June 06, 2018
Coach from my daughter’s high school asked for parental volunteers to help with physical fitness testing for ninth graders, the California student physical education requirement to establish — for the student — “a level of fitness that offers a degree of defense against diseases that come from inactivity.” I volunteered, Oakland School for the Arts (OSA), June 06, 2018, 08:00 a.m. Be there on time. Nothing required other than shoes in which you can walk a mile.
There was some talk on NPR that morning of June 06, 1968, of Robert Kennedy’s assassination fifty years ago, but in our rush to make it out the door on time, I paid little attention to the commentary. We boarded BART at El Cerrito Plaza with other OSA students from Richmond, from Pinole, even from Vallejo; they grouped together like guinea fowl, sitting or standing in a tight group, shifting positions, shifting places, nudging each other, scuffling. Experienced as a chaperone, I sat apart from them. Everyone detrained at 19th Street, Oakland.
Coach outlined responsibilities for me and another parent who had volunteered. Students would run a mile from the school at 17th Street, to Grand Avenue, around Lake Merritt to Peralta Park. Coach would release all runners from a chosen start line at precisely 1000 hours. The other parent was given a stop watch and sent to Lake Merritt Blvd/14th Street to time the runners as they arrived. Coach would run generally with the pack. I would bring up the rear, making sure no one abandoned the race.
Everyone gathered at the starting intersection, Coach blew his whistle at exactly 1000, and we were off, the more ambitious and competitive students, my daughter Tillie among them, dashing away, actually running, the mass of students trotting behind in a herd with Coach, and lagging behind the pack, eight or ten slow students not really running, not really trotting, but walking fast. Ever conscious of my responsibilities, I exhorted them. — “Let’s go. Let’s go. Look at them; they’re getting away from us.” — Driving them did nothing; I ran ahead shouting for them to keep up, reminding them I was four times their ages and having no trouble running. The slackers in the rear seemed amused, not so much I think by that I was four times their ages but that I cared about keeping up at all. None of them seemed to, especially three young women who trailed everyone. They made no effort to run, no effort to trot, no effort to walk fast; they strolled, and I couldn’t do anything to hustle them along, although I hounded them to move, to take some pride in catching the pack, to take some pride in getting a good time in the mile run.
“Well, to build a level of fitness that offers a degree of defense against diseases that come from inactivity.” Sounded incredibly lame but who would fault me for quoting the California Secretary of Education.
“If you let yourself get out of shape young, you’ll be out of shape all your life,” I added.
“You calling me fat?”
“I said no such thing.”
“You called me out of shape.”
“I said ‘if.’ I was expressing a generalization, not talking about you. Come on. You’re barely walking.”
The three laughed. I realized I had to accept they were going to walk. I walked in front of them for a while and they lagged even further behind. I walked behind them, slower than I ever imagined, careful not to step on their heels. From time to time they actually stopped and waited to see what I would do, testing me, I thought.
“Let’s keep moving, please.”
“Let’s get this done.”
“Are you really Tillie’s dad?”
“You’re not. You’re her Grandpa.”
“I’m her dad. A bit older, but her dad.”
“Go on. How old are you?”
“I’m not saying, but I could still be running this mile. And you’re not.”
“I don’t care. I’m from Richmond and I don’t care.”
“Well I’m your neighbor from El Cerrito, let’s get it done.”
“OH, El Cerrito. Now isn’t that rich!”
How was I supposed to respond? Silence seemed the best choice. Nothing I did hustled them along. They were certain to show me they needn’t respond; I was content to let them show me. Though I had expected to run, I could loaf with anyone.
Trailing them around the Cathedral of Christ the Light and along Lakeshore Drive, admiring the Golden State Warriors portraits installed on light poles: Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green, Iguodala, all black athletes, lithe, some captured in action, surely role models for the three students walking with me, I began to think about 1968, about how our perceptions of race had changed in fifty years, how comments about the Warriors teams with Rick Berry in the 1970’s often mentioned he was the sole white man on an all-black team. No one bothers to mention the whiteness or blackness of anyone on the current team. Fifty years of change, fifty years of little changing, fifty years back to 1968 and Robert Kennedy, the night Dr. King was assassinated, when he stood a small white man on a flatbed truck in a predominantly black community in Indianapolis and begged the crowd of understandably outraged citizens to honor Dr. King by remaining peaceful, which they did. New York rioted, Washington rioted, Chicago rioted, but Indianapolis did not, probably for reasons for more systemic than Kennedy’s speech. But Kennedy did show up: he didn’t back down. He came and he spoke as testimony to what he believed and cared about.
“That’s such patronizing bullshit,” Hardy Frye told me. “Little Bobby Kennedy calming the black masses.”
