Robert was my friend, though I never realized what a gift that was. We were in many of the same classes and took the same bus to school and circumstances tossed us together often enough that we developed a comfortable way of being close that didn’t imply anything more. He was, to use a phrase that somehow diminishes its value, a ‘nice guy’ – gracious and kind even in his teens. Once, for example, when Louise’s boyfriend decided to have a birthday party for her, Robert joined forces with him on my behalf after learning that my birthday was just a day before Louise’s, thus turning it into a party for me too. Why? Because he didn’t want me to feel left out, and he thought it would be fun, and anyway, weren’t we all good friends?
Long Island in those days was still a sleepy place with woods around the edges, and we ourselves were not yet fully born. We imagined that wider horizons would open up to us someday and great possibilities awaited, but Robert didn’t intend to be passive about it. He wanted to go places and do things. He was interested, enthusiastic, and full of ideas.
In 1964, the World’s Fair arrived in Flushing, Queens, and at Robert’s suggestion we uncharacteristically abandoned school in order to take the train into the city and check it out. It was a phantasmagoria: we watched atoms collide at the General Electric exhibit, journeyed into space in the Hall of Science, flew to the moon in an easy chair courtesy of General Motors, saw ourselves on color television at RCA, and then zipped above it all in a futuristic monorail. At the Coca Cola exhibit we walked together through a humid Cambodian rain forest, a noisy street in Hong Kong, an Alpine ski lodge that smelled of snow and peppermint. We watched a puppet show in Paris, glimpsed the Tivoli Gardens in miniature, stepped on an escalator that moved us slowly past Michelangelo’s Pieta, its white marble lit eerily against a blue backdrop. There was an automated Abe Lincoln, a Sinclair dinosaur, and a friendly carburetor named Carby, a name Robert took to calling me.
Perhaps tellingly, one of my favorite exhibits at the fair was the Parker Pen Pavilion, where we filled out questionnaires that would lead us to a perfect pen pal. (I lied in the hopes of being matched with a cute English guy — the ‘British Invasion’ was in full swing after all — but instead I got a wonderful girl from the Netherlands named Tiny Bisschops; we wrote to each other for many years before somehow losing contact, and I wish I could find her again.) The theme of the fair was ‘Peace Through Understanding’ and despite the vaguely worrisome display of global population growth at Equitable Life Assurance, it presented a breathtakingly optimistic view of the world, American industry at the helm. This was fine with Robert and me, for we were setting sail into that world and it was nice to anticipate blue skies and the wind at our backs, a few challenges, of course, but nothing that technology, innovation, and spirit couldn’t handle. ‘America is never accomplished,’ declared the inscription at the Federal Pavilion. We would be busy and purposeful.
One day another Robert came to town: Bobby Kennedy was running for the Senate and bringing his campaign to Long Island. He had a scheduled stop in Central Islip, and it was Robert who knew this was an occasion not to be missed, for he had a sense of history that I lacked, a sense of event. And so we walked downtown and stood among the crowds that lined the main street, and there, atop a vehicle or platform of some kind, was RFK himself, his hair a thick shock of sandy brown, his features youthful and handsome, smiling and waving and reaching down to accept the hands offered up to him, including my own. I shook hands with Bobby Kennedy. And I would follow his career and hear his words even as the shadows on our land became harder to ignore and conflicts escalated and dreams grew more complex.
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself,” he said, “but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
We were the class of ’68, Robert and I, and we all know how things went for America that year: Another wrong-headed war raged on, and in April Dr. King was murdered, and in June, two weeks before our high school graduation, Kennedy was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel while seeking the Democratic nomination for President. I was seventeen and barely on the brink of understanding. Lost in my personal confusions, I drifted into a private world that felt challenging enough at the time.
After graduation, I never saw Robert again.
He called me once, twenty years later. He had somehow discovered that we were both on the West Coast, not quite neighbors, but relatively close: I was living in Laguna Beach and he in Los Angeles. He worked as a costume designer and wardrobe supervisor for a popular television show, and he was proud of that.
“Watch for my name on the credits,” he said, and I did, many times, and it was true.
He did not seem to be looking back on our Long Island years with affection or nostalgia. “There were some small minds in our town,” he said. “They’re still there, probably.”
Robert was a man who had gotten out, and was successful, and felt vindicated somehow. He wanted me to know that. As for me, I was just excited that he had called, and I felt a great surge of warmth and encouraged him to visit me, but even as we said good-bye I sensed this was unlikely.
More recently, in my persistent naiveté, I wondered yet again if there was a chance that Robert and I might reconnect somehow. Stories never end for me, and I don’t like to lose track of people. I typed his name into Google, and a single article appeared. It had been published in Variety in 1992 — an obituary. Robert was 42 years old when he died.
But Robert was my friend, and nothing can change that fact. We stood side-by-side at a remarkable moment in history, and we watched it all with hope and wonder. We each endured our private pain and we each enjoyed our separate achievements, and perhaps we even changed our own small portion of events.
I have no doubt Robert dreamed of things that never were, and he surely asked why not.
(I know that I still do.)
RFK photo by Ted Russell, Polaris Images