Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Boy's Story: That Day in June 1968

Fiction Sunday

This excerpt is part of a novel, Jack Miller's Story, which I started writing more than fifteen years ago. It has undergone many changes since then, but now is in a form that I find suitable for publication. It contains biographical elements, no doubt, but it is not biographical by any means. Memory, unlike mathematical operations, does not always produce the same result.

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In Part 6, Jack's father bought him a transistor radio. Music became an important part of his life. On the radio of June 5, 1968, Jack heard some news that would change the way he viewed the world.

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June 5, 1968

It was a Wednesday, two days after the celebration of Shavout, the giving of the Torah to the Jews on Mount Sinai, where the laws deciding every facet of life, religious, civil and ceremonial, were handed down to the Jewish People for eternity. Jack was getting ready for school. Ten years old and in Grade 5. As usual, as he did every morning, he put on his red transistor radio. The music stopped, and the 7 a.m. news came on the air. "Senator Robert Kennedy, the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate, was shot three times earlier today at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. At 12.15am, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was making his way from the ballroom .... " Jack ran for his parents and his two brothers, screaming "Robert Kennedy has been shot. Kennedy has been shot."

Jack, his two brothers, Benny and Yosef, his mother and father all gathered around the radio in the kitchen listening to the details. "Robert Kennedy is at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles where he has undergone emergency surgery to remove bullet fragments from his brain. Apprehended at the scene was Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian Arab of Jordanian descent."

His mother shut off the radio, and prepared breakfast of cold cereal and toast with butter. He and his brothers ate breakfast in silence, his mother at the table. His father got dressed in the other room, ready to go to work at the factory. The food would not go down easily. But he had to eat; life had to continue on, move forward. "Can Robert Kennedy survive being shot in the brain? he asked his mother.

"I am sure that the doctors are doing all they can for him," Mama said.

"Why would someone try to shoot him?

"Jackaleh, that's a good question," Mama said, wiping her hands on her apron "I don't know for sure. I'm no scholar or professor. But there are always meshuganehs out there who want to destroy what someone is building. To take away the good that people do. Such people, what can I say, are trouble-makers and troubled people. This young man who shot Kennedy must be one of them. Now, get ready for school. You don't want to be late."

Jack got up and gave his mama a kiss, gathered his books into his schoolbag, and ran out the door. What's happening to world? he thought. "Two months ago, in April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. And now Robert Kennedy is shot. Why do all the good guys get shot? he asked his friend James, who shook his head and said he didn't know. "Perhaps because they are good."

When Jack got home from school, he quickly ate a snack and told his mom he was going upstairs to visit the tenants upstairs to help them strip some old furniture. "Be home for supper," his mom said as he ran out the door and up the stairs to the house next door where a group of twenty-year-old long-haired hippies lived.  Jack liked being with them, and liked working on their projects. He asked one of them why he thought evil happens. Vance looked at him thoughtfully, took a drag on a cigarette, and said. "Kennedy being shot is a bad scene, man. Not cool at all. It might just be that you need evil to happen, man, so that you could better understand the good around us."

Jack didn't understand, but he worked hard on stripping the furniture, removing the old paint layer by layer with a scraper and stripping liquid. It was hard work, yet Jack enjoyed it, seeing that his efforts were being slowly rewarded. He worked at it for a couple of hours, mostly in silence, Vance working near him, stopping every so often for a smoke. He flipped on the radio to catch Simon & Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson:
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home
And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know
God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray
The next day, Robert Kennedy died, succumbing to his wounds. "Kennedy was a good man," his mother said. "A friend of freedom; a friend to the Jews."

During the Shavuot service at the shul, the rabbi had said that tradition held that all the Jews—more than two million people — stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear Moses recite the Ten Commandments, That shalt honour your parents, Thou shalt not murder, Thou shalt not bear false witness.... In shul, Jack and his family had heard the reading of the Ten Commandments, it an affirmation of the importance of the event and of the everlasting covenant that God established with the Jewish People.

A year earlier, his parents were nervous about a war going on in the Middle East. Israel, a country that he didn't know much about, but knew it was important for the Jews, a Jewish homeland, notably after the Holocaust. The Shoah. Memories of it pervaded the present, the scars still in full view. The war was between Israel and its neighboring Arab states. A massive effort with tanks, fighter jets and soldiers on both sides fighting pitched battles for land. It seemed both exciting and frightening to many who spoke about it when visiting his house, gathered in front of the TV.   

Never again will Jews die as lambs in the slaughter. We will defend ourselves. It is our moral right. A moral imperative. Never again.

By June 11, 1967, fears turned to victorious sighs of relief around the world. The Jews have survived another attack, saved from possible annihilation. Still, there were thousands of deaths, and many more wounded and families torn apart. Both sides suffer. "Could anyone really be happy about that?" Jack thought."Is that man's lot."

When visiting his father's friends a few days later, a committed Zionist, he heard him say: "A victory for Israel is a victory for Jews worldwide." They were sitting in his well-appointed living-room, drinking tea with lemon and munching on some tea biscuits. In the background, Chopin's A major Polonaise, Héroique, was playing on the stereo, an older recording of Artur Rubinstein. His parents listened quietly, and said little. They spoke little about Israel or the war afterward.

A few weeks later Jack had his red transistor radio. Jack would find his own means of victory and escape, through music. It might have been the music that defined his generation. But like all great music, of all generations, it spoke the universal language of freedom, dignity and humanity. For all people. It was a dream.

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To be continued.
Copyright ©2011. Perry J. Greenbaum. All Rights Reserved.

Publisher's Note: This is a work of fiction. While the author might have been inspired by some true-life events, names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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