated spectators.
At Vestal High School sports were everything. The football team had been dominant for years and finished the most recent 1967 season un-defeated and no game was ever seriously in doubt. The Varsity basketball suffered only one defeat that year and was the District Champion. Yet David, a mere reserve on Junior Varsity basketball team, had risen remarkably in a year and a half, from the new kid in the 2,400 student high school, to a BMOC. How did he do it? I can only surmise that it was his charm and good looks. What I know for sure was that his adoring girlfriend Laura, was a beautiful tall brunette who for a while was the prettiest teenage girl I had ever seen, that he was good friends with the stars of the football and basketball teams, who to my delight made frequent appearances at our house, and that several really cute girls, in particular I remember, Pam and Carol, found excuses to stop by often for visits. Carol soon replaced Laura as David’s girlfriend and was the Senior Prom Queen. Laura was the first runner-up.
To say that I admired, loved and looked up to David would dam with faint praise my feelings about him. I did my best to emulate him in style and manner. I tried to follow in his foot steps choosing basketball over football as the sport I would concentrate on. I even thought that putting your face under a sunlamp for 20 to 30 minute intervals, as David did, was a good idea. My mother tried in vain to prevent David from abusing the sunlamp. Thankfully I became bored spending more than a minute or two with the sunlamp and blew it off entirely after a few sessions.
My parents, Hub and Helen Frink, were highly partisan New Deal-Kennedy Democrats. Despite growing up in the “60s,” David and I were neither rebellious nor anti-establishment. We shared our parent’s interest in politics and their position on the political spectrum. Clayton wasn’t anti-establishment, and he was only rebellious in that he was politically agnostic.
In March 1968, when Robert Kennedy got into the race for the Democratic nomination, the political views of our Democratic household were divided, more academically than passionately, by the same issue that divided the Democratic party—the war. My father and I were still hawks. My mother and David were doves. My mother was the first person I knew to turn against the war. I think her viewpoint was as much from the perspective that the Viet Nam War was a hopeless mess as it was from that of a mother of 20- and 16-year old sons. I really believe that, but I should mention that this was when the number of U.S. troops in Viet Nam and the draft were at their peak and my brother Clayton, not a student during that winter and spring because he had flunked out of college, was without the protection of a deferment and was very eligible for the draft. Clayton had placed a couple of bets with fraternity brothers on his way out of Austin that he would not be drafted during his hiatus from The University of Texas. My father thought Clayton had a good chance of winning the bet because he had maintained his draft registration in Houston, where we had lived when he turned 18. My father’s theory was that the Houston draft board would take as many Hispanics and Blacks as possible before they would take middle-class whites.
I anticipated with some trepidation Clayton’s arrival home from Austin. I knew my parents had to be at least disappointed if not down right angry with Clayton for flunking out of school. It was how my father was going to deal with the situation that concerned me the most; he did not react stoically when he was disappointed or angry with his children. I expected Clayton’s mood to be gloomy. My concerns proved to be unfounded. When I arrived home from school on a day late in January, there was Clayton, wearing a burnt-orange windbreaker, jeans, and cowboy boots, smiling, relaxed, and leaning against the wall in our kitchen. More to my surprise was that my father was sitting at the kitchen table at around 3:45 p.m. on a weekday. He had come home early from work on the occasion of Clayton’s homecoming, and he was in good humor, chatting with Clayton and my mother. That was how the best times of Frink family life during my childhood began.
On weekday mornings after David, on his way out the front door to catch the bus, shouted up the stairs to me to, “GET UP!” I would go down stairs to eat a bowl of cereal and encounter Clayton, who would request that I emit one of my amazingly loud belches for him, before he left for work. After breakfast I made the short walk (three-tenths of a mile) from our back door to Vestal Hills Elementary School. Opened in 1966, the school was a modern building surrounded by a forest and stair-stepped beautifully into a rolling hillside. I was in sixth-grade in 1967-68, my senior year of elementary school and I was a rock star. That November, in the intramural flag football championship game, with practically the entire school looking on from the slope overlooking the field, I caught a pass and raced 50-yards down the sideline, my flags flying behind me, inches beyond the grasp of Bobby Luciano, the school’s best athlete, to score the winning touchdown. I once scored 23 points in an intramural basketball game. Luciano got a measure of revenge when his team beat mine in the basketball championship game.
