Meeting Bobby Kennedy
Spring comes late in Indiana. March drags into April, and for weeks and weeks everything is awful. The sky is gray and cloudy. The fields are endless and muddy, and you know that somewhere out there a flash flood has surprised a young possum and drowned it. Then, a few pussy willow buds sneak out and finally a day arrives when you wear a jacket to school but can carry it home. That's the day the sky lifts and finally, life seems worth living again.
It was a sunny day like that, the first of May 1968, when I met Bobby Kennedy. A couple hundred of us had gathered at the Purdue University Airport in my hometown of West Lafayette to greet Kennedy. Housewives, Purdue students, the Party faithful—we all pressed against a rib-high, chain-link fence to see what we could see. Now and then, we broke into a half-hearted chant but mostly we just waited. At the other end of the fence from where I stood, a paltry little rock band played something, though I can’t remember what.
I had just turned eighteen and was the student body president at my high school. I could not have been a straighter arrow—student council nerd, managing editor of the literary magazine, co-captain of the track team, everybody's designated driver. That fall, when I went away to Harvard, I was going to play football and major in Government, and then, in time, become president of the United States. Law school, the U. S. Senate, president. I was full of plans.
Bobby Kennedy had big plans too. He was running for president and the Indiana Primary was essential. It was his first primary and he had to win it. Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, had been campaigning all winter against President Johnson and the war. In the middle of March, McCarthy shocked everyone when he came within 300 votes of beating Johnson in New Hampshire. Suddenly the President was vulnerable, and four days after New Hampshire, amid accusations of opportunism, Kennedy jumped into the race.
Johnson's support continued to free-fall, and two weeks later he withdrew his candidacy. His pullout might seem to leave things simple in Indiana—McCarthy and Kennedy head-to-head—but there was a ringer. Indiana governor Roger Branigan was running as a local son and stand-in for Vice President Humphrey, who would probably enter the race himself. Neither Branigan nor Humphrey had come out against the war. Like McCarthy, Kennedy had been speaking against the war, but he had argued as well and more often and more convincingly than McCarthy that we couldn't fight a war on poverty and a war in Vietnam, and that the issue of race was central to all of this.
Since his brother's death, he had grown fatalistic and serious—reading Emerson, Greek literature and Camus, climbing mountains in the Canadian Rockies, running for the Senate in New York. In 1966, he’d traveled to South Africa, visited Soweto, and criticized apartheid; by 1968, he was even picketing with the United Farm Workers in California.
When his plane finally appeared in the clear, blue sky and began to drift down toward us like a balsa wood toy, we let up a wild, un-Hoosier-like cheer. As it landed and taxied in, the sun’s reflections danced off its windows like a planned effect. We regained our composure and took up our chant. Bob-by! Bob-by! The whine of the engines drowned out most of our noise and the wind blew the rest across the prairie, but we didn't care. I held up a blue-and-white Kennedy sign and yelled as loud as anyone.
The Purdue Airport was a little thing—two runways, a three-story control tower and a waiting room the size of a motel lobby, but we were proud of it. "A lot of airport for a town this size," my mother used to say. Purdue had focused early on aviation—Amelia Earhart taught there in the Thirties—and now, in the spring of 1968, the university was calling itself "the home of the astronauts.” Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Neil Armstrong had all gone to Purdue and flown at its airport. Grissom and Chaffee had burned on the ground during a training session the year before; Armstrong was getting ready to fly to the moon.
My parents did not come with me that afternoon to meet Kennedy at the airport. My father, a professor of Agricultural Economics, must have been at his office at Purdue; I don't remember where my mother was. It was her kind of scene—she'd taken me to see John Kennedy in 1960 and Johnson in 1964 when they'd campaigned in Indiana—but she wasn't there this time.
Kennedy’s plane came to a stop about maybe fifty yards out on the tarmac. The pilot shut off the engines and as they wound down, we revved up, filling the air with our yell. Bob-by! Bob-by!
From the Purdue Airport Kennedy would take ground transportation across town to a little crop-duster of an airfield where he was going to speak to a group of farmers. Then, he'd motorcade downtown to his Lafayette headquarters to thank the volunteers, finally ending up at the Purdue Hall of Music for the main event—a speech before an audience of 6,000, which would include my parents. I would miss the middle stops because I had an afternoon class I couldn’t cut and then track practice, but I'd be at Purdue for the big speech.