“I didn’t say that. All I said was he didn’t back down, he showed up.”
“With bodyguards, I assume. With support.”
“The police chief had warned him he couldn’t be responsible for his safety.”
“Police chiefs like to do that for white people,” Hardy said.
Hardy Frye was black, born in Alabama, student at Tuskegee, joined the army, moved to Compton when his service ended, joined CORE, joined SNCC, rode the freedom buses in Mississippi, entered graduate school Berkeley 1966 and, by the summer of ’68, played poker at the house on Milvia Street any night there was a game. Night of June 04, ’68, primary election night, players were gathered around the table in the dining room, the small black and white tv in the living room tuned to election returns. I’d been working on the Kennedy California campaign; most of the poker players didn’t believe it mattered who won. Some thought of themselves as revolutionaries — Caleb Groener had memorized most of Mao’s writings, including his little red book paragraph by paragraph, cover to cover, his favorite quotation: “In approaching a problem a Marxist should see the whole as well as the parts. A frog in a well says, ‘The sky is no bigger than the mouth of the well.’” Peter liked to ask why this applied only to Marxists. — some had been freedom riders, most were members of SDS at least, some were just students and poker players. I too was a member of SDS but I was an anomaly: I believed in electoral politics. I had sent mailers, made phone calls for Robert Kennedy. I was considered foolish.
“Tell us about how he worked for Joe McCarthy. How he buddied up with Roy Cohn.”
“For only six months. He resigned.”
“Great friend of labor too. Got to give him credit for that.”
“Hoffa was a crook; he went after him. Those things are small compared to what he’s doing now. He’s changed: he’s worked for voting rights, he’s worked for equality, he will end the war. If he wins the presidency, this country will change.”
“And if Kerensky had won the October uprising, there would have been no revolution. Robert Kennedy’s no better than Kerensky.”
“Jesus Christ, America isn’t Russia, 1917. You guys need to take a trip to Lodi or somewhere. The revolution ends at the Berkeley city limits.”
“The revolution never ends,” someone insisted.
The poker game went on, dealer’s choice, hands dealt between banter, mostly seven card high/low, split the pot, lots of time to talk Marx, war, class struggle.
“You can’t have capitalism until the industrial revolution.”
“Serfdom! Sharecroppers! Indentured service! Slavery! Don’t tell me it wasn’t capitalism.”
“An economic social organization has to be defined. You really can’t talk about socialism, communism, capitalism until they are characterized?”
“Capitalism, socialism, communism: who gives a shit? Two pair will cost you a lot of money in any system,” Peter Solomon said. There’s a reality to poker political theory never gets quite right.
We, my three companions and I, were the last to arrive at Peralta Park, bringing up the rear far to the rear. I suppose walking helps to build a level of fitness, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much walking my trio would do, in the immediate future, in the far future. Coach congratulated everyone for finishing, invited everyone to “kick back” — his words — and relax for a half hour before they started back. “No, we wouldn’t run back; we’d walk.”
We sat on the grass and waited. Coach came by and sat next to me, thanked me for my volunteering, asked me if I worked from home so I was able to take time off for volunteer work.
“Retired with a teenager? I hope I’m where you’re at in fifty years.”
“Fifty years is a long time,” I said. “Bobby Kennedy died fifty years ago. I remember how awful the day was.”
“I wasn’t born then.”
“I know that, but you must know about it.”
“We all know about Kennedy: the little boy saluting, the empty boots backwards in the stirrups.”
“That was John. Bobby was someone else.”
“Easy to mix them up,” Coach said.
Well, no, not that easy, or shouldn’t be, even if both were dead before you were born. Americans notoriously have bad memories for their own history, or no memories at all, or no awareness to kindle memories. Glancing around at the young people sprawled on the grass, I wondered how many of them ever heard of Robert Kennedy, how many of their parents or grandparents had ever said anything about him; about his transformation from a hard-assed attorney general to a compassionate listener; about his speaking in Indianapolis the night Dr. King died of the vast majority of black and white people wanting to live together, wanting justice for all people; about his motorcade through our own Oakland neighborhoods to Elmhurst Park where again he spoke of justice and inclusion. Crazy ideas back then, crazy ideas today: fringe ideas almost we dare not talk about too openly. So why would I expect them to know? My own daughter would probably stare at me blankly if I asked what she knew about Bobby Kennedy.
Nevertheless, on the way back, I couldn’t let it go. Returning students were strung out again along two city blocks, Coach this time at the head of the group with the other parent volunteer, me bringing up the rear again, badgering the stragglers to keep moving, ensuring no one disappeared entirely. My three friends quickly drifted toward the back walking slowly as they had earlier. If they chose to dally, I’d choose to talk.