I was captain of the safety patrol, a squad of 12 sixth-grade boys. My primary responsibility as captain was monitoring all the safety checkpoints manned by my squad, as kids entered the school in the morning and left in the afternoon. This gave me the opportunity to rebuke kindergarten through sixth graders for committing various infractions of the rules of hallway and sidewalk comportment. One of the most flagrant infractions — sliding down the banister — was indeed one of my favorite activities anytime I found myself alone near a stairway. It was an opportunity afforded to me frequently because, as captain of the safety patrol, I was trusted by teachers to leave the classroom running various errands for them within the school. Once during my tenure as captain, I was caught sliding by the music teacher, who reported me to the boy’s gym teacher, Mr. Tony Fiacco, who supervised the safety patrol. He raked me over the coals and threatened to remove me as captain when I wasn’t sufficiently remorseful for my brazen abuse of the privileges of my high office. But the storm quickly blew over.
Our duties as safety patrollers included the raising and lowering of the American and school flags. We learned the protocol of half-mast in 1968.
The best perk as a member of the safety patrol was selecting a sixth grade girl to perform your afternoon duties on the Fridays when we had intramural basketball games. For a girl, receiving my safety patrol belt held extra cache because my belt had the captain’s badge. I always gave my belt to Cindy Cable or Sue Lasky. They were by far the prettiest girls in school. A few years later, they were still the prettiest girls, in a much larger venue, Vestal High School.
From the moment I arrived at school in the morning (which as the captain of the safety patrol was before all the other students) until I left school in the afternoon (which was usually after all the other students), school was no longer something that I disliked and endured. It was something I looked forward to. It wasn’t only the athletics and the spoils of safety patrol that I enjoyed.
Before sixth grade, I struggled to be a “B student.” Frequently I was closer to being a “C student.” In sixth grade I made straight As all year, with the exception of penmanship, in which I managed only Cs. When Clayton reviewed my report card that spring, he looked at me and said, “Why can’t you write?” That was his way of acknowledging and complimenting me on my academic performance — high praise from a big brother.
I enjoyed my interaction with the teachers, particularly the student teachers, who were about Clayton’s age. They recognized my capabilities and appreciated my interest and enthusiasm for the subjects we were studying, particularly history and literature, and because of this they allowed me a wide berth to be vocal and outspoken in class. Mostly they chuckled at my jokes and sometimes used my observations as a catalyst for class discussion. Occasionally, I was admonished for crossing the line of acceptable class decorum.
One Sunday evening late in March, my father, mother, David, and I were sitting around our den having a casual conversation. The television was on but we weren’t paying much attention. President Johnson was about to address the nation from the Oval office, and we were planning to watch the speech, but the television highlight of the evening was what was coming on after Johnson, “The Smothers Brothers”. When the President began his address, we were more engaged in conversation than we were in listening to him. I don’t remember what we were talking about but I remember my father was in a good mood. He was telling a story, a good one, and we were all enjoying it. In the middle of Johnson’s address my father commented, “I wonder if he’s trying to tell us that he’s not running?” My mother was sure the theory was wrong. When Johnson explicitly stated at the end of his speech that he was not running for re-election, none of us were paying attention, and it wasn’t until the paper came the next morning that we found out that he had made the shocking announcement that he was pulling out of the race for the Democratic nomination and re-election. My father had called it some 10-15 minutes before Johnson actually announced it.
Now this was getting good. With Johnson out, David’s and my favorite, Robert Kennedy, who only had been in the race a couple of weeks, appeared to be the front-runner to win the nomination. As we focused on the race in the coming weeks, we learned that Hubert Humphrey actually was the favorite. Humphrey, what the hell? He wasn’t even in the primaries. Oh well when it came down to it I couldn’t believe Humphrey could beat Kennedy.
Why did David and I like Kennedy? He was young, he interjected his speeches with jokes a la John Kennedy (many of them self deprecating), he had that great Boston accent, and most importantly he had long hair. He was a senator from our home state, but this was an afterthought to me. I didn’t really think of him as being from New York. Bottom line — Kennedy was cool.
My classmate Gloria Saltzman’s picture was in the paper receiving Robert Kennedy’s autograph at a campaign event in Binghamton shortly after he became a candidate. I was very envious. Bobby Luciano’s mother had her picture taken with Kennedy at the same event and it was still hanging in the Lucianos’ front hallway the last time I was there in 1994.
