Saturday, June 7, 2008

Remembering Bobby: "Shared Memory Alert!"

Art Bicknell
Oh, oh, oh! Shared Memory Alert! (and WE hadn’t even met, yet!). 1964—you’re in seventh grade, I’m in eighth. On the morning of RFK’s stopover, my friend Larry Heath (a staunch Nazarene and Goldwater supporter, following his parents’ lead, of course) gave me a bottle of candy pills proscribed to “chronic loud mouths” (I’d been following him around for days quoting passages from LBJ’s “My Hope for America”—God, I was obnoxious). I remember we all (well, not Larry) gathered in DeWitt Park, across the street from the school. I don’t recall having to get parental approval. I don’t recall his car or any kind of motor brigade—just dozens of us swarming all around as Bobby shook one hand after another—including mine. I remember he was smaller and skinnier than I’d imagined, and that his teeth were very yellow. (He must have been a heavy smoker). My friend Eddie Hart lost his footing, got trampled, and never managed to get a handshake. I remember feeling bad about that. I wrote all about this event in my 1964 diary (still have it), which also includes a tracing of the big toe of my left foot, age 13.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Remembering Bobby

A presidential election loomed in the fall of 1964, between Barry Goldwater, Arizona Republican and Lyndon Baines Johnson, Texas Democrat. In New York State, Robert F. Kennedy was running for Senator, reviled by some as a ‘carpetbagger’ and by many more as the natural heir to his fallen brother’s legacy.

I wanted to help elect these Democrats, so I and fellow 7th grader Anne devised a campaign of our own.

Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon strip ruled the comic pages, and his character Linus believed that, every Hallowe’en, the Great Pumpkin arose from a local pumpkin patch to deliver toys to children around the world. One day while doodling in school, I discovered that if you put black glasses and a cleft chin on a pumpkin, it looked remarkably like Barry Goldwater. The campaign to elect Barry Goldwater for Great Pumpkin was born.

One benefit of having a college-teacher dad was access to the mimeograph machines at his Cornell office. We used them to run off family Christmas cards and neighborhood “Nature Notes.” I devised a flyer urging people to support Goldwater’s Great Pumpkin candidacy, arguing that “If he is elected to G.P. perhaps he will lose interest in the Presidency (Yeh Yeh Yeh).” Those last three words are a “Beatles reference,” to that band whose presence saturated our lives.

Thank you to the long-suffering departmental secretaries who agreeably ran off copies of strange writings and drawings for Professor Lambert’s little girl.

With the hot pile of flyers clutched in my hand, I hung them up and displayed them everywhere I could. During a downtown political rally that my family attended, I wormed my way through the crowds in the small Democratic Headquarters office, ducking under the elbows and past the legs of full-grown people, stacking a heap of my flyers onto the table holding political literature, buttons, and bumper stickers for New York and national candidates, and then squirmed outside to the sidewalk.

In my zeal, I sent a copy of the flyer, with cover letter, to the New York Times, and gave one to Robert F. Kennedy when he came through Ithaca on his campaign tour. In my time capsule I have a good-natured thank you from the Times—and an indelible memory of Kennedy.

But first, let’s go forward in time, for a bit of back story.

In 2003, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. came to Kentucky to bear witness to mountain-top mining and valley fill (reprehensible practices by the coal industry). I attended a fund-raising dinner in his honor that evening. When he made the rounds of the room shaking hands, I told him that I had once shaken his father’s hand. In his speech that evening, he began by saying that several people in the room said that they had met his dad when he was in Kentucky in 196().

No, no—it was not like that at all.

In the fall of 1964, DeWitt Junior High School students were abuzz with the news that Senatorial candidate Robert F. Kennedy would stop at our school to shake hands with students, on his way to the rally nearby at Democratic headquarters.

Our social studies teachers teased us: “Why would he want to meet YOU? You can’t vote!” and we would reply, spiritedly, “We will be able to vote, someday!”

On the appointed date, those of us with signed permission slips and supportive parents stayed after school and arrayed ourselves along the sidewalk outside, talking excitedly about when Kennedy’s plane would arrive and how long it would take him to get from the airport to our school.

I stood with my mom in the crowd, holding tight to the “Barry Goldwater for Great Pumpkin” flyer that I wanted to give to RFK. Sure, I knew this campaign of mine was a joke—but I also knew that it was a good joke, and I felt that he would appreciate it.

He was late, but not very. Suddenly around the corner and down the block, here he came, sitting up in the back of a convertible and waving to us as he approached. We small kids swarmed to the curb as the car pulled up, with our parents and teachers watching to make sure that we did not get hurt. No security or bodyguards. He sat high, and we got in close.

We shouted his name: “Bobby!” and he grasped our hands strongly, one after another. I shook his hand with one of my hands—and with the other, gave him the flyer. He took it and held onto it. Soon the car backed off from the curb and took off for the grownup rally, with us shouting after him.

As they drove away, his head was down—reading my flyer.
Yep, I can remember that anytime I want to. What a bright little window.