11 June 2007

Brushes with History - Kennedy, Cash, Nixon & Kurt

I've had a variety of serendipitous moments in my life, times when I was at the right place at what felt like a momentous occasion.

In 2003, I was in on a business trip when I awoke to the radio news announcement that Johnny Cash had died. My hotel was in Folsom, CA. Although I wasn't imprisoned, I did feel blue.

In 1994, I was standing on the steps of the Hanoi Opera House when I first heard that Richard Nixon had died. The Vietnamese government offered a fairly terse comment on his death, something akin to "We have heard that Richard Nixon died. Apparently he is dead now." I was part of a group hosting a trade show featuring American companies. I was told that it was the first time the American flag had flown beside the (formerly north) Vietnamese flag in Hanoi. It felt to me as though an era had passed, the conversion of communists by Pepsi and Post Cereal instead of guns and tanks.

In early June of 1968, Robert Kennedy came to my little town of Yuba City to deliver a speech. I was 7 and my father, who I have since learned is a fairly staunch conservative, was curious enough to take me and my sister to the center of town to hear Kennedy speak. After he spoke, I rather inexplicably broke away from my father in the midst of what might have been the largest crowd I have ever seen, and pressed towards Kennedy. I still remember the details of "shaking hands" with Kennedy. He was riding in a big convertible and was leaning out of the car to shake hands, and people were actually gripping his waist to keep him in the car. I was amazed to see two things - one, he wasn't really shaking hands so much as touching as many people as he could and, two, people were literally tearing at his cuff links, pulling souvenirs of the man off of him as if he were a store mannequin. Days later, he won the California primary and was assassinated.

This brings me to this week. As readers of this blog will know, Kurt Vonnegut was one of my best friends in high school (not having met me, he didn't realize this). Heading to Indianapolis this week for a business trip, I'd forgotten that this is Kurt's hometown. I'd forgotten until spotting "The Last Interview" with Kurt Vonnegut in the US Airways magazine. This is my first trip to Indianapolis and I'll likely be out here 6 to 12 times over the next few months. What year did I finally visit my old friend's hometown? In the "Year of Vonnegut." Somehow, given I missed his childhood here, the timing felt right.

And just to close the loop, Robert Kennedy first heard of Martin Luther King's assassination here in Indianapolis. Speaking to a largely black audience, he spoke movingly and spontaneously about Martin Luther King, race, and the importance of getting beyond violence. Most major American cities had race riots in reaction to the news of King's assassination, but Indianapolis did not. Many attribute this to Kennedy's speech.

Some days just feel like now. Other days actually feel like history. Yesterday offered such a moment.


exskindiver said...

experiences of yesterday is the kismet of tomorrow

David said...

Indianapolis. Just finished driving through it on my way to Dayton OH for my granddaughter's high school graduation. It's a great place to drive through but I hope your work there allows you to see worthwhile things that I haven't been able to do. I was in Vietnam when King and Kennedy were gunned down and even a conservative like me can consider such events tragedies, the loss of great men who hadn't realized their potential. Anyway, good luck in Indy Ron-O, it's hot and humid ths time of year.