April 4, 2008
Drop, drop — in our sleep, upon the heart
Sorrow falls, memory’s pain . . .
— Aeschylus, 525 BCE-456 BCE
Greek poet and playwright
translated by Edith Hamilton
quoted by Robert Kennedy on April 4, 1968
Today is the fortieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over this past week the NBC Nightly News ran brief pieces featuring historical footage from those days, as well as interviews with people who were there or nearby then and in the days that followed. As I watched the clips I saw familiar scenes — Dr. King’s companions on the balcony pointing in the direction of the gunshot, the mule-drawn wagon that carried the coffin, Mrs. King in a mourning veil holding her five-year-old daughter who has fallen asleep during the funeral. As iconic moments, these should be flashbulb memories for me. But while I can tell you where I was when I learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot (11th grade chemistry class), when the Challenger exploded (getting four-month-old Lynn ready for a trip to the doctor for her DTP and polio shots), and when the World Trade Center was hit (preparing breakfast after a productive two-hour writing session), I cannot remember where I was when I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.
Oh, I know in general terms. I was a junior at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania (now Millersville University, the school Lynn is about to graduate from), living in Room 126 of Landes Hall (now Stayer Hall, remodeled and repurposed as a classroom and office facility for the education department). I can even tell you where I was earlier in the day. I’d attended a meeting led by a real estate developer and the dean of women for prospective residents of the new University Apts, a privately-owned off-campus housing facility that would receive its first tenants in the fall. As it was evening by the time the news spread, I was probably somewhere in Landes Hall, probably on the second floor in the room of a shy and lonely girl named Diane whom I had befriended only in part because she read every single word of the dense Eurpoean novels Dr. Huzzard assigned (one 500-pager a week for eighteen weeks) and had an almost eidetic memory for the content and the context.
I wish I knew these facts from looking up what I might have written about the events in my diary, but I don’t. I didn’t get the daily writing habit until 1992, and I have no writing of a personal nature from before 1980. The information about what I did on the afternoon of April 4, 1968 comes from an article in The Snapper, Millersville’s student-produced newspaper. About this time last year I spent several pleasant afternoons in Special Collections in the building I still call “the new library” (it opened in 1967) reading the archived issues that covered my sojourn at Millersville. I participated in several newsworthy activities, but my name isn’t mentioned, nor am I even a face in the crowd, although I am certain that it’s my hair and my coat sleeve pictured on page 4 of the January 10, 1968 issue, at a rally protesting the forced resignation of the college’s president. And I don’t actually remember the meeting with the developer. I am only assuming I was there because securing a spot at University Apts was very important to me, and I recall receiving brochures and other material that I could show to my parents in the hope that they would agree to the idea.
I wish I had more evidence of who I was and what I was thinking in those days. I do remember watching Dr. King’s funeral on television. I was not at school that day, but at my parents’ house, waiting to perform as a member of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in a concert at which my parents would be honored for their twenty-five years of membership in the organization in which they had met. Two months later Robert F. Kennedy would fall to an assassin’s bullet. I saw bits and pieces of his funeral on television monitors at a hotel where I was attending a wedding reception. The young man I was dating was a member of the wedding party, and later in the evening one of his friends told tasteless jokes that used both Dr. King’s race and Senator Kennedy’s large family and their deaths to arrive at extremely rude punch lines.
My boyfriend later told me I had embarrassed him by not laughing. I decided that he shouldn’t risk any further humiliation, and I broke up with him (he has told the story differently). I spent the rest of the summer working in a nursing home I could walk to from my parents’ house and counting the days until I could get back to school and University Apts and the best of year of my life before the present era. Those things I remember without having written them down.
I had the Rolling Stones on in the car as I went about my business today. War, children, it’s just a shot away. Finding himself having to inform a crowd about Dr. King’s death before giving a campaign speech, Robert Kennedy alluded to his brother’s violent end and pleaded for, in the words of the poet Aeschylus, a dedication to taming the savageness of man and making gentle the life of this world. Love, sisters, it’s just a kiss away. I pray for us all to remember that, even in our sleep.
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