The tiny radio alarm clock came alive in my dark bedroom at 5 a.m., signaling it was time to get up and go to my internship site for another routine day at the close of the school year.
But the little box that aroused me that day in June 1968 sounded quite different from the usual wake-up-music. Instead of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Beach Boys, a cacophony of both excited and mournful voices replaced the playlist of familiar songs I was expecting. Instead of the typical morning fare, the radio was replete with non-stop reports on yet another American assassination.
Those unexpected radio voices were quite important to me that morning fifty years ago because, as a cash-strapped first-year graduate student living in a tiny apartment adjoining the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, I was too poor to own a television set. In addition, subscribing to a newspaper also wasn’t in the budget.
Instead, that little radio was my only vehicle to receive news and information about that big world out there beyond campus. It took a few seconds for me to become fully awake and realize that my hero, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, had died less than two hours before, the victim of an assassin waiting for him in the kitchen pantry of a Los Angeles hotel.
Long before reality shows were conceived, it was time that morning to face the stark reality of more turmoil in that incredible year, 1968. This year featured the start of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in January, the withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson from the presidential race in late March, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, civil unrest in France in May which eventually brought down the government of Charles DeGaulle, and now this.
And it was only June. There was much, much more to come during that year of perpetual breaking news, but the second-half of 1968 is another story for another time.
After a shower, a bowl of cereal, and a cup of instant coffee (no, I didn’t own a coffeemaker), I met my ride (no car, either) and was out the door. Later that horrible day, as my head cleared from the shock of yet another Kennedy assassination, the nation learned about funeral plans. When I heard the first details about Robert Kennedy’s burial, I knew what I had to do.
It was time to go home.
As Kennedy’s coffin was placed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for public viewing, I boarded a train in Huntington for Union Station in Washington, to be followed by another to my hometown of Philadelphia. Perhaps I could somehow get to the cathedral and pay respects to my generation’s hero.
The three broadcast networks had revealed that RFK’s coffin would be available for viewing through early Saturday, June 8. After a funeral mass, an entourage would accompany his body on a 225-mile journey from Penn Station in New York to Union Station in Washington.
A quick glance at a television monitor in Washington provided another wake-up call. The sea of humanity in Manhattan that had lined up in an endless queue told me that it was pointless to go on to New York from Philadelphia. There was no way that I could get into St. Patrick’s before viewing hours ended. Instead, I would have to pay my respects somewhere on the old Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way that wound through the Philadelphia suburbs.
That proved to be an easy decision. Since my brother Michael and his family lived in Ridley Park, just yards from the little town’s commuter train station, I would position myself near there to view the funeral train as it headed south toward Wilmington, Delaware on its way to its final destination, Union Station, where I had just been less than twelve hours before.
As the train left Penn Station, the crowds gathered near the rails to honor the fallen senator. According to some news reports, nearly one million people stood in the hot June sun on that Saturday waiting for the special train to race through the Northeast Corridor.
When news reports indicated that the cortege was approaching Philadelphia, I walked to the train tracks to get into position and participate in this historic moment.
Chris Matthews, who grew up in Philadelphia and was in high school at the same time I was, offered this memory of what the day was like:
In Philadelphia alone, 20,000 strong stood at 30th Street Station singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in his honor. It was reported that others in the station were so overwhelmed by the presence of such emotion, they began to weep openly.
Minutes after that emotional scene in Philadelphia, the huge Penn Central diesel-electric locomotives came into view in the suburbs west of the city, where I stood with a throng of people standing to glimpse a view of the train making its way south. This short video provides a representation of the solemnity of that moment.
As the train passed where I was standing near the small station, all were moved by the sight of Senator Edward Kennedy as he stood on the deck of the observation car, greeting the crowd that had assembled to honor his slain brother, now a martyr joining the fabled, exalted trinity of other American martyrs named Abraham, Martin, and John.
But the day was filled with additional tragedy, as two people were killed in New Jersey when they were struck by another train while crossing the tracks. The crowds were so immense that the usual four-hour train ride from New York to Washington took twice as long to complete, with the train arriving around 9 p.m. According to some experts, RFK’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, where he was laid to rest near his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was the only nighttime burial in the fabled history of that hallowed ground.
These memories, not yet faded, were of a time long ago. But then it was only yesterday.