BY DAVID THOMPSON
On a freezing winter’s day, in March 1965, a call came over the public address system at Fredrick H. Collins High School, in Whitehorse, for all students to assemble in the auditorium.
We were glad to leave the overheated, dry class rooms, which made your noses bleed, and shuffle down the halls. Any change from the routine was a relief. The last time we were called to the gym was when the Harlem Globe Trotters came to town en route to Alaska. I loved the Globe Trotters and laughed with everyone else when the bucket of “water”(paper chips) was thrown into the bleachers onto the screaming crowd.
The only name I remember was Meadowlark Lemon. But what players they all were, and how they made the referees the butt of their jokes, much to everyone’s delight.
In those days, the number of students and teachers barely filled a quarter of the gymnasium.
We took our seats on the rows of uncomfortable plywood chairs. These very chairs, I later realized, could have explained Hubble’s Law of the expanding universe, but we were too busy memorizing the 50 states of America. Months earlier, John Lamoure had crashed to the floor, off the same chairs, when he fell asleep during the commemoration of the passing of Sir Winston Churchill.
Seated on the stage were two guests. We recognized Bobby Kennedy, right away, but the other had to be introduced. The Principal limped to the microphone. Rumour had it that his injury was a war wound, but my friend Donnie Fraser insisted he had shot himself while rabbit hunting.
On this occasion, he was more animated and his pale, drawn cheeks had colour in them. In his monotone voice he introduced the guests.
What he said is forgotten, but who he introduced never will be. Seated on the left of Bobby Kennedy was Sir Edmund Hillary. They had just returned from successfully climbing Mount Kennedy, a 13,904-foot peak in the St. Elias range that was named in honour of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated a year and a half ago.
All the questions and answers and stories are since lost, except for what the Whitehorse Star reporter recorded. One thing I do remember is that Bobby made us laugh by grabbing Hillary’s leg, giving it a shake and saying, “These are what got us to the top of the mountain.” It was actually Hillary’s legs and a helicopter that flew as far as the altitude would allow it, then the party climbed the rest.
It doesn’t matter how they got there; it was for a good cause, and we were now able to meet them. The important thing was that, for a brief moment in time, in a remote and obscure corner of the world, in a small town’s new high school, two important men took the time to grace our stage, shake our hands, talk to us and make the unimportant feel important.
A sure sign of greatness.
As the meeting wound down, the reporter asked if anyone would like to be photographed with Bobby and Edmund. Regrettably, although only feet from where they stood, I didn’t accept the invitation.
My mother, on a break from work, met Bobby having coffee at the Edgewater Hotel and brought home an autographed table napkin (which we never kept).
It was a time of youthful innocence far removed from Dally Plaza in Dallas, Texas. We were untouched by the tragedies and sufferings of the Kennedy’s and the King’s. On that day, we basked in each other’s company.
It was a time never to be forgotten or overshadowed by future events.
More than three years later on June 5, 1968, at 12:15 a.m., Senator Robert F. Kennedy, while making his way slowly through a crush of supporters, from the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, was shot behind the right ear. The black-and-white TV images of Bobby, on the cold kitchen floor, his head cradled by a seventeen-year-old bus boy, Juan Romero, were stark and disturbing.
His eyes stared straight ahead; his life slowly fading out of them. It looked like he was trying to comprehend what all of this meant.
“Would we still go on to Chicago?” With each heartbeat, blood flowed onto and across the worn, tiled floor.
In the background, Sirhan Sirhan, who was unwilling to give up the .22 revolver that caused so much tragedy, lay at the bottom of an angry screaming scrum. “Get the gun! Get the gun!” echoed from the kitchen, into the ballroom, down the hall, out the door into the street, through the river valleys, over the mountains and across the land, to resound in the Fredrick H. Collins’ gymnasium.
Bobby had been assassinated, innocence was lost and the fairest regions of the earth had been touched by tragedy.
I wonder if Edmond, the conqueror of Everest, had to sit down when he heard news of his friend. He might have been in Tibet where he worked so hard for the betterment of the people there. I’m sure he would have completed his grieving, cursed the violence and then stood again and carried on the work that was so important and could not heed any interruptions.