Thursday, June 5, 2008

LOSING BOBBY

(Childhood diary entry of Maggie Jochild. Date corresponds to date in Brasil, where we heard of the news.)

In December 1967. when I was 12, my family moved to Aracaju, Brasil for a year. We lived on a one-block-long street near the edge of the city, our house facing north. Two or three houses to our east, on the same side of the street, was the residence of a young woman named Lucia, who was around 18 years old. Not long after we moved in, she came to introduce herself and was a frequent visitor, primarily to practice her English, possibly also to keep the rest of the street informed about our Yanqui ways. She was very nice to us.

However, she had older brothers living in the same household who were hostile to us, apparently because we were from the United States. I don't remember how many brothers there were -- somewhere between 3 to 6 -- because there were also other young men usually hanging out there as well. They were all thin, shorter than U.S. men, and most of them wore berets. My mother said they were Socialists. They either did not speak English or refused to, and whenever we walked by with our mother, if they were out front, they called things out to us. Things which did not sound friendly or nice.

They never harassed me or my little brother. It was my parents, particularly my mother, who were their target. One day, one of them gave the Nazi salute as we walked by on the way to market. My mother's face, already wooden, flushed with rage. She gave them an involuntary glance. Immediately all of them lined up, hooting and yelling "Heil fuhrer!" as they stood in Nazi salute. Mama was angry the rest of the day. She refused to explain it to me, aside from spitting out "They were just trying to find the most offensive thing they could do, and they nailed it". As a result, for several years, I associated Socialism with Nazis, until a high school teacher helped me disentangle the two.


I myself wasn't offended. Intrigued, is more like it. They looked a lot like the iconic black-and-white shading of Che that I saw on T-shirts when I was a teenager, and I wondered why they hated us so. I even asked Lucia about it. She was embarrassed, said "They are in the University, I'm sorry", and could not offer further clarification.

Most nights at 10:00, once the liquid heat of the day was beginning to abate slightly, my mother would turn on our shortwave radio and we'd listen to BBC news. It was the only immediate source we had for what was going on back in the States -- we had no TV, and there was no English-language newspaper in Aracaju. We could get copies of Time and other American magazines at the bibliotecas, but they were anywhere from two to four weeks after the date of publication. Hearing the U.S. events of 1967 and 1968 filtered through British sensibilities was strange and, at times, infuriating to my parents. It was exhilarating to me, however.

It increasingly sounded like our nation had taken complete leave of its senses, that year. Like dispatches breathlessly sent out from a revolution.

Early on, we had learned to be wary of telling Brasileros of where in the United Sates, exactly, we were from. At first we had tried to explain that most of our family lived in North Texas, near Dallas. But Dallas was a red flag: It was where JFK had been assassinated. The next questions would be "Did you see Kennedy get shot? Are you related to the people who did it? How could you allow that to happen?" We changed our story to simply "Texas", but often, even that was enough to invoke association with JFK. Bill and I eventually began claiming "Oklahoma", unless we were talking to another American or a European.

(Bobby and Jackie Kennedy grieve during JFK's funeral, 1963)

The day Robert Kennedy was killed, we did not need to wait for the BBC broadcast. Early that afternoon, during the hot part of the day when people stayed indoors on their beds in front of a fan, there was an growing ruckus coming from the street. There were shouts and wails of anguish. I went to awaken Mama, and as we stood in the living room window, wondering with the fear common to that year, what dire thing had just occurred, one of Lucia's brothers appeared at our front gate, screaming and shaking his fist at us. The words we could understand were "Kennedy!" and "Texas!". Within a minute, the rest of his cohort plus several neighbors were in a livid cluster in front of our house. All of the young men were shouting -- they could see us, though Mama was ineffectually trying to make Bill and I get out of sight.

Our housekeeper, Suliadora, came to the front of the house from where she, too, had been napping. She listened for a minute, and her beautiful dark face went ashy: Roberto Kennedy had been killed. Shot by a madman. In California. He was dead.

I was beside myself with grief. Surely it was a mistake. But I could not go out and ask Lucia, who stood on the sidewalk, silent, even her friendly eyes now accusatory. We were somehow complicit in his death, and I didn't know how to bear that, either.

We had no phone, no way to call my father out in his field camp or to request assistance. Suliadora sat in the front room, listening to Brasilian radio with Mama and translating what she could. I went back to my bedroom and lay on my bed. In two months I would turn 13. I didn't know how to live in the world as it was. Even with my hope and determination, if they were killing off anybody who actually tried to make things better, what chance did I have?

