The year that changed everything

Where were you in 1968? A member of Salon's reader community, Table Talk, shares the ways in which her memories linger.

By Salon Staff
Published April 4, 2008 6:15PM (UTC)
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White House

1968 -- The Personal and the Political ...

R. Prichard -- 01:58 pm Pacific Time -- Apr 3, 2008 -- #74 of 89

I have great memories from '68, but also painful ones. The killing machine in Asia, then building to its worst, had terrible consequences on the lives of many dear to me.

Throughout that time, I went to huge antiwar and political rallies. I now think many of the antiwar demonstrations I was part of were counterproductive because of how indulgently people acted out, contributing to Nixon's two elections.

I saw MLK twice and RFK three times.

I'd seen King give one of his great soaring speeches in '64, but from far back in the crowd. Wanting to get closer to him, I went to the LA Sports Arena hours early to hear him denounce the war. The rally was in the parking lot.

During the night, noxious-smelling stuff had been sprayed all over the lot and crews were trying to hose it off. So the crowd was held back while they tried in vain to get rid of the chemical smell. When they let us in, I raced toward the lectern and got right up to the rope line behind the press photographers. The photographers were crouched down, so I watched King speaking just a few feet away.

He was very somber and seemed deeply weary. He looked small and vulnerable, but spoke powerfully. The crowd, which had been raucous before he spoke, listened quietly for the most part. His sadness pervaded.

When he turned to leave, the photographers jumped up to follow and one of them slammed me in the ribs with his elbow. I blacked out for a moment and sat down hard on the still wet and stinky blacktop. Somebody pulled me up and helped me until I could walk.

I saw RFK at two big campaign events. The one at the Greek Theatre was joyfully festive and he seemed amused by the Hollywood turnout. At Bovard Auditorium, his focus was much more intensely on opposition to the war. The cheering didn't seem to delight him up like it had at the Greek.

Sometime afterward, just by chance, I came across him walking with just a few aides. I hurried up to him and said something like "Thank you for running -- I know you'll be a great president." He put his hand out and when I took it (gently, I hope), he actually winced. But he smiled sweetly and said something like "Thank you very much, dear." I later heard that his hand was sore from so much handshaking. Though I was thrilled to be face to face with him, I was amazed by how very small and vulnerable he seemed.

I had volunteered at his campaign headquarters on Wilshire. They sent me to some young guy in charge of handling wealthy donors. As I sat in his office hand-addressing invitations, etc., I listened to him and his aides gossiping quite nastily for hours on end about rich and famous Bobby-backers. It seemed really stupid to me, but I didn't have the nerve to speak up. Whenever these rich donors have been in the news, some of them as famous philanthropists, I've remembered how gleefully those snotty aides dissed them. The hotshot in charge rose high in California politics.

Via TV, I kept the long election night vigil waiting for McCarthy to concede so that RFK could address the crowd at the Ambassador. Gene stalled until midnight. Too late. Sirhan Sirhan slipped into the kitchen just before Bobby.

In a daze, I watched it all ritually play out as it had for King.

I joined the memorial Kennedy Action Corps, which was intended to organize students for practical social action. We did some minor, not well-thought-out stuff, but the Corps fizzled away.

Before the election, I volunteered for Humphrey and saw him give a stemwinder at a packed Shrine Auditorium rally. I bickered with friends who refused to vote for him.

Hanging over this time was the war's unfolding impact on loved ones, not yet known, but feared. My husband-to-be was drafted, though he wasn't sent to Nam. Two of my first cousins had life-altering, ghastly experiences there, one of them permanently disabled.

Five of my high school classmates who went to Nam have committed suicide. These were normal, Kansas farm town boys I knew from early childhood.

The first one killed himself the day he got back, Christmas Eve. On Xmas Eve when we were both 6, he was dressed up by nuns as the little Lord Jesus (in a blond wig with a crown) and I was his attending angel with wings as we distributed Xmas stockings at the hospital and old folks home. As I handed a stocking to somebody, he'd say, "Peace be upon you."

The last of the five, a quarterback who became the president of the town bank, shocked everybody by killing himself just a few years ago. More vets have committed suicide than are on the black wall.

I saw my high school boyfriend in Iraq on the "CBS Evening News" not long after the war ramped up. The report was about older vets who went to Iraq to "exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam." They showed footage of him as a lieutenant in Nam when he was a kid -- followed by a clip of him driving some big vehicle in Iraq and looking very tense. He still had the big rose tattoo on his forearm he got for me.

The great music emblematic of that time flowed from the tumult we were all experiencing, except that it was suffused with hope. We came to see politics as life and death. It's great to see kids filled with hope again.

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