Where Were You? 8/25/09

I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to attempt to add to the many articles and commentaries that have already come out, following the death of Ted Kennedy. But an interesting thought hit me when I learned of his passing the other night. Which I’ll get to …

The Kennedys, John, Robert, and Ted were all liberal, progressive democrats, who dedicated their lives to making America a better place. Too liberal for some, but their hearts were all in the right place when it came to causes that they felt would improve on some of the inequities in our great country. They’ve been subject to controversy, and Ted in particular had the role of poster child for the conservative right.

But there’s no denying that they gave their all for their country. These were people who didn’t need to work. The Kennedy dynasty is legendary, and their financial resources are obviously substantial. These are yachting and polo people who vacation at the huge family compound in Hyannis port, on Cape Cod. They’re as close to royalty as we get in America.

So it dawned on me the other night that the untimely deaths of the three Kennedy brothers have all warranted the dubiously notable distinction of “where were you when you heard?” These are rare, some are arguably more significant to specific groups or people, and some simply affect all of us. I think most of us remember exactly what we were doing and where we were, when we first got word of so many untimely deaths, as well as significant events over the years.

Actors and musicians seem to catch our attention … Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mama Cass Elliot, Dennis, then Carl Wilson, John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Johnny Carson, Ed McMahaon, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny, and Marilyn Monroe all come to mind.

And of course nobody in the world, certainly no American is likely to forget how and where they heard about the 911 attacks on American soil. I was on vacation in Maui, staying at The Whaler at Kaanapali Beach. We got a phone call at about 7 AM from my wife’s boss, who simply told us to turn on the TV. Incredibly, we tuned in just in time to see the now infamous footage of the second plane flying into the twin towers. Our vacation changed significantly, as the only topic on everyone’s mind was that America had been seriously violated, and life would never be the same.

It was a rainy July 20th 1969, and I was working in a gas station at Skyline and Sharp Park Road. I took the liberty of ignoring customers for a few minutes, and turned on the little TV I brought from home to watch the first landing on the moon. One giant step …

I was on a break at the supermarket where I was working, on the phone with my friend Marie, on August 16th, 1977. She works in the stock market, and the ticker tape in front of her flashed a headline … “Oh my God, Elvis Presley just died,” she said. The pride of Tupelo, Mississippi had left the building for good.

I worked for Bill Graham Presents from 1977 to 1990, and was fortunate to see (and work at) hundreds of rock shows. The best place to be if you like the act is at the front of the stage. You’re obviously in the best “seat” in the house, and it’s usually a matter of keeping people from jumping onto the stage. I was stage left at the Cow Palace on December 1 1980, for what would prove to be a memorable Stevie Wonder show. He finished his main performance, left the stage, and then returned to do his encore. But there was something wrong … Stevie walked up to the mic at center stage and said something like “I have some very bad news … John Lennon was just shot and killed in New York.” He then dedicated his encore song “Happy Birthday,” which he had written for Martin Luther King, to Lennon. There wasn’t a dry eye among the 15,000 fans.
November 22nd 1963 … I had just walked from wood shop to math class at Ben Franklin Jr. High in Daly City, CA. Our math teacher was crying when we walked in, and we soon found out why. A messenger came around to all of the classes, telling us that school was dismissed for the day … The President had been shot. I walked home to our house at 41 Grandview Ave, to find my mom and several friends from the neighborhood gathered around the little black and white TV, all of them in tears, watching live action from Dallas. John Kennedy represented hope and progress for the country. He was highly regarded, and the family was akin to royalty … John, his lovely wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and children Caroline and John-John.

JFK was shot by a sniper while his motorcade passed through downtown Dallas. America’s hopes and dreams were gone in an instant. Everything came to a standstill after the Kennedy assassination. Businesses and schools remained closed for days. People stayed home from work, trips were cancelled, and radio and TV had a single focus; the assassination, the killer, his killer, and then the funeral procession. I can still picture little John Jr. (John-John) saluting, as his slain father’s casket passed by, pulled by a horse-drawn caisson. We’d lost a giant, but history would prove that he was only the first of the three Kennedy brothers who we’d lose in our lifetimes.

June 5th 1968. One week before my high school graduation. A busload of students from local high schools joined thousands of other volunteers for a day of campaigning in Sacramento. It was essentially a big rally, very positive, and the jubilant crowd was totally behind the younger brother of JFK, former Attorney General, and current U.S. Senator Robert Francis Kennedy. After a long day of traveling to Sacramento and back, the rally, and all the emotions of the day, I recall going to bed pretty early. I was asleep in my downstairs room at 244 Morton Dr. when my mom came in and woke me up with the news … “Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles.” He was mortally wounded while speaking at the Ambassador Hotel, having just won the California Primary, and died the next morning. Once again, America would be glued to the TV and radio broadcasts for the next several days. There simply wasn’t any other news. Another Kennedy had been assassinated. Bobby had been immersed in some of the biggest movements of our times; Civil rights and liberties, organized crime prosecution, death penalty laws, and played the key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, managing to persuade Russia to turn their boats around and head home, vs. delivering the nuclear arms they had onboard to a waiting Fidel Castro. This was the peak of the cold war, and RFK saw to it that America stood her ground.

Which brings us to August 25th 2009. I’d just finished a three-hour rehearsal with the band, going through our entire set list in preparation for an upcoming event. As is currently quite common, our tech team was doing some sort of a system upgrade, and the second half of the night was mine to monitor. Meaning, I dialed into the conference bridge for an update, vs. listening to any news on the ride home. Upon arriving at home, I turned the computer on and got into my Yahoo home page. Senator Edward Kennedy, dead at 77, was the top line in the News section. The past year of his well-documented battle with brain cancer had finally been lost. He’d been looking frail, stopped going to the Senate, and if seemed like it was pretty much an inevitable event, but it’s still a shock to know that now he’s gone. The last Kennedy, younger brother to John and Bobby, uncle to Caroline and the late John Junior, and of course the patriarch of the Kennedy clan.

Unlike his big brothers, Ted was afforded a long career in politics. Forty-seven years as the senior Senator from Massachusetts, and a legacy that while not perfect in some respects, will always be regarded as significant in so many ways. Ted had many causes over the years, but the one that was always near and dear was the notion of providing healthcare to anyone who needed it. His book “Critical Condition, The Crisis in America’s Health Care” was published in 1972, and he never ceased in his goal to improve on the system. He was very involved in Obama’s plan, and lobbied for it until his death on Tuesday.

Ted was no stranger to controversy. Well-publicized bouts with alcohol, the women in his life, and the famous accident at Chappaquiddick that took the life of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, were not among his finest moments. But everything seemed to turn positive in his life after marrying Victoria on July 3rd 1992. We’ve lost the last of the three Kennedy giants, and with the loss of Ted, the Senate and the American political scene will never be the same.

For me, I’ve added to my list of “where were you” events with another untimely death. I think it’s time to concentrate on some of the positive events on the list. Births, weddings, successes, uniquely wonderful feelings … these are the things that belong on the “where were you” lists for all of us. I will endeavor to dwell on the good events, but there certainly have been some bad ones for our generation.

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1 comment so far

  1. Risa on

    Love the write-up! Interesting to take a walk down memory lane. We should feel lucky to have had these people live during our lifetime. This evening a friend and I were just talking about life and sharing what we liked to call our stories. It wasn't an event but I will treasure it just as if it were. I feel lucky to have her and so many others as a part my life. I may not always remember the “where were you” part (hey, wasn't in the elephant line when they gave out that gene!,)but I will remember forever those special people who have touched my life.


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