THE LAST RIDE
What I Saw on RFK’s Funeral Train 50 Years Ago Today
It was a somber moment. It was a horrifying year. And, in many ways, the country has yet to recover.
It was Friday, June 8, 1968, and a blistering late spring heat smothered the streets surrounding St. Patrick’s Cathedral that morning a half century ago. Huge crowds of mourners stood on the sidewalks, silent, sweating, many of them crying or praying as the Requiem Mass for Robert Kennedy was ending. A long caravan of buses lined 51st Street to take nearly 700 of those attending the Mass to Penn Station. There, a 21 car funeral train waited to carry them along with the family and the casket of the second Kennedy brother to be assassinated in less than five years to a plot at Arlington National Cemetery, 20 feet from his older brother’s grave.
A long-time Kennedy advance man, Jim King from Massachusetts, pushed me on to one of the buses where I sat next to Ken O’Donnell, another Massachusetts native who was a top White House assistant to John F. Kennedy. I was a young guy, a nobody from nowhere. I got an invitation to Mass and the train only because I had done volunteer work in a couple different states during Robert Kennedy’s 85-day presidential campaign in the traumatic spring of 1968.
That year was a calendar that bled. The wounds came on a daily basis. Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis, cities burned and by Tuesday June 5th when Bob Kennedy was shot in a kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles more than 6000 American soldiers and Marines had already died in Vietnam in a war that was carving a wound in the American soul that has not yet fully healed all these years later.
People moved slowly and silently aboard the train as I took my seat, probably twelve to 15 cars behind engine, next to the window. Many of them were still stunned by the week’s events and emotionally drained by the Catholic service filled with splendor and sadness, by Ted Kennedy’s eulogy and Andy William’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as the casket was carried from the cathedral to the hearse on Fifth Avenue.
Then the train started through the long tunnel beneath the Hudson River and soon darkness gave way to a brilliant light as it emerged into a blazing sun that covered the teeming neighborhoods of Newark, New Jersey. Suddenly, as it crossed a trestle above a river there was a fireboat with several firefighters standing on deck, still as sentries, saluting the train and the cargo it carried.
That was just the start of an epic 225 mile rail journey that remains fresh in my mind some 50 years later.
Those who stood on station platforms in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and outside Union Station in Washington, D.C., wore the faces and uniforms of America, 1968. Many appeared to have heavy hearts and carried heavy burdens. They wore tee shirts, work shirts, short sleeved white shirts and ties, summer dresses, nurses uniforms, school teachers in skirts, Army uniforms, Marine Corps uniforms.
They were white and black and brown. They saluted, prayed, stood still and silent, wept, saluted, held a hand over their heart or just followed the slowly moving cars of the train with eyes that seemed just a bit apprehensive or even a bit frightened by what had happened and what might be happening to the land around them.
As I recall, it was somewhere between Philadelphia and Wilmington when Ethel Kennedy, a widow now, came through each car. Her oldest son Joe was with her. And they stopped to say something and shake the hand of all on board, to thank them for attending the funeral, for supporting her husband, his father. Young Joe’s handshake was firm and his eyes had the look his dad had, that of someone who experienced and was now familiar with loss.
Thinking about it now, thinking of Robert Kennedy, his campaign, those who voted for him and those who did not, those who stood all along the mournful route—and those who did not—I cannot help but think of the similarities between people he touched, people who listened to him, heard him and felt a ripple of hope during a spring when our country was divided, angry and resentful of government and the despair and deepening division today.
They had all hoped to find a piece of the American Dream and now the train with the dead senator’s casket clearly visible in the last slow rolling car seemed like one more fragment of the shattered hopes of that dream; a dream slowly being dismantled, crushed even, by the horrible reality of another assassination and a daily death toll arriving from halfway around the world. On the very day Robert Kennedy was pronounced dead in Los Angeles, June 6, 1968, 106 American soldiers and Marines were killed in Vietnam.
1968 was a gruesomely violent year. By June, 6,222 Americans had died in Vietnam, a war nobody knew how to stop and nobody knew how to win. By the end of that year, the combat death toll was 18,866. Families of the dead, shattered forever. Culture of the country, completely altered. Politics, ineffective then and now.
It was time in America’s life that seems now like distant skywriting, erased by the wind of decades past. And it was also another war fought largely by the young many from families living paycheck to paycheck, where college was a dream and a good job meant having the luck of holding a union ticket, getting on the fire or police department, landing on an assembly line or at a steel plant.
The draft was an unrelenting admissions board. And it reached out across the land. It touched young men everywhere Robert Kennedy traveled. In Los Angeles, where he died on June 6th, it took L/Cpl Felix Flores, a 21-year-old resident of that city who died with the 4th Marines at Con Thien on the same day, June 6, 1968.
In New York where his funeral Mass was celebrated, the family of Jose Sanchez, a 19-year-old rifleman also with the 4th Marines was being told their son was killed on June 6. In Newark as the train slowly rolled past a city still reeling from riots, friends of Pfc. Lonnie Shepard Jr., 26th Marines, found out that he too had been killed on June 6 in Vietnam.
Philadelphia, where the crowd was ten deep on the platform, was home to Pfc. Walter Seawright, 26th Marines and 18 forever on June 6 in Con Thien. Wilmington, Delaware: Jacob Woldin, Sgt., First Air Cavalry, 21 years old, KIA June 6, 1968. Next stop Baltimore: Sgt. John Kenneth Brazier, 4th Marines, 23 years old, dead on June 6, 1968. And the train kept rolling.
This was America then. And this is America now.
Those who seem to suffer the most, often sacrifice the most. Those who seem to serve and protect the country in great numbers, often find that they are among the first to be put at risk when the economy collapses, a factory closes, an industry moves across the country or overseas.
America in 1968? America in 2018? Same as it ever was.
Robert Kennedy was far from perfect. But as that train pulled itself toward Washington and Arlington National Cemetery, as the sun slowly faded and darkness arrived at Union Station, it had passed by thousands of Americans who stood out of respect for a man who offered something scarce, even rare, in the politics of that day and this day too: Hope.
The only anger, the only edge in Robert Kennedy’s voice in that long-gone spring campaign was when he spoke about an inequity that afflicted Americans of every color, every religious belief and every political persuasion. He did that daily. And it was genuine and authentic.
The buses took us through the night from Union Station, past the Senate Office buildings, the Justice Department, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Across Memorial Bridge to Arlington and the slope where his brother was buried.
Springsteen’s song, ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’, has always reminded me of that endless day and that sad, slow train with its crushed hopes and dreams deferred as it made its way to another tragic burial. I can still see the people along the route, fathers holding up small children to witness the event, kids in Little League uniforms, nuns in habits, ethnic faces, tears and flags, salutes and songs.
It was a long time ago. Fifty years. Half a century.
God Bless Robert Kennedy for what he gave us, all too briefly.
And God Bless America, for all that we still need, hope and pray for.