Kennedy's plane was a big one, bigger than the puddle jumpers that flew out of West Lafayette, connecting us to Cleveland and St. Louis. As we continued to cheer, a guy in a jumpsuit, his headphones now dangling around his neck, eased the portable stairs up against the plane's fuselage. After a while the door opened and a stream of aides and reporters began to trickle down the stairs. I tucked my placard under my arm to get a better look.
A few weeks earlier, Kennedy had flown into Indianapolis to speak outdoors in a black neighborhood. The night was cold and windy, more March than April. Johnson had pulled out of the race five days earlier. This would be Kennedy's first speech in Indiana before an African-American audience. En route, he was told Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. Kennedy's wife, Ethel, and his aides, including John Lewis, the Civil Rights activist from Georgia who had served with King throughout the South, asked him to cancel the speech, but Kennedy refused. The Indianapolis police chief washed his hands of it all by yanking Kennedy’s escort. In 1968 the Secret Service guarded only the President, not the candidates.
When Kennedy arrived, he found that the audience had not yet heard about the assassination. In the middle of a vacant lot, he climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck and broke the news. The crowd gasped as if gut punched. Some started to sob. He reminded them that his own brother had been killed, and by a white man. He challenged them to rise above violence and lawlessness, and then he quoted Aeschylus from memory: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." It was a line that was at once tough and consoling, a literary line. I remember thinking when I heard it the next day on TV that this was not the way politicians talked. Kennedy needed the black vote and King's killing demanded a response, but his speech was more than that. He believed that the crowd could find solace in the same ancient and elevated words where he had found it.
The night that King died and Kennedy gave his speech, my friend Louis Klatch and I were checking out a party at Tom Herreid's house. Herreid was a year younger than we were and we knew him from Student Council, though we didn't usually hang out with him. His single mother was out of town and he’d told us to stop by if we wanted. As we approached his house, a little story-and-a-half bungalow near the Purdue campus, we could see that the front door was open even though the night was a tad chilly. Inside, a stereo was blasting "I'm So Glad" from the Fresh Cream album. You could almost feel Clapton's guitar lines through your feet. Three juniors were staggering around the front yard, drunk and laughing. Herreid was one of them and, by all appearances, the drunkest. He was dancing a silly, stumbling jig and singing, "The king is dead! The king is dead! Long live the king!" When he saw us, he stood up straight, saluted and then laid out his palm to give us five. "Loooo-ie, my man!" he said. "Mr. Ned! What’s happening?" I slapped his hand unenthusiastically. He seemed to recognize the gulf the beer had stretched between us because he shrugged sheepishly. Then, he sank back into his drunkenness and began his chant again. "The king is dead! The king is dead!"
I turned to one of his friends, a big, blond kid I knew from football and who now seemed sober. "What's he talking about?"
"God, you haven't heard?" said the blond kid. "Martin Luther King got shot."
"Yeah. They shot him at a motel." Herreid rolled his eyes back in his head, screamed like a howler monkey, grabbed his neck and fell onto the grass in mock death.
There were no black kids in our school, no black people in our town, except for some athletes at Purdue and an occasional international student from the Congo or Nigeria. King's murder felt distant and unreal.
Back at my house, Louis and I watched the news. It didn't tell us much – only that King was dead in Memphis, the motel was the Lorraine, and there had been no arrests.
The next week at school Louis and I organized a fundraising drive that sent a few hundred dollars to a neighborhood center on the South Side of Chicago, an area that had been hit hard by the riots that followed the assassination. Herreid helped take up the collection.
Herreid’s party was on a Thursday night and the only reason I could be at it was that my parents were out of town. They were in Indianapolis—my mother to shop and my father to meet with some people from Kennedy's advance team.
My father understood agriculture and Indiana farmers, and he knew Birch Bayh, the Indiana senator who was strong for Kennedy. Birch Bayh and Teddy Kennedy had been in a plane crash together four years earlier. Teddy broke his back when the plane went down and Bayh helped drag him from the wreckage.
Bayh asked my dad to be part of the Indianapolis strategy session. My father told me later that when the meeting finally turned toward the farm question, a fast-talking advance man with a Boston accent asked what Kennedy could do to pick up some rural votes. Dad smiled at the guy and said, "Well, I think the best thing he could do is have his picture taken with a pig."
Mr. Boston stopped short, stared down my dad, and snorted, "And who is going to tell the Senator that?"
