As a boy living in refugee camps in Germany, I dreamed of a far-off utopia—a land called the United States of America—where justice ruled and all people loved one another. After escaping from Communist Czechoslovakia, we could have immigrated immediately to England or Canada or Australia, as a reward for my father’s distinguished service in the British Army during the Second World War. Instead, my parents chose to suffer hunger and discomfort for fifteen months in the camps.
“We’ll wait for our visas to the U.S.,” my father told me, “because America is about opportunity and tolerance. In America, no one will ever again persecute us because of our religious or political beliefs, and you’ll be able to be whatever you want to be.”
Eventually, our papers came and we arrived on the shores of the New World. It did not take me long to discover that my father had been correct with one-half of his assessment of our newly-adopted country. There was opportunity—and I was going to grab it and run with it as fast and far as I could.
But, at the same time, I was sad to discover that Americans were just as capable of bigotry and hatred as Europeans. I was devastated to read about anti-Semitism, particularly during the pre-war period, when prominent people such as Henry Ford preached that Jews were “the world’s foremost problem.”
In disbelief, I stared at photographs of Japanese-Americans being taken from their homes and placed in prison camps after Pearl Harbor, upon the order of one of my heroes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I wondered not only how FDR could bestow such cruelty upon 100,000 innocent people, but also–if Japanese-Americans were thought to constitute a threat to the nation’s security—why German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not imprisoned as well. The answer was clear: racism.
Most of all, I was disappointed in my adopted country’s mistreatment of its black citizens. I had read about lynchings and other cruelties as a boy in Europe, but somehow I had assumed that these had taken place hundreds of years ago. Now I discovered how recent such events were and that, even in the early 1950s, Negroes did not have equal access to education and jobs; in many places, they were confined to using separate, inferior, public schools and facilities from those reserved for whites. Where, as a boy under German occupation, I had seen signs which read “Jew,” on schools, restrooms, and water fountains, these signs were replaced by those reading “Colored” in some parts of the United States.
But now fast-forward to 1968. Finally, I had a hero who would change all that. Robert F. Kennedy reached out to the poor and disenfranchised, to working-class whites, to inner-city blacks. Bobby understood that America’s greatness came from empowering all its citizens through equal opportunity to have a better life. He represented hope for a better future. We were in the middle of a presidential campaign, and I hung my hopes on Bobby to return sanity to our nation and the world. He would end the senseless Vietnam war and change the lives of all Americans. Not since his brother Jack challenged us to ask what we could do for our country had I been so inspired and hopeful.
My wife Sue and I watched television late into the night of June 4, as the returns from the critical California Democratic primary were being counted. We cheered and drank a toast to Bobby when he was declared a winner, and thus would most certainly be our party’s candidate in the general election. As a faculty member, I had to get up early the next morning to prepare to march in the procession at graduation of Naval Academy’s class of 1968. And so, exhilarated, we marched off to bed.
The following morning, the radio woke me with the same kind of mournful music I had heard after the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was startled. “It can’t be! Not again!” But soon we found out that, indeed, it had happened again. Bobby had been passing through a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles after addressing his supporters, when a Palestinian refugee named Sirhan Sirhan shot him three times. Now, my last remaining hero was lying in a hospital with a team of doctors trying to save his life.
Although I was certain that graduation would be cancelled, I drove to my Naval Academy office in Isherwood Hall, hoping to find solace in talking to my friend Bud Carson, a fellow aerospace engineering professor and fellow admirer of RFK. But I found the department offices deserted. I picked up the phone and called the Academy operator to inquire about the date of the postponed graduation ceremonies.
“Oh, no sir,” she said. “Graduation has not been postponed.”
The offices were empty because my fellow faculty members were forming up for the procession. I sat at my desk, staring at the box containing my cap and gown, practically foaming at the mouth with anger at the Navy, the Academy, my colleagues—everyone—for their lack of respect for Bobby.
Finally, I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled on it:
There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not. Robert F. Kennedy
Then I added:
Go to hell! and I signed it: Charles O. Heller
I placed the note in the box with the cap and gown, closed the box, and threw it on the desk of the head of the Engineering Department. I went home, where Sue and I kept vigil all day and evening. Bobby was still hanging on. The next day, he was dead.
I felt as though my world had come to an end. How much more could I take? What kind of a lawless country was this? My idealized vision of America, one I had carried with me on our journey from enslaved Czechoslovakia across the pond, was long gone. I wondered if it would ever return.
From the 1968 song by Dick Holler, sung by Dion:
Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin, and John