Monday, June 6, 2011

Bobby and Papa Dave

Although I had been on a plane to Miami as an infant, I never left New Orleans for purposes of leisure until 1968. I was 14 years old and my 65-year-old maternal grandfather David Smith (for whom my son is named) decided to take a chance on me. He had not traveled with me before and as it turned out, he would not travel with me ever again. But let me not get ahead of myself. The destination for the trip was San Antonio, the site of the historic Alamo and the world exposition known as the HemisFair. It was the first world's fair since the gigantic 1964-65 New York World's Fair. My maternal grandmother had made no secret she wanted no part of traveling to the Big Apple with her only grandson. She elected to take my younger sister. As any kid who feels left out, I must admit I was quite jealous not to be able to experience the thrill of seeing the displays and exhibits or to enjoy the rides there. No, I had not been chosen to see the twin Observatory Towers or the iconic Unisphere. Instead, I was headed for the Tower of the Americas, the 750-foot tower, that stood as the symbol of the world's fair titled "The Confluence of Civilizations in America." My grandfather and I boarded a Delta Airlines flight with an open-ended return. In retrospect I was not the best choice of a traveling partner for my grandfather. He was very set in his ways. Every morning we had to find a place that would serve him his shredded wheat cereal with hot milk. Nevermind it was 90 degrees outside. He wanted hot milk. He also retained a pronounced Eastern European Jewish accent, which was an embarrassment to an over energetic and insensitive teenager like me. We stayed across a broad avenue from the fair at the brand new Palacio del Rio, a Hilton Hotel that had been constructed by innovative modular design in a record 221 days. The hotel had taken advantage of the site nestled against the newly-restored San Antonio River and its new River Walk, an amazing achievement. By most standards the HemisFair was successful. It transformed the decaying downtown area into one of positive growth and progress and made the once putrid waters of the San Antonio River clear and navigable for tourism. Boat tours began plying along the water then which still run to this day. The grounds have been rededicated there as HemisFair Park and the city's modern convention center occupies much of its area today. The time my grandfather chose to travel - the beginning of June - was fraught with uncertainty. The presidential campaign was moving ahead, but race relations were frayed following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which had occurred only two months previous. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate, had a large number of electors promised and Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was picking up steam, but no one Democratic candidate seemed to be able to reign in Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, the former Attorney General and brother of slain president John Kennedy. The Democratic National Convention was going to be held in August in Chicago and anti-war fever was beginning to increase. I watched the news voraciously because I admired Kennedy and his thoughts about how he could help transform America into a better place. I thought his chances to capture the Democratic nomination were much better than most suggested. He had charisma and he had momentum. The time was very late (well after 1 a.m. in San Antonio) when I watched the news that Kennedy had won the California Primary. He announced that it was time for them to move on to Chicago, a reminder that the battle for the nomination still needed to be won. I remember thinking here was the next President of the United States. My grandfather was trying to sleep, so as soon as I thought everything was over, I turned off the TV. History tells us now that had I waited to turn off the set another five or ten minutes I would have been privy to the live transmission that occurred at the time when Sirhan Sirhan trained his weapon and fatally shot the Senator. The morning papers had special editions at the newsstands and network television was all over the story when we rose later in the morning. By the time Kennedy finally succumbed from his wounds later in the day, my grandfather had decided that enough was enough. He had had enough of his grandson, who made fun of his having to have hot milk with his shredded wheat every morning and who kept him up watching TV late at night. That evening we were winging our way back to New Orleans, the trip cut down from a week to four days. Today marks the 43rd anniversary of that trip to San Antonio and Kennedy's assassination. My grandfather and I made peace some years later, but he never took me away on a trip again and I guess I can't blame him. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps I would have been a bit less trying and a lot more respectful. But the Almighty in his infinite wisdom has designed teenagers to operate outside of the loop of proper behavior as defined by grandparents. The price of wisdom is the cost of recognizing the folly of our youth. Today I recall both Bobby Kennedy and my grandfather, both of whom are gone and both of whom I shant ever forget.

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