The discussion returned to price supports and the future of family farming.
Kennedy was counting on both black and white ethnic voters in Indiana’s few industrial cities, but he also hoped to split the anti-war vote with McCarthy and even win over some of the more conservative rural Democrats who were only beginning to question the war.
I had turned against the war myself just a few months earlier. My support for it had already been waning, but then a classmate of mine named Hester Harris started working on me. Hester was more liberal than I was, more liberal than most anybody I knew. She was the daughter of Mark Harris, who wrote Bang the Drum Slowly and was a visiting writer at Purdue. Her family had moved to Indiana from San Francisco the year before and she was a genuine hippie, the first we'd seen. She had lived near Haight-Ashbury and experienced the Summer of Love firsthand.
Hester argued with me that Vietnam was a civil war and not our war, and gave me an old issue of Ramparts magazine with a multi-page spread entitled "The Children of Vietnam.” It included text by Benjamin Spock, but the color photographs of the napalmed babies were what shook me loose.
I began to work on my parents and sometime in February, I won them over. They were going through a rare good patch in their marriage, brought together, as they sometimes were, by their politics. Maybe the fact that their nest was beginning to empty scared them toward each other. I was their oldest and about to leave for college. At any rate, they listened to me and to what I was saying, and what I was saying carried new weight because I had just registered for the draft.
Walter Cronkite helped too. He was recently back from covering the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and announced in an hour-long, primetime special that the war could not be won.
Every night that spring, I took my new convictions and my parents' blessings out after track practice to canvass for Kennedy.
Governor Branigan was from Lafayette and most of the doorbells I rang were in his home precinct, which was an odd mixture of rich and poor. Branigan's house (his own home, not the governor's mansion, which was in Indianapolis) sat on a bluff near those of the Purdue president, the local Catholic bishop, and much of Lafayette’s old money. From these big houses the precinct fell away toward the river, literally crossing the tracks, until it arrived at Wabash Avenue and a working class neighborhood called the Tow Path. It got that name because it was built on the levee that had run beside the Wabash & Erie Canal. The canal had been filled in long ago, but in its heyday before the arrival of the railroads, mules had walked the levee dragging boats across mud flats when the water was low. Fugitive slaves had followed it north. Now, the Tow Path was a rough collection of bars, thrift shops, corner groceries and tired little houses with gray porches and sagging gutters.
At the top of the hill, maids would sometimes dismiss me out of hand. When Mister or Missus did answer the door, I could see their eyes drift past my young face and down to my Kennedy button. They might indulge me for a minute, maybe even take a pamphlet, but they'd invariably beg off when I began to ask my questions. Are you registered? Do you plan to vote in the Democratic Primary? May I ask who you think you might vote for? Do you know what Senator Kennedy plans to do for Indiana and America?
Down the hill it was a different story. There, under a yellow porch light or in the dark landing of a walkup, I'd try the bell and when it didn't work, I'd knock. Two or three runny-nosed kids, thrilled at the novelty of a visitor, would stampede to the door and fight to see who was there. Sometimes, the oldest would say hello; sometimes, they would all just stare. The light of a big console TV, which was often color (a rarity in those days) outlined the dim shape of their father slouched on the couch. My eyes, still adjusting to the dark, couldn't see if he was ignoring me or really asleep. From the kitchen the mother yelled, "Mary Louise, who is it?" A dog barked in the back yard and Maxwell Smart talked to Agent 99 on the TV.
"It's a man," said Mary Louise.
A man! I felt flattered, instantly older and very cool. And then Mom came out, wiping her hands on a dishtowel, and I began my spiel.
"I'm registered," she answered, "but he's not." She nodded toward the couch. "He thinks they're all crooks." Her husband rose to this bait and grunted something I couldn't make out.
"Can it, Harold," she snapped. "This young man's here to talk to us about Bobby Kennedy."
At the sound of the name he rousted himself from the couch and asked, "You want a beer or something?" I couldn’t tell if he was he really interested or just determined not to be left out.
"Thanks, but I better not. I’ve got a lot of houses to get to yet. The primary’s only two weeks away." I didn't want to admit I didn't drink.
"They're such a sad family," she said. "I felt so bad for Jackie. And that Ethel, gosh, all those kids!”