In 1967, “Wild Thing” by Senator Bobby, a spoof of the hit record by The Troggs, sold half-a-million copies. Soon after President Johnson’s withdrawal another “Bobby” spoof record was rushed to the airways, “Bobby Says,” a spoof of a 1968 bubblegum pop top-40 hit, “Simon Says” by The 1910 Fruitgum Company. My favorite lyric from the song, sung by a Bobby impressionist was, “Ah Lyndon, you sit down, you’re ah, you’re out of the game.”
Miss Walters, a 21-year-old student teacher, was doing her solo teaching assignment and had taken over classroom duties from our regular teacher, Mrs. Jaynes, for about three weeks in the spring of 1968. One day she overheard Bob Burwasser and me discussing “Bobby Says.”
She casually walked over to where we were sitting and asked us if we were talking about “Bobby Says.” When we answered yes, she said, “I think it’s so boss.”
Boss? Bob and I looked at each other in wry disbelief; evidently Miss Walters hadn’t gotten the word that “boss” had gone out sometime around 1966. We replied something to the effect, “Yeah, right.”
Bob Burwasser was one of my best friends, but since he lived about four miles from the school and my neighborhood I only saw him at school. Bob and I saw ourselves as the class intellectuals, humorists, and the arbiters of who in school was stupid and annoying, or smart and funny. He was the friend I talked to about current events, which in the spring of 1968 were the war and the presidential election. Bob was and still is one of the quickest wits and funniest people I know. There were many times I had to bite my tongue hard over a comment that Bob had made during class that was incredibly funny but was an inside joke and it would have been inappropriate for me to laugh out loud.
During sixth grade, Bob discovered the joy of sucking on cinnamon tooth picks, which he had acquired at a drug store, and soon cinnamon tooth picks were all the rage at school. The smart and resourceful guy he was, Bob figured out that he could cure his own cinnamon tooth picks at home and sell them for a profit to classmates. Business was brisk, but after a short while Bob ran into production problems as his mother got tired of him curing the tooth picks using her stove, cooking pans and cinnamon. As I mentioned, Bob was a smart and resourceful guy, and he came up with a solution to his production problems that got his mother off his back and increased his profit margin. His solution was selling tooth picks that he hadn’t actually cured in cinnamon. He still marketed them as cinnamon tooth picks and amazingly enough customers didn’t complain. Now that’s merchandizing.
I remember vividly when he sold a batch of the bogus sticks to Bob Feinberg, who immediately partook and commented, “um — good batch.” I turned away as once again I struggled to suppress laughter induced by Bob Burwasser, who betrayed no guilt or bemusement over the transaction.
As the captain of my intramural basketball team, I was responsible for making sure each of my eight players played at least two quarters per game. This was a league rule. The penalty for violating the rule was forfeiture. It was a challenge to satisfy this requirement and put a competitive team on the court every quarter, because all the teams, including mine, had at least one player who couldn’t play at all, two who had limited utility, and two whose skills were average. That left you with 3 good players who you wanted to play the entire game but that was impossible under the two quarter minimum.
Before the first game of the season, I sat down at the kitchen table with my father to strategize. After I told him about the two quarter requirement, my father commanded my mother, who was in another room, to bring us a spiral notebook of graph paper. After a bit of hollering and bickering between my folks across the downstairs of our spacious house (picture a gentile version of Frank and Estelle Costanza), my mother delivered the notebook. With a green IBM number two pencil my father laid out a grid with the four quarters of a game on the horizontal axis and my team’s eight players on the vertical axis. On this grid we could lay out a game plan for satisfying the two quarter minimum rule while at the same time putting a competitive team on the court each quarter. As I described the varying talent levels and strengths of my players to my father, who could score, Bobby Tocharcheck, me, and maybe John Usher; who could rebound, again Bobby and me, and who had no capability at all, Jeff Farren – w e laid out a game plan. This wasn’t easy but it was fun. It was a puzzle. My father and I worked it and re-worked it until I was satisfied that we had come up with a winning strategy.
