The spring and summer of 1968 were an agony for the United States, especially for young Americans and black Americans.
In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, here in Los Angeles, in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen on Wilshire Boulevard. And in August, police in Chicago beat and gassed young people protesting the Vietnam War and the political system at the Democratic National Convention.
Wednesday -- tonight -- is the 45th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. He died the next morning.
Three months earlier, a Kansas college student named Nancy Perry began a journal, a gray cloth-bound volume, with accounts of some of those months, and, 17 years later, just one last entry, in Glendale.
I found it in a thrift store in Glendale about 10 years ago, and thanks to the Internet, I’ve deduced it was the work of Nancy Jo Perry, born in Kansas in June 1948, a woman who became a film and television editor and died here in L.A. in July 1997, not long after her 49th birthday.
She was 19 years old when she began this journal. The ardent passion of her fledgling politics in the upheaval of that epoch comes through from the first entry, on St. Patrick’s Day 1968, as a student at Kansas State University, watching newly minted presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy on “Meet the Press.”
Do 19-year-olds still care so intensely and write so intensely about politics? Are they anywhere near so hopeful, so eager, so attentive, so invested in the system and its ability to right its own wrongs?
Remember that in 1968, Nancy Perry wasn’t even old enough to vote. At 18, you could be drafted to be sent to Vietnam, as young people pointed out, but you couldn’t have a say in the choice of leaders who sent you there. Americans under 18 couldn’t cast a ballot until three years later, with the 26th Amendment in 1971.
March 17, 1968: “I’m not sure just now but I’m beginning to lean toward support of RFK. I’ll have to do some research about his views before I commit myself entirely -- I’ll sure have some fights with Grandpa if I do.”
March 18, 1968: [Kennedy spoke at the university] “… a weird day. I was very impressed by RFK … he’s very dynamic -- a wonderful person to listen to.... It seems to me that RFK offers the dynamic, ‘let’s-get-something-done’ type of presidential candidate I’ve been looking for…. I think he offers an approach to the problems of the U.S., of the world -- of humanity -- that I can identify with. THIS is better than dropping out completely -- which I had seriously considered earlier.”
May 10, 1968: “Rocky [Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller] spoke here Tuesday -- but nothing -- nada! Seems Kennedy has the only chance … looking at the political situation, seems that the tremendous amounts of young & college people involved in politics this year is their way of trying to express their dissatisfaction with ‘The American Scene’ -- they want to do something constructive -- like me. Two weeks ago I went to Omaha to campaign for Kennedy … not too shocked at conditions -- just the people’s attitudes [about RFK] -- ‘He’s just too generous with those damn niggers!’ … The rally was plenty exciting too -- got a Kennedy banner out of the whole thing.”
June 4, 1968 [on a trip to help the underprivileged in Latin America] “My first thought as I write the date -- how did the California primary come out? It’s really weird being cut off from the world completely!”
June 6, 1968: “A part of me died this morning at 1:44 PST. Kennedy talked about the frustration of youth -- well, I’ve got it. What is there now in the States? Or, as the Mexican papers say, Que pasa en los Estados Unidos? … It’s hard to believe that it’s actually true -- guess I don’t want to acknowledge the truth.”
June 7, 1968: “I’m still very sad & will be for a long, long time. Seems as though all reasons for trying are gone now -- I don’t know what I’ll do in political life now. Wait & work for Kennedy -- Ted -- later? One newspaper said Bob knew an attempt would be made on his life -- Oh God -- WHY??”
June 8, 1968: “Reading more today about Bob -- the loss of the emotional grief that I’d feel in the States really makes it impossible to believe that it’s real -- I just can’t fully accept the things I read in the newspapers. Sunday is a day of mourning -- perhaps I can find a black armband or something in Panama.”
June 10, 1968: “ … went to Union Church of Lima [in Peru].… Wore my campaign lapel button for the last time.”
June 18, 1968: “Observations from my 20th birthday.… I guess I finally realized that Kennedy was dead last night. Reading the whole story in Time magazine. A very moving report.”
June 25, 1968: “I wish I could just go off & have a good cry.”
By July she was paging through a copy of Brides magazine and musing about a wedding dress of heavy lace, a wreath of daisies and a bouquet to match, and bridesmaids in yellow or white -- and copying out, sentence after sentence, the introduction to William Saroyan’s play “The Time of Your Life,” which begins, “In the time of your life, live -- so that in good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches.”
Then, by the autumn of an unspecified year, she’s at Columbia studying television and film and editing, the profession she will make her own as she made her home in L.A.
And the last entry, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 1985, as she is sitting “crosslegged on the floor … in front of my coffee table -- Glendale, California, suburb of Los Angeles. I just finished watching the 3rd part of the TV miniseries on Robert Francis Kennedy … and just finished re-reading -- again -- the early entries in this book.
“It was hard for me to ‘see’ Bobby in the actor that played him (Brad Davis) although I’m sure he did a commendable job. There was just something missing … maybe 20 years? I was extremely passionate about wanting to see all of the programs -- all seven hours -- because I hope that what happened …I could go through some of the grief & pain that I missed by not being in the States when he died. I think -- to a certain extent -- that I did that -- seventeen years later, it still hurts.
“It still hurts because so many of the passions of that period have been swept away in the concerns of making a living -- getting on with ‘me’ … the part of me that CARED so much went down so far in that summer of 1968. It started to resurface about a year ago with the Presidential campaigns -- the Democratic primaries when I began to notice Gary Hart. There has GOT to be a way that I can channel this burning, tormenting, frustrating feeling of -- ? -- impotence? -- of wanting to be involved in ‘the larger issues’ -- of expressing the CARING I feel!”
She writes critically about the editing techniques in the miniseries, “the POV from the train [carrying Kennedy’s body], people standing by the tracks -- two boys in baseball uniforms standing on top of a transformer box, hands over their hearts … music over: ‘Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing …' Seventeen years later, it still hurts -- it still burns -- it still cries out with an inner, silent scream -- when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?’’
That girl, that wounded girl who became that epoch-haunted woman, asks what we have never been able to answer, and maybe are even further away from answering today, 45 years after she first struggled to put it all down in the drab gray Vernon Royal Line notebook that was made, like herself, in America.