I looked down at their kids who had been gazing at me the whole time as if I were a Martian. Theirs was a life I hadn't seen up close like this. My parents tried to teach us about poverty—they purposely drove us through East St. Louis on the way to his parents' farm in Missouri, my dad brought back color slides of Rio's slums, we collected for UNICEF—but that was all armchair sociology. Our windows stayed rolled up, our doors locked. This was different. This was my hometown and I was in this family’s living room.
I reminded them that the primary was May 7th and thanked them for their time. He shook my hand good-bye; she promised to get him registered.
The plane continued to sit on the runway. We kept waiting and chanting. All along the fence people rubbernecked, trying to see through the doorway and into the darkness of the plane. Every time a man in a suit edged into the light of the doorway, our hopes lifted. Then the man would turn toward us or step out and we could see that he wore glasses or was carrying a clipboard.
Finally, he appeared. We could see the hair and the smile. It was Bobby Kennedy. He stopped at the top of the stairs and waved. For a weird instant, the chanting stopped and then, just as weirdly, the silence was filled by an intense and scary squeal.
Four years earlier, I'd seen the Beatles in Indianapolis on their second American tour. It had felt like this, though there, at the State Fairgrounds, the squeal had never stopped. It might ebb a bit as the crowd tried to tell whether the Beatles were playing "She Loves You" or "Twist and Shout," but it never stopped. Now, at the airport, our squeal faded away and we began again to chant. Bobby! Bobby! But, for an instant, the mania had felt the same.
As Kennedy reached the bottom of the steps there seemed to be some slight confusion about which way to go. Ethel was with him. She was wearing a sleeveless shift and no hat. She was less elegant than Jackie, but by now just as familiar, a celebrity in her own right. She glanced toward the far end of the terminal where the band was playing and a set of microphones waited, and I figured they’d go straight over there for some kind of welcoming ceremony before leaving to visit the farmers. But then he took Ethel's elbow and steered her toward the fence, and they began to shake people’s hands. They were no more than thirty feet away, just to my right. I was still trying to think what to say when I heard Ethel say "Hello” to the woman next to me. Ethel’s simple greeting set the woman bouncing up and down. She was a young woman, maybe a graduate student or an assistant professor’s wife. Her blonde hair was teased high on her head.
Ethel took her hand and said, "Thank you for coming."
Not bouncing quite so much now, the woman said, "Good luck, Mrs. Kennedy! Good luck!"
Ethel smiled politely and said, "Thank you.” I remember wondering at the time what it felt like to be called "Mrs. Kennedy” and whether “good luck” might carry an ominous ring.
Ethel let go of the bouncing woman and reached over to shake my hand. “Hello,” she said, “It’s good to be in Indiana.” I still didn’t know what to say. She held my hand and smiled. I nodded and nodded, as mechanical as Howdy Doody, as mute as Clarabelle. By the time I finally got it together to say "Thank you for coming," she had released my hand and taken her smile to the next person in line.
I turned back to my right, intent on not screwing up a second time. A gap had opened between the two Kennedys. He was a few people away from me. The band was playing and people were screaming, but more and more this felt like a reception line instead of a mob scene. Bobby was shaking one person's hand at a time, not two. He was moving quickly, but deliberately. The bouncing woman was still bouncing.
"It’s good to see you,” he told her. “Thank you for coming.”
"Good luck, Senator! Good luck!"
"Well, thank you," he said with friendly exaggeration and a flirtatious grin.
Then, he turned to me. We shook hands. "Thank you," he said. "Thanks for being here." He was shorter than I expected and very tanned. He had freckles on the bridge of his nose. His eyes were shockingly blue.
I was ready to say what I had to say, but when I did, it felt blurted and obnoxious. "I've canvassed over three hundred houses for you, Senator." He dropped my hand, but held my gaze. And he didn’t move on.
"How does it look?" he asked. His response was immediate and matter-of-fact, as if we were the only two people here. We were, I realized, about to have a conversation. I had thought—to the extent I had thought at all—that he would simply thank me and move on. But no, it seemed he really wanted to know what I had to say. He wanted to hear some news from the ground.
"It's close,” I said. “You're ahead, but it's close. A three-way split with a lot of undecideds." He was still looking straight into my eyes.
"How many undecideds?"
"Ten, maybe twelve per cent—at least in Lafayette where I'm canvassing."
"That’s a lot. Thanks for talking to them. I really appreciate it."
