I can still remember that day I walked into a small polling place to vote for the first time. I had taken my grandmother to do “her civic duty” as she kept referring to it as. The whole ride there was filled with her lecturing me on the different aspects of this certain election and how important it was for our community, our country, our family and even myself that I take my responsibility seriously.
I smiled at her a lot that morning because she had no way of knowing that everything she was saying was already a very deep seeded part of my being, that her son…my father had in his own way given me a civic consciousness scattered out over the years with his lessons, his gifts of caring and sharing.
The dedication on the National Mall today brought one such lesson flooding back to me and as this is my first diary, I wanted to share a part of the man who made me who I am today.
It was a hot, humid night in Chicago the spring of ’68…I was awakened by my mother’s voice calling for us all to get up. The window was on my side of the room and I could see that it was still dark outside. I arose quickly as I knew that tone in her voice and had learned not to question it. I struggled to wake up my little brother who shared a room with me. (My father divided us by age, not gender until we entered our pre-teen years)
For a small four-bedroom house, it was always filled beyond capacity and this night in particular it was busting at the seams with people…Family, friends, neighbors and quite a few people I did not recognize. Everyone was moving quickly about the rooms, talking over each other and filling my home with a very real sense of panic. I was becoming confused and upset as I searched the crowded rooms for the one person who I knew I could count on to help me understand what was happening.
I looked and there in front of our big picture glass living room window was my father. Standing there quietly with a cigarette in one hand and a highball glass in the other, staring intensely out not reacting at all to the chaos of the others running every which way behind him. I tugged at his shirt. He turned towards me with one of his famous half grins and for a moment I was no longer afraid.
Then things got crazy and blurred as some one came running in shouting about fires and a mob. My mother was non-stop crying by now as she gathered up the smaller children and herded the rest of us towards the streets outside lined with double parked cars. As the adults scrambled to place us in the cars, I turned towards the night sky.
Off to my left the dark blended into a strange yellow glow. Living in a big city there was always a night light glow to the sky but that night it was like none I had seen before. It flickered and flashed like one of my father’s lanterns that we took camping. My father was watching the sky as well and as he reached down to put my little sister in one of the cars there was a loud thundering sound that had him quicken his pace and for the first time yell out to my mother to hurry.
I ended up in the far back of a station wagon as we drove through the darkened neighborhoods, eventually away from the city, heading towards my grandparent’s farm in Indiana…my mother still upset but the sounds of my father’s whispering voice comforting her filled the car.
Our stay on the farm that next day, made me feel like the world was coming to an end. There were more than a dozen people camping outside the small farmhouse. My father had dropped us off and returned to the city, so my source of reassurance was gone.There was no tv and the adults had all the radios. As children we had to piece together what was going on from listening to the grown-ups talk to each other.
Martin Luther King had been killed and there had been wide spread chaos in Chicago. We had listened to Dr. King’s speeches as a family because my father had wanted us to grow with open hearts and open minds. We had just buried a friend who had died in Vietnam so I understood what killing was but this was beyond my understanding.
We went back a few days later, our neighborhood still for the most part intact but places around it still showed the signs of anger. My father, usually a quiet man, had made a special point to make sure we felt safe.Surprising us by becoming very excited in the weeks that followed. Senator Kennedy was coming to Chicago.
My brothers and sisters had gone along with my Uncle Bob on some of the visits to houses in our area, handing out election stuff supporting Sen. Kennedy for President. Uncle Bob talked to us about how he had helped campaign for President Kennedy and how important it was to help put good people in Washington. My father hardly ever talked politics to us, decided that he was going to take us to the rally that was being put together for the Senator the following month of June.
We went to spend the week before the rally on the farm…the trauma of that April was still lingering with the adults but we kids managed to have a good time…It was early on a Thursday morning, my father was suppose to be working in the city so we were very surprised to hear his car pull up outside. His face that morning as he walked into the farmhouse kitchen with all of his children sitting around a big table eating breakfast has stayed with me my whole life.
His eyes were red and big tears flowed done his cheeks. I had never seen my father cry before. I mean I was sure he had cried but never in front of us. My mother quickly wrapped her arms around him asking him what was wrong. “Senator Kennedy is dead…they killed him too.” was all he said as he buried his face on her shoulder and continued to sob.
Later that night I went and sat with him on the porch, as I took hold of his hand, he looked at me. I could see the sadness in his eyes as he tried to fake his half grin for me and if I had been older I might not have pressed him but I needed to know what he meant by “they killed him too”.
I can’t remember his exact words but the gist of it was that for all the good he believed there was in the world there also was an underlying evil. That there were people who thought that hatred and violence were the only ways they knew to get what they wanted.
He pulled me close to him wrapping his arms so very tightly around me. He was crying again and whispering to me that things would be alright and that we couldn't let the bastards win.
A few months later in August, my mother had to go get he and my older brother out of jail because of a rather large heated debate outside the International Amphitheatre where the Democratic National Convention was being held.
My mother was so mad as she worried about the money that had gone for the bail but my father in true fashion smiled that half grin of his and said "we got to do what we got to do".
Within my father's tears I saw a passion for this country. We lost him at a young age but his actions and his words have always been with me. Part of me knows that he would be disappointed that I got wrapped up in my own personal world for a long time.
Someone pulled the blanket from over my head and made me look at what I helped let happen to our nation (but that's a sharing for another time ).I am trying to right that wrong and set as good an example for my father's grandsons that he had set for me. I have learned that alot of us lost that sense of National Pride but I truly feel that we can get it back.
We have come a long way since 1968 but there seems to be those who want us to backtrack instead of move ahead.We need to stick together and not let the bastards win... "We got to do what we got to do".