Last spring I silently marked the 50th anniversary of my father’s death, on April 1, 1967. It seemed fitting that shortly after that anniversary David Hoefer and I committed to publishing The Last Resort by the end of that summer.
This spring the entire nation has marked the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
As an eight-year-old in the spring of 1968, my world seemed to be wracked by death. My father the year before. His mother two months later. Then two towering icons whose deaths recalled the raw wound left behind after the murder of John F. Kennedy five years before.
Of course, the whole nation had other reasons to grieve that year, as more and more servicemen had their lives cut short in Vietnam. Drug overdoses made the news. Death and despair seemed to have a determined grip on our nation.
In many ways I realize it’s unfair to conflate my personal losses and the nation’s loss of these public figures. But from the limited perspective of a child, the incessant drumbeat seemed overwhelming. I couldn’t understand why all of these important people were being taken from us—from me—one right after the other. One in April 1967. One in April 1968. One in June 1967. One in June 1968. Even at that young age I had a sense of the symmetry—or perhaps the regularity—of these deaths. I had no reason to think the next year, or the next, would be any different.
These men were all linked, at least in my young mind. All were in the prime of their lives—from 39 to 46 years old—having steadily built their influence. All had families with young children. All died unexpectedly, the family members and admirers having no preparation for the sudden emptiness, the sudden annihilation of a shared future. All represented huge promise—for a nation in turmoil in the case of the assassinated public figures, or for a tiny sphere of students and colleagues in an emerging field of science, in the case of my father.
In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so outlandish that a young child who had been immersed in grief would take these continuing deaths personally. This was the world as I knew it. Sadness. Loneliness. Endless inexplicable tragedies.
I knew the commemorations surrounding the anniversaries of the 1968 deaths of two of our most inspiring public figures would affect me. I expected it would be best if I buried my head and blithely went about my business this spring without recognizing them. But the condition of our nation and our politics at this moment made it impossible for me to keep my head bowed. I feel it is my responsibility to raise my head up, to stay vigilant, to maintain a clear-eyed gaze.
I’m certain it’s good for our nation as a whole to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. I would hope that by remembering the unfulfilled promise of their lives and the hopefulness of their messages we would be inspired to alter how we think, how we act, and how we treat each other, even on the smallest scale.
But I’m afraid I may be one of the few who is paying attention.