One night in January 1968, I’m lying on the floor reading the comics, when I catch a fragment of David Brinkley reporting from Washington: “The ten thousandth US airplane has been brought down over Vietnam.” By February, I’m watching anxiously along with my family, as the North Vietnamese launch the Tet offensive, and the State Department announces the highest casualty toll yet. In a single week, 543 Americans are killed in action and 2,547 are wounded. President Johnson announces he won’t run for re-election.
Politics spark lots of discussion at our dinner table. Richard Nixon has declared his candidacy, and in March Bobby Kennedy finally decides to enter the race. Bobby, it seems, is the perfect choice. My parents say he’ll be able to bring together Black Americans and labor, the blue-collar whites. My brother, already a political junkie, finds an old “tricky Dick” button from the 1964 Kennedy–Nixon campaign: a picture of Nixon with the words, “Would You Buy a Used Car from This Man?” But Dickie has a favorite new button, and he wears it every day: “If I Were 21, I’d Vote for Bobby.”
In April, the violence hits home: Martin Luther King is shot dead in Memphis. Dickie is standing in line at Osco Drugs, waiting to pay for a couple of records, when the announcement comes over the radio. Some guy standing in line in front of him, a white man, says, “Bout time somebody got that n—.” Dickie runs home red-faced and furious, angry with himself for not saying anything, for not standing up to that man. “The thing is,” he says, his eyes blurring with tears, “most people who work there are Black. Some of them must’ve heard.”
The night it happens, Bobby Kennedy appears on the news. He’s on the campaign trail, speaking to a packed house, mostly Black people, at a union rally in Indianapolis. In the clip we can hear the agonized cries of the crowd as Bobby breaks the devastating news.The full text of Bobby’s speech is reprinted in the morning paper; my mother reads it to us at the breakfast table. Her voice breaks at the point where Bobby had quoted, right off the top of his head, from the Greek poet Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forgive falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
May 8th. Four days before my tenth birthday. Dickie’s got the money, but he’s too embarrassed to buy the Summer Blonde himself, so he gets me to walk over to Osco with him. Just inside the automatic doors, we stop to dig around in the record bins. Dickie grabs a copy of “Susan” by a Chicago band called The Buckinghams. “There’s a cool song on the B-side,” he says. We head down the hair care aisle and hang around looking at shampoo until there’s no one else in sight and then we move down to the hair dye section. Dickie scans the rows of ash blondes, brunettes, and redheads until he finds the shade he wants. He says he likes the ads on TV, all those blonde kids having fun at the beach. “That one,” he whispers, pointing to a box with a picture of a pretty young girl in a bikini on it. He slips me the money and goes to wait outside while I take the Summer Blonde up to the register and pay for it with my brother’s five-dollar bill.
Back at home, I go out in the yard and help my mother weed the flowerbeds, creating a diversion while Dickie disappears into the bathroom with the box of dye. He’s up there for a long time, and then he shuts himself in his room. “Just reading,” he calls out.
At dinnertime, Dickie strolls into the dining room as if nothing’s new. He’s got a bright, yellow-white shock of hair spilling over his forehead; he’s only dyed a streak at the front. He looks a bit like a skunk. My mother is furious, but I start giggling uncontrollably. Dickie shoots me a crooked Elvis smile.
down they forgot: a memoir will be released• on March 11th, 2021. It is already available for pre-purchase through several outlets including Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Amazon, Kindle and Smashwords. Fingers crossed it’ll be coming soon to Book Depository and your favourite independent bookseller (but only if you ask).