“Any of you heard of Robert Kennedy?”
All three stared at me. No one said they had.
“Robert Kennedy. He died fifty years ago.”
“We know Kennedy: he was president.”
“His brother John, not Bobby.”
“He was shot.”
“So was Bobby. Fifty years ago yesterday. Almost exactly two months after Dr. King.”
“Were they friends?”
“They had met; they probably admired each other. The night Dr. King was killed Bobby Kennedy spoke to a crowd in a park in Indianapolis, told them Dr. King had been killed — most of them didn’t know — and begged them to honor Dr. King not with violence, not with vengeance, but with compassion and love, to go beyond what was lost and to strive to build justice for all peoples which Dr. King had died for. No one rioted in Indianapolis that night.”
None of them said anything. None seemed that impressed.
“He was running for president because he wanted to stop the Vietnam war. He wanted to stop injustice; he wanted people who worked to have rights and decent wages; he was a friend of Cesar Chavez and went to Fresno to protest with him that farm workers were abused and underpaid. He understood there was great poverty in the country, he understood there was racism. “We must close the gaps between black and white, rich and poor, young and old,” he said. “I want the United States of America to stand for hope instead of despair, for the reconciliation of men,” he said. He won the California primary on June 04 and was shot that night in Los Angeles. He died the morning of June 06, fifty years ago today.”
We walked along in silence.
“Well, what do you think about all that?” I asked.
“I think you talk a lot.”
“I do. ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.’ Dr. King said.”
“We know what Dr. King said.”
“Do you? ‘There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.’ Dr. King said that too.”
“You can’t just talk all the time either. What good is that?” one of my companions snapped at me. She seemed angry, seemed to have had enough of me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You talk like that at home too?”
“You crazy,” she said. My other two companions nodded.
Crazy! I could take it. I shut up; we all walked along again in silence. A block from the school, Tillie came running back.
“Dad. Dad. Can I have some money for boba tea?”
“Sure.” I gave her a ten spot. “Aren’t you supposed to go to school?”
“We’re at lunch. Don’t have to be back ‘til one.”
“Hi, Tillie. We’re here,” one of the three girls I’d been walking with said.
“Hi, Tonika,” Tillie said.
“We’re out ‘til after lunch too,” she said.
“Here. You girls get some boba tea too,” I said, handing them a twenty dollar bill.
“Dad,” Tillie cried.
“Here. Take it.”
“Dad, please.” Tonika took the twenty and they left.
“That’s so embarrassing, Dad. Why did you do that?”
“What’s embarrassing about it?”
“They don’t need money. You’re patronizing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t. It’s embarrassing. I have to go.”
She dashed away, leaving me alone to be embarrassed. I shuffled along to the intersection at Broadway and waited with a group of students for the light to change. Coach dropped back to tell me I was no longer needed and could go when I wished. The 19th Street BART station was a half block away. I walked down the steps, through the turnstile, and down more steps to the Richmond line.
The message on the overhead electronic board read: 6 Car Train for Richmond in 13 minutes. An announcement over loud speakers soon repeated the same information.
When we first lived in the house on Milvia Street, in Berkeley, in 1966, the BART tunnel along Hearst Street for the track to North Berkeley was still being excavated. The houses north side of Hearst had been demolished. At night we could hear machinery growling underground; sometimes we imagined the earth was shaking but tremors were probably only the Hayward Fault slipping from time to time, never enough to slow construction. The poker game started fall of ‘66. I met Jeff in August at protests when the Vietnam Day Committee was banned from campus. Jeff introduced me to Hardy who’d been a veteran as I had, and we talked about killing time in the army playing poker.
“The time you can kill playing poker is directly proportional to how good you are,” Hardy said.
“How good were you?”
“Pretty damned good.”
And I had been, and was. I spent a lot of time that autumn at card clubs in Emeryville playing draw poker, maybe three, four nights a week, never missing a Thursday, Friday, Saturday afternoon or night when the chumps came, playing until 2:00-3:00 a.m., then home to sleep a few hours, up at noon and back down to the club to catch the 2:00-3:00 p.m. afternoon players from Walnut Creek and Concord. My favorite was the Key Club, a marvelously seedy hole-in-the-wall that attracted a marvelously seedy clientele, pale regulars with motel tans studying racing forms as they fingered their chips.