The next afternoon after school was over, with the spiral notebook in hand I huddled on the sidelines of the school gym with my team to lay out the plan for our first game. My teammates were fascinated at seeing the grid with their names on it with corresponding Xs showing how many and which quarters they were playing. As I looked down the sideline at our opponents I could see their captain didn’t have a plan on paper. Then I looked across the gym to another court where Bobby Luciano’s team was getting ready to play. Luciano didn’t have a plan charted either. I wondered how these other captains could — on the fly — put together a cogent plan. I assumed everybody would have a plan on paper, but I was the only one who did. During that first game, the gym teacher, Mr. Fiacco, came over to my team’s bench during a quarter that I was sitting out and picked up my notebook, looked it over with a combination of bemusement and admiration and said, “So this is your grand plan for success.”
For the rest of basketball season on game days during class, boys drew up game plans and circulated, discussed, and debated them all day long, occasionally to the consternation of the teachers. Mr. Fiacco suggested after that first game that all the captains should have a plan on paper for each game.
As I mentioned earlier, my team lost to Bobby Luciano’s in the championship game. Despite my superior pre-game planning, Luciano’s skills in were just too superior —he was the only who could drive to the hoop — for even the other elite sixth grade players. His team lost only one game that year. It was to my team during the regular season.
Following our intramural basketball games on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, I made the short walk home, had a quick dinner, and headed out with my father to the Vestal High School junior varsity and varsity basketball games.
It was an exciting season for the Vestal varsity as they claimed the district championship. They twice rallied from second half double-digit deficits to defeat arch rival Binghamton Central and avenged their only loss of the year in the last game of the regular season by defeating Catholic Central in a game for the district’s western division championship.
For the Frinks, the junior varsity games, which were preliminaries to the varsity games, also were compelling. The 12-man J.V. team usually was made up of mostly sophomores and maybe a freshman or two. That year David, a junior, was on the J.V. team. He had come very close to making the varsity but having been cut the year before he had no J.V. experience, so the coaches decided he needed more grooming before he was ready for varsity competition.
At the beginning of the season David was the 11th man on the 12 man squad and saw only mop up duty at the end of games. One game during the first half, the team was floundering particularly on the offensive end of the floor when the coach called out to David who was seated at the end of the bench – “Frink!”
When you’re on the bench during a game and the coach calls your name normally you would understand that he was putting you in. David, his head apparently not in the game and not expecting meaningful playing time, and certainly not expecting to play in the first half, responded to the coach’s call with, “What?”
Luckily for David, this only mildly annoyed the coach who put him in the game with a simple instruction, “Shoot the ball.”
David obliged and soon he was jacking up shots — almost as soon as the ball was in his hands — from all over the court. My father, Clayton, and I, not knowing about the coach’s directive, were bewildered and a bit amused by David’s offensive chutzpah. When David put up shot from at least 25 feet Clayton yelled out, “Bang bang!” On Vestal’s next offensive possession, David once again fired up a long-range jumper as soon as he got the ball. Clayton yelled out again – “bang bang!” – eliciting smiles and laughter from nearby spectators. None of the shots connected, but the coach was pleased with David’s compliance with his order, and as the season progressed, due to strong practice performances, he steadily moved up the bench. By mid-season, David told me that he thought he was about to see some serious playing time. For two games I anxiously anticipated the joy and excitement of watching my older brother perform. He never got in either game.
One Friday night soon after that during the J.V. game, Bob Luciano, Bob Burwasser, and I were sitting together having a big time laughing it up and paying scant attention to the game, when suddenly I was taken by surprise from behind by my father, who had been yelling at me trying to get my attention. Agitated and animated, he had climbed down several rows of seats to grab me by the scruff of the neck to direct my attention to the court. David was in the game and it wasn’t mop up time.
Sadly, just as David’s basketball career was on the move he suffered a serious injury when he took a knee to the thigh for the second time in two weeks. His battered thigh developed calcium deposits. This ended his basketball season and put him at home on the couch for a couple of weeks and on crutches for a month.
David’s injury not only ended his basketball season, it also put a crimp in his love life. He had been going steady with Laura, who lived next door, for almost two years. In addition to dates and high school parties, David and Laura spent a good deal of time at Laura’s house watching television in their finished-out basement. Despite angry protests from David, my mother would not allow him to hobble on crutches next door, though Laura was welcome at our house any time. This was not a satisfactory accommodation as far as David was concerned. There was too much family togetherness and parental attentiveness at our house to afford David and Laura the privacy they were accustomed to next door. Laura’s parents had become distracted, which allowed David and Laura to explore romance in the cozy privacy of the finished-out basement, unfettered by parental supervision.
