My son Beau remembers everything.
He texted me a few weeks ago to tell me that June 3, 2018 is a sort of anniversary for me. I hadn’t thought about the incident for decades, but according to the calendar, he’s right. It’s been fifty years.
In fairness to my readers, I should start at the beginning, fifty years ago. I promise not to take that long to tell you the story.
It was June 3, 1968. I was seventeen years old, with my family on vacation to the west coast. We were in Disneyland. For any young people, think of Disneyland as the prequel to Disney World. Think same idea with less acreage. It was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I was a young inquiring photographer in those days and I had my 35mm camera slung over my shoulder. We had been in the park several hours. It was hot. I was tired. Sometimes things happen when we least expect them. Important things.
My parents, along with my brother and sister, must have been somewhere behind me. I had pulled my camera around and was absent-mindedly fiddling with the controls as I walked slowly across an open area—I don’t remember the location, but I can see it clearly in my mind as I type this. It couldn’t have been a parking lot, not in the middle of Disneyland, but it was barren except for a very tiny building somewhere near the center. I don’t have a clear picture of it, but I remember it as almost a little shack, with a single door. In the years that have passed, I have supposed it must have been an exit from an underground passage of some kind or another.
I can still see that door opening as I walked toward it. Emerging from the tiny building was a huge man in a business suit. Maybe he wasn’t huge. Maybe I was completely not huge. He wasn’t looking at me. He looked right, then left and was moving toward me. Another huge man followed him. And another. And more. They were all moving in my direction and looking everywhere but at me. And they moved past me, quickly, as if I wasn’t even there. It happened so fast, I didn’t understand what was happening.
I had walked within ten feet of that little building when Bobby Kennedy—Senator Robert F. Kennedy—walked out of that door. I was the first person he saw. We were no more than two feet apart. Apparently his bodyguards didn’t view me as a problem. Kennedy smiled and started to extend his hand to me. Then he saw the camera in my two-fisted grip and lowered his hand. Maybe he was thinking “Camera. Smile,” because he kept grinning. There was suddenly a horde of people around us. I am sure that the muscle memory in my arms and hands raised that camera—I certainly didn’t consciously do it. I don’t think I ever got the viewfinder to my eye. I believe I took the photo from about chest level. A good photographer knows when he’s going to get the shot. Conversely, he’s also aware when he’s about to miss it. When this happens, you point the camera and push the button now. Kennedy and his entourage were moving very fast, and I had pushed the button not knowing whether I got the shot or not. And then they were gone. Kennedy, his bodyguards, the crowd. All gone.
All of that happened in less than ten seconds on June 3, 1968.
Kennedy was running for President that summer. The California primary was a tight race between Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy. The next day was election day for the primary. That evening, my parents were going out for dinner, and my sister and I sat in a Los Angeles hotel room, deciding where we would spend our evening. Kennedy’s organization was in the Ambassador Hotel, which was within walking distance. McCarthy’s people were in a different hotel, also close by.
I could claim that we were in the Ambassador Hotel that night and get away with it, but we weren’t. I remember thinking that I already had a photo of Kennedy, and I wanted to see if I could get McCarthy also. In retrospect, probably a wise choice.
We went to McCarthy’s rally and ultimate concession speech. I was crawling on the floor with news photographers nearMcCarthy’s podium and got some great shots of him. Security for presidential candidates was relaxed in those days. I have no idea what happened to my photos of that night.
By the time we returned to the hotel room, Kennedy had been shot in the Ambassador Hotel, and of course, you know the rest of the story. We watched it on the hotel room television.
I didn’t see the Kennedy photo until we had returned from vacation. I should point out to younger people that, in those days, you took your roll of film to the drugstore or the local photographer and waited about a week to get your photos. It was an exercise in delayed gratification. If you don’t know what that means, I’ll explain it to you later.
I was sort of “ok” with the shot. It’s slightly out of focus (remember I was shooting blind and in those days, only young peoples’ eyes had auto-focus.) From a photographer’s eye, there’s a lot wrong with it. And every photographer worth his salt wants to be remembered for the shots that he actually planned and intended to take. That’s when they call you an artist. They don’t do that when your jaw has dropped and you fumble to push a button. But it’s mine and it’s real.
My mother thought that photograph was the greatest thing since sliced bread, of course. She took the photo to our local newspaper, the Republican-Times. And there, on the next day and on the front page, was my color photograph in living black and white. It says I elbowed my way through the crowd. Not true. My mom probably imagined that. It says I was six feet away. I was a lot closer than six feet. Either my mom made that up too, or the news media hasn’t changed much in fifty years.
You may not believe this, but I was famous in my hometown for a couple of days. After that, I was just a nerdy kid with a camera again. My public was capricious; my fans were–there’s just no other word for it–undependable. I became yesterday’s news. I looked at the photo lots of times that summer. Eventually, it got filed away. I have thought about it only two or three times in the last forty years. Apparently I showed it to my children at some point. Beau would remember.
And that’s how I was famous for two days fifty years ago.