All regulars knew each other and tried not to sit at the same table, which was easier on weekends when a table could absorb two or three regulars and three or four chumps. The best pure poker games were probably Tuesday or Wednesday nights when four or five regulars might play at the same table, with maybe only one or two outsiders. Usually very little money switched hands but sometimes good hands played by good players went head to head. In one of those games, I was dealt the 4-5-6-7 of clubs and an off-suit 9. Honus, one of the regulars, opened for the pot: it was small, fifty cent ante at most, probably four dollars. The player to his left, a visitor, called and raised $8, pot now $16. I called bet and raise; pot now $28. Honus raised $28. Both the visitor and I called. Pot now $112. Honus drew two, the visitor stayed pat, I drew one and hooked the 3 of clubs. Honus roared out with a pot bet. The visitor shoved in everything he had, close to $100. I shoved in all I had, more than $100. Honus shoved in all he had left, the house man trying to slow us so he could keep the pot right. Honus turned up Ace’s full; he’d hooked a pair on the draw. The visitor turned a pat flush, K high. I turned my straight flush.
“You fucking lucky shithead!” Honus screamed.
“Here, here!” the house man cautioned.
Nights like that, walking out with an extra two or three hundred, were to be savored. Never greedy, I was content usually to leave $20 or $30 winner, but every once in a while that big hand would hit and I’d leave the club flying high, jump in my VW and go spinning down Interstate 580 sixty-two miles an hour, screaming at the top of my lungs, take the Claremont exit and the crooked Claremont Canyon road to Grizzly Peak Blvd where I’d park, look out at San Francisco and scream some more. Adrenaline gone wonderfully wild in a twenty-five year old. Those nights were sometimes offset with being dealt a Kings boat pat and losing to four 6’s. You play enough poker, you’ll lose on even the best of hands. Table stake gone, I’d leave the club hunting for the shelter of my old VW, and get in, and pull out onto nearly vacant San Pablo Street, then turn up Adeline, driving slowly along, houses on both sides dark, the night oppressive and silent. But those nights were rare. I usually left a small winner, satisfied if I turned $100 a week. It was 1966; $100.00 was real money. You could buy four AC Transit tokens for $1.00. A weekend pass to ride anywhere in the East Bay cost $0.60.
The poker game on Milvia Street started with a $1.00 limit. Core players were Hardy, Jeff, Lester, Peter, and me. None of us played to win a bundle; we drank beer, we ate chips, sometimes we had pizza. Few players had money, few won all the time. Then Hardy invited Roy who did win all the time. We joked he played so tight you could hear him squeaking when he came up the outside stairs. Folding hand after hand, he’d play only sure wins, until he’d won ten or twelve dollars, then get up and leave, never risking losing any of it. In those early games we usually played once a week, Friday or Saturday night. Jeff and I offered to send Roy $10 and he wouldn’t have to come at all. He said he didn’t trust the post office and kept coming to the poker game.
In early ’67, Abul started coming. I’d met Abul in a class at Cal, and he’d invited himself to the house on Milvia Street to work on skits for our agitprop theater which we’d started that spring to raise awareness of the Vietnam War. The living room in the Milvia Street house was huge with no furniture but a window seat and an upright piano against one wall Rich Ross had moved in and left the few months he’d stayed with us. It was a great space for developing skits, and there was always someone who could at least play the piano enough to underpin the lyrics of a song. We stole from Woody Guthrie, we stole from John Lennon, we stole from Lerner and Loewe, we stole from Shakespeare, Melville, and Arthur Miller. Abul wasn’t much of a contributor but came regularly, in his dark jacket, in his black beret, and he came to the poker game. He was a lousy player but came anyway; he wanted something.
Several times he asked me about my service in the army. I was a medic. “Didn’t you ever have to shoot?” — “Shoot?” — “A rifle.” — “I qualified as expert in basic training.” — “So you can shoot?” — “I grew up a farm boy with a 22-rifle; I could shoot before the army.” — “I see.” Within a week, he approached me on campus and asked if I wanted to go shooting with him. I didn’t particularly, but agreed when he told me he’d really like me to come and give him some pointers: he hardly knew how to handle a rifle.
I told him to pick me up at the house, which he did early Saturday morning. He drove down Shattuck and up Ashby Avenue. Below the Claremont Hotel he pulled over and handed me a blindfold. “What’s this crap?” — “Will you put that on please. I can’t let you know where we’re going.” — “Abul, you smuck! Why didn’t you tell me this?” — “You might have turned chickenshit and not come.” — “You fucking A I’d not have come.” — “It’s just me and friends,” he said. — “Black Panther friends?” — “Just black.” Nothing to fear but fear itself; besides my curiosity was piqued. I allowed him to tie on the blindfold.
