My memories are also vivid on the day his brother John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed. The same is true for the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot.
There are certain events which burn themselves into your mind.
I remember this picture. The horror of his limp body, his right hand closed in a fist, as if he were holding on for dear life. The stunned look on that bus boy's face that mirrored my own and those around me. He was holding RFK's left hand for all the rest of us.
I remember waking up to the news. It was June 5, 1968. Kennedy had been shot just after midnight, right after learning that he had won the California primary election in his bid for President of the United States.
He had been walking through the pantry on his way back to his hotel room at the LA Ambassador Hotel. Two young men - both immigrants - would cross his path. Kennedy's life would be ended but two lives would be forever changed and transformed by what was about to transpire.
The first was Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant. Reportedly, he was angry about the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Kennedy's support for Israel and decided to assassinate the man who might be President.
Sirhan lived in Pasadena, and a search of his apartment led to the discovery of several documents, written the month before, which said "RFK must be assassinated". He later claimed he was drunk and didn't remember anything.
His lawyers entered a not-guilty plea by reason of "diminished mental capacity". He was found guilty of first degree murder, sentenced to death, and was sent to San Quentin State Prison. The sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1972 after the California Supreme Court invalidated all pending death sentences imposed in the state prior to that year.
He was then transferred to California State Prison in Corcoran, near Fresno. After 9/11, following allegations that Sirhan Sirhan was somehow forewarned about the attack - despite the fact that he and his brother were devout Eastern Orthodox Christians - he was transferred to a harsher lock down facility and kept in solitary confinement for over a year.
In March 2006, Sirhan was denied parole for the 13th time.Sirhan is "very hostile. He hates Americans. ... He continues to pose a risk to public safety," said state Board of Parole Hearings spokesman Tip Kindel at the time. According to The Associated Press, Sirhan did not attend the hearing at Corcoran State Prison or appoint a lawyer to represent him. He comes up again for parole in 2011.
Juan Romero was the skinny 17 year old busboy who knelt at RFK's side after he was shot. That's him in the photo above. He and his family had moved to California from Mexico when he was 10 years old.
The story goes that when Kennedy called for room service a few nights before the California primary, Romero paid off another busboy for the privilege of delivering his food. Even though he was just 17, Romero knew that RFK was a man of empathy who had walked with Cesar Chavez, and he felt more accepted as an immigrant — more American — just knowing that Kennedy might become president.
When Kennedy shook Romero's hand, in the presidential suite, Juan was transformed. In that firm grip, he felt appreciated, he felt whole, he felt like a man. Two nights later, when Kennedy won the primary, Juan raced to the Ambassador pantry and shook RFK's hand again as the candidate went to deliver his victory speech.
After the speech, Romero pressed through the crowd again, his pride swelling. Once more, he shook Kennedy's hand. And then came the gunshot. Four and a half years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby lay dying from an assassin's bullet.
He was shot while holding Romero's hand.
On November 21, what would have been RFK's 85th birthday, Romero, now age 60, made a pilgrimage to Arlington Cemetery to visit the graveside of the man who was shot while he held his hand.
He has been severely traumatized by the event and his friends encouraged him to make the visit for his own healing. Romero reportedly holds himself at least partly responsible for Kennedy's death, and in his private moment at Kennedy's graveside, he wanted to ask forgiveness. If he hadn't been so intent on shaking Kennedy's hand, he might have seen and stopped the assassin. He would have taken the bullet himself, if Kennedy could have been spared.
His friends have tried to convince him that he had done nothing wrong. He didn't run, he didn't take cover. He tried to help, thinking perhaps that Kennedy had merely been pushed out of harm's way and hit his head on the concrete. When the young busboy realized the situation was grave, he took his own rosary beads out of his shirt pocket, twisted them around Kennedy's hand and prayed for him.
I hope he found a bit of solace and peace during his visit. I hope a bit of the burden he feels was lifted. I hope he was comforted by his faith and in the achievement of his goal to "make sure Mr. Kennedy knows he is remembered."
Two immigrants to this country. Two of the men from two very different immigrant status whom RFK dedicated his life to helping. Two men with two very different reactions to the work of RFK. Two men living two very different lives after that tragic event over 40 years ago.
As I've been baking and getting ready for the holiday on Thursday, I've found myself giving thanks for the life of John and Martin and Bobby. So much of what they taught and believed has shaped so much of my life. So much of what my future still holds before me.
I've also found myself praying for Romero and Sirhan and all he immigrants who come to this country - on their own or with their families - in search of hope. Of freedom. Of opportunity.
Some find it. Others don't. Some find peace. Others remain angry.
None of that changes what we must do - what all Americans must do - what all Christians are bound to do - in welcoming the stranger.
That does not mean that we don't hold people accountable to the law. It also doesn't mean that we make immigration to this country next to impossible, for in doing so, we kill the very dream that is at the core of this nation, and stifle the flames of hope that brought many of the rest of our ancestors here.
There are two quotes on RFK's graveside that continue to inspire. They are from two different speeches he gave while he was Senator from New Yor.
"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance." South Africa, 1966Oh, that we might have some of that same "diverse acts of courage and belief" that might set forth tiny ripples of hope that cross each other and lead us to ask 'Why not?', that we might sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.
"Some men see things as they are and ask 'Why?'
I dream things that never were and ask, 'Why not?'"