by Michael Levine
“Any day is a good day to die”—Arab proverb
On Saturday, June 8, 1968, I witnessed violent death. It wasn’t the first time, it wouldn’t be the last. Yet the images of that day festered in my memory for three decades. It wasn’t until recently that I understood why.
It is a hot day and I’m leaning out from between two cars of a southbound train trying to catch a breeze. Throngs of people line the tracks as far as the eye can see, gawking at us. Here and there an American flag hangs limp in the dank heat. The body of the Senator Robert F. Kennedy in a flag draped coffin is in the rear compartment. More than a million people line the tracks between New York and Washington DC where he will be buried. My train is packed with (literally) the year’s hottest celebrities— the air-conditioner, unimpressed, has quit.
Ahead, some of the crowd push onto the tracks for a closer look. A northbound train suddenly speeds around a curve heading right at them. I wave and shout. Most scatter to safety. But a few freeze in their tracks like frightened deer an instant before the mass of steel grinds them into road kill. I’m thinking, “I didn’t see that.” There is an explosion of sound. Shrieks of horror over screeching steel. A blur of dirty brown metal. The indescribable smell of death.
Our train picks up speed. I turn away, dizzy, grab a wall for balance. Jimmy Breslin the columnist, who 23 years later will eulogize my son Keith, a New York City cop killed in the line of duty, stands drink in hand rocking with the train’s motion. He stares at me curiously. “People just got killed,” I mumble.
I turn to face a compartment full of passengers I’ve been assigned to protect. Shirley Maclaine deep in teary-eyed conversation with her seat-mate Roosevelt Grier the football player who had helped rip the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand stops speaking. The two watch me. Behind her is Coretta Scott King dressed in widow’s black and lost in her own pain. Only minutes earlier we had received a message that her husband Martin Luther King’s killer was captured in England. She had not been told yet. Robert S. McNamara, Rafer Johnson, Everett Dirksen, John Lindsay, Charles Evers and about fifty others in command of everything from the Vietnam war and Congress to New York City and the NAACP—a Blue Book of public service of the dying 60s— stop talking and eye me curiously. I struggle for words. I am one of ten federal agents assigned to the “Kennedy Funeral Train” on Secret Service Detail—a glorified security guard. “Interaction with the protectees” was strictly forbidden.
At that moment, Fifteen year old Joseph Kennedy III followed by a half dozen family members enters the compartment. He shakes every hand, mine included, and with direct eyes that glisten wetly says, “Thank you for coming.” Now the Secret Service agent-in-charge is beside me, tight jawed, chewing me out for “waving at the crowd.” He grips my arm and leads me forward through the train. He has a special assignment. Richard Cardinal Cushing a close friend of the Kennedy family is sick. I am to sit beside him until we arrive in DC, then rush him to a waiting car.
When we reach the Cardinal’s seat he is bent over in pain. I take the seat beside him. I don’t think he hears my name, but in a moment he straightens, looks at me with a twinkle in his eyes and says, “Levine, you want to hear something funny—my brother-in-law is Jewish.” For the next five hours between bouts of intense pain the Holy Father of all Catholic Americans and the Jewish undercover agent chat like old friends, about family, politics and the growing divisions in America which seems to trouble him. The fresh images of death surge with every silence, but I say nothing. Within months he dies of cancer.
The capture of James Earl Ray, the escalation of fighting in Viet Nam, student demonstrations and ghetto riots headlined the evening news— the train deaths are briefly mentioned. Unlike my undercover life, memorialized by recordings, film and reports, the only reminder I had of the “Kennedy Funeral Train” were travel orders. The experience seemed unreal, bigger than life, yet the images and gut sick feeling remained frequent visitors during the years that followed.
Then, a few days ago, the inexplicable happened. I was browsing a used book warehouse in upstate New York when I felt drawn to a remote, dusty corner of the building. It was as if an old book that I’d never heard of was waiting for me—Assassination, Robert F. Kennedy 1925-1968.
I had to get on hands and knees to find it on a bottom shelf. I cracked it directly to a page of photos and felt my legs give out. I slumped down onto my butt staring at a photo of me at the moment that had etched itself in my memory. Suddenly it was as if the scores of tragedies that I had watched with equal helplessness during my career as a federal narcotic agent bolted through my brain and became one with that photo.
And I cried the way I should have 31 years ago. For all of us.
Mike Levine (right) watching helplessly as the train plows through a crowd.