Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was walking by himself down the rear stairs from the top floor of the Kansas State University Student Union in March 1968, prior to delivering a speech intended to honor former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon.
He used that speech to announce his candidacy for president of the United States, focusing his campaign on ending the Vietnam War and furthering civil rights, especially for black people.
I was walking up the same stairway on the opposite side of the stair rail when we met. The senator looked at me rather expectantly, and I looked at him, but neither one of us said anything. We were the only ones there.
I feel now it was a magic, once-in-a-lifetime moment that I passed up. I will always regret that I didn?t speak to him.
At that time, I somehow felt I had invaded his privacy. There were no security people there, and it seemed I had ineptly come to where I wasn?t supposed to be. But, foolish as I was, I still passed up the chance to talk to him.
I wasn?t a Kennedy fan then. I regarded myself as a conservative, a Barry Goldwater type of person.
I?ve never been the type of person who passionately adores some leader. Perhaps I come closest to that level in studying what Abraham Lincoln said and did.
Later in the day, when students tried to touch Kennedy as he waved at them from an open car, security persons would chop stroke their arms away.
At the time, I also thought Kennedy was wrong in wanting to take us out of Viet?nam. It took Richard Nixon as president years later to get the United States out of that conflict.
That day in Manhattan, Kennedy said, ?I was involved in many of the early decisions which helped set our present path?. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration.?
Now, I know he was right.
I remember the later years when the agony of Vietnam showed in the face and bearing of President Lyndon B. Johnson. He became so obsessed at doing the right thing in that war that sometimes it?s difficult to remember his great accomplishments.
I regret being against Kennedy at the time. My friends who died or where injured in Vietnam somehow speak to my conscience.
My father?s generation was exactly right to fight in World War II. But the only justifying rationale I can find in the Vietnam War is that the United States bled the Soviet Union and China to hasten the Soviet downfall, and converted the Chinese to become our trading friends instead of military adversaries.
I still won?t buy items labeled ?Made in Vietnam.?
In June of that year, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, as the remaining peace candidate, didn?t have the vote-getting power to win the presidency.
So now I remember.
I remember Rodney, three years ahead of me in school, brilliant at math. His airplane was shot up on a bombing raid over North Vietnam, and he missed the aircraft carrier coming back. I guess I?ll never know if he died at that moment, or if he died in the ocean.
I remember Mike, who is one of only a few survivors of an artillery company that underwent human wave assaults by North Vietnam?ese infantry after the South Vietnamese guarding their perimeter ran away.
I remember Ronnie, who was a Green Beret killed somewhere. They never recovered his remains.
I remember Louis, who was shot in the abdomen while serving as a gunner on a boat on the Mekong River. He made it home, was recovering from his wounds, but rolled his car going down a gravel road at 80 mph. Was it suicide by intent or suicide by accident?
I remember Ralph in Omaha, who struggled with bad dreams of shooting a Vietnamese boy approaching his jeep who was wired with bombs to kill Americans.
I remember the first returning Vietnam veterans I knew, Eugene and Ed, who once lived across the hall from me. Smoke was always curling from under their doorway and drifting down the hall. The first time I checked on them, they offered me a ?joint.? Pot was the best way to forget ?Nam,? they said.
I remember others, too. I don?t know if I want to talk about any of them ever again.
Bobby Kennedy, you were right, and I was wrong.