By the time Daddy started for home, riots and anti-American protests were many places in the city. He sat in the back of the jeep, with the cover on it, while his Brasilian crew chief Joaquim drove and another local guy sat in the passenger seat, to get them safely through the angry crowds. When he got to our house, Joaquim took Suliadora home -- she was his "second wife", a common practice in Brasil at that time. This meant we had no vehicle. My father got his shotgun and slept on the couch in the living room. By the next morning, things were calmer. Still, he didn't go to work that day and we did not go out to the market or anywhere else for several days.

(Robert Kennedy visits with California farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez during Chavez's 25-day hunger strike in early March, 1968)

I thought about my state of mind those few days in September 2001, after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Then, also, I and those closest to me simultaneously grieved and tried to understand how events had gone from A to B. Terrorism is insanity but it never occurs in a vacuum, and some of the circumstances which foster it can be prevented. I learned that in Brasil.

For a few days in 2001, it seemed as if we might, as a nation, consider the bigger picture, try to take leadership and an honorable route in the face of madness and destruction. Then Bush and his End-Timers began their drumbeat of revenge and cynical exploitation, and any chance at honest, effective grief was interrupted. That unsiphoned grief now sits like an abscess underneath our national skin. There are those who hope, who believe a new Presidency will give us a chance at curettage.

I would believe it much more possible if the reins were being assumed by someone experienced in more than political machinery. The Kennedys were raised to assume power but also to assume responsibility, to maintain emotional and spiritual connection to those less fortunate. They were taught to see it as fortune, not virtue. This ethic is seldom found in the owning class now. Certainly it is completely absent from the Bush dynasty.

John Edwards, I believe, has it, and probably also Joseph Biden. Since, given our current process, only those who are from the elite classes have a chance of being elected to high office (despite mythology to the contrary -- and there are many ways to be elite, don't kid yourself), I look among those ranks for the precious few whose conscience and idealism overrides arrogance and fear of losing their place on the ladder. Content of character, as Dr. King put it -- another radical, unafraid voice we lost in 1968. He had the guts to speak out against Vietnam and ALL war, ANY war, as immoral and a racial issue. He got it.

As did Bobby. From what I've read, he was more radical than Jack, more determined to use this nation's wealth to make life better for all of us, in the belief that working for the common good raised us all higher together. (How can it not? When has that honest approach ever failed?)

Our nominee is going to inherent an unspeakable mess, and that's if the elections are allowed to occur honestly, which is in some doubt. He's going to need worlds of help to face the temptations of power and secret exploitation handed him in his upgraded office. Sadly, he is no Bobby, nor even a Jack. I, and all of us, must help him as much as we can, with both support and keeping him on task, until we can find and elect leaders who change and grow with experience, who care more for right than appearance, who struggle daily against insularity and expedience, and who do not act on fear. Even when fear is justified.

Thank you for living a life that endures, Bobby. Thank you and Ethel for a passel of civic-minded children and grandchildren. I'm sorry I could not keep you safe. I am sorry for us all.

(During his brother's 1960 presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy enjoys a light moment)

8 comments:

letsdance said...

Powerful, powerful post, Maggie. May we stand in solidarity and integrity to right the wrongs of this nation and this world.
Jan

kat said...

There was a really interesting interview on NPR yesterday with Pete Hamill, who apparently has written extensively about Robert Kennedy. He didn't start out super radical, according to Hamill, but his brother's assassination really pushed him further left, and helped him decide that he needed to DO something. It was really interesting. Here's the link:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91150174

kat said...

add this to the link:

91150174

shadocat said...

You and I are thinking alike today Maggie---I usually don't do this, but for someone else's rememberances of those days (maggie and I are about the same age) see my post at http://mavieinkc.blogspot.com/

shadocat said...

Kat: I listened to that NPR link and now I'm crying.

April said...

Thankyou for this amazing post Maggie. That's all I have to say.

Maggie Jochild said...

Thanks for the GREAT link, Kat. And kudos for your post, Shado, and for giving a link to it here. How ironic (except not really) that we wrote about the same sort of memory at the same time.

kat said...

It was really interesting to me, since I really know very little about RFK and what his candidacy was all about. It was really rare for history classes to get all the way to the 60's (teachers would invariably manage time badly and the end of the year would come sometime before they even got to WW1 let alone the rest of the 20th Century).
So, I knew that Robert Kennedy had been shot while running for president, but not the significance of it, or even the significance of his running. That interview was really enlightening. When Hamill read that letter that he sent, I was really struck by the language. It was writing that we don't usually see much of in politics anymore.

Anyway, glad I could oblige. I don't even listen to music in the car anymore, cuz NPR is so interesting.

Alright, now I'm really going to bed. I swear!