A West Coast shot rattles a West Side boy

By David Bobovnyik

The summer of 1968 arrived as bright and sunny as my outlook on life. I was 9 years old. On those hot summer days I found relief from the midday heat at Borts Public Pool. For a dime each, my neighborhood fiends and I could spend the entire afternoon swimming in cooling waters. Our evenings were filled with baseball. After supper, we’d gather at Kochis Field, draw up sides and play ball until it became too dark to see. We had no uniforms and whatever baseball equipment we managed to scrounge together we shared. We were the sons of steelworkers, factory laborers and tradesmen. We knew little of life’s luxuries, but in those carefree days we felt like kings. And, summer was our time;. We were the Kings of Summer.

Our fathers made sure that our days away from school were not all fun and games though. We each had out assigned chores to do while they were away at work. Lawns needed mowing, garages begged for cleaning and gardens required tending. Some of us had paper routes. I helped work the Midland Avenue area with my older friends. We’d carry a small transistor radio in our canvas sacks and make our way up tree-shaded streets tossing Youngstown Vindicators to front porches — listening all the while to songs like The Rascal’s “Groovin’” or the Youngboloods “Get Together.” Sometimes we’d peddle our extra papers at the Army-Navy Garrison on nearby Steel Street. We knew the schedule of the local steel plants and the afternoon hour when the bar would be bustling with thirsty steelworkers. We’d push the privacy button at the front metal door, wait for the return buzzer to sound and then walk into a dark, smoke-filled world of blue-collar working men drinking boilermakers at the bar. They’d always treat us right and give us a tip for our efforts. We’d each buy a bottle of Coca-Cola and make our way home laughing with each other under a lazy blue sky.

If the summer of ‘68 brought carefree times, it also brought with it an awareness of the vulnerability of life. The Vietnam War was raging and quite regularly in our neighborhood someone’s big brother was called to service by the draft. You could see the fear and apprehension in their eyes when their letters of induction were received. Any doubt for the basis of their fear was erased with each “CBS Evening News” segment with Walter Cronkite. He brought the tragedy of that senseless war directly to our living rooms.

All wasn’t well

Sitting in his recliner, my father would lower his newspaper to catch every word reported by Mr. Cronkite on the war. I’d watch my father shake his head in frustration as military generals and politicians sought to persuade the American public that all was well. Some of our neighborhood boys never came back form Vietnam. Still others, tormented by their experiences, returned home shells of what they once were.

On the morning of June 6, I awoke to the news that Robert Kennedy had been shot the night before in Los Angeles and had died. Kennedy was the pride and hope for our generation. We had expectations that he would become our next president and exercise the power to bring the war to an end. I recall the television coverage as his body was carried by train from New York City to Washington, D.C., for burial. People lined the railway tracks at each small town to give tribute as the train slowly pushed forward. My family gathered close to our television and mourned right along with them. Sen. Edward Kennedy gave the eulogy for his brother. He said that Robert should be remembered simply as “a good man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.” Borrowing from a line often used in Robert’s speeches, Sen. Kennedy concluded: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” I’ll never forget those words.

The sun continued to rise everyday, just as it did before June 6, but for the Kings of Summer, our days away from school would somehow never be as carefree or sunny again. It was as if some part of our childhood had died with Robert Kennedy and a colder, harsher side of life pierced our sheltered world of innocence.

The more things change ...

Forty years have passed and much has changed, but in some ways much still remains the same. I listen to the news as politicians and generals seek to persuade the American public that this war in Iraq is going well. I am my father’s son. My 10-year-old daughter, Brooke, watches me shake my head in frustration as I listen to these men of power speak untruths. I wonder how many thousands more of our young boys will die for this senseless war; how many more will return mere shells of what they once were. And the words of the Youngbloods sing in my mind once more, calling back from tree-shaded streets of my distant boyhood: “Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now ... right now ... right now.”

X David Bobovnyik is a lawyer who works in Youngstown and shares occasional glimpses into the past.

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