Thursday, June 5, 2008

Memory and Forgetting

Forty years ago today was one of those days that I remember all too well. In the early morning of Wednesday, 5 June 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot by an assassin shortly after finishing the victory speech he gave upon winning the California Democratic Presidential primary. He survived the day, but would die the next, on June 6. I say I remember the day (bits and pieces), although I don't remember the moment itself. The funny thing is, I remember watching the news report about his primary victory and privately celebrating it, but in those days television stations signed off at midnight, and hence I'd gone to bed a couple hours before the shooting happened (Central Time). At the time, my parents owned a business, a bowling alley, and normally they weren't able to close much before 1 or 2 a.m.--very late. I remember my father waking me up when he and my mother arrived home after closing the place, and told me the terrible news (apparently hearing about it on the radio). Although it was highly unlikely that my father would have voted for Robert Kennedy--he was a "staunch" Republican--I think he and my mother (who probably would have voted for RFK) were both very upset by the event. The memory of John F. Kennedy's assassination was not all that far distant in the past, and two months earlier, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated; although King's and Kennedy's assassinations were two months apart, my memory has collapsed the time between them into contiguous events, one right after the other.

I was just a teenager at the time, but I remember the summer of 1968 being a terrible one--the Democratic Convention in Chicago, likewise a disaster, was just two months away. For reasons I no longer remember, Robert Kennedy was a very powerful figure for me (the figure of the martyred JFK perhaps a reason, but certainly not the only one), and hence I cannot explain the reason for it, but I do remember how badly I took the news of RFK's death. I remember the day after he died, I was sitting by myself at the front counter of the bowling alley--it was open for business, but there wasn't a soul in the place except for me--and sobbing over the news of his death. Again, I can't tell you precisely why. I no longer remember. Youth, naïvete, the historical moment, the power of the media.

The location of his assassination, the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, is now gone, and with it, of course, the pantry off the Embassy Room, where the actual shooting took place. The Ambassador Hotel opened in 1921, designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt, who also designed the Rose Bowl Stadium, among other famous buildings in L.A. Located at 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, it was about four miles south and east of Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Six Academy Award ceremonies were held there--including the ceremony the year Gone with the Wind swept the Awards. The Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove became famous for live entertainment on the West Coast for decades. Amid controversy, the Ambassador Hotel was pulled down in 2006.

One can't imagine the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas being pulled down, but then Robert F. Kennedy, despite his popularity at the time, hasn't captured the public memory like John F. Kennedy. The location of one assassination is memorialized--become part of the official cultural memory, while the location of the other has been erased. These disparities reveal the writing of history itself, which is always both an act of remembering, and forgetting.

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