Laura’s parents, Bob and Libby Klose, my parents, and the neighbors across the street, Bill and Jenna Roberts, were friends. Bob Klose was the general manager of WNBF, the top radio station in the market. I thought he looked like Johnny Carson. On the day we moved in, he came to our front door to introduce himself and welcome us to the neighborhood. Bill Roberts was an optometrist. I remember when he rigged four pairs of sunglasses together and supervised the viewing of the solar eclipse for the neighborhood kids. Both men were outgoing, friendly, and to me solicitous and non-threatening adults. The three women were mothers and homemakers. The couples played bridge and hosted each other for cocktails at each others homes. The men chatted while doing lawn work and enjoyed a cocktail on their front yards in the early evening when weather allowed. The Frinks and the Roberts co-owned a lawn sweeper, which was stored in the Roberts’ garage. My mother and Libby were good friends who shared coffee between homemaker duties when the husbands were at work and the kids were at school. I thought Mrs. Klose seemed like a “lightweight” compared to my parents and other adults I knew.
Laura confided in David that she suspected her father was having an affair with Jenna Roberts. At first skeptical my bother came to believe that it was true based on the evidence Laura reported and his own first-hand observations. When David told my parents about the suspected affair, my father flatly rejected the scenario’s validity, stating emphatically, “That’s horse ****. Bill Roberts was in the war!”
Bob and Jenna were having an affair and the two couples flew to Mexico for quickie divorces so Bob and Jenna could marry. In the words of Johnny Carson, “weird wild stuff.”
The basketball season was over, Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign was just starting and the war dragged on. Clayton — still unscathed by the Houston draft board — was working at the IBM Country Club. The job was a perk of my father’s employment bestowed by the benevolent “Big Blue.” Clayton was doing golf course maintenance, the highlight of which was driving a tractor. My father wryly remarked that tractor driving was good training for driving a tank.
Without missing a beat, Clayton good naturedly replied, “I don’t think they use tanks in the “Nam.”
Looking back I admire Clayton’s cheery attitude and bright countenance during his exile from college life. He was a fun and funny older brother who was very interested in the lives of his younger brothers. During the spring, he trained me for the 600-yard run, one in a series of athletic events at school, the Vestal Hills version of the decathlon. The 600-yard run had been my weakest event in fifth grade and Clayton was determined that I would excel in it in sixth grade. The training was simple. We ran around a very long block together in our neighborhood — about one mile — three or four days a week for a few weeks before the event. I tied Bobby Luciano for the second fastest time in the school, bested only by Bobby Tocharchek.
By the time Clayton moved back to Austin, in the middle of May, he and I had bonded. Until this time, he had been a distant presence. Not emotionally but because of the eight year difference in our ages. After all what does an eight year old have in common with a 16 year old?
Robert Kennedy it seemed was a daily highlight on Cronkite’s evening news – giving a speech to a raucous packed house in the Allen Field House on the Kansas University campus, students literally hanging from the rafters; standing in the back seat of a convertible shaking hands and being mobbed by people who were determined to physically touch him, to touch his hair; and giving an impassioned speech on the war in Viet Nam. I remember clips of him bantering with people at a rally to put down their signs that said, “Get a haircut Bobby.
“My mother and my brother already told me to get it cut so I got it cut,” he replied.
At an event in California he was sitting on the trunk of the ever-present convertible, and he asked the people gathered around to raise their hands if they had voted for Ronald Reagan for governor. When several of them raised their hands, he chided, “Naughty naughty,” as he brushed one of his forefingers over the other. The more I saw of Kennedy, the more I liked him and the more interested I became in politics.
Kennedy won his first contest, the Indiana primary, defeating Eugene McCarthy. Hubert Humphrey wasn’t entered in this or any other primaries, yet he still was the front runner for the nomination. Despite the fact that Kennedy would probably beat McCarthy in all the primaries, he still would have fewer delegates than Humphrey heading into the Democratic convention. I thought this was ridiculous, but my father explained the system to me. I still was confident that my man, Robert Kennedy, would win it all.