And then, it was over. We were done. The bubble of intimacy he had created was gone. The noise of the crowd washed over me—the band, the screaming people, the bouncing woman next to me saying, apparently to herself, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
Immediately I began to second-guess myself. Should I have said more? Should I have told him I was going to Harvard in the fall? That I too wanted to be president some day? Would that have been dorky and pretentious? Would that have been sucking up? Who was I?
Kennedy had moved down the line. I kept watching him, listening to him, thinking about what he'd said and how short he was. I gazed at him and slowly began to register the rest of him—his blue suit, his striped tie, the two nervous security guys moving along behind him. His size and his freckles made him look boyish, but his clothes and his manner were tailored and assured. It was a potent combination of vulnerability and power.
He was gone now. I could no longer make out his voice.
A young man in a sport coat and open collar approached me from Kennedy's side of the fence. He asked, "What were you talking about?" He didn't say who he was. I thought at first he was a reporter, but he didn't have a notebook, so he might have been an aide. He seemed cocky and full of presumption. Part of me didn’t want to answer him at all, but I did.
"I told him I'd been canvassing for him, and he asked me how it was going."
"What'd you tell him?"
"I said it's close. I said there’s a lot of undecideds."
"Oh.” He turned and walked back toward a gaggle of people who, like him, were trying to look important and sure of themselves. They seemed very happy to be over there on their side of the fence.
The band stopped playing and a local politician stepped up to the microphones to introduce Kennedy. The amplifier popped then whined with feedback. Someone made the adjustment and Kennedy was introduced. Everyone cheered as he stepped to the microphone. He thanked the politician for the introduction, thanked us all for coming and said how happy he was to be here in Indy-an-AH, comically exaggerating the final a. Some of the Indiana papers had seized on the fact that he'd previously substituted a Boston er when saying the word, pronouncing it "Indianer." These stories were meant to demonstrate that he wasn’t one of us, wasn’t a Hoosier like Governor Branigan. Kennedy made a point of correcting himself, explaining that the earlier miscue had been made by "his younger brother." This second joke had the advantage not only of brushing away the attack with good humor, but of reminding voters that Teddy was the younger brother now and that he, Bobby, was the heir apparent.
Then, he added another wrinkle. Deadpan, he reversed himself by telling us how especially happy he was to be here in "Lafayetter." After the laughter, he introduced Ethel, telling her in a stage whisper, "Don't forget to smile," though both of them were already grinning big, horsy grins. Next, he took a jab at Branigan, who, commentators had said, was angling for the vice-presidential spot should Humphrey get the nomination. Kennedy suggested that if the governor were running for vice-president he should do just that. "But,” he said, “I want you to know I'm running for president.” This prompted much applause. He closed with some quick generalities about bringing the nation together and moving it forward.
He was good. He knew how to campaign and seemed to enjoy it. His speech was practiced but relaxed. Certain of his gestures—a way he had of folding his hands across his stomach while talking, a hesitant half-nod when acknowledging applause, the nervous brushing away of his hair from his forehead—evoked what seemed to be a genuine shyness. He was human, appealing and new.
I found out in the paper the next day that when he left us and spoke to the farmers, the crowd had included a sixteen-year-old girl on a horse. She lived close by and had ridden over. It was an easy way to get there and once she arrived, she was up high and had the best seat in the house. The photo on the front page showed Kennedy standing on the platform and gazing down at the girl on her horse. In the picture, he looks short, standing as he is between two tall local politicians, but he also looks relaxed and in charge. He’s smiling approvingly at the girl. The two Hoosiers on each side of him look nervous, as if the sight of girl on a horse might somehow prove embarrassing to Kennedy, or more importantly, to Indiana. The photo’s caption said that when he addressed the crowd "the senator called for bargaining powers for farmers and legislation for low-interest loans to enable young men to remain in the farming business." That line was pretty much the one my father had recommended when he'd met with the advance team in Indianapolis. And in the end, it seemed to me, the photo opportunity wasn't so different from the one my dad had suggested either, though a pretty girl on a horse is more charming than a pig in a poke.
Six days after I met Bobby Kennedy, he won the Indiana primary. I couldn't vote for him myself. You could be drafted at 18 in 1968, but you couldn't vote.
In the three-way race, Kennedy received a solid plurality, getting 42% of the vote statewide to Branigan's 31% and McCarthy's 27%. He won two-thirds of the state's counties and nine of its eleven congressional districts, including Tippecanoe County and the second district, where I lived. He beat Branigan in Branigan’s home precinct, Fairfield 2, where I had done most of the canvassing.