When we were moving again, even blindfolded I knew we were driving up Ashby, then Highway 13, then east on 580. When Abul left the freeway, it was impossible to know exactly where we were or how far we drove before he stopped. My best guess was we were still somewhere in Alameda County, in the country. When Abul removed my blindfold, we were parked in the dirt at the edge of an oak grove. Three other cars were parked to the side. We walked through the grove to a rudimentary rifle range: corrugated tin roof over a firing line, area in front leveled for a range, earth impact berm raised at the end of firing lanes. Four human cutout targets had been set up in front of the berm; a half dozen men sat in lawn chairs in the shade of the tin roof; a few rifles were stacked against the back wall. Abul introduced me as a shooting instructor. “Just a shooter,” I corrected him. — “What does that mean?” one of the men asked. — He was short, compact, wearing sunglasses; only he had risen to shake my hand. He seemed to be the spokesman for the group. No one else said anything. “Just means I know how to shoot,” I said. — “Well let’s get started,” he said.
Thank god for Sergeant Harless. Drill Instructor Harless, DI Harless. He was dumb as parchment paper, and of course we called him Hairless, but he was a maniac about marksmanship. I started lecturing about the steady position using as much terminology as I could remember: nonfiring handgrip, firing handgrip, cheek-to-stock weld, natural point of aim. I threw out terms like confetti, demonstrating each as best I remembered. I’m sure DI Hairless would have exploded with apoplexy were he listening, but the men listening to me paid attention. We held rifles, we established rifle butt position; we worked on cheek-to-stock weld for half an hour. We moved on to aiming, rifle sight alignment; breath control, “Exhale almost completely and fire in the pause before you breathe again;” trigger finger — “You do not pull the trigger, you squeeze!” — “Stay in steady position. Move nothing on your body but the trigger finger!” — “Just the tip of that finger on the trigger, please.” We practiced half an hour, all dry-fire training. In time everyone got antsy, wanting to really shoot. I asked if they had dummy rounds; they didn’t. I asked if they had ear plugs; they had none.
“Then you’re not prepared to shoot.”
“Bullshit,” the leader said. “We came out here to shoot; we’re going to shoot.”
“All right! Give me a minute!”
I excused myself to the porta-potty in the parking lot where I found a half-roll of toilet paper. Tearing off strips to plug my ears, I carried the roll back to the group and told them to plug theirs. Some laughed; some refused.
“If he wants you to put shit paper in your ears, stuff some shit paper in, God Damn It!” the leader shouted. Everyone stuffed some shit paper in; I was impressed.
We did live fire for at least another hour, men sharing the four rifles they had, shooting at the four human cutout target figures. Moving up and down the line, I exhorted shooters to take their time, to not shoot until they were relaxed, to practice the breathing technique we’d learned, to practice the tip of the trigger-finger-against-trigger soft squeeze. Most became reasonably adept with at least hitting the target somewhere, except the leader, who never quite got it. He could not relax, could not hold the rifle in any kind of steady position. Just wasn’t wired for it. Sitting, standing, his was a nervous energy close to vibration. I thought of suggesting meditation but decided to just let him shoot. After an hour, he was frustrated enough to want to leave, and declared shooting was finished. Everyone headed for cars, only the leader told me good bye; I had spent at least three hours at the range but hadn’t talked to any of them. Abul put the blindfold back on my face and we drove out of there. When we were on the freeway, I ripped it off and cursed him roundly for suckering me into this. Back in Berkeley, he took the University Avenue exit and parked in the lot behind Brennan’s.
“Come on. I’ll buy you a beer. You’ll feel better.”
“Fuck you, Abul, I’m not drinking with you, and I’m not going out there anymore either.”
“You’ll go if you’re smart.”
“If I’m smart. What kind of shit is that?”
“I know where you live,”
“Jesus Christ, Abul. Save your violence for your enemies. I don’t believe in your revolution. I don’t believe real power comes out the barrel of a gun. I’d march with Dr. King, but you can’t make a black soldier out of me. Leave me alone, Abul.”
I walked away and he let me. I didn’t think Abul was a revolutionary, at least not a dedicated one, at least not an effective one. I didn’t know how connected he was to any organization. I didn’t know what affiliation the group I was shooting with might have had, but I was impressed with them. They were disciplined, eager to learn, willing to practice; I never saw any of that in Abul. Several times after that afternoon he walked by close on campus but did not acknowledge me, nor did I he. He never attacked, he never came back for agitprop rehearsals, he never came back to our poker game and, in time, I stopped seeing him on campus.
The station loud speaker blared: “6 Car Train for Richmond in 8 minutes!” The message on the overhead board changed.
