In the Spring of 1968, I was in tenth grade at Langley High in McLean, Virginia. My sister was in sixth grade at Great Falls Elementary. Both of us got active in politics. I know it sounds quite young for my sister Kathi to be involved in anything other than playing with dolls or climbing trees—which she did as well—but Kathi was brilliant, full of energy and loved learning. She was a born activist.
So when I decided to go around McLean with a clipboard and a petition to Stop the War in Vietnam, Kathi wanted to go along. Mom dropped Kathi off at my school and went shopping, with the admonition that we were to meet her at Langley no later than five thirty that evening. She thought we were selling band candy. We were but the petition was hidden in my candy box.
At 3:45, Kathi and I began trekking through the wealthy peoples’ neighborhood down Chain Bridge Road. We knew where the Kennedys lived because my friend Patti had brothers who played soccer with the Kennedy boys. A few times, I’d ridden along with Patti, her brothers—Patti’s father driving—to pick up and drop off the young guys at the soccer field.
My sister and I figured if we started our petition with signatures by Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, it would be easy to fill the forms and stop the war. Well, not easy but easier than if we started out with Joe and Joline Schmo.
As we approached the large home, I told Kathi “I’ll knock but you do the talking.”
I always stuttered and could not get the right words out when around strangers. Kathi was rip-roaring to go.
A beautiful black woman answered the door, took a look at us and asked,
“What are you selling?” in a lilting Caribbean accent.
“We’re not selling anything, Ma’m. We want to get signatures on our Stop the War petition” my sister bravely stated. She was determined but so cute, her blonde hair in pigtails and freckles sprinkled across her nose. Kathi hated those freckles but everyone else thought they were cute.
“You wait here.”
The woman disappeared but returned quickly. “Come on in.” She led us down a shiny hallway to a study filled with books, papers and there sat Mr. Robert Kennedy, turning in his chair to greet us. He stood up and shook our hands.
“So tell me about your cause, young ladies.”
“It’s—we—the war” I began.
“The war isn’t fair. They say there’s going to be a draft. So if a guy doesn’t sign up to go, he’ll get sent anyway. And die! That’s not fair!” Kathi was adamant.
Mr. Kennedy hid a smile with one slim hand, leaning an elbow on his desk.
“Yeah!” I jumped in, fired up and unafraid now, “my boyfriend’s brother is over there right now. He joined. But my boyfriend is anti-war all the way. What if they draft him? This war is weird. It doesn’t even make sense. I would be for World War Two, to save the Jews. But what is this war even about? We’re just slaughtering innocent people.”
“Dad says it’s to keep communists from taking over the world. But I don’t believe they could come over here.” My sister added.
“No way! Everyone would fight the communists if they tried to take over America. But we’re for Peace.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that. Peace is definitely part of my lexicon.”
“That’s why we want to fill up our petition with signatures of important people like you and your wife. Maybe then other people will get it.”
Kathi held out the clip board and Mr. Kennedy took it. He spent a goodly amount of time reading every word, then picked up a beautiful gold and blue fountain pen and signed it.
He said “I’ve enjoyed talking with you girls.”
He went to the doorway of his study and called out for the maid. I’ve forgotten her name but she was formidable. Mr. Kennedy asked her to take us to the back yard.
We followed, excitedly looking at Bobby’s signature. The maid opened the back door and gestured toward a group of people who were sitting in Adirondack chairs, sipping cocktails and smoking cigarettes. It could’ve been our parents’ friends.
“What have we here?” asked a nicely dressed woman.
“This is our petition to Stop the War,” my sister said, a fierce look of integrity on her face.
“How darling!” another fashionable woman cried.
Oh, I knew that wouldn’t please my sister. She was serious, not darling. But she hid her anger and said, “Mr. Kennedy signed our petition. I hope you all will, too. It’s to stop the war.”
“It’s costing millions and millions of dollars which could be spent to help poor people. And lots of women and babies are being killed over there, not just soldiers. We’re for peace.” I said.
“How old are you two kids?” a man asked.
“I’m ten and she’s fifteen,” answered Kathi in a warning tone. I knew she was thinking ‘do not even say I’m too young to know anything about war.‘
“Well, if Bobby’s fer it, who can be agin it?” The man laughed and held out his hand to take the clip board. Everyone, eight or ten people signed the petition. We told them all thank you so much and then we were led out the front door by the intimidating maid.
Then we looked at each other and knocked on the door.
The maid flung open the door and glared at us.
“Um—do, do you want to sign it?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” She took the pen and signed with a flourish. “Now get on with you. I’ve work to do.”
My sister and I spent another two hours winding our way around McLean, knocking on doors, showing people the Kennedy family’s signatures and talking about peace. Some folks told us to get lost, that the Kennedys didn’t mean a thing to them but the vast majority signed with flourishes.
Mom picked us up and we got home in time to serve up a tasty meal of left over chicken, cut up veggies and fruit with Mom’s home-made bread. Kathi and I had marched for miles, starving and exhausted but for peace. We didn’t say a word about our cause at the dinner table. Dad would’ve gone ballistic and so would our brother who was born Republican. Bob’s first sentence, after two years of utter silence, was “I Yike Ike.”
I sold band candy to the Kennedys at Hickory Hill. They were always kind enough to buy ten bars! Great!
When Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed in June of 1968, everyone was horrified. Mom poured crème de menth into tiny sherry glasses for us kids. We sobbed, asking “Why? First JFK and now Bobby.”
Bobby had been our friend, a great guy who discussed war and peace and music with us. It truly wasn’t fair. We learned far too early that the world was a violent place and good people are not immune to tragedy.