With the primary over and Kennedy's campaign having moved on to Oregon and California, I returned to the spring of my senior year in high school—the Prom, track meets, Student Council and finally, Senior Week. Besides Baccalaureate and Commencement, Senior Week included a canoe trip and a chaperoned street party.
Everyone went to the sanctioned events, but the real parties happened later each night at Kathy Kemmer's family’s cottage out on the Tippecanoe River. Kathy had swiped a key to the cottage from her father—a bold move, I thought, given that he was a stern, straight-laced Republican judge. These parties were infused with that sad mix of nostalgia and fear that marks everybody’s last week of high school, especially in a small, stable Midwestern town like ours where most of us had known each other since kindergarten. People cried and talked, and some lost their virginity. There was a lot of beer, even a little marijuana, though this was Indiana in 1968 and dope wouldn’t be commonplace for another year or two. I stayed at these parties as late as anyone did, but I was the good son, Mr. Student Body President and thinking ahead to Harvard, so I never drank or smoked. Like most of my friends, I was and wasn’t ready to get out of town. I wanted to get away from my parents and their fights, but I also worried that when I got to Harvard I’d be revealed as the bumpkin I knew I was.
Commencement was held on the evening of Wednesday, June 5. In the gymnasium, we passed the word down the rows of folding chairs that there’d be a party later on at Kemmers’ cottage.
The party felt old hat. Things had fallen into a routine by then—the drinking and dancing to 45s downstairs, the pairing off in the bedrooms upstairs, the sad and happy last hurrah.
When I got home at about three in the morning, I crashed on an old double bed in our basement rec room. I liked to sleep down there because it was cool, and in the morning it stayed darker and quieter later than it did upstairs in the bedroom I shared with my brother.
Sometime in midmorning my parents came down together to wake me. I knew immediately something was wrong. They never woke me up like this and especially not together. My mother spoke first.
"We've got something to tell you." She paused and looked toward my dad. I felt a familiar rush of fear. Were they finally getting a divorce? Deep down, I knew it was inevitable, but I hadn’t thought it would happen now. My dad looked at me and gave me the news.
"Senator Kennedy was shot last night."
I remember being struck by the words "Senator Kennedy." They felt so official and distant. Teddy was a senator too, but I knew he meant Bobby.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"No," said my dad, "but they're not sure he'll live."
I looked away. I wanted them to leave. I wanted to get some breakfast and start watching television. I knew they were sad and wanted to share their sadness with me, but I was mad at them for not having told me the night before when I got in from the party. We had a basement garage and its automatic door shook the whole house when you opened it. There was no way to sneak in. They had known I was back, but hadn’t come down to tell me.
Really I was mad at myself for having been out at a party instead of checking the late returns from California. I should have turned on the radio while driving home instead of listening to my carload of drunks as they sang Motown a cappella and teased the first-timer who'd thrown up.
Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy three times point blank with a little 22-caliber pistol. A young Palestinian immigrant he had seen Kennedy on TV wearing a yarmulke outside a synagogue and vowed in his notebooks to shoot him by June 5, the first anniversary of the Seven Day War between Israel and the Arabs. The worst bullet hit Kennedy behind his right ear. The mastoid bone slowed it down and broke it up, but pieces of bullet and bone continued into his brain.
For a while, I held out hope. I had worried—everyone had—that he would be shot, but our experience was with the powerful, quick-killing sniper shots that had hit his brother and King, and earlier Medgar Evers. This was different. There had been a four-hour operation. Now there was a long deathwatch. The doctors at the hospital explained that the bleeding and damage were extensive. The TV people interviewed neuro-surgeons about these kinds of injuries. If he survived, they said, he would not be himself. I remember being struck by that euphemism. I knew what they really meant. He would be a vegetable.
Finally, his press secretary, Frank Mankiewicz, announced Kennedy’s death. He delivered the statement deliberately, haltingly, trying not to break down. He gave the time of death and named all the family members who had been with Kennedy when he died—his wife, his sisters, his sister-in-law. At the end he said simply, "He was 42 years old." Then, he waited a minute, apparently thinking there might be questions, but there weren’t and with a dazed look on his face, he walked away from the podium.
