June 5th, 1968. It was dark when we got there. He was there already. We had arrived a few minutes late and were running up the long driveway and then over through the sprinklers and the wet grass to the hotel doors.

There was the expected crowd pouring out of the big side doors onto the stone patio, a parade of summer suits and tie-dyed T-shirts, ponytails and hundred-buck haircuts, gorgeous women and handsome men. Like that line from “The Debutante’s Ball”: “The very best people were there.”

It was a candy bowl of Democrats, television and movie faces, Mexican kids from the barrio, hippies and stoners from the side streets of Sunset Boulevard.

My friend Jack, a staff photographer, was driving. We found a sweet spot right in front of the hotel, 100 feet or two down from the doors, and just as we got close, a roar from the crowd went up.

The candidate to-be was on the ballroom stage, just about to finish his speech, and the waving and applause seemed to go on and on like a summer rain washing over the hundreds of upturned faces and handheld posters.

I remember thinking how the ballroom was bigger than I thought it would be. I had never set foot there. Why would I have? Presidents and kings stayed there. Frank and Bing sang there. This was the Coconut Grove. This was the storied Ambassador.

I remember a fountain in the middle of a circular stone bowl of colored water, full of balloons, where kids were standing to get a better view.

The air was thick with the smoke of weed and the pungent odor of pachouli. The famous and the seriously unknown were popping the balloons with their shared joints. It was like a movie set filming history, and I was in it.

And then the candidate spoke the last few words. “Now,” he said, “on to Chicago.”

Then he stepped back and his wife hugged him, and his team pulled him away. And then he was gone.

As they pulled him through the hundreds of grasping hands towards the big swinging doors to the right, we stayed as close as we could in the hope that we could catch a ride to a party in Beverly Hills to which we weren’t invited.

Of course, we wouldn’t be. We were just a team of door knockers, envelope lickers and pamphlet passers eager to help elect the next hero.

It was over now, this opening shot, and of course, I should have gone home where my wife and two children were sleeping. But Jack was my ride, and he was still taking pictures.

It was midnight in a city of cars and late night taco stands with no late night buses. This was still a movie, and I wanted to keep my tiny part in the cast alive.

I let myself be pushed along with the crowd, and then the select group vanished behind big iron doors to the kitchen, and the stoners kept shouting and popping the balloons that sounded like gun shots. The stars of this movie and the guards slammed the kitchen doors in front of us.

“Let’s go,” Jack said. “Let’s get out of here.”

So we moved toward the kitchen doors along with a throng of exiting partiers, and the balloons kept popping.

Now, as I write this, I remember exactly where I was standing when someone screamed from outside the kitchen doors, and a shower of other screams flowed back from those doors to where we were standing right in front of the stage.

As Jack and I stood there, the words were hurtling toward us like rocks.

“Bobby’s dead. Somebody shot him.”

“Ethel’s dead. Rosie’s dead,” a girl screamed.

“Everybody’s dead,” they said. “Oh my God, Bobbie’s dead.”

Then a hush fell as if on cue, and two or three men in dark suits flowed through the crowd and the truth came out. Bobby was alive but barely, and they were taking him out to the ambulance. Rosie Greer, Ethel and Rafer Johnson were unhurt.

The hush grew deeper like fresh mud, and we all moved toward the patio. Exhausted, I sat on one of the white iron chairs. The movie wasn’t over.

Jack waved to me to come back inside where a small group of white helmeted cops illuminated by camera floodlights were escorting a small dark man through the crowd.

This night, he was nobody, a gunman, an unnamed assassin. Tomorrow in the headlines, he would be Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant.

In that same paper, they printed the candidate’s last words.

“Is everybody OK?” And when the medical crew tried to pull him up, he said, “Don’t lift me.”

Those were the last words of the candidate, Robert F. Kennedy, the fallen prince from a royal family, who for a brief moment in time and on this night stood in the silver light, poised to step into history as the 37th President of the United States.

And then, he was gone.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.


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