By 1968, the limit for the Milvia Street poker game had swelled to $2.00, sometimes $3.00, though $3.00 only after the last card. In addition to our weekend game, we played on special occasions. Primary election night June 04, 1968, was special: Hardy was there, Jeff was there, Lester, Peter, Roy, Caleb. Hardy, Jeff and Roy never shut up about my having campaigned for Kennedy and my caring about the primary election outcome. They laughed every time I left the poker table to check the tv in the living room.
Caleb was quiet, saying very little. We’d had a contretemps weeks earlier the day of Dr. King’s assassination. Cast in the play Danton’s Death in a university student production — he Lacroix, I Herault — we learned of King’s assassination at a rehearsal when the graduate student director was called out to take a telephone call. She came back in tears, told us Dr. King had been shot, then canceled the rehearsal and left. Other students wandered out, some also in tears, until only Caleb, me and two other SDS members, also Cal students, remained. We were quiet until Caleb said he was amazed at anyone crying at King’s dying.
“He was no revolutionary,” he said. “If he were white, he’d have been just another liberal, not someone to cry about.”
I lit into him, unloading my fury at the rigidity of radical politics, the blind idiocy of revolutionary dialectics, the insensitivity of a student radical having the gall to criticize anyone’s response to the death of a man who had worked and marched and died for justice and equality and, yes, radical change. Caleb called me a counter-revolutionary, a reactionary. I told him I was happy to be a counter revolutionary if it allowed me to grieve for a man like Dr. King. We stormed out spitting at each other. When we resumed Danton’s Death daily rehearsals, we never mentioned our shouting set-to, nodding to each other, sometimes speaking. He missed a few poker games, then started coming again. It was not uncommon for Berkeley students to quarrel loudly, and sometimes bitterly, but remain comrades: solidarity was as important as principle.
McCarthy won New Jersey, Kennedy South Dakota. The big prize, California, remained uncertain. Around 11:00, Roy had won his $12 and left. Penny, who was staying with me at the time, and her two friends came home soon after: they’d been drinking Irish coffees at Brennan’s and were in a festive mood. Some of the poker players became more interested in the living room than the poker table. Shortly before midnight Kennedy began to speak. The poker game broke up as players moved to the other room to listen, some to flirt with Penny’s friends. Kennedy spoke of ending the divisions in the United States; he spoke of change coming, of ending the Vietnam war; he spoke of the great effort it would take to effect change in our country and around the world. I was buoyed. I was confident he could become president; I was confidant he would initiate that great effort to bring change; I was confident he would end the war in Vietnam. Everyone in the living room was talking but no one was talking about what Kennedy had said; I think only Jeff and I had listened carefully. Then Kennedy walked away from the podium and minutes later was shot in the head. The room was instantly quiet, totally silent after a few gasps. Seconds ticked away.
“Go. Please go,” I begged. I didn’t want any discussion of whether it was important that Robert Kennedy was shot or not. I didn’t want any radical rhetoric that he was just another politician and it didn’t matter whether he was elected, whether he served, whether he lived or died.
Everyone left quietly including Penny’s two friends. She closed the door behind them. I didn’t move. There seemed a protracted but necessary craziness to staying in the chair I’d taken when I’d come in to hear his victory speech, watching the tv, as if not moving could suspend time, perhaps reverse time even, perhaps undo the awful moment we had just witnessed. Footage of the shooting ran and reran: Kennedy at the podium, Kennedy rapping his knuckles for emphasis, smacking his hands together for additional emphasis, holding up the two-finger victory sign, swiping the hair off his forehead, turning to leave hardly visible in the crowd of taller men around him, then heads moving erratically back and forth, hand-held camera jerking and wobbling, Kennedy on the floor, men trying to talk to him, lifting his head carefully, holding his head gingerly, and blood, blood, blood. Even on black and white tv blood was obvious, the hand that rested on the floor darkly covered, unimaginably inert, lowered there slowly by one of the men holding him. Then the camera followed backs of people shoving each other toward the pantry, dishes stacked on shelves behind them. Rewind, and Kennedy is telling us again that Mayor Yorty has sent a message “we have been here too long already,” the victory sign, the exit, the shot. It seemed as if technicians were unable to stop the repetition, and I was unable to stop watching.
In time Penny put a hand on my shoulder and said she was sorry, angling for something to break the spell. I was numb and the hand felt strange, like a hawk’s claw, talons cutting to bone, but oddly painless. It reminded me of my mother the weekend John Kennedy was shot. I was still at the college in the Midwest that November, in my student room in the basement of the dorm, and learned of the assassination when a theater professor called and asked me to go to the auditorium and post a note that all rehearsals were canceled: President Kennedy had been shot. We were doing Our American Cousin that fall: I had the wonderful role of Lord Dundreary. It seemed anytime there was an assassination, I was cast as a fop in some student production. My mother called that evening, crying even as she talked on the phone. She was bereft and said my father had gone berserk and had started drinking; he had left for town to buy another bottle and hadn’t come back. She didn’t know what to do. I took the overnight Continental Trailways bus home, arriving in early morning; walked the mile and a half from the highway to the farmhouse and went in without knocking. She was slumped in an armchair weeping quietly. It had been eighteen hours since she’d phoned me. Had she spent all those hours in that chair? Had she wept those eighteen hours? Dad was snoring in a chair across from her; the tv was on.