My parents didn’t share my assessment of the race. They understood delegate math and knew what Kennedy was up against. Unlike David and me, my parents weren’t big Robert Kennedy fans. My father thought Bobby was an opportunist and probably preferred Hubert Humphrey, though he didn’t come right out and say it. My mother was for whoever would end the war the fastest. I think she was ambivalent about the choice between McCarthy and Kennedy. My parents had loved John Kennedy. They remembered Bobby from the ‘50s as the young upstart working for Joseph McCarthy and in 1960 his role as the hatchet man for John Kennedy’s campaign. More than twenty years before Lloyd Bentsen told Dan Quayle that he was no Jack Kennedy, my father said neither Bobby nor Teddy were Jack Kennedy. That John Kennedy had been my parents’ man and that Robert Kennedy was David’s and mine made our allegiance to RFK more genuine, more our own.
I rode with David and his friend Paul Goldberg to Swain’s Drugstore in the Vestal Plaza to pick up the latest issue of Time magazine. David knew the new issue would be on the newsstand a day before our copy was delivered in the mail. We wanted to read an analysis of the Oregon primary in which RFK had lost to Eugene McCarthy. I found out from listening to David and Paul that Kennedy’s loss in Oregon was a major blow to his chances to win the nomination even though Oregon was McCarthy’s first victory in the primary season and Kennedy’s first loss. According to the analysis Kennedy had to demonstrate in the primary season that he had overwhelming voter appeal. This would give him a strong argument at the Democratic convention that he should be the nominee instead of Hubert Humphrey, the choice of the Democratic Party bosses. Kennedy’s loss in Oregon tarnished his argument. I was learning about politics. I was fascinated. I was hooked.
The California primary was the week after the Oregon primary. On Saturday night between the two primaries, Kennedy and McCarthy had a nationally televised debate. That Saturday fell on the first day of June. It was what I remember now as one in an unusually abundant number of beautiful days for upstate New York that spring. I had spent most of it playing basketball and stick ball with friends about five blocks from our house. I came home with just enough time to eat dinner and settle in to watch the debate with David, his friend Paul Goldberg, and my, father who came in from the golf course just before the debate started.
During the first give and take between the candidates Paul started talking excitedly, “These guys are really going to get into it.”
My father preferring, to hear the candidates gently but firmly said, “Please.”
Paul, taking the hint, said, “Sorry,” and stopped talking.
McCarthy seemed arrogant and smug. My impression was that, he thought he was tough **** since he won the Oregon primary. Kennedy was cool but not in the way I had thought he was cool before. He was handsome and mature, and he was confident, unfazed by his defeat a few days ago in Oregon. I enjoyed watching the debate. I relished being able to watch Robert Kennedy for a full hour, far more than I had ever been able to see him before. This was just as good as watching one of my favorite teams playing football or basketball.
My father smiled, nodded his head, and even chuckled when Kennedy scored points. For the first time I think he approved of Robert Kennedy and I think he was now on our side. Probably because it was my father’s first opportunity to really observe Kennedy, and he was being won over. Maybe it was because Kennedy had inspired his sons to take an interest in something that was real life. Perhaps it was a combination of both of these explanations. Most of all, though, I think my father was now with David and me in support of Kennedy for the same reason that he was Texas Longhorn fan and pulled for the Dallas Cowboys in big games. Dad was always on our side.
Our sixth grade classroom had large windows looking out over the Vestal Hills playground where we took recess, had P.E. classes, and played intramural football games. The morning after the California primary, I watched kids in the lower grades laughing and frolicking as they participated in P.E. class. I was learning that the world still turns, that other people could go on enjoying life even if mine had come to a sudden halt.
That morning I awoke hearing my father tell my mother that Robert Kennedy had won the California primary. He had stayed up late with David, very late for a week night, to watch coverage of the election returns in California which was three hours behind us. My mother said, “That will make Billy happy.” Indeed. I had another 30 minutes before David would shout up the stairs my wake up call and I laid in bed nodding in and out of sleep in a blissful state over Kennedy’s victory.
The next thing I knew David was not calling me from downstairs; he was standing in my bedroom flushed in the face from too much time under the sun lamp the night before. He was crying as he told me, “Kennedy won, but they shot him!”
I was instantly wide awake sitting on the side of my bed with me feet on the floor. Where!” I asked David. The question annoyed him. “In some hotel,” he said.
“No, I mean where was he hit.”
“In the head,” David wailed through his tears, and then he was down the stairs and out the door.
I stood in my bedroom, stunned and paralyzed, my mind racing. One of my thoughts was the same one millions of other Americans were having, “Not again.” I needed to go downstairs and eat breakfast, but I was nervous about seeing my parents.
The one time I had seen my parents cry was the day John Kennedy died. In the early evening of that day, my brothers, my mother, and I were in the living room of our house in Houston watching television coverage of Air Force One’s arrival at Andrews Air force Base bearing the president’s body and his widow. Through the living-room window I saw my father pull into our driveway in his Volkswagen Beetle as he arrived home from work. He got out of the car dressed in a gray IBM business suit and walked up the sidewalk leading into the front door like it was just another day. The expression on his face betrayed no feelings about the events of the day as casually strolled up our sidewalk holding a rolled up magazine in one hand that he was slapping into the palm of the other. When he walked in the front door, he started sobbing loudly. My mother, who had been grim and stoic but who hadn’t yet cried in my presence, simultaneously burst into tears and blurted out, “They’re taking him off the plane.”
I dreaded the possibility that I would witness a similar scene when I went downstairs. On my way to the kitchen, I paused in the den where my mother was watching “The Today Show.” She was solemn, but she wasn’t crying. I was relieved. I realized, that my father had already left for work, as usual. On the television Frank Mankiewicz, Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, was in front of the Good Samaritan Hospital reading a statement on Kennedy’s condition. It was still dark in Los Angeles. The Senator was in extremely critical condition.
At my place at the kitchen table, Apple Jacks had already been poured into a bowl. I added milk and sat down to eat. I attempted to read the sports page of the morning paper as I ate. That was my normal ritual, but I couldn’t concentrate. As I swallowed my first spoonful of cereal, I noticed that there was a knot in my stomach. After my second spoonful I gave up on the idea of finishing breakfast.
When I passed back through the den on my way upstairs, a replay of Robert Kennedy’s victory speech was on the television. I asked my mother, “When was that?” I was hoping, dreaming really — but knowing it wasn’t so — that he had made a miraculous recovery.
I passed by the television one more time on my way out the door. Now on the screen was the bedlam that had taken place in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. The scene was horrifying but compelling as the camera eventually, briefly revealed Robert Kennedy lying on the concrete floor. I didn’t have time to watch more than a minute or so—I had to get to school. Maybe out of anxiety, maybe because I was a little, late I remember running instead of walking the three-tenths of a mile to school that morning.
As I made my rounds patrolling the processions of students into school, I saw Bob Burwasser. He was pissed. I overheard kid’s conversations about the shooting. It was painful and bothered me a little that the conversations were focused on the cops and robbers aspect of the event, rather than how terrible and sad it was.
Ironically, this was the day for current events in our class. Of course, the first student called on, Brenda Gent, had to talk about the shooting. It annoyed the heck out of me the way she talked in a purely informational way about Kennedy being shot in the head, the part of his brain that had likely been damaged and what the implications of that damage might be. What a clod.
Late in the morning Sue Lasky whom I had had a crush on all year — plugged in the earphone to the transistor radio she had brought to school to try to get an update on Kennedy’s condition. That she cared so much was a pleasant surprise and the only good thing about that whole crummy day. She sat only about eight feet away from me, and I asked her if there was any news. She told me that he was in good condition. This sounded too good to be true, and I asked her if she was sure that’s what she had heard. A minute or so later she clarified. Kennedy was in good condition for someone who had been shot in the head from point-blank range. Great.
Vestal Hills had the quaint policy which allowed students who lived within walking distance of the school to go home for lunch. When I was in the fourth and fifth grades, I went home for lunch often, but in sixth grade I enjoyed school so much that I rarely did. That day I went home for lunch to get the latest on Kennedy from the television news. When I arrived home, I discovered my mother and Libby Klose talking, laughing, and enjoying the beautiful weather in our backyard. I was disappointed that my mother seemed to be enjoying herself at a time like this. That evening, I tattled on her to my father who was empathetic to my feelings and raged, “Libby Klose was probably glad Kennedy was shot!” Later that evening my mother—a former Army nurse and War II veteran whose fiancé had been killed during the D-Day invasion — privately explained to me that even on days like this you have to carry on. I knew she was right. While I was home for lunch, Frank Mankiewicz was holding a press conference. A reporter was grilling him over a perceived discrepancy in Mankiewicz’s update on Kennedy’s condition. He insisted that in the early morning Mankiewicz had described his condition as “very critical,” and now he was reporting that Kennedy’s condition was extremely critical. Mankiewicz patiently said he had reported Kennedy’s condition as “extremely critical” this morning and it was still “extremely critical.” The reporter, sure he was on to something, kept hammering the exhausted Mankiewicz, insinuating that he was being entirely forthcoming. What a jerk.
During that day and into the evening I acquired plenty of new knowledge, such as the names of places in Los Angeles: The Ambassador Hotel, Good Samaritan Hospital, and Central Receiving Hospital. I found out that the Democratic National Convention was going to be held in Chicago. For the first time I heard the word “Neurosurgeon” and I learned that it was not unusual for people of Jordanian dissent to have identical first and last names.
The next morning, I was asleep when David shouted up the stairs as he headed out the door that it was time for me to get up. The house was quiet as I sat down to my bowl of Apple Jacks. Instead of the sports section, I turned to the front page of the morning paper. The headline read, “Kennedy Clings to Life.” Just as I began reading, my mother came into the kitchen and in the gravest tone in which I had ever heard her speak said, “Did you know Kennedy died?”
Early that evening, I was sitting on the floor of our den in front of the television next to David, who was sitting in our imitation leather recliner. I noticed the newspaper’s weekly tabloid of the television listings on the coffee table. On the cover was a picture of Robert Kennedy at a campaign rally. How I wished the world could just back up in time a few days, to when that guide came out so somehow Kennedy’s death could be pre-empted.
When my father came home from work, we were watching a short documentary about Robert Kennedy that one of the television networks had hastily produced. He walked into the den—still wearing his IBM white shirt and tie—and crouched down between David and me. After a moment, he began speaking to us.
“I know you boys are very sad about Bobby and I think it’s right and it’s okay for you to be sad… but now you boys have to pick up where he left off. I don’t mean you have to go into politics. What I mean is that you have to always try your hardest and do your best. That’s what he did. I just heard Frank Gifford on the radio while I was driving home talking about Bobby, at 150 pounds, trying out for the football team at Harvard.”
Then as he was speaking, there was a T.V. clip of Robert Kennedy, on the campaign trail wading into a huge mob of people who were touching and grabbing at him. My father motioned to this scene and said, “He didn’t like doing that but he thought he had to.” His voice now became a little emotional. “So now you have to do your best, even if you have to do things you don’t want to do.” Then he stood up and walked out of the room.
A couple days later on Saturday, I went to a friend’s bar mitzvah where I overheard a couple of 13-year-old girls talking about how sad it was about Robert Kennedy and how cute he was. Again I was annoyed. It seemed that very few people were reacting to Kennedy’s death in a way in that I approved of. When I got home from the bar mitzvah, there were news reports on the radio about James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s accused assassin, being apprehended. My mother commented on how ironic it was that he would be caught on the day of Bobby’s funeral.
That evening at dusk, when I arrived home from playing wiffle ball at Kenny Metzger’s house I sat down with my parents, who were in the den watching television coverage of Robert Kennedy’s funeral train arriving at Union Station in Washington, D.C. The whole scene was so crushingly sad and I was heartsick. My father, lying on the couch, nonchalantly told a story about Jackie Kennedy breaking her arm playing touch football with the Kennedy’s in Hyannis Port and after that she didn’t much care for the Kennedy touch football ritual. He didn’t tell the story in a morose way but with irony and humor. In that moment, filled with despair, the way my father told this story was some how reassuring and made me feel as though we were going to get through this thing. My father was the coolest guy I knew.
In the days immediately after Robert Kennedy’s death, school was winding down. At the annual Vestal Hills Elementary School Ice Cream Social I flirted with Sue Lasky and Cindy Cable. Sue Lasky asked me if she could wear the Love Beads, given to me by Clayton, I had taken to school. Uh, that would be “yes.” Still for the next few weeks and months for me, there was a lingering melancholy over Robert Kennedy’s passing. I was still interested in the Presidential campaign, but my interest was less intense and tinged by my broken heart. There were no more jokes about Bobby Kennedy on “Laugh In” or “The Smothers Brothers.” Radio stations didn’t play the “Wild Thing” or “Bobby Says” parody songs anymore. For the first time I was dealing and struggling with the finality of death.