In September, when I flew away from Indiana to my freshman year at Harvard, everything still seemed possible. I was lit up and ready to go. Life seemed to present me with the rare opportunity of a clean slate. Through most of the fall, that feeling persisted. I read like a bandit, played on the football team, and glowed with pride that I was actually at Harvard.
My mom and dad came out Parents' Weekend to see me play in the Brown game, but their plane was delayed and they didn't get to the stadium until the second quarter. My dad came down from the stands and leaned over the fence in back of the bench to let me know they were there. I told him I'd been knocked out making the tackle on the opening kickoff and I wasn't sure who we were playing let alone whether I'd be back in the game or not. Even in my fogginess the situation seemed like a joke that pointed toward what lay ahead--confusion, change and a breach between us. My parents were tangled up in their messy, haunted lives and I was heading out toward something new, though I had no idea what it was.
The difference became clearer when I flew home for Christmas. From the moment my parents picked me up at the airport in Indianapolis, I felt myself sinking back into the bog of my childhood. Driving up US 52 toward West Lafayette and home, we passed the familiar string of landmarks--an abandoned pink motel at Lebanon, the Thorntown Dairy Queen, the billboard with the cartoon catfish urging you to eat all you can eat at Miller's in Colfax. I sat in the back seat waiting for them to start fighting.
My mother turned around to look at me. "I am so-o-o glad you're home," she said for the third time since we'd been on the road. Her hair was bouffed and the lenses of her cat's eye glasses magnified her eyes disturbingly. The holidays and my homecoming were shoving her into an upswing. She was headed toward the manic side of her bi-polar disorder, talking on and on about how I stepped in the cake on my first birthday, came down with the mumps on my fifth, got a BB gun for my seventh. Then, she launched into the jingle that appeared on my birth announcement, filling the car with her song, or rather, my song:
I was born on George's birthday,
So I cannot tell a lie.
Nine full pounds of brand-new French,
I'm really quite a guy.
This was an old pattern. Her nickname since college had been Diz, short for Dizzy. I knew these upswings and they scared me. They made me think of a kid I knew in grade school who, as legend had it, worked a swing set so hard during recess, pumping and pumping his legs and urging on a team of run-through pushers, that he finally went over the top and crashed down the other side in a tangle of chains.
My mother began singing again.
I chose the name Ned Carleton,
So now our family is
Not just Charles and Dolores
But Ned and Chuck and Diz.
I took a deep breath, exhaled slowly through my nostrils and stared at my mother and then down at the piping on the back of the front seat where the fabric joined the vinyl.
“Mom…please.” I was trying to be gentle but firm, as if I were the parent. It was a familiar role, but I didn't like it and hadn't had to play it for four months. I looked to my father for help, but he was checking his side mirror, deliberately avoiding my eyes. His hair was full of Vitalis with a wave piled high in front in the Fifties style he still favored. I noticed for the first time that his temples were graying. He had said nothing since we left the airport, but his loud, frequent sighs made it clear he was exhausted and turning my mother over to me. I'd had four months off, but now I was being called upon again to deal with her, to calm her down, to love her. It was as if he and I were in a tag-team wrestling match with her and now, just north of Thorntown, he had slapped my hand and crawled out between the ropes. I was back in the ring.
Outside, the air was heavy with mist, just short of drizzling. Every so often my father flicked on the windshield wipers for a single sweep, pretending that it took all his concentration to do so. If this had been just the two of us—driving home from a Cardinals game, for instance, or a fishing trip--he would have chatting freely, draping his right arm across the top of the front seat and steering nonchalantly with his left hand. But now, he sat silent and squeezed the wheel at ten and two. From the back seat, I could see the tension knotting his neck, feel the tension in his forearms. Something had to give. I'd been expecting him to get into it with my mother, or me, mentioning the length of my hair or blaming Humphrey's defeat on McCarthy, but so far, he’d been mute. My mother, on the other hand, careened through a repertoire of stories about my childhood—how the paper boy had to help her get me off the window ledge when she was pregnant with my brother; how I stuck a bobby pin in a wall socket when I was three and was blown onto my back in a flash of blue light; how, when I was sick with the flu in the top bunk, I threw up on my sleeping brother down below. Her nest was emptying, she was terrified.
I looked past her and out the window. A light fog hung above the fields, drifting through the corn stalks and over the soybean stubble. The sky was low and gray, the way it would be from now until April. Up ahead a black crow rose reluctantly from a gray road kill. Large clods of mud that had flopped off a tractor tire littered the road.
My mother continued to talk until, finally, she reached the present. "Scott Allman is already home from IU," she said. "He called to ask when you were getting in. And Joanie Bain said Don is coming in tonight. I am so glad, so glad you're home." And then, in a burst, she grabbed my father's right arm. "Ned's here, Chuck. He's home."
He flinched away from her and barked, "I know that, but I'm trying to drive."
"I'm just glad he's home."
"Yes, dear, we all are." They were; I wasn't. He had almost blown up, but had caught himself.
Though I was just beginning to realize it, Boston was lost to me now, a piece of luggage left back in Indy on a carousel. Harvard, poetry and the student movement were just hallucinations. In Boston, I had been reading four or five hours a night while the fluorescent lights in the library buzzed and vibrated—Montesquieu's search for justice, Hobbes's cynicism, Sartre, Euripedes. Oh, I was busy. The Great Gatsby a second time and then, a third. I spent each day in classrooms and only now and again did I focus my eyes as far away as the other side of the street.
Now, in the car, I could look only from him to her, from her to him. What had they been talking about before they'd picked me up? How close was the eruption? Their thoughts were filling my head.
I looked across the fields to where the beech and maple trees stood wet and dark along the fencerows and the creek beds. The blackness of the woodlots and the grayness of the sky were broken only by the white streaks of sycamore trunks.
In third grade, Mrs. Peterson had inducted us all into the Junior Audubon Society, where we learned on a field trip that some of these woodlots were relict groves left over from a period after the last glacier when Indiana had been covered with trees. Isolated within more modern vegetation and lingering after the climate that had produced them, these groves seemed to me even then to be both sad and admirable.
In third grade my best friend was Donnie Bain, whose parents had that American eagle on the wall above their garage. Third grade was the year he and I hid a cache of hickory nuts in a woodlot near Blackbird Pond. We were pretending to be Tom and Huck--he was Tom, debonair and civilized; I was Huck, rough and ready, ready to live off the nuts when we lit out for the territory. It was a fantasy we were proud of—something more interesting than the Davy Crockett stuff everybody else was doing. We never actually ran away, and in any case the woodlot was only a couple of acres, hardly enough to sustain us if we had. Now Don was in Naval ROTC at Indiana University and married to our geometry teacher's daughter. She had played Dorothy to his Scarecrow in the spring musical our senior year. He was hurrying toward an adulthood of which I did not approve, and we no longer knew what to say to each other.
Outside, the mist and drizzle of the afternoon had given way to a cold rain, the kind that feels as if someone is throwing handfuls of pea gravel at you.
In the front seat, my mother had faced forward again but was still talking.
"You'll never believe what happened to the Wallaces." She paused to see if I was listening.
"What?" I asked, though I couldn't remember who the Wallaces were.
"She's filed for divorce. He was late every night at the office. You can hardly blame her, can you?"
I knew that to ignore her question would be cruel, but to answer it would be foolish, so I gazed out the car window. The landscape looked mysterious and inviting. I wanted to throw myself out across the fields and join the troops of sumac assembling themselves at the edges of the forest. I wanted to be a part of their slow and peaceful march. King and Kennedy were dead, but something had to be done. We, the sumacs and I, would lead a succession of oaks and hickories out into the open, and Indiana would be forest again.
NED STUCKEY-FRENCH, Assistant Professor, B. A., magna cum laude, Harvard College (1972), M.A., Brown University (1992), Ph. D., University of Iowa (1997). Dr. Stuckey-French specializes in the personal essay and modern American literature and culture, especially magazine culture. His study of magazine culture and class construction entitled The American Essay in the American Century is forthcoming from the University of Missouri Press. He is also editing (with Carl Klaus) a collection of essays on the essay, which includes work from Montaigne to the present, and it will appear from the University of Iowa Press.
His reviews and critical work have appeared in journals such as American Literature, The CEA Critic, Modern Fiction Studies, Fourth Genre, culturefront, and The Iowa Review, and in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of the Essay.
He also writes creative nonfiction and is the book review editor for the journal Fourth Genre. His essays, which have appeared in magazines such as In These Times, The Missouri Review, The Pinch, and Walking Magazine, have been listed three times among the notable essays in the Best American Essays series. He is working on a memoir of his ten years as a trade union organizer in a Boston hospital.