Intending to comfort her, I put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t flinch, didn’t draw away, didn’t shrink from the touch, but also didn’t place both her hands on mine, a habit of hers over the years when I placed a hand on her shoulder. It wasn’t as if she was consciously not reacting: it was as if she’d lost all sensitivity to being touched. I thought irrationally I could stab her shoulder with a knife and she would not respond. And she didn’t stop weeping, looking up at me, tears seeping down her cheek, saying nothing. What I remember most is her expression of absolute incomprehension; not grief, not pain, but a blank stare of total bafflement at what she was experiencing. She was grieving not only for a dead president, not only for a vanquished knight; she was grieving for the loss of her being able to make sense of the world. All certainty had been shattered, and there was fear, fear that she would never have it back. I felt the same numbness at Penny’s touch, the same fear, the same grief, then consciously willed myself to touch her hand. Something broke and I started to cry, to mourn Robert Kennedy, to grieve the vagaries of chance that chop our heroes to corpses.
“6 Car Train for Richmond in 3 minutes!” the station loud speaker proclaimed, bringing our waiting up to date. The electronic board clicked to mirror the message. A few other passengers had joined me on the platform.
Coverage of Robert Kennedy went on until 2:00 a.m., when the station shut down for the night. I was still anchored in my chair. Penny flipped off the tv and led me to bed. Kennedy would not be pronounced dead until the morning of the next day, almost twenty-four hours later, June 06.
Something went out of politics for me. The energy to be on the street, to listen to people, to rephrase what they said instead of what you wanted them to say, to unravel conundrums: “How can you, a veteran, support our troops and not support the war they are fighting?” was difficult to generate. A core component of the answer I used to have — Robert Kennedy — was gone. For weeks I rarely left Berkeley. If we did agitprop skits, we did them at the UC campus, Laney College, San Francisco state, venues where our audiences already were opposed to the war. Preaching to the crowd, the immediacy of protest performance was lost. A link to believing it mattered had been severed.
The poker game was suspended for June, most of July; games started again first weekends of August. By then political talk in Berkeley was about the upcoming Democrat Party convention in Chicago: who was going, who wasn’t, and sometimes, why? Few who played in the game intended to go: Brooks and Rich, occasional players, but no one else.
“Aren’t you going?” Hardy asked, as the river card of a Texas Hold ‘Em hand was dealt, pairing 9’s in the community cards. He bet $3.00. “You were so all-fired up about Bobby Kennedy; can’t believe you’d miss a dog and pony show like Chicago!”
“I could care less. Let Abbie and his Yippies run the show.”
“Lordy me, a little setback and the struggle’s over.”
Peter folded, Caleb folded. I was left.
“You’re calling Kennedy killed a little setback? Can’t believe you believe that. What you got?” I called his $3.00 bet.
“Trip nines,” he said.
“Shithead,” I said, and tossed my Queens over. It wasn’t my summer, it wasn’t my night.
By the end of the evening, everyone had talked about what he would do for the rest of the summer. Caleb said he was going backpacking, hiking a section of the John Muir Trail, was looking for someone to go with him, asked if I was interested. I was. End of August we hitchhiked to Tuolumne Meadows where we’d catch the Muir Trail and hike south for twelve, fourteen days, until we were low on food, then hike out and hitchhike home. That was the plan. I was a novice, Caleb the expert, or so he said — he knew everything about backpacking, he’d done it with his dad, many times, summer after summer — and planned everything, the bags of granola and quick rice we carried, the packets of dried soup, the dry jack cheese, dried apricots, raisins. We bought everything at grocery stores; there was no REI in Berkeley then. We carried a pup tent: open ended, no floor. A few days into our trip, the weather turned hot, thunderstorms roaring through every afternoon. Mosquitoes multiplied like aphids, and there was no way to keep them out of the pup tent. Hanging shirts and ponchos at the entrances didn’t seal anything. Every night we went to sleep swatting mosquitoes. Often I’d wake in the night with one buzzing in my ear. Great fun, but we slept well, tired from hiking fifteen-sixteen miles a day — we eventually hiked a hundred fifty or so, Tuolumne Meadows to Granite Basin, Kings Canyon National Park, and out — arguing politics as we went along.
Caleb graced me with ongoing Mao Zedong wisdom. “A revolutionary war is a war of the masses; mobilize the masses and you can rely on them to wage it.”
“Exactly. Voter registration. Enroll the masses and rely on them to vote.”
“Not the same thing: Mao is talking revolution.”
“Mao is talking change. Revolution is only one method, voting another.”
“If voting could change this country, it’d be against the law.”
“Who said that?”
“Well, he believed too this land is our land. Can’t fault him for not getting everything right.”
On and on we’d go, trying not so hard to convince the other, or to be right about anything, but to get in the last word. We didn’t keep score, so the verbal game was always at white heat. We were probably the noisiest two people hiking the Sierra. Caleb had a booming voice, like a thirty-two pounder, and he loved to sing as we walked along, making up verses as he hiked, cribbing and embellishing from the IWW Little Red Songbook, often just-for-fun songs we marched along to. My favorite was his modified version of the old Irish melody “Paddy Works on the Railway.”
“In 1968, we left the Berkeley and the Haight,
Left the Berkeley and the Haight
To hike upon the Muir Trail.
Fil-i-me-oo-ree-eye-ri-ay,…(and such, repeat three times)
To hike upon the Muir Trail.”
He’d rollick along, seemingly inspired by his singing, roaring his verses to the lodgepole, to the granite, to the switchbacks climbing passes, to the marshes in long slogs through meadows. And there was always Mao to augment his creativity. All switchbacks had been designed not by the people but by running dog lackey engineers. All passes were paper tigers. — “In appearance, passes are terrifying, but in reality, they are there only to test us.” — It seemed as if he’d forgotten to leave agitprop behind when we’d left Berkeley, but I wasn’t going to fault him for that. After all, he’d been the main author of our famous Moby Dick skit in which the Viet Minh were the great White Whale, Lyndon Johnson the maniacal Captain Ahab giving chase. In a magnificent penultimate scene Starbuck cried aloud over the prone bodies of peasants, exact text from Chapter 135 of the original Moby Dick, “Oh! my God! what is this that shoots through me, and leaves me so deadly calm — fixed at the top of a shudder!” Fixed at the top of a shudder! Was ever there a better line spoken to the horror of war, to a napalmed village, to a child on fire screaming as she runs? A great hit on college campuses, it garnered us a lot of blank stares in malls and shopping centers. The audience for Melville has its line of demarcation.
What did impress me in those weeks of hiking was Caleb’s level of optimism: about his future — he was bright, he would earn a medical degree and become a successful general practitioner; about our country’s future — currently very much in doubt; about out planet’s future — extremely in doubt. Over the years, we lost touch, and I have no idea how he manages now, but he had an answer then, an answer he grounded, yes, in Mao.
“How can we deal with our impotence?” I asked. “Every day we watch people die on tv, and we protest, but every day it goes on.”
“Protest matters. If every day you find one new person to protest with you, and every day that new person finds another new person to protest with, it will matter. Mao compared making the revolution to a banquet. ‘It’s impossible to swallow everything in one gulp,’ he said.”
“God damn it, Caleb, Mao doesn’t work for everyone. For some of us hope leads only to famine. There’s no banquet, there’s nothing to swallow.”
“You still scream and go on. That’s the law of all struggle, as Mao understood. You believe it, you accept it. You never give up; you scream, you go on.”
“6 Car Train for Richmond arriving Platform 4!” the station loud speaker blared. The electronic board flashed “RICHMOND!” “RICHMOND!” “RICHMOND!”
My train. I crossed to the yellow line along the track to the black marked section where doors would open. The train screeched on its rails in the tunnel, its twin lights sparkling as it approached. I screamed with it. I screamed for the dead in the Vietnam War; screamed for the injustice, pain, and poverty in my country, for the fifty past years wasted on war, for the black people dead, the Latino families ripped apart; screamed for the troubled country we’d become this June 06, 2018; screamed for Bobby Kennedy, screamed for all good men and women dead before their time, screamed to validate that we will go on. The aging like me, the young, the yet unborn will march and protest, will make the changes necessary for all people to live together in peace and safety, to bring justice to all human beings who abide in our land; we’ll learn to listen with compassion, to act without vengeance — the vision of a flawed courageous man dead these fifty years who believed beyond a doubt all men and women were of equal worth. “Pray for the dead. Fight like hell for the living.” (1)
This being Oakland most other passengers never turned to look when I screamed. They waited for the train and got on when it arrived. Doors opened in front of me. I stopped screaming and got on too. Doors closed and we moved on; it’s the law of all struggle.
(1) 1925, Autobiography of Mother Jones by Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones)