The movie "Bobby" is the story of the assassination of U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, but centers on the people at the Ambassador Hotel that night. The star-studded cast includes Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood, Sharon Stone, Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt.
Death of a dream
A celebration turns into a nightmare at the Ambassador
I KNEW THREE THINGS that Tuesday: Bobby Ray was dead, Sgt. Raymond C. Wychow was "working on a stem" and Robert F. Kennedy was in town. I was busy and already tired so early in the morning, and my feet hadn't stopped hurting from Monday before it was time to put on my Clinics again. But there was the good surge you get when you know that after all the hard work there's gonna be a party, probably the greatest party in the world ever.
"Bobby" opens Thursday.
The good parts of Sgt. Wychow's brain had been blown away, even though his head looked huge. I figured somewhere there near the DMZ, all the tissue that made him laugh, smell, cry, run, lust and daydream got shot and sprayed out of the top of his skull. He had a length of stockinette on his head; it was tied closed at the top like a big tube sock. I had never looked under there.
We turned the sergeant from side to side, kept him clean, fed him through an NG tube, changed his urinary catheter and administered whatever medications the civilian med students and interns and residents decided to order for him.
A bunch of things went through my mind as I listened to Larry, the third-year resident, go on about how much we were learning from Sgt. Wychow. I picked up the containers one at a time from the breakfast tray that had been sent up to the room labeled, "Wychow -- full liquids." I poured the contents of each into the plastic bag suspended from the hook at the top of the IV pole. A tube at the bottom of the bag carried the sergeant's meal -- orange juice, creamed cereal and coffee (?) -- right through his nose and into his stomach.
"Tomorrow we're going to start intravenous D5W and give the sarge here a whomping dose of Lasix to see what happens," Larry said. I wondered whether he was a hawk or a dove. You could play with that one a bit, and I did as I stretched way up to reach the top of the bag with the orange juice. I poured it in and said, like a mechanical nurse to the man with no brain, "And here's your orange juice, Sgt. Wychow." I guessed Larry to be a dove, hoping to get the war over before he ran out of his deferment. But then, where would all the Sgt. Wychows come from? On whom could he try whomping doses of Lasix to see what happens?
ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1968
An Associated Press photograph shows Kennedy addressing campaign workers minutes before he was shot and killed.
"Lasix is a very potent diuretic, Teddy," said Larry. "We want to see if the drug will affect the cerebral edema to any extent," he added while I thought of Bobby Ray. Bobby Ray was the first boy I ever slow-danced with, the kind of dancing with touching. We were both 12, and though we wouldn't even kiss until five years later, I learned a lot about love from Bobby Ray in seventh grade. Bobby Ray had gone from being student body president and dreamboat to University of Idaho. He played football and studied until he was drafted. He went to Vietnam. Five days before he was to come home, he volunteered for a search-and-destroy mission and got killed.
I remembered Bobby Ray's funeral. It was like a great reunion of the class of '62; all the faces were there. Only it was a class reunion with anger and the kind of grief that makes your heart hurt. I was all covered with snot and tears, and I didn't care who saw me that way because we all looked the same.
"Thanks, Larry, for the drug information, but I already know from Lasix," I sniped as I stood on tiptoe to pour the creamed cereal into the bag. I thought ahead to going off duty. I had to somehow finish on time so I could go vote and then call my "assignments" to make sure they did the same. If they needed rides to the polling places in their precincts, I was to drive them. Then I had to get home to press my new Young Edwardian, miniskirted, ruffled dress for the victory party at the Ambassador.
"It's DOCTOR," Larry said. "Sister Mary Agnes is right. Your hair's too long, your skirts are too short, your shoes are too dirty and you know too much," Larry mumbled as he vanished.
"Larry, you wanna give this guy his coffee? I just can't bring myself to pour a piping hot cup of rich blend coffee into his nose," I shouted to the resident down the hall and, really, to everyone in the world.
For a while it was for real the greatest party in the world, ever. The whole thing was nuclear-powered, hot with camera lights and wet with sweat and jubilant tears. We had won the California primary. Robert Kennedy would be president. The war would be over. No more Bobby Rays would die. No more Sgt. Wychows would show us the wonders of Lasix. Rosey Grier was up on the stage, and so was Rosemary Clooney. People wore their voting stubs pinned to their clothes.
The announcer had to shout at us above all the other shouting: "You guys are great. You deserve to celebrate. ... You worked hard. ... You at the back of the hall there ... you gotta clear a way so the senator can get through. ... He'll come right through that back door, and you'll get to shake his hand ... but you won't get to if you don't clear the way."
We kissed each other (I guessed I kissed 100 strangers). There was a wave of, "He's coming." But he went through the kitchen. We laughed and obediently cleared a path. We watched the back door. I remembered meeting him before and rehearsed what I'd say this time. I'd be profound -- and quick. There were shrieks of "Good job! We won!"
What happened was Robert Kennedy didn't come through the back door. Some people heard the funny snaps. Then Kennedy's brother-in-law, Stephen Smith, asked for a doctor. My miniskirted, ruffled dress turned into a rag, and the greatest party in the world ever turned into a chaotic wake.
Sgt. Wychow was lying on his side at morning rounds, an IV line in the back of his right hand. For the first time I took off the stockinette cap for a look. The whomping dose of Lasix had done a job; the entire top and back of his head, which had once been so big, was caved in, a giant, puckered crater. But he hadn't risen. He hadn't blinked his eyes, looked around and asked, "Where am I?"
ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1968
Above, a busboy sits with Kennedy after the shooting. In the film, Freddy Rodriguez plays the busboy, below, appearing with Laurence Fishburne as a hotel chef.
I poured the orange juice into the bag and watched the fluid flow down the tube to disappear. "Bobby Ray -- Bobby Kennedy. Bobby, you shouldn't have gone on the search and destroy. Bobby, you should have come through the back door. I'll never slow-dance again. I'll never vote again."
"Too bad about Kennedy last night." It was good old Larry again. "This country is so full of crazies. He'll probably pull through, though. I mean, look at the sarge there. But his days in politics are over.
"Hey, how about that Lasix? See how all the edema is gone down?" he asked me as the creamed cereal oozed its way down the plastic tube.
"That was your cereal, Sgt. Wychow, " I said right into my patient's ear.
"I think it's very interesting and sort of childlike the way you nurses tell the guys what they're eating when they're not even capable of eating or of thinking. For that matter, I'd love to learn where the idea of that practice came from. The nuns, probably."
"I do it because you just never know. Maybe he can hear. Besides, I don't feel right about doing things to someone without telling him first, doctor," I whimpered. I wiped my nose and upper lip with the sleeve of my uniform, and then I poured the coffee.
I whispered, "Here's your coffee, Sgt. Wychow. It's nice and hot, just the way you like it."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Theodora "Teddy" Harrison was a nursing student and mother of two, working at the Wadsworth-Sawtelle Veterans Administration Center in Los Angeles in June of 1968.
She also was a supporter of Robert F. Kennedy, having loaded her kids into a stroller to go door to door for his presidential campaign.
On the evening that Kennedy was to appear at the Ambassador Hotel to celebrate his expected victory in the California primary, she and two friends made a last-minute decision to attend. "Everybody was invited," she says. "Everybody on Earth."
People like her are the focus of the new film "Bobby," opening on Thanksgiving Day, which centers not so much on the man as on the individuals gathered at the Ambassador that night.
This piece was first published in the Star-Bulletin 21 years ago. Harrison said publicity about the movie -- and America's entanglement in yet another war -- brought it to mind, prompting her to share it one more time.
Theodora Harrison served with the Army Nurse Corps and as national executive director of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project. She moved to Hawaii in 1974 